Arnold Schoenberg was a Jewish-Austrian composer who is often described as the “father of modern music”.  He is best known for developing the Twelve-Tone Method of Composition, a broad departure from the romantic style of the late nineteenth century.  Born in 1874 in Vienna to a middle-class family, Schoenberg began studying the violin at eight while also experimenting with composition.  He received little formal training in composition; and learned by mimicking the music he loved. 

As a young man, Schoenberg earned the notice of composer Richard Strauss, who arranged a short teaching position for him in Berlin in 1902.  Returning to Vienna in 1904, he also became acquainted with Gustav Mahler.  More importantly, however, it was during this time that Schoenberg's music drifted towards “free” atonality, music without a traditional key as its basis. 

In the years that followed, he continued composing and teaching, and even wrote a book entitled Harmonielehre [Theory of Harmony, (1911)].  Meanwhile, his works grew more avant-garde, further shifting music  from its traditional tonality.  In the 1920s, he developed the Twelve-Tone Composition Method, in which musical phrases are not unified by a traditional key based on seven tones, but rather are related to a sequence of twelve tones.  In 1926 Schoenberg reached what many regard as the peak of his career when he was appointed Director of a composition class at Berlin's Prussian Academy of Arts.  Sadly, he was forced to flee in 1933, due to the rise of Nazism.

After brief stints in France and Boston, Schoenberg made his way to Los Angeles in 1934, where he held teaching positions at both USC and UCLA.  While he had converted to Christianity some 35 years earlier, the final period of his life marked a return to Judaism. 

And though worked tirelessly to help family members and friends escape the Nazis- his brother Heinrich died from wounds suffered in a Nazi prison, and numerous other family members also were murdered.  After the war, Schoenberg composed the work “A Survivor from Warsaw”, which has become perhaps the most often performed musical work that commemorates the Holocaust.  

Schoenberg died in 1951.  

His grandson E. Randol Schoenberg is presently this LAMH's Board Chairman. 

You might want to listen to prompt 142 on Moses Joseph Roth, another composer who adopted non-Jewish beliefs.