Schoenberg was born in 1874 in Vienna to orthodox Jewish parents of modest means. At the age of 17 he started working in a bank, while pursuing his passion for music by playing chamber music with friends, taking lessons with the slightly older Alexander Zemlinsky and composing. By his 20s he was producing works he felt merited performance and publication, including Verklärte Nacht for string sextet (1899). He also got married, to Zemlinsky’s sister Mathilde.
His progress as a professional composer in Vienna was made difficult by the modernity of his outlook. Deeply attached to the classics, from Bach through Mozart and Beethoven to Brahms, he believed respect for the past meant progress. In 1901 he moved to Berlin, and there met Richard Strauss and began his work as a teacher, but two years later he returned to Vienna, where he drew close to Mahler and gained Anton Webern and Alban Berg among his pupils. The development of his music now was rapid: there is a sense in the fast, dense First Chamber Symphony (1906) of a hurtling towards atonality – a goal he reached in his Second Quartet (1907–8). Gurrelieder, a work for soloists, chorus and huge orchestra begun in 1901, was completed in the new style in 1911.
From that year he was back in Berlin – where he wrote Pierrot lunaire for reciter and quintet (1912) – until he was called up for service in the Austrian army (1915–16). He then settled just outside Vienna, continuing to teach but not to compose, for the revolution he had brought about – the opening of music to dissonance, floating rhythm, formal fluidity and extremes of expression and irony – had left him creatively exhausted and confused. Only in the 1920s did he start composing freely once more, using his new 12-tone technique and returning to standard forms (Piano Suite, 1921–3).
In 1924, following his first wife’s death, he remarried, and the next year he moved to Berlin again, to teach at the Prussian Academy. In Berlin he produced some of his most masterly works (Third Quartet, 1927; Orchestral Variations, 1926–8) and started his opera Moses und Aron. But soon after the Nazis took power in 1933, he left, reaffirmed his Jewish faith and found refuge in Los Angeles.
His American works – which include his Fourth Quartet (1936) and concertos for violin (1935–6) and piano (1942) – have a new largeness and richness, often because they come back close to tonality. He had also, during his last year or so in Berlin, returned to tonal composition, which he went on practising. In his last years, hit by illness, he devoted himself to chamber music and choral prayers. He died in 1951.
Profile by Paul Griffiths © BBC