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Stravinsky A-Z: Letter S

Letter S

Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951) was born in Vienna and died in Los Angeles. As Schoenberg and Stravinsky set out on their respective paths as composers, only an unusually febrile imagination could have divined that the Austrian and the Russian - both wielding huge influence, in quite different ways, in the world of 20th century music - would end up as near neighbours-in-exile, the one continuing to exert some musical influence on the other, late in life, and while living in a foreign land...

Schoenberg's early music - he was largely self-taught but for lessons in counterpoint from Zemlinsky - took the post-Wagner late Romantic style of music to its ultimate extreme: after the sumptuously scored Gurrelieder, in a sense there was nowhere left to go. Schoenberg's music progressed beyond tonality to atonality, attracting fierce criticism. Schoenberg's response was to form a Society for Private Musical Performances at which he and his musical disciples could experiment without the intrusion of critics. In the early 1920s he unveiled his 12-note method of composition - there are twelve notes in a scale (on a piano, seven white notes and five black) and in tonal music these are organised harmoniously into 'keys' signified by the use of key 'signatures'; in 12-tone music any row of notes can form the basis of the composition - the music is without key signatures and any harmony is implied rather than made explicit. This point marked a watershed in Schoenberg's music; together with his pupils Berg and Webern, Schoenberg's 12-tone idea swept the world, to the bafflement and dismay of many music lovers. The influence of this new music and its composers give birth to the term, 'Second Viennese School' (the 'first' being the period of Haydn and Mozart).

In 1933 Schoenberg was forced to flee from Nazi Germany, travelling first to Paris and subsequently settling in Los Angeles where he taught at the University of California. Stravinsky emigrated from Paris to the USA in 1939, also fetching up in California where the climate would be more agreeable for his health (he'd contracted tuberculosis a couple of years earlier).

But the two composers knew each other of old. In 1913, Stravinsky was in Berlin for Diaghilev's Ballets Russes season; on 4 December, Diaghilev presented Stravinsky's Petrushka, inviting Schoenberg (who had been living in Berlin) and his wife to the performance, at which the two met. Schoenberg reciprocated by inviting Stravinsky and Diaghilev to a performance of Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire; in correspondence at the time, the composers were complimentary about each other's work. Later, this was to turn to what Stravinsky's biographer Stephen Walsh describes as 'quasi-official antagonism' which found its way into both print and music. The nub of the argument was about modern music: Stravinsky was quoted as saying he detested modern music and wrote not for the past, or the future, but for today; Schoenberg noted that, 'he [Stravinsky] writes unmodern music for today.'

Although Stravinsky's music is indelibly his own - even when evoking the music of previous centuries, as in the 'neo-classical' works, Pulcinella and The Rake's Progress - his styles of composition did alter at various periods of his life. The American conductor Robert Craft, who as a young man befriended Stravinsky and became a large part of his life. Craft was interested in Schoenberg, and the other composers of the 'Second Viennese School', such as Webern; his interest encouraged Stravinsky to build on his own long-standing awareness of Schoenberg's techniqes of 'serial' composition. In Memoriam Dylan Thomas (1954) used a five-note tone-row; the ballet Agon (1953-7) ranged widely across the serial spectrum, and Threni (1958) for soloists, chorus and orchestra, is a completely serial work; serial techniques also suffused Stravinsky's chamber works of the late 1950s and early 1960s.

Stravinsky's awareness, and absorption of, other movements in music did not stop with Schoenberg and serialism: the wider musical canvases of Stockhausen and Boulez also entered his musical consciousness and had a bearing on, for example, his 1958-9 mini-piano concerto, Movements.
© Graeme Kay/BBC

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