Catapulting into Classical

A headlong leap into music, history, and composing

Second Viennese Schooled

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It’s a new choir season, and I was listening to the music that we would be singing and looking at the sheet music, following along.  So I see this piece in German, and I’m reading it…and it’s getting more and more chromatic, and I find myself thinking “who wrote this?!”

So I page back.

Arnold Schoenberg.  Oh!

I wasn’t expecting Schoenberg.  In my head I’m hearing Monty Python’s “Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!”  Or Arnold Schoenberg for that matter.


Arnold Schoenberg was one of the key members of the Second Viennese School of composers, which also included the composers Alban Berg and Anton Webern and others.  Here’s a somewhat cheeky overview of the Second Viennese School (with examples) and a more straightforward description.

Schoenberg (1874-1951) is best known as the father of the 12-tone method  (sometimes called serialism), in which all 12 notes in an octave are used equally, and no one note has dominance over another.  This is very different from traditional music, which is written in a particular key, in which certain notes carry more “weight” than others, and there is a tendency to return to the “home” note of the key (e.g., C in the key of C).  The 12-tone method is a topic which engenders strong opinions and reactions because it is so different from what one typically expects in music.

So there aren’t many 12-tone lullabies (which I then Googled; but here’s one, and here’s a 12-tone Mary Had a Little Lamb).

Which in turn led me to this: the composer of the 12-tone Mary has a long YouTube video (30 minutes) on 12-tone composing and its history that is interesting and quirky (stick figure Stravinsky?).

But back to the unexpected piece in my choir binder.

Schoenberg didn’t start out writing 12-tone music.  His early work was consistent with the style of the late Romantic period (think Brahms and Wagner).  One of his best known early works is Verklärte Nacht (in English Transfigured Night, Op. 4, composed in 1899).  Here is a performance by the Emerson String Quartet.

The music in my binder is Friede auf Erden (Peace on Earth, Op. 13, composed in 1907), a piece which was written as Schoenberg was making the transition from the harmonies of the Romantic period to something new and unexplored.

The transition is new and unexplored for me as well, but I’m sure it will be fascinating.


Image attribution:  Arnold Schoenberg by Man Ray [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons.


One thought on “Second Viennese Schooled

  1. Fabulous 12-tone “Mary Had a Little Lamb” — wow.


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