Like a true champ, I left all of my Schoenberg-related texts at home: Schorske's Fin-de-Siecle Vienna, Alex Ross' The Rest is Noise, Janik's Wittengenstein's Vienna, Tuchman's Proud Tower, even the big-bad Morgan Twentieth Century Music. I'll do my best. Though for anyone curious about the cultural history surrounding Schoenberg and his circle, I would highly recommend the Schorske. If you want something broader, Tuchman is great as well. But I digress.
There are (clearly) quite a few things to say about "Papa" Schoenberg. Since I'm featuring works very early (Brettl Lieder, 1901) and very late (Phantasy 1949) in his oeuvre, in the program notes I will discuss his formative influences and their subsequent culmination in his twelve-tone compositions.
Before discussing the music, there are quite a few cultural influences (even though I truly hate that word) that need to be addressed. One cannot deny that Vienna around 1900 was a hot-bed of clashing socio-political, artistic, and philosophical mores (if memory serves, Schorske describes these things as the "forces of movement"). Let's take a brief inventory of these aforesaid conflicts, shall we? Karl Lueger and the Christian Socialists (think pre-Nazis) governs a largely Jewish bourgeois. Visual artists trained in the ways of the academie attempt to find a fitting aesthetic to rebel against it. The burgeoning mid-nineteenth century feminist movement continues to gain steam thus causing reactions both subtle and violent. In conjunction with these conflicts, you also have the culmination of nineteenth century idealism, especially in art. This creates an interesting synthesis in that the artists of the era were perpetually trying to start anew (things like Ver Sacrum and Barr's The Modern), yet their attitudes were inextricably linked to nineteenth century attitudes and ideas. The most clear examples are in visual art and music.
In the visual arts, the early nineteenth century notions of artistic genius become so over-blown that you get things like this (alluding to him), this (quoting this), and this. More than merely a vessel for divine inspiration, the artist has become divine. Furthermore, there is the (overt) intimation of martyrdom. It is no coincidence that the term "avant garde" comes into use in the second half of the nineteenth century.
With respect to music, the relationship between past and then-present is more subtle, less violent, even (to use an analogy popular in nineteenth century criticism) biological: Schoenberg's twelve tone music is the "grown-up" version of Bach--or at least that was how he saw it. Indeed, the composer viewed himself as a member of a noble lineage. But, in keeping with the attitudes of his artistic comrades-in-arms Schoenberg certainly viewed himself as an arbiter of the "new." Musically, this sort of attitude can be seen in the combination of a decidedly novel harmonic/melodic idiom (twelve tone/pantonal) with archaic rhythmic structures (the waltz, the baroque dance etc). Below is a great youtube find of Menuhin and Gould discussing this combination. I think Menuhin has a nice analogy to describe the relationship of underlying form and outward aesthetic.
Pretty good, eh? I really do think Menuhin's analogy is apt: like in the Shakespeare example, the underlying forms in Schoenberg are at times extremely subtle and you really need to have a knowledge of, shall we say, musical iconography. The music gains completely new meaning when you can not only identify a waltz, but recognize that in the context of twelve tone music it signifies the Vienna of days gone by. Furthermore, in post-WWI Europe the mutilated waltz could be interpreted as a symbol of a scarred, disfigured countryside strewn with corpses, punctured by warfare (images of Under Fire are still lingering in my mind, apologies).
Menuhin also points out that when all tones are equal (the musical reflection of the ever-growing egalitarian spirit of the twentieth century, but that is a separate entry...), all you have are tone-colors and silence, and I would add, rhythm. To make the music interesting, the performer must exploit the variety and range of the violin in addition to truly understanding the tradition from which Schoenberg emerged.
There is indeed, much more to say. The issue of dodecaphonic music as an expression of egalitarianism is really quite fascinating. It become even more captivating when you contrast it with say, the musical language of Mozart. Where Schoenberg celebrates musical equality, Mozart (whether intentionally or not) enables rigid class structure with rigid tonal hierarchies. Indeed, much, much more to say.