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Music In The Modern Era


Peter Kun Frary


Expressionism first appeared among German painters and poets during the early 20th century, quickly spreading to music, theater, literature, dance and film. It stressed intense, subjective emotion and rejected conventional beauty. Instead, they used radical distortions to shock audiences and presented dark topics such as anguish, fear, madness and death. Expressionism was also a German reaction to the sensuality, shimmering textures and pleasant subjects of French Impressionism and Symbolists.

Vampire (1895) | Edvard Munch (1863–1944) | The Munch Museum, Oslo | The work of Norwegian artist Edvard Munch was a major influence on German Expressionism.

Expressionism in Music

Expressionism in music was often concerned with social injustice and protest. A common Expressionistic theme was opposition to war, especially World War I. Composers used jarring rhythms and dissonance to stir emotions from the darkest recesses of the human psyche. As a movement, Expressionism was fairly unified: writers, artists, film makers and musicians kept in close contact and supported one another. Due to the overt political tone of the movement and its organization, Expressionism ended with the rise of the Nazi regime. Hitler, a failed artist and painter, condemned their art as perverted and Expressionists were forced to flee Germany or go underground.

The foremost proponents of musical Expressionism were Arnold Schoenberg (1874–1951) and his two students, Alban Berg (1885–1935) and Anton Webern (1883–1945).

Marzella (1909-10) | Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (1880–1938) | Moderna Museet, Stockholm | Kirchner was a founding member of the Expressionist art group, Die Brücke.

Twelve-tone System

Expressionism evolved from the emotionally turbulent and highly chromatic and tonally vague music of late German Romanticism. Expressionism emphasizes harsh dissonance, melodic fragmentation, unusual instrumental timbres, use of extreme registers and atonality (lack of a tonal center or key).

To break with the Romantic style, Arnold Schoenberg's music from 1908 onward lacked a sense of key and tonal center. These early attempts at atonality are called free atonality. By the early 1920s he devised a highly structured system of atonal composition known as the twelve-tone system, or dodecaphony. This system assigns equal importance to all twelve notes of the chromatic scale. In contrast, traditional music (common practice harmony) is based on a hierarchy of tones and graded levels of consonance and dissonance.

Arnold Schoenberg, self-portrait (1910) | Arnold Schoenberg Center | Schoenberg was among the most innovative composers of the century but not a good painter.

All music written with the twelve-tone system is based on a tone row. A tone row consists of the twelve notes of the chromatic scale arranged in a specific order.

Chromatic Scale

Tone Row created from chromatic scale

All twelve notes of the chromatic scale must appear in the row, but the order is determined by the composer. The row forms the melodic and harmonic basis of the composition but is subject to various techniques:

  • Inversion: flipping the melodic contour
  • Retrograde: playing backwards
  • Retrograde-inversion: backwards and flipped
  • Transposition: moving the pitch higher or lower while maintaining the same interval spacing

Tone Row Inversion

Tone Row Retrograde

In addition to the above techniques, any tone of the row may be displaced by octaves, any rhythm may be used and the tone row may be stacked to form polyphonic and harmonic (vertical) structures. The row must always be stated in its entirety. While use of a tone row may seem inflexible there are 479,001,600 possible combinations of the twelve tones. The rules underlying tone row use are called pitch serialization.

The Urn (1896) | Edvard Munch (1863–1944) | The Munch Museum, Oslo

Pierrot Lunaire

Arnold Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire, Op. 21 (Moonstruck Pierrot), was written in 1912 and is a setting of 21 selected poems from Otto Erich Hartleben's German translation of the Belgian poet Albert Giraud's cycle of French poems. This cycle of poems divide into three groups of seven and evoke the bizarre night visions of a poet named Pierrot and his descent into madness.

Pierrot Lunaire is an example of Schoenberg's use of free atonality when he was in the thick of the Expressionistic movement. It's scored for soprano voice and an ensemble of five musicians who play eight instruments as needed from song to song: flute, piccolo, clarinet, bass clarinet, violin, viola, cello and piano. The entire work is about 40 minutes long but we'll listen to the opening song only, Mondestrunken (moon drunk).

The soprano uses an eerie half singing and half speaking style of performance called Sprechtimme. The text of Mondestrunken speaks of the poet Pierrot, drunk on moonlight, and how he becomes increasingly deranged. Here's a translation of the lyrics:

The wine that one drinks with the eyes
The moon spills nights into the waves,
And a Springflood overflows
The silent horizon.

Desires, visible and sweet
Countless swim across the flood.
The wine that one drinks with the eyes
The moon spills nights into the waves.

The poet, who practices devotion,
Enrapts himself on the holy drink,
He turns against the sky ecstatic
Headlong reeling sucks and slurps
The wine, that one drinks with the eyes.

Moonlight is suggested with a seven-note ostinato motive:

Pierrot Lunaire op. 21: 1. Mondestrunken (1912) | Arnold Schoenberg (0:00-2:38)

Pro Arte Playing Schoenberg 1945 | Prentiss Taylor (1907-91) | Smithsonian American Art Museum

Five Pieces for Orchestra Op. 10

The Austrian Anton Webern (1883–1945) was a student of Schoenberg and an important composer of Expressionistic music. A leading exponent of the twelve-tone system, his music is marked by brevity, restrain and masterful use of instrumental timbres. Each movement of Webern's Five Pieces for Orchestra (1911–13) lasts between 30 seconds and two minutes. Here are the movement names and start times:

1. (0:05) Sehr ruhig und zart
2. (0:49) Lebhaft und zart bewegt
3. (1:23) Sehr langsam und äußerst
4. (2:54) Fließend äußerst zart
5. (3:24) Sehr fließend

5 Pieces For Orchestra Op.10 (1911-13) | Anton Webern

Webern's music, along with that of Berg, Schoenberg, and others, was denounced as degenerate art by the Nazi Party in Germany, and both publication and performances were banned after 1938. Schoenberg fled to the United States but Webern choose to go into hiding until Germany and Austria were occupied by Allied troops in 1945. Ironically, after Webern emerged from hiding in 1945 he was "accidentally" shot and killed by an American soldier when he stepped outside his house to smoke a cigar.

The Scream (1893) | Edvard Munch (1863–1944) | The Munch Museum, Oslo | Munch's painting The Scream is an icon of existential anguish.


Expressionism, atonality, twelve-tone system, dodecaphony, tone row, Sprechtimme, Arnold Schoenberg, Anton Webern

©Copyright 2017 by Peter Kun Frary | All Rights Reserved