A Schoenberg Christmas

Marina McLerran

Editor, McLerran Journal

Assistant Band Director, Center ISD, TX


When it comes to Christmas classics, most musicians think of Handel’s Messiah or Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, but did you know that Arnold Schoenberg also wrote a piece for the December holiday?

Who was Arnold Schoenberg?

Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951) was an Austrian-American composer and teacher who is credited with the implementation and popularity of atonality (Britannica). Like contemporary “millennials,” Schoenberg was not one to do things the traditional way and often pushed musical envelope with concepts like the twelve-tone row, in which he composed a work entirely from one set of twelve notes. Most recognizable are his Suite for Piano (1923), String Quartet No. 4 (1936), and A Survivor from Warsaw (1947).

Besides composing, Schoenberg was most famous for the talent he cultivated in students like Alban Berg and Anton Webern. Together, the three composers and their 20th century approach to tonality were referred to as The Second Viennese School (Haydn, Beethoven, and Mozart having been the first). In fact, the majority of the positions he accepted throughout his career were in education. In 1901, Schoenberg accepted employment as the musical director at Uberbrett, a small “artistic cabaret” in Berlin (Britannica). Deeply dissatisfied with the position, he appealed to his good friend Richard Strauss and was recommended for an opening in the composition department of the Stern Conservatory (Britannica). In 1925, he was asked to instruct master classes over composition at the Prussian Academy of Arts in Berlin (Britannica). By the 1930’s he had traveled to the United States where he taught at the Malkin Conservatory in Boston, Massachusetts before later settling in California.

The Holocaust

A holocaust is defined as “a thorough destruction involving extensive loss of life” and is also used to refer to the mass genocide of European citizens (particularly Jews) by the Nazis during World War II (Merriam-Webster). According to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, Nazi forces were responsible for the death of nearly six million Jewish Europeans and hundreds of thousands of individuals from other groups (socialists, Gypsies, Slavic people, disabled people, etc.) who did not fit the ideal German image. Victims of this genocide were sent to concentration camps, experimented on, forced to perform hard labor, or outright murdered (U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum). After the German surrender in 1945, nearly 700,000 Jewish Europeans emigrated to Israel or the U.S. in search of a new home (U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum).

In the late 1920’s, as tensions grew in Germany, Schoenberg wrote to his friend, the famous painter, Wassily Kandinsky, that it was becoming clear he was no longer considered “a German, not a European, indeed perhaps scarcely a human being (Music and the Holocaust).” In 1933, the new Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service caused Schoenberg to be fired from his position as a professor of composition at the Akademie der Kunste in Berlin (Music and the Holocaust). To protect his family and career, Schoenberg emigrated to the United States and accepted a position at the University of California (Music and the Holocaust). He became a naturalized citizen in 1945 and remained in Los Angeles until his death at the age of seventy-seven (Staff). Although intended to eradicate the Jewish people, it appears as though the trauma of the Holocaust actually encouraged Schoenberg’s faith. After relocating to the United States, he wrote to his student and dear friend, Anton Webern, that he had rededicated himself to Judaism and was “determined to do nothing [in] the future but work for the Jewish national cause (Music and the Holocaust).”  

“Christmas Music” (1921)

Christmas is a Christian holiday that celebrates the birth of Jesus, whom Christians believe to be the son of God. The holiday is observed in more than one hundred countries around the world with colorful lights, the exchange of gifts, special church services, and large family gatherings. Although Arnold Schoenberg and his family were Jewish, they did not regularly attend religious services and likely celebrated Christmas as a secular holiday in an attempt to find solidarity within the largely Christian community.

Weihnachtmusik (or “Christmas Music”) is a serene work for two violins, cello, harmonium, and piano that Schoenberg likely composed “for himself and his family to play together (MacDonald).” Listeners expecting “the twelve tones of Christmas” will be sorely disappointed as Schoenberg’s composition is surprisingly conventional. Malcolm MacDonald, in his book Schoenberg, describes the piece as a “fantasia on two well-known Christmas carols;” Est is Eine Ros’ Entsprungen and Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht in the key of C major. Est is Eine Ros’ Entsprungen (Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming) first appeared in the Speyer Hymnal from Cologne in 1599. Its original composer is unknown, but the popular harmonization was completed by Michael Praetorious, a German composer, in 1609. Nearly three hundred years later, the work was rewritten with English lyrics by Thomas Baker, an American composer. Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht (Silent Night, Holy Night), one of the most popular Christmas carols in history, was composed by Franz Gruber (1787-1863) and lyricist Joseph Mohr (1792-1848) in 1818 in Austria. Twenty years later, the Rainer family singers brought Stille Nacht to the United States as part of their Christmas concert at the New York City Trinity Church in 1839. The popular English translation was completed by John Freeman Young in 1863. 


Purchase Christmas Music by Schoenberg here         





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