Expressionist music

The term expressionism “was probably first applied to music in 1918, especially to Schoenberg”, because like the painter Wassily Kandinsky (1866–1944) he avoided “traditional forms of beauty” to convey powerful feelings in his music (Sadie 1991, 244). Theodor Adorno sees the expressionist movement in music, as seeking to “eliminate all of traditional music’s conventional elements, everything formulaically rigid”. This he sees as analogous “to the literary ideal of the ‘scream’ “. As well Adorno sees expressionist music, as seeking “the truthfulness of subjective feeling without illusions, disguises or euphemisms”. Adorno also describes it as concerned with the unconscious, and states that “the depiction of fear lies at the centre” of expressionist music, with dissonance predominating, so that the “harmonious, affirmative element of art is banished” (Adorno 2009, 275–76).

Expressionist music often features a high level of dissonance, extreme contrasts of dynamics, constant changing of textures, “distorted” melodies and harmonies, and angular melodies with wide leaps (Anon. 2014).

Theodor W. Adorno characterizes:

“The expressionist ideal of expression is altogether one of the immediacy of expression. That means a double. For one thing, Expressionist music seeks to eliminate all conventional elements of conventionality, everything that has been rigidified in terms of form, and indeed all the one-time case and its general universality of musical language – analogous to the poetic ideal of the ‘scream’. On the other hand, the Expressionist phrase concerns the content of music. As this the obscure, undisguised, unenlightened truth of the subjective impulse is sought. Expressionist music, after a happy expression by Alfred Einstein, wants to give psychograms, protocol-based, un-stylized notes of the psychic. It shows itself close to psychoanalysis. ”

Stylistically, the altered function of the dissonances, which are equal in rights alongside consonances and no longer dissolve – which was also called the “emancipation of dissonance” – is noticeable. The tonal system was largely resolved and extended to atonality. The musical characteristics include: extreme pitch, extreme differences in volume (dynamic contrasts), jagged melody lines with wide jumps; metric unbound, free rhythm and novel instrumentation.

Phases of Expressionism
Expressionism is divided into three phases:

early Expressionism Early 20th century Schoenberg, Scriabin, Ives, Stravinsky, Hindemith, Prokofiev, Honegger and Bartók
high Expressionism 1907 to about 1912 Webern, Berg, Schönberg (Viennese School) and Busoni
late Expressionism From 1914 and ends in twelve-tone music
Like Expressionism as a whole, musical expressionism has developed primarily in German-speaking countries. While many composers of early expressionism later left the expressionist style, Schoenberg and his disciples remained true to this style of composition. The group around Schoenberg is referred to as the Viennese school: it most radically realized the emancipation of dissonance, which became the most important expression of expressionism.

Major figures
The three central figures of musical expressionism are Arnold Schoenberg (1874–1951) and his pupils, Anton Webern (1883–1945) and Alban Berg (1885–1935), the so-called Second Viennese School. Other composers that have been associated with expressionism are Ernst Krenek (1900–1991) (the Second Symphony, 1922), Paul Hindemith (1895–1963) (Die junge Magd, Op. 23b, 1922, setting six poems of Georg Trakl), Igor Stravinsky (1882–1971) (Three Japanese Lyrics, 1913), Alexander Scriabin (1872–1915) (late piano sonatas) (Adorno 2009, 275). Another significant expressionist was Béla Bartók (1881–1945) in early works, written in the second decade of the 20th century, such as Bluebeard’s Castle (1911) (Gagné 2011, 92), The Wooden Prince (1917) (Clements 2007), and The Miraculous Mandarin (1919) (Bayley 2001, 152). American composers with a sympathetic “urge for such intensification of expression” who were active in the same period as Schoenberg’s expressionist free atonal compositions (between 1908 and 1921) include Carl Ruggles, Dane Rudhyar, and, “to a certain extent”, Charles Ives, whose song “Walt Whitman” is a particularly clear example (Carter 1965, 9). Important precursors of expressionism are Richard Wagner (1813–1883), Gustav Mahler (1860–1911), and Richard Strauss (1864–1949) (Anon. 2000; Mitchell 2005, 334). Later composers, such as Peter Maxwell Davies (1934–2016), “have sometimes been seen as perpetuating the Expressionism of Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern” (Griffiths 2002), and Heinz Holliger’s (b. 1939) most distinctive trait “is an intensely engaged evocation of … the essentially lyric expressionism found in Schoenberg, Berg and, especially, Webern” (Whittall 1999, 38).

Arnold Schoenberg
Musical expressionism is closely associated with the music Arnold Schoenberg composed between 1908 and 1921, which is his period of “free atonal” composition, before he devised twelve-tone technique (Schoenberg 1975, 207–208). Compositions from the same period with similar traits, particularly works by his pupils Alban Berg and Anton Webern, are often also included under this rubric, and the term has also been used pejoratively by musical journalists to describe any music in which the composer’s attempts at personal expression overcome coherence or are merely used in opposition to traditional forms and practices (Fanning 2001). It can therefore be said to begin with Schoenberg’s Second String Quartet (written 1907–08) in which each of the four movements gets progressively less tonal (Fanning 2001). The third movement is arguably atonal and the introduction to the final movement is very chromatic, arguably has no tonal centre, and features a soprano singing “Ich fühle Luft von anderem Planeten” (“I feel the air of another planet”), taken from a poem by Stefan George. This may be representative of Schoenberg entering the “new world” of atonality (Fanning 2001).

In 1909, Schoenberg composed the one-act ‘monodrama’ Erwartung (Expectation). This is a thirty-minute, highly expressionist work in which atonal music accompanies a musical drama centered around a nameless woman. Having stumbled through a disturbing forest, trying to find her lover, she reaches open countryside. She stumbles across the corpse of her lover near the house of another woman, and from that point on the drama is purely psychological: the woman denies what she sees and then worries that it was she who killed him. The plot is entirely played out from the subjective point of view of the woman, and her emotional distress is reflected in the music. The author of the libretto, Marie Pappenheim, was a recently graduated medical student familiar with Freud’s newly developed theories of psychoanalysis, as was Schoenberg himself (Carpenter 2010, 144–46).

In 1909, Schoenberg completed the Five Pieces for Orchestra. These were constructed freely, based upon the subconscious will, unmediated by the conscious, anticipating the main shared ideal of the composer’s relationship with the painter Wassily Kandinsky. As such, the works attempt to avoid a recognisable form, although the extent to which they achieve this is debatable.

Between 1908 and 1913, Schoenberg was also working on a musical drama, Die glückliche Hand. The music is again atonal. The plot begins with an unnamed man, cowered in the centre of the stage with a beast upon his back. The man’s wife has left him for another man; he is in anguish. She attempts to return to him, but in his pain he does not see her. Then, to prove himself, the man goes to a forge, and in a strangely Wagnerian scene (although not musically), forges a masterpiece, even with the other blacksmiths showing aggression towards him. The woman returns, and the man implores her to stay with him, but she kicks a rock upon him, and the final image of the act is of the man once again cowered with the beast upon his back.[original research?]

This plot is highly symbolic, written as it was by Schoenberg himself, at around the time when his wife had left him for a short while for the painter Richard Gerstl. Although she had returned by the time Schoenberg began the work, their relationship was far from easy (Biersdorfer 2009). The central forging scene is seen as representative of Schoenberg’s disappointment at the negative popular reaction to his works. His desire was to create a masterpiece, as the protagonist does. Once again, Schoenberg is expressing his real life difficulties.

In around 1911, the painter Wassily Kandinsky wrote a letter to Schoenberg, which initiated a long lasting friendship and working relationship. The two artists shared a similar viewpoint, that art should express the subconscious (the “inner necessity”) unfettered by the conscious. Kandinsky’s Concerning The Spiritual In Art (1914) expounds this view. The two exchanged their own paintings with each other, and Schoenberg contributed articles to Kandinsky’s publication Der Blaue Reiter. This inter-disciplinary relationship is perhaps the most important relationship in musical expressionism, other than that between the members of the Second Viennese School. The inter-disciplinary nature of expressionism found an outlet in Schoenberg’s paintings, encouraged by Kandinsky. An example is the self-portrait Red Gaze (see Archived link), in which the red eyes are the window to Schoenberg’s subconscious.

Anton Webern and Alban Berg
Anton Webern’s music was close in style to Schoenberg’s expressionism, c. 1909–13, and subsequently his music “became increasingly constructivist on the surface and increasingly concealed its passionate expressive core” (Fanning 2001). His Five Pieces for Orchestra, Op. 10 (1911–13) are from this period.

Alban Berg’s contribution includes his Op. 1 Piano Sonata, and the Four Songs of Op. 2. His major contribution to musical expressionism, however, were very late examples, the operas Wozzeck, composed between 1914 and 1925, and unfinished Lulu (Reich 2013). Wozzeck is highly expressionist in subject material in that it expresses mental anguish and suffering and is not objective, presented, as it is, largely from Wozzeck’s point of view, but it presents this expressionism within a cleverly constructed form. The opera is divided into three acts, the first of which serves as an exposition of characters. The second develops the plot, while the third is a series of musical variations (upon a rhythm, or a key for example). Berg unashamedly uses sonata form in one scene in the second act, describing himself how the first subject represents Marie (Wozzeck’s mistress), while the second subject coincides with the entry of Wozzeck himself. This heightens the immediacy and intelligibility of the plot, but is somewhat contradictory with the ideals of Schoenberg’s expressionism, which seeks to express musically the subconscious unmediated by the conscious.

Berg worked on his opera Lulu, from 1928 to 1935, but failed to complete the third act. According to one view, “Musically complex and highly expressionistic in idiom, Lulu was composed entirely in the 12-tone system” (Reich 2013), but this is by no means a universally accepted interpretation. The literary basis of the opera is a pair of related plays by Frank Wedekind, whose writing is virtually a “reversal of the expressionist aesthetic”, because of its complete indifference to the characters’ psychological states of mind, and portrayal of characters whose “personalities have little or no basis in reality and whose distortions are not the product of psychological tension” (Gittleman 1968, 134). The plainly evident emotion of Berg’s music is dislocated from its cause and “deflected onto something else impossible to define”, thereby contradicting its own intensity and undermining the listener’s “instinctive obedience to emotive instructions”, contrary to expressionism, which “tells its listeners pretty unambiguously how to react” (Holloway 1979, 37). In contrast to the plainly expressionist manner of Wozzeck, therefore, Lulu is closer to the Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity) of the 1920s, and to Bertolt Brecht’s epic theatre (Jarman 1991, 19–20, 94–96).

Indeed, by the time Wozzeck was performed in 1925, Schoenberg had introduced his twelve-tone technique to his pupils, representing the end of his expressionist period (in 1923) and roughly the beginning of his twelve-tone period.

As can be seen, Arnold Schoenberg was a central figure in musical expressionism, although Berg, Webern, and Bartók did also contribute significantly, along with various other composers.

Between the intensive work of the artists and composers and the perception by the audience gaped a gap, as Rudolf Stephan wrote:

“The term expressionism, when it emerged (to the discomfort of Schoenberg and Ferruccio Busoni) in the music literature (since 1919), had long since become a common, much-abused catchphrase, which played a certain role in the art struggle now affecting music. This filled after the end of the war brochures, music newspapers, especially Melos (edited by Hermann Scherchen) and the (new, mostly short-lived) art and cultural magazines, while in the fields of literature and fine art, the end of Expressionism has already been proclaimed. So from the very beginning the discussion suffered from its delay and above all from the fact that around 1920 only a few relevant musical works were in print and barely adequate performances took place, so that the works were practically unknown. ”

Stylistic limitation
The musical style determination has the task to represent the main moments of expressionist style. The following main moments (style criteria) can be demonstrated:

means: the rapid change of melodic directions, the juxtaposition of dissonant harmonies, restlessness of motifs, alternation of homophony and linear parts (polyphony), preference for sharp intervals, large range (ambitus), liberation of rhythm (polyrhythmics) and resolution of the meter (music) (polymetrics).
Expression means the fanning of the tonal space by extension of the chord formation (expansion of the tonal space). Each voice is equal, different musical material is simultaneously developed and stored on top of each other. The equality of voices focuses the overall sound on linearity.
Reduction means the restriction to the essentials. Every tone is important, which achieves an effective density in the music. A common means of reduction is the compression of the orchestra apparatus. New orchestral colors and instrumentations are searched. When the highest possible reduction (density) is achieved, a splitting of the sound occurs, which is expressed by polyrhythmics and distribution of a motif on several alternating instruments.
Abstraction means a rationalization of harmonic evolution, which can be represented as follows:
The music has no relation to the tonic, d. H. the piece is no longer subject to a key (impressionism and early expressionism)
The chords have no (easily comprehensible) functionally harmonious relationship
The chords are broken up by alteration (Late Romantic: Tristan Chord)
The Leittöne are no longer dissolved in the atonal music, they freeze
The twelve-tone technique creates a new regularity that becomes the basis of the atonal compositional style

Traditional forms in musical expressionism
Through the atonality, the harmonious relationship of the compositions is lost, so the expressionist composers try to give their compositions on a formal level balance. For this reason, the Expressionists use traditional forms, such as: canon, invention, fugue, suite, minuet, march, serenade, waltz, classical sonata and especially the basis of the song form. Through traditional forms, they bridge the gap between the rational and the emotional.

Anton Webern expressed in 1933 in his “lectures” related to the situation around 1910:

“All the works that have been created since the disappearance of tonality up to the establishment of the new twelve-tone law were short, strikingly short. – What was written at that time is connected with a supporting text […] – With the abandonment of tonality, the most important means of constructing longer pieces was lost. Tonality was of the utmost importance for bringing about formal unity. As if the light was extinguished! – so it seemed. ”

Main works
In the following chronological list it should be remembered that many of the works were only performed or printed long after the composition.

Preforms / Early Expressionism
Preforms of expressionist music: violently high-contrast works, reveling in dissonance

Max Reger: Symphonic Fantasy and Fugue op. 57 for organ (1901)
Reger: Piano Quintet in C minor op. 64 (1902)
Schoenberg: Pelleas and Melisande op. 5 (1902-1903)
Scriabin: Piano Sonata No. 4 in F sharp major op. 30 (1903)
Gustav Mahler: 6th Symphony (1903-1904)
Richard Strauss: Salome op. 54, opera (1905)
Charles Ives: The Unanswered Question for Trumpet, 4 Flutes and Strings (1906)
Ives: Central Park in the Dark for orchestra (1906, rev. 1936)
Strauss: Elektra op. 58, opera (1906-1908)

High Expressionism
Scriabin: Le Poème de l’Extase op. 54 for orchestra (1905-1908)
Scriabin: Piano Sonata No. 5 in F sharp major op. 53 (1907)
Schönberg: Second String Quartet Quartet op. 10 (F sharp minor) with soprano part (1907-1908)
Schönberg: The Book of Hanging Gardens, Op. 15 after Stefan George for a voice and piano (1908-1909)
Webern: Five Movements for String Quartet op. 5 (1909)
Webern: Six Pieces for Large Orchestra op. 6 (1909)
Schönberg: Three Piano Pieces op. 11 (1909)
Schönberg: Five Orchestral Pieces op. 16 (1909, revised 1922)
Schoenberg: Expectation op. 17, monodrama (1909, first performed in 1924)
Webern: Four pieces for violin and piano op. 7 (1910)
Schoenberg: The Happy Hand op. 18 (1910-1913, first listed in 1924)
Schönberg: Six Little Piano Pieces op. 19 (1911)
Schoenberg: Heartwoods op. 20 for high soprano, celesta, harmonium and harp (1911, first performed in 1928)
Webern: Five Pieces for Orchestra op. 10 (1911)
Schoenberg: Pierrot Lunaire op. 21 for a speaking voice and ensemble (1912)
Berg: Five Orchestral Songs after poems by Peter Altenberg op. 4 (1912)
Berg: Four Pieces for clarinet and piano op. 5 (1913)
Schönberg: Four Songs op. 22 for voice and orchestra (1913-1916, first performed in 1932)
Berg: Three Orchestral Pieces op. 6 (1914)
Schönberg: The Jacob’s Ladder, oratorio fragment (1917)
Webern: Songs for voice and ensembles opp. 14-18 (1917-1925)
Berg: Wozzeck op. 7, opera (1917-1922, world premiere 1925)

Late Expressionism
Scriabin: Piano Sonata No. 10 op. 70 (1912-1913)
Scriabin: Verse la flame, poème op. 72 for piano (1914)
Scriabin: Deux Danses op. 73 for piano (1914)
Bartók: The Wonderful Mandarin for orchestra (1918-1923, rev 1924 and 1926-1931)
Schönberg: Five Piano Pieces op. 23 (1920-1923)

Source from Wikipedia