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 and also began experimenting with composition at the same time. He received little formal training in composition; he learned mostly by mimicking the music he loved.
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, shifting music further from traditional tones. 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. Schoenberg's subsequent appointment as Director of a composition class at Berlin's Prussian Academy of Arts in 1926 marked what may be regarded as the peak of his career. Sadly, in 1933 he was forced to flee due to the rise of Nazism.
After a brief stint in France and Boston, in 1934 Schoenberg settled in Los Angeles, where he held teaching positions at both USC and UCLA. Though he had converted to Christianity some 35 years earlier, the final period of his life marked a return to Judaism. Schoenberg worked tirelessly to help family members and friends escape the Nazis. His brother Heinrich died from wounds suffered in a Nazi prison in Salzburg, Austria. 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 commemorating the events of the Holocaust.
Schoenberg died in 1951. His grandson, E. Randol Schoenberg, is the President of the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust.