The Great War's Effect on Schönberg's Development of the Twelve-Tone System

October 1, 1986

"Forms of art reflect the history of man even more truthfully than do documents."—Theodore Adorno



World War I affected almost every person and establishment in Europe. When the costs were finally counted there were some ten million military casualties and twice as many civilians dying from privation and influenza.1 The economic cost was roughly four hundred billion dollars, a staggering sum, unmatched in the history of warfare to that point.2 At the outset of the war neither side had suspected a four-year war of attrition that would see the dissolution of the Habsburg Empire, the fall of the Prussian Kaiser, and the overthrow of the Czarist regime in Russia. New and struggling states in Central Europe like Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Yugoslavia took the place of the once vast Austro-Hungarian Empire, while the Bolsheviks proceeded to solidify their rule in the newly formed Soviet Union.

Times were difficult in nearly every sector of Europe after the war. High unemployment and shortages of food and fuel caused great human suffering. Schönberg explains, in a 1922 letter to Kandinsky, some of the hardships of early postwar Vienna:

I expect you know we've had our trials here too: famine! It was really pretty awful! But perhaps the worst was after all the overturning of everything one has believed in. That was probably the most grievous thing of all.3

Schönberg's compositional output was sharply curtailed during the war and the early postwar years. He published no new works between 1914 and 1922. During this period he was able to finish only the short Vier Lieder für Gesang und Orchester, Opus 22, which he had begun in 1913, before the war.4 He was also able to write but two movements for his never-completed oratorio Die Jakobsleiter.5

Schönberg's small output of compositions during the war and the early postwar years can be understood, in part, by the following: the general conditions of hardship imposed by the expense and destruction of war made most activities beyond mere survival difficult; Schönberg was twice called up for military service in the Austrian Army; and his founding and direction of the Verein für musikalische Privataufführungen in the immediate postwar years cut heavily into his composition time.6 Schönberg's letter to Kandinsky continues:

When one's been used, where one's own work was concerned, to clearing away all obstacles often by means of one immense intellectual effort and in those eight years found oneself constantly faced with new obstacles against which all thinking, all power of invention, all energy, all ideas, proved helpless, for a man for whom ideas have been everything it means nothing less than the total collapse of things, unless he has come to find support, in ever increasing measure, in the belief in something higher, beyond. . . . This was my one and only support during those years—here let this be said for the first time.7

The turbulent times of those eight years troubled Schönberg considerably, but it seems he somewhat overstates his lack of intellectual powers during this period. In spite of the war and its aftermath, Schönberg developed, by 1921, his twelve-tone method.



In 1907 Schönberg composed Friede auf Erden, one of his last works in a tonal, post-Romantic style. In this positive and accessible, though difficult, choral work, Schönberg masterfully set Conrad Ferdinand Meyer's verse extolling the blessed richness of a world at peace. In 1923 Schönberg wrote to Hermann Scherchen, who had just conducted a performance of Friede auf Erden in Frankfurt:

Please give your choir my warmest thanks for the very kind words they sent me after the rehearsal. Tell them that my chorus, Peace on Earth, is an illusion for mixed choir, an illusion, as I know today, having believed in 1907 when I composed it, that this pure harmony among human beings was conceivable, and more than that: would not have thought it possible to exist without perpetual insistence on the required elevation of tone. Since then I have perforce learnt that Peace on Earth is possible only if there is the most intense vigilance as to harmony; in a word, not without accompaniment. If human beings are ever to reach the stage of singing Peace at sight without rehearsal, each individual will first have to be immune to the temptation to sink.8

Granting Schönberg's habit of writing letters in which multiple meanings and contexts often coexist with the literal expression, there can be sensed, in the letter above, a parallel between the shattered illusion of rehearsing and performing Friede auf Erden in correct intonation and the even greater shattered illusion of a world capable of living at peace. The choir requiring accompaniment to aid intonation is analogous to Schönberg's need to rely on "something higher, beyond. . . ."

Ringer shows the centrality of Schönberg's faith in the guiding force of Deity and of his belief that he was called to the lonely path of artistic prophet.9 Schönberg believed in the need for a higher directing wisdom to keep humankind from "sinking," and his search for and final development of the twelve-tone method can be seen, in part, as an extension of his need for external order and direction. It was during and directly after the personal and societal struggles of World War I that Schönberg became convinced, more than ever, of the need for developing and applying a more objective systematic logic to the new atonal style. The intellectual path of the twelve-tone method was to be for Schönberg's music the external guiding force—the "something higher, beyond. . . ."

I therefore conclude that if a thinker were to compose (without recourse to his imagination) an intellectually really good, invented piece of music which would take into account all the rules arising from a correct realization of its artistic stipulations, we should react to it with the same feeling as we might derive from such structures as are created through purely intuitive use of the imagination.10

His prewar intuitive pursuit of the new style had not satisfied his need to have pitch choice controlled by an overriding intellectual principle. Schönberg himself admitted that there were difficulties encountered in writing atonally before the advent of the twelve-tone system—difficulties of creating lengthy, materially cohesive works:11

Fulfillment of all the formal function—comparable to the effect of punctuation in the construction of sentences, of subdivision into paragraphs, and of fusion into chapters—could scarcely be assured with chords whose constructive values had not as yet been explored. Hence it seemed, at first, impossible to compose pieces of complicated organization or of great length.12

Schönberg was a traditionalist, and he was not interested in throwing out the past simply to make room for some new musical whim. He expended no little effort during his long life to unseat the claim that he was a musical revolutionary. Central to his fight for recognition as a reputable artist were his many attempts to integrate the concepts of atonality with the mainstream of Western music and to show how the techniques he employed as a composer were grounded in tradition.13 Additional light is shed on Schönberg's veneration of tradition in this excerpt from an essay of 1950:

When the First World War began I was proud to be called to arms as a soldier. I did my whole duty enthusiastically as a true believer in the House of Habsburg, in its wisdom of 800 years in the act of government and in the consistency of a monarch's lifetime, as compared with the short lifetime of every republic.14

It is evident that "the overturning of everything one has believed in" included the House of Habsburg. The fact that Schönberg became quickly supportive of the new Austrian Republic in 1918 is a testament to the manner in which he was able to modify his position in the light of new developments. Whether he agreed in principle with an Austrian Republic or not, he chose to support the Republic actively in face of the far worse possibility of revolt and anarchy.15 This same adaptability can be seen at work in Schönberg concerning his relationship to tonal music and his acceptance of the inevitable overthrow of its influence on his compositional style.

Schönberg had come to believe that, as a dominant force in modern art music, traditional tonality was dead, along with the cultural age that had fostered music based on the tonal system. For Schönberg, World War I was the death knell for the tonal system, and after a short period of mourning he was able to face squarely the need for putting the new experimental style on a formal and theoretical basis. Schönberg desired, in music as in politics, to avoid anarchy.

"A Method of Composing with Twelve Tones Related Only with One Another" was made public by Schönberg five years after the war, in 1923. He related the importance of his new system as follows:

After many unsuccessful attempts during a period of approximately twelve years, I laid the foundations for a new procedure in musical construction which seemed fitted to replace those structural differentiations provided formerly by tonal harmonies.16

Glenn Gould, in his lecture on Schönberg, disclaims any effect of politico-historical events on stylistic change in the arts, especially surrounding the creation of the twelve-tone system.17 Gould, however, fails to take into account the many examples in history of an ars nova being proclaimed directly following major political and social upheavals. Two examples are the flowering of the Baroque style in Northern Europe after the Thirty Years War and the change from the so-called Classical style galant to the lyric-Romantic style after the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars.

To state that "the world knew suffering before the days of Kaiser Wilhelm" as a justification for dismissing the effect of the First World War on art and music is to miss completely the pivotal role that the Great War played in modern history. The complete upheaval of political, social, and economic institutions, some of which had been in existence for centuries, the swift and widespread destruction of property brought about by industrialized warfare, and the thirty-plus million lives lost give World War I a place unparalleled in history to that point. Lafore encapsulates the significance of the First World War in the following:

World War I is the name given to a very complicated series of events. They were, considered together, the most important events of the past 150 years, and along with those of the French Revolution and the Protestant Reformation the most important of the last millennium.18

To downplay the Great War's effect on the development of artistic structures or on the persons who created those structures contradicts the evidence.

From his vantage point two decades after the war, Schönberg states: "Supposing times were normal—normal as they were before 1914—then the music of our time would be in a different situation."19 What different kind of situation is not clear, but it is evident that Schönberg saw 1914 as a point of departure for a new musical scene—a point of departure that clarified Schönberg's need to develop his twelve-tone method.



It is much too simplistic to say that the First World War was the root cause for the formation of Schönberg's twelve-tone method. There were, even before the war, fundamental artistic needs for its creation stemming from atonal experimentation. The fact remains, however, that before the war there was no maturely conceived twelve-tone system. If Wellesz is correct, Schönberg did the major part of his work on the method during the period 1917-20, a period in which the ravages of war and its aftermath affected the daily routines of almost every European.20 Schönberg endured privation and suffering, but found it necessary to continue his theoretical work in spite of hardships.

The social and political events of the war and his zeal in the establishing of the Verein für musikalische Privataufführungen kept Schönberg from composing all but a few movements of two works. This time away from a previously heavy composing schedule, although disheartening to Schönberg, was a time for him to think, in great detail, about the theoretical implications of atonality in broader terms than is required for the writing of a single piece or set of works.

The energy required and the problems encountered in the development of the twelve-tone method caused Schönberg a great deal of personal anguish, but anguish is often suffered when a person's vision exceeds the immediate ability to realize that vision. Schönberg comments on this issue rather philosophically, and with characteristic egotism:

Alas, human creators, if they be granted a vision, must travel the long path between vision and accomplishment; a hard road where, driven out of paradise, even geniuses must reap their harvest in the sweat of their brow.21

The characteristics of large intervallic leaps, pauses used as integral parts of the total structure, and the abandonment of traditional symmetry, sequences, and repetitions are not comforting artistic gestures, but perhaps the power of this music lies in its ungarnished presentation of truth. Pisk defined Schönberg's atonal style as one in which "truth took the place of beauty."22 Like a sore that had festered and finally ruptured, World War I consummated a long period of decay and instability in Europe. The war did not cause Schönberg's search for a systematic atonality, but it confirmed the rightness of that search.

1Denna Fleming, The Origins and Legacies of World War I (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1968), 262-63.

2Ibid. If Fleming is speaking in terms of 1914-1918 dollars here, then the cost in terms of 1982 dollars, according to the Consumer Price and Produce Price Index Historical Charts, would be approximately $2,400 billion. See 1982 Historical Chart Book, 38, 40.

3Arnold Schönberg, Arnold Schönberg's Letters, ed. Erwin Stein, trans. Eithne Wilkins and Ernst Kaiser (London: Faber & Faber, 1964), 70.

4Schönberg's entire opus 22 runs to only sixteen pages of published score in the Universal Edition of 1917.

5In 1945 Schönberg applied to the Guggenheim Foundation for a grant to complete Die Jakobsleiter. His proposal was rejected by a committee openly hostile to his work. See Charles Rosen, Arnold Schönberg (New York: Viking, 1975), 1.

6The Verein für musikalische Privataufführungen (Society for Private Musical Performances), founded by Schönberg in 1918 and disbanded in 1922, provided a forum for composers and musicians interested in contemporary music to study thoroughly and hear new and recent music. During its four years of existence more than one hundred fifty works were performed and studied. See Malcolm MacDonald, Schönberg (London: Dent, 1976), 31-34, and Bryan Simms, "The Society for Private Musical Performances: Resources and Documents in Schönberg's Legacy," Journal of the Arnold Schönberg Institute 3 (1979):127-49.

7Arnold Schönberg's Letters, 71.

8Ibid., 96. Schönberg originally published Friede auf Erden as an unaccompanied work for chorus, but later added orchestral doublings of the voice parts to serve as an accompaniment.

9Alexander Ringer, "Arnold Schönberg and the Prophetic Image in Music," Journal of the Arnold Schönberg Institute 1 (1976-77):29.

10Leonard Stein, "Schönberg: Five Statements," Perspectives of New Music 14 (1975):165.

11The prewar atonal works of Schönberg, roughly Opus 10 through 21, are either quite short or made up of relatively short individual movements unless they contain a vocal part, whose text becomes the framework around which the musical materials are organized.

12Arnold Schönberg, Style and Idea, ed. Leonard Stein, trans. Leo Black (London: Faber & Faber, 1975), 217.

13To show his sense of continuity with the past and his grounding in the works of the great masters, Schönberg wrote a draft for an article entitled "National Music," dated 24 February 1931. For a reprint of this draft see Willi Reich, Schönberg: A Critical Biography, trans. Leo Black (New York: Praeger, 1971), 175-76.

14Schönberg, Style and Idea, 505.

15Schönberg went so far as to draw up a document, which he shared with the new Austrian government, on how to prevent the overthrow of the Republic. See Ena Steiner, "Mödling Revisited," Journal of the Arnold Schönberg Institute 1 (1976-77):78.

16Schönberg, Style and Idea, 218.

17Glenn Gould, Arnold Schönberg: A Perspective (Cincinnati: University of Cincinnati Press, 1964), 8-9.

18Laurence Lafore, The Long Fuse (Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1971), 16.

19Rosen, Arnold Schönberg, xii.

20Egon Wellesz, The Origins of Schönberg's Twelve-Tone System (Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1958), 10.

21Schönberg, Style and Idea, 215.

22Hans Stuckenschmidt, Arnold Schönberg, trans. Humphrey Searle (London: Calder, 1977), 134.

18215 Last modified on October 24, 2018