Arnold Schoenberg was born into a lower-middle-class Jewish family in Vienna while the city was still recovering from anti-Semitic agitation after the financial panic of 1873. When he was eight, he began studying violin and composing, but his only formal teacher was the composer Alexander Zemlinsky, whose sister Schoenberg later married. Through Zemlinsky’s influence, his 1897 String Quartet in D major was accepted for performance, but the string sextet Verklärte Nacht of 1899 was turned down, and his early songs (opp.1–3) unleashed protests at their first performance in 1900.
After that, in Schoenberg’s own words, scandal never left him as he strove to expand music’s expressive potential by increasingly pressing the bounds of late-Romantic harmony—in such works as the symphonic poem Pelleas und Melisande (1903) and the monumental cantata Gurrelieder (1900–11)—and then finally bursting those bounds in, for example, the freely “atonal” (music not in any key) song cycle Das Buch der hängenden Gärten (1908–09), Five Orchestral Pieces (1909), and the song cycle Pierrot lunaire (1912). The logical extension of this development for him—and for Alban Berg and Anton Webern, his disciples in the so-called Second Viennese School—was to adopt, beginning with the set of five piano pieces, op. 23 (1920–23), what he termed “a method of composing with twelve tones that are related only to one another” (serial or twelve-tone technique).
Little is known about Schoenberg’s religious upbringing or childhood Jewish experiences. What might seem to be major milestones in his life—his conversion to Protestant Christianity in 1898 and, especially, his return to Judaism—are in fact only events in a continual internal struggle and spiritual quest. His conversion to Christianity, however, was not (as the distinguished music scholar Alexander Ringer observes in his well-known study, Arnold Schoenberg: The Composer As Jew) “under secularizing or assimilationist influences, but rather because, virtually untutored in Jewish values, he looked for other vessels to quench his spiritual thirst.” By 1923, he was already committed to Jewish national concerns, and his drama Der Biblische Weg (The Way to the Bible; 1923–27) advocated a temporary national home for the Jewish people prior to eventual permanent settlement in Palestine.
Schoenberg formally converted back to Judaism in 1933, but he considered it the culmination of maturation, spiritual development, and fulfillment of personal destiny, and he claimed that he had always considered himself a Jew. The dominant theme throughout his life derives from a dualistic outlook on all phenomena as interactions or relationships between the concrete and the abstract, usually expressed as an irresolvable conflict. He seems to have sought resolution of that conflict—between an amorphous “God awareness” and a hunger for structure—in formal religion.
After the National Socialists came to power, in 1933, Schoenberg was summarily dismissed from his post at the Prussian Academy of Arts, where he had been teaching since 1926. He was denounced as a Jew and a leading exponent of “degenerate” art. A fervent Zionist, he drafted a bold “Four-Point Program for Jewry,” propounding that “a united Jewish party must be created….Ways must be prepared to obtain a place to erect an independent Jewish state.” In 1934, he emigrated to the United States and settled eventually in Los Angeles, where he taught for a year at the University of Southern California and from 1936 at U.C.L.A. He became an American citizen in 1941.
During the last two decades of Schoenberg’s life, Jewish subjects became increasingly important to him. Between 1930 and 1932 he worked at his opera Moses und Aron, which occupies a central position in his oeuvre. In 1938, the year in which the Kristallnacht pogroms signaled the end of Central European Jewry, he composed an English setting of the kol nidreirecitation; and, in 1947, he wrote A Survivor from Warsaw, which Ringer calls the “ultimate artistic expression of both Schoenberg’s lifelong Jewish trauma and his abiding faith.” The 1950 choral setting of Psalm 130 in the original Hebrew, his contribution to an Anthology of Jewish Music, was dedicated to the State of Israel. But Schoenberg was never able to complete any of his large-scale religious works, including Moses und Aron and an oratorio Die Jakobsleiter (1917–22). Each breaks off with the protagonist left unable to find fulfillment through prayer.
In April 1951, a matter of weeks before his death, Schoenberg was made honorary president of the Israel Academy of Music in Jerusalem. In his letter of acceptance he gave voice for the last time to the ideals that marked his life as composer and Jew: “Those who issue from such an institution must be truly priests of art…. For just as God chose Israel to be the people whose task it is to maintain the pure, true, Mosaic monotheism despite all persecution … so too it is the task of Israeli musicians to set the world an example….”