People and Genres

30 Arnold Schoenberg

In this chapter you will

  • learn where the continual pressing of the boundaries of tonality led composers in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries
  • explore how Arnold Schoenberg’s religious identity and musical work intersected
  • consider the significance of the fact that the major turning points in Schoenberg’s musical career occurred in conjunction with the creation of musical works with biblical connections

Escaping from Bondage to Tonality

We have made analogies already between music and language. Languages and music depend on rules and structure to communicate in traditional ways. Yet there has always been, alongside the following of rules and conformity to structures, a countervailing current of creativity in which people have coined new words and expressions, ventured outside of standard grammar, and in other ways experimented with and pressed the boundaries of what is standard to create new possibilities for expression. Languages evolve, and whether we listen to older music or read older text, it sounds foreign to us and sometimes highly formulaic. What we notice most are the structures that are adhered to that no longer constrain us and the archaic expressions that stand out because they are no longer used as they once were. Something that was exciting and new at one point seems bland and uninteresting to those experiencing it in later times. That is because what some pioneered in the past, others who came after them imitated until the exception became the rule and the unfamiliar became familiar.[1]

Are there any limits to how free one can be with words in language or sounds in music? What would it mean to throw off the limits of vocabulary and grammar and feel truly free to use any words at all with no regard for structure? In spoken language, it could be interesting, but it would also not convey meaning in the way that words and language traditionally have. Once music had stayed almost entirely within a key signature and a set of seven different notes (think do-re-mi, etc.), occasionally adding additional notes to liven things up but always returning to the original key. By the late nineteenth century, however, music had reached a point where it could move freely in almost any direction. Composers had been pushing musical language to its limits and had begun to feel no obligation to return at the end of a piece to the note or chord on which it had begun, as had been the norm in previous eras. This was akin to the discarding of rhyme and meter as constraints on poetry. A question that arose as a result was what, if anything, makes poetry “poetry” if it lacks those features that traditionally defined it. The same questions arose for music. Doesn’t music cease to be anything other than a blurry mess of sound without the traditions of key signature and harmony?

No name is more famously associated with pushing musical experimentation to the limits of tonality and beyond than Arnold Schoenberg. Having first pioneered free atonality (music without a tonal center), he is also famous for proposing a new approach to order in the midst of the chaos that he introduced, a form of music known as “serialism.” Schoenberg found the possibilities of atonal music with no constraints of any sort to be too endless. Imagine if poetry could contain any letters in any order. Experimenting with that absolute freedom soon becomes boring, while at the same time, the lack of any boundaries and constraints can be paralyzing to our creativity. Schoenberg adopted an approach that called for each of the twelve possible notes on traditional Western instruments to be used only once until each note had its turn. This is called serial music because the possible combinations of notes can be ordered in a series, or “tone row.” For those who are interested in exploring this further, here is a YouTube video by Vi Hart that explains the concept in an accessible way.

The Bible and Schoenberg’s Vision

Some of Schoenberg’s most important works explore biblical stories in some way, in particular an oratorio called Jakobsleiter (Jacob’s Ladder) and his opera Moses und Aron. The former marked his shift in the direction of the serial twelve-tone technique. He was a visionary and leading an exodus from older forms and ways of doing things. Neither work was completed by the composer. Both offer unconventional takes on the biblical story they explore. Here is his Jakobsleiter.[2]

The work is inspired as much by the idea of modern human beings wrestling with God and spirituality as by the story in Genesis. Schoenberg wrote, “For a long time I have been wanting to write an oratorio on the following subject: modern man, having passed through materialism, socialism, and anarchy, and despite having been an atheist, still having in him some residue of ancient faith (in the form of superstition), wrestles with God (see also Strindberg’s ‘Jacob Wrestling’) and finally succeeds in finding God and becoming religious.”[3] The reference to wrestling with God has the story in Genesis 32:22–32 in mind. As already mentioned, Schoenberg never completed work on Jakobsleiter. That is perhaps fitting, or at least appropriately symbolic, given how Schoenberg’s spiritual and musical quests opened up new possibilities that continued beyond the composer’s own lifetime.

Exodus from Egypt and Convention

In Moses und Aron, the latter is not the usual spelling of the name of Moses’s brother in German. This spelling is adopted because the result is that twelve letters are in the title. The significance of twelve tones for Schoenberg resonates with the symbolism of the number twelve in the Bible as first and foremost connected with the number of tribes of Israel. Here is a performance by the Hungarian National Philharmonic Orchestra and the Opera Festival of Miskolc.[4]

The mockery that Moses receives for his vision of one God, perfectly abstract and not to be depicted in images, conveys Schoenberg’s own feelings about the negative reactions to his own musical vision. The tension regarding what music should be is conveyed as Aron sings more melodiously and leads the people in worshiping the golden calf (see Exodus 32), while Moses’s own musical lines are much further removed from even echoes of traditional tonality. Schoenberg’s musical journey needs to be considered in parallel and in conjunction with his religious journey from his Jewish upbringing to Protestantism and back to Judaism. The incompleteness of the work may seem symbolic of the open-endedness of the revolution that Schoenberg was at the forefront of. The composer provided his own explanation for why he wrestled unsuccessfully with completing the final act of the opera: “The most incomprehensible contradictions in the Bible have given me the greatest difficulty.”[5] As Jack Boss writes, “This opera is about unresolved conflicts, principally Moses’ inability to communicate the Idea of God to his people without images, and the conflict that causes in him with his passionate belief that God may not be represented in image.”[6]

Concluding with a Psalm

One of Schoenberg’s last compositions included a setting of Psalm 130, De Profundis.[7]

It is interesting to jump back from this end point of Schoenberg’s musical and spiritual journey to a work such as his Friede auf Erden (Peace on Earth), from the period when he had left tonality behind but before he developed the serial technique. It too has biblical connections, the poem that Schoenberg set being inspired by and alluding to a scene from the story of the birth of Jesus in the Gospel of Luke (2:14). Although obviously lacking a tonal center compared to works from earlier eras of music, we can also hear how the musical landscape is less radical a departure than that of Schoenberg’s later works.[8]

For Further Reading

Berry, Mark. “Arnold Schoenberg’s ‘Biblical Way’: From ‘Die Jakobsleiter’ to ‘Moses und Aron.’” Music & Letters 89, no. 1 (2008): 84–108.

Rees, Anthony. “What Gleams Must Be Good: Reading Arnold Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron.” The Bible and Critical Theory 15, no. 2 (2019): 141–55.

Rehding, Alexander, and Elliott Gyger. “Idea and Image in Schoenberg’s ‘Moses und Aron.’” Opera Quarterly 23, no. 4 (2007). 369–72.

Reilly, Robert R. “Recovering the Sacred in Music.” Crisis (1995). Reprinted in Surprised by Beauty: A Listener’s Guide to the Recovery of Modern Music. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2016.

Shaw, Jennifer. “New Performance Sources and Old Modernist Productions: Die Jakobsleiter in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Journal of Musicology 19, no. 3 (2002): 434–60.

Simms, Bryan R. The Atonal Music of Arnold Schoenberg, 1908–1923. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Wörner, Karl H. Schoenberg’s “Moses and Aaron.” London: Faber and Faber, 1963.


  1. One possible explanation for some of the irregular past tenses in languages, such as “go” and “went,” is that there were originally two verbs with related meanings. Eventually, through usage, speakers decided to keep the present tense of one and the past tense of the other.
  2. Rundfunkchor Berlin and Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin, conducted by Kent Nagano. Shared on Jonathan Schabbi’s YouTube channel.
  3. Letter to Richard Dehmel, December 13, 1912, quoted in Lucy S. Dawidowicz, “Musical Hebraism,” Commentary Magazine, July 1967. See also Bryan R. Simms, The Atonal Music of Arnold Schoenberg, 1908–1923 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 151–53.
  4. Hungarian National Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Zoltan Kocsis and directed by Eszter Novák.
  5. Letter to Walter Eidlitz, March 15, 1933, in Schoenberg’s Program Notes and Musical Analyses, ed. J. Daniel Jenkins (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016),“incomprehensible contradictions in the Bible”&pg=PT382&printsec=frontcover.
  6. Jack Boss, Schoenberg’s Twelve-Tone Music: Symmetry and the Musical Idea (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014), 331.
  7. Performance by the Los Angeles Zimriyah Chorale, conducted by Nick Strimple at Sinai Temple in Los Angeles on April 7, 2011. Recording shared on YouTube by Randol Schoenberg (the grandson of composer Arnold Schoenberg and also of composer Eric Zeisl). There is also a lecture by Mary-Hannah Klontz about Schoenberg’s De Profundis with musical examples that illustrate not only Schoenberg’s compositional technique but also his sources in traditions of Jewish chant.
  8. Performance by the YMCA Chamber Choir, conducted by Ragnar Bohlin. Licensed to YouTube by Naxos.


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The Bible and Music by James F. McGrath is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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