September 13, 1874 – July 13, 1951
Arnold Schoenberg was born in Vienna, Austria. Some musicians are destined to be controversial; Schoenberg was one of them. Although he was largely a self-taught musician, and his early works are quite traditional, he soon started composing music that was atonal – that is, not based on the standard scales musicians used up to the end of the 19th century. He then developed a system called twelve-tone music, in which the twelve chromatic notes of a Western scale are arranged arbitrarily into a "tone row." The tone row is then transposed, reversed, inverted (played upside down) or reversed and inverted, and that forms the basis for a composition. Between those four modifications, and the twelve notes of the tone row, there are 48 possible patterns that the composer can choose from. Schoenberg’s first completely twelve-tone composition was his Suite for Piano, composed in 1921-1923.
Many people despised twelve-tone music, and made fun of it. Still, the twelve-tone system had a tremendous influence on other 20th century composers, including Alban Berg and Anton Webern, and Schoenberg is regarded as one of the most significant figures in music history. While some of his later music at times returned to a form of tonality, he and his followers were convinced that their compositions were taking the next logical step in the evolution of Western music.
Like several other Austrian composers, Schoenberg emigrated to the United States in the 1930’s to escape the Nazis. He died in California in 1951.