Breaking Free – The Minds that Changed Music

Celebrating the "Second Viennese School", Radio 3’s Breaking Free season focuses on the music and ideas of composers such as Arnold Schoenberg, his students and associates. To this day, for some, their music is perceived as difficult and hard to love. Their work did turn the tables on the past, but did not obliterate it: to shut out the Second Viennese School is to miss out on a rich and very rewarding period of music history. Here are a few keys to open those doors.

Why "Second Viennese School"?

Second Viennese School is a term of convenience reflecting the didactic nature of the work Schoenberg undertook when developing his new theories and practices in music. Although it implies that there was a "First Viennese School", this is usually taken to mean Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven who were active in Vienna during the Classical period of music history, but did not constitute any formal or informal "school" – it is not certain that Mozart and Beethoven ever even met.

Arnold Schoenberg

Why was Schoenberg the leader of the School?

Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951) was an Austrian composer, musicologist and painter. Fiercely intellectual and well-connected, his music departed from an extreme expression of 19th-century late Romanticism which found voice in the works of Brahms and Wagner – a style which is exemplified in pieces such as Verklärte Nacht and Gurrelieder.

In a sense, having wrung every last drop of possibility from the harmonic potential of the late Romantic style, Schoenberg's music had nowhere to go. After 1908, therefore, he began to experiment with free-ranging music which was no longer rooted in the conventional key signatures which govern tonal harmony; examples include his Five Orchestral Pieces (1909), and Pierrot Lunaire (1912). By the 1920s, his musical thinking turned towards what he called ’a method of composing with 12 tones which are related only with one another'.

What is 12-tone music?

Think of a piano keyboard. It's divided into repeated sections ("octaves") increasing in pitch from low (left side) to high (right side). Each octave contains seven white keys (notes) and five black keys. If you start with "middle C" and play each successive note in the octave from left to right, including the black notes, the pitch will rise by an equal amount – a semitone – with each keystroke, and after the seventh white note the sequence will start again, only the pitch will be an octave higher.

The names of the notes are less important than the fact that in an octave there is a total of 12 notes. Conventional harmony uses groupings of these notes and manages them with "key signatures" that give the music a structure which our ears perceive as conventionally "harmonious". 12-tone music does not use key signatures and treats each of the 12 notes in the octave, or scale, as equal. Composers in the Second Viennese School, to a greater or lesser extent, based their music on a "tone-row" or basic sequence of notes derived from the available 12. In pure versions of the style, all 12 notes of the scale must be used in a tone row before it can be repeated – you could think of it as a kind of musical Sudoku!

So... on the one hand, conventional harmonic structure was abandoned, but on the other, a new form of order was established with a framework of great harmonic freedom. You can hear Schoenberg make use of his discoveries in the Variations for Orchestra (1928).

Who were the leading lights of the Second Viennese School?

Like Schoenberg, Alban Berg (1885-1935) and Anton Webern (1883-1945) had their roots in late Romantic music but were drawn to Schoenberg's ideas and methods. They are the most prominent names among those composers throughout the world who were influenced by Schoenberg either through formal teaching, or who simply adopted aspects of the Second Viennese School style.

How should we listen?

Elizabeth Arno, producer of the Second Viennese School segment of Radio 3's Breaking Free season, says, 'I think that the main issue and source of controversy with Schoenberg, Berg and Webern is that some of us hear where the music comes from and others hear where it leads to. This is the dividing point, and the main opportunity that we have in Breaking Free is to demonstrate how this seemingly revolutionary music emerged organically from composers like Bach, Mozart, Brahms and Wagner (in Schoenberg’s own words!), while also acknowledging the shocking and revolutionary sound of the atonal and subsequent serial works.’

Radio 3's Breaking Free season begins on Sunday 1 January.

More on the composers of the Second Viennese School