Posted by: rbbadger | May 9, 2012

Schoenberg, Ode to Napoleon Buonaparte, Op. 41

The great Austrian composer Arnold Schönberg has long been a favourite of mine.  Unfortunately, there’s no way to more quickly empty a concert hall than to put a work of Schönberg’s on the programme.  His work is, to put it mildly, difficult.  Schönberg is famous for two things, firstly atonality and secondly the twelve-tone method.  Atonality means that a given composition avoids any semblance of tonal centres.  Rather than being in a given key, it embraces all of them.  Thus, the concepts of dissonance and consonance are totally gone.  The twelve-tone method involves arranging the twelve notes of the chromatic scale into a series.  This series may be transposed, inverted, rendered backwards, or backwards and inverted. 

Basically, you have to listen to his music many times in order to get a handle on it.  Despite his very advanced procedures, most of which many audiences have never come to terms to with, his compositional processes are firmly rooted in the traditions of Western music.  However, it is complicated.  Appreciating Schönberg is like appreciating some of the more difficult works of literature, say James Joyce. 

Schönberg was a Jew.  When Hitler took over in Germany, he lost his position at the Prussian Academy in Berlin.  He fled to France, later spending some time in Spain.  He arrived in the United States and took a job teaching in Boston and New York.  When an offer from UCLA materialized, he moved to the Los Angeles area, where he remained until his death in 1951.  He never returned to his native Austria, though his remains were later transferred to Austria.  His body now rests in the Zentralfriedhof Cemetery, where Beethoven, Schubert, and Brahms are buried.   While in California, he became friends with George Gershwin and taught, among others, John Cage. 

One of my favourite works of Schönberg’s is his setting of Lord Byron’s Ode to Napoleon Buonaparte.  Lord Byron was an admirer of Napoleon.  He was quite disenchanted with Napoleon when he abdicated in 1814.  Schönberg felt that this poem, which burns with loathing for Napoleon, best expressed what he thought of Hitler.  It is set for string quartet and reciter, instead of a singer.  While this work is largely atonal, the series used by Schönberg does allow for fleeting references to tonality.  In actually does end in E-flat major, the same key of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 “Eroica”.  The Beethoven symphony was originally dedicated to Napoleon, though the dedication was angrily scratched out by the composer when he heard news of Napoleon’s self-coronation as Emperor. 



  1. Thanks for your article.
    I found it, because I’m doing some research on Ode to Napoleon. The piece is going to be a part of a concert-program, which I’ve been asked to “stage”.
    I wonder why you and even Schöenberg se such a close resemblance between Napoleon and Hitler

    As you write yourself Byron was a great admirer of Napoleon and his thoughts – what Byron regrets is only Napoleon wasn’t brave enough to commit suicide before he was taken away from power.

    Don’t you think that Schöenberg actually didn’t read the poem as it was meant because of the situation in the 40’s.

    I found this analysis – which only are focusing on the text. It might interest you:

    • It is entirely possible that Schoenberg misread Byron or read into Byron something that wasn’t there. Nevertheless, it remains one of my favourite of all of Schoenberg’s work.

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