Discovering Schönberg’s Piano Works

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When music publisher Universal Edition was founded in Vienna in 1901, its goal was to provide core classical and educational works to an enthusiastic Austrian market, but the company soon became associated with some of the most radical modernist composers of the age.

Within ten years, UE had signed contracts to publish new music by Mahler, Bartók, Schönberg, Webern, Zemlinsky, and in subsequent decades the company became the publishers of Kurtág, Ligetti, Stockhausen, Berio and Boulez among many others.

Austrian copyright ownership lasts for 70 years after a composer’s death, and when Bartók’s music came out of copyright in 2015, G. Henle Verlag were quick to produce new urtext editions which significantly improved on the scores that were previously available.

Now they are repeating the trick with the key piano works of Arnold Schönberg (later Schoenberg, 1874-1951), delivering fresh urtext editions of the Drei Klaveristücke (Three Piano Pieces) Opus 11, Sechs kleine Klavierstücke (Six Little Piano Pieces) Opus 19 and Suite Opus 25…

Moments in Music History

Schönberg’s solo piano music forms a small but perfectly formed body of work within his larger output; each opus notable for its radical and compact musical substance, the pieces here all mark significant developments in the composer’s work, and hence in the progress of revolutionary modernism in the early twentieth century repertoire.

The Three Piano Pieces Op.11 date from 1909 and represent a pivotal moment in Schönberg’s then mission to “emancipate the dissonance”, begun in the previous months in his Second String Quartet Op.10 and Das Buch der hängenden Gärten Op.15.

“What is this emancipation of the dissonance you speak of?”

In essence, with his Second Quartet and then these Three Piano Pieces, Schönberg decisively launched “atonal” music, meaning music in which major and minor keys, chords and melodies (the “tonal” system) play no part.

For three centuries prior to this turning point, expression existed in music in no small part due to the use of dissonant (clashing) notes which then resolved. But throughout the Romantic era, increasing chromaticism in harmony led to more dissonance, stretching the bounds of the tonal system.

By emancipating the dissonance, Schönberg deliberately rejected all sense of resolution, freeing notes from their functional harmonic relationships.

Depending on taste, the results are perhaps as disconcerting today as they were a century ago. Make up you own mind: here’s a performance by Di Wu which highlights both the virtuosic technical demands of Schönberg’s writing and its innate lyrical potential:

The Six Little Piano Pieces Op.19 followed in 1911, and are written in the “expressionist” style that Schönberg had further championed in his unsettling masterpieces Erwartung Op.17 and Pierrot lunaire Op.21. Try listening to these at a high volume and see if the neighbours call the police: music still has the power to shock!

The longest of these musical aphorisms is the first, which extends to 17 bars of music (and is the only of the six to have two pages in the Henle edition). As the editor Norbert Müllemann explains in his introduction:

“Op.19 stands for the extreme reduction of form, the condensed miniature – a creative concept that was to be of central importance for Schönberg’s pupil Anton Webern.”

If these two sets of pieces are truly “game changers” in music history, how much more so the Suite Op.25.

With this composition Schönberg finally arrived at the breakthrough which would define not only the future of his own composing, but the history of art music for the next half century: this work was the first large-scale piece written using the Twelve Tone Method that has come to be known as serialism.

Here, the dissonance has not simply been emancipated, but the tonal system has been replaced by an entirely new conception in which all notes once again have functional relationships, now based on exact equality of use in a piece, and combined using techniques which echo the counterpoint of previous generations.

Henle’s New Urtext Editions

Henle’s new editions of these works are exemplary in their scholarship; their editors have returned to original sources, researched the composer’s letters and manuscripts, and compiled scores truer to his intentions than ever.

Their editors are as follows, and all scores include added fingering:

Op.11 • editor Ullrich Scheideler • fingering by Emanuel Ax

Op.19 • editor Norbert Müllemann • fingering by Emanuel Ax

Op.25 • editor Marte Auer • fingering by Shai Wosner

The notation engraving has, as expected, Henle’s industry-leading precision and clarity, each volume also benefitting from a useful Preface at the start, and extensive critical commentary at the rear.

As always from this publisher, the score is also available digitally within the cross-platform Henle Library app. More information here.

Closing Thoughts

Schönberg’s piano pieces have an extraordinary historical significance that extends far beyond their immediate intrinsic value, being the laboratory in which the composer reassembled the elements of music to create an entirely new language, and in a way which had a seminal influence on composers for at least a generation.

For the pianist, these are works that reward effort, and are of more than simply historical importance. Many musicians find themselves absorbed by the radical sound world that Schönberg opens up in these pieces, and it is no wonder that their influence changed music for ever.

The Six Little Piano Pieces Op.19 offer a starting point for discovering this repertoire, and presently appear on the ARSM, DipABRSM and DipLCM diploma syllabi, offering prospective candidates another impetus for exploring this music from the inside out. And musicians with a high-level interest or intent on a career should certainly acquaint themselves with this important repertoire.

These new editions of the scores from Henle immediately jump to the top of the pile as the edition to own, and can be recommended as such without reservation.

Let’s hope new urtexts of the rest of Schönberg’s oeuvre follows soon. For now, these editions can be purchased from Musicroom here:

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Published by

Andrew Eales

Andrew Eales is a widely respected piano educator, writer and composer based on Milton Keynes UK. His book HOW TO PRACTISE MUSIC is published by Hal Leonard.

3 thoughts on “Discovering Schönberg’s Piano Works”

  1. Regarding Schoenberg’s “radical sound world” — I still have a crystalline memory of my college Music Appreciation course, freshman year, in the summer of 1965, when I had not yet turned 17, and the professor played the music of Webern and Schoenberg. A silent scream coursed through my entire being, “Nooooo! What just happened? Where is the music?” I’m afraid it still doesn’t speak to me. There is so much dissonance and discord all around me, and I remain a lover of harmony. A few discordant notes or chords at the beginning of a piece, or within it, can wake me up, but the “radical sound world” of Webern and Schoenberg will never find a home in my heart.

    Thank you nevertheless for an enlightening explanation of their place in musical history, and their goals.

    1. I think it’s fair to say that atonal music is an acquired taste… which is only rarely acquired! It’s good that you had the opportunity though, and it’s an encounter which I believe students should have a chance to experience.

      1. Thank you for not judging me! 😮 Yes, I think my professor did a good job of educating us about a wide range of music. At least I know what atonal music is. Someone asked me that very question last week. I tried, without success, to define it. I could do a much better job now that I have read your post!

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