Arnold Schoenberg

Arnold Schoenberg

Listen to his creepy "Pierrot Lunaire."

Arnold Schoenberg was an Austrian composer who lived from the late 19th century to the mid-20th century. He was an expressionist composer and his rather esoteric and difficult pieces—which would most aptly be described as interesting or spooky rather than beautiful—have intrigued composers and classical music aficianados for centuries. Schoenberg’s music, like that of his contemporaries, wasn’t well received by the general public when he was producing.  

Schoenberg was something of a radical compositional thinker. He said that when dissonances appear, the ear is less familiar and this is what makes them less comprehensible to the music lover. He also posited the idea of the emancipation of the dissonance which renounces a tonal center so there is room for modulation. This idea presents another way of creating a form, by not allowing for modulation which characterizes so many pieces. Schoenberg also talked about how following the words or themes of a poem to create the dissonant harmony, rather than following harmony rules, established a form more linked between music and theme, rather than the harmonies of traditional music, which is arbitrary.

One of his most famous compositions is called Pierrot Lunaire. The piece is written in a Sprechstimme, or speak-singing style, for a female speaker. Listen to it here:



The piece explores the depths of a subconscious. The speaker is in the woods (the expressionistic representation of her dark subconscious) and she thinks all of the trees and dark things are coming to attack her. Her emotion is hysterical; it is much more amplified for artistic expression than it probably would be in real life. She thinks that she finds the body of her lover in scene 2, but it is really just a tree trunk. This idea represents the pathos and insanity that is overtaking her.

Schoenberg wrote this piece from what flowed from his subconscious. Every part of the music is representative of a dark subconscious—anything can flow from there and nothing can be understood. Schoenberg emphasized this by using Sprechstimme, which was never heard before and therefore confusing and unknown to the audience, and also because it was easier to emote on Sprechstimme than in singing. He also uses extremes of emotion—one moment the singer is very loud and the next very soft—to again represent that one never knows what is coming next from one’s subconscious. Finally he uses post-tonality and dissonance to express the text in the best way—to express her insanity and the instability of her subconscious.