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Expressionism as a musical genre is difficult to exactly define. It is, however, considered one of the most important movements of 20th Century music. The three central figures of musical expressionism are Arnold Schoenberg and his pupils, Anton Webern and Alban Berg, the so-called Second Viennese School.
Musical expressionism may be regarded in terms of the music Arnold Schoenberg composed between 1908 and 1921, which is his period of "free atonal" composition, before he devised twelve-tone technique. 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. The third movement is arguably atonal and the introduction to the finale 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.
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 plot to Erwartung has some grounding in the case history of Anna O. (real name Bertha Pappenheim). The author of the libretto, Marie Pappenheim, a recently graduated medical student familiar with Freud's newly developed theories of psychoanalysis, was Bertha's 'second cousin once removed': that is, Marie's father was Bertha's cousin.
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 1908-1913, 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.
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. 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.
At 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.
Webern's music was close in style to Schoenberg's expressionism for only a short while, c. 1909-13. His Five Pieces for Orchestra, Op. 10 (1911-13) are an example of his expressionist output, and might be compared to Schoenberg's Five Pieces for Orchestra, Op. 16, composed 1909.
Berg's contribution includes his Op. 1 Piano Sonata, and the Four Songs of Op. 2. His major contribution to the genre, however, is the opera Wozzeck, composed between 1914-25, a very late addition to the genre. The opera 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. While Wozzeck helped to popularise the genre, it did so at the expense of the ideals.
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 Serialism.
As such, musical expressionism can be said to be chiefly centred upon the ideas and work of Arnold Schoenberg (1907-1923), although Berg and Webern did also contribute significantly to the genre. It was a significant, if not altogether popular style, and some of its influences can be seen in Béla Bartók's opera Bluebeard's Castle (1911), with its emphasis on psychological drama represented in music.
- Fanning, David. 2001. "Expressionism". The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, second edition, edited by Stanley Sadie and John Tyrrell. London: Macmillan Publishers.
- Albright, Daniel. 2004. Modernism and Music: An Anthology of Sources. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0-226-01267-0 [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK].
- Behr, Shulamith, David Fanning, and Douglas Jarman. 1993. Expressionism Reassessed. Manchester [UK] and New York: Manchester University Press ISBN 0-7190-3843-X [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK] (cloth); 0719038448 (pbk).
- Crawford, John C., and Dorothy L Crawford. 1993. Expressionism in Twentieth-Century Music. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. ISBN 0-253-31473-9 [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK].
- Fanning, David. 'Expressionism', Grove Music Online ed. L. Macy (Accessed [12-06-2005]), <>.
- Neighbour, Oliver W., 'Glückliche Hand, die', Grove Music Online ed. L. Macy (Accessed [12-06-2005]), <>
- Neighbour, Oliver W., 'Erwartung', Grove Music Online ed. L. Macy (Accessed [12-06-2005]), <>
- Kandinsky, Wassily. 1914. The Art of Spiritual Harmony, translated by M. T. H. Sadler. London: Constable and Company Limited. Unaltered reprint, as Concerning the Spiritual in Art. New York: Dover Publications Inc. ISBN 0-486-23411-8 [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK]. Revised edition, as Concerning the Spiritual in Art, translated by Michael Sadleir, with considerable te-translation by Francis Golffing, Michael Harrison, and Ferdinand Ostertag. The Documents of Modern Art 5. New York: George Wittenborn, Inc., 1947. New translation, as On the Spiritual in Art: First Complete English Translation with Four Full Colour Page Reproductions, Woodcuts and Half Tones, translated by Hilla Rebay. New York: Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, 1946.
- Poirier, Alain. 1995. L'Expressionnisme et la musique. Paris: Fayard. ISBN 2-213-59243-8 [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK].
- Samson, Jim. 1977. Music In Transition. London: J. M. Dent & Sons Ltd.
- Schoenberg, Arnold. 1975. Style and Idea: Selected Writings of Arnold Schoenberg, edited by Leonard Stein, translated by Leo Black. London: Faber and Faber.