The Birth and Evolution of Atonal Music Essay
Arnold Schoenberg, a German composer, is the father of the atonal music. In the 20th century, the emergence of the latter became a major issue because the new style was an outgrowth of the post-Brahmsian and post-Wagnerian musical languages. Its evolution is rooted in the desire to evoke change, starting out as an “emotional form of expression”, and then, gradually projecting a more objective outlook. Before World War I, the developments in the fields of literature and painting also paved its way to making history since 1908. Another major contributor is the twelve-tone system – the horizontal and vertical arrangement of the tones that give equal emphasis to each one. The setting is in Vienna, the undisputed musical capital of Austro-Germany, where the best minds of Freud, Kokoschka, Loos, Schnitzler, Altenberg, and Kraus were at work (Samson, 1995, p. 60). These big names, as well as other composers such as Reger, Mahler, Wagner, and Strauss were a dynamic influence in the composer.
A melodic, thematic, motival, and harmonic deviation from the compositions of leading German musicians of the time, i.e. Richard Strauss, Gustav Mahler, Max Reger, and even Schoenberg’s teacher, Alexander Zemlinsky, atonal music is characterised by the absence of key (Simms, 2000, p. 3). The music is purely instinctive, ignoring both consciousness and awareness of context. Atonal music is believed to have slightly or considerably obscured tonalities in varying degrees, which may render it non-perceptible. The only music that is really non-tonal or atonal is based on chromatic clusters of semitones (or even smaller intervals), where no single tones can predominate (Brindle, 1986, p. 111). Schoenbergian music is also characterized by the free treatment of dissonance, attenuation, and outré expressivity and is viewed as an abstract formal structure.
Egon Wellesz, a student of Schoenberg, coined the term atonal for his teacher’s new style. He explains the music to be complicated and incomprehensible even to Schoenberg himself; there is no rational and technical explanation, only an intuitive musical feeling (Simms, 2000, p. 8). Other terms given to atonality are non-music, unpleasant and ugly music, “music written in non-definite keys”, and atonic (for translation purposes). The music of Josef Matthias Hauer posed a rival to Schoenberg’s atonal music in 1921. Because of this, the latter associated the names polytonal and pantonal to mean atonality.
As opposed to tonal music, atonal has no direct relationship or connection with “tone”. Simms (2000) noted that
In atonal music, there is free and equal use of the entire chromatic scale of tones, not just the seven notes of a major or minor scale. Schoenberg asserted that even music that is considered atonal likewise exemplifies tonality because of the interrelationship of tones, whether wounded by a single or complicated connection (p. 9). But still, he emphasized that atonal music did not have a key (p. 10).
The production of atonal music involves a variety in the chords’ makeup as well as freedom in and abandonment of the relationship between key and tonic note and chord. The latter suggests ignoring the conventional harmonies. Brindle (1986) also added that to create atonal music, one must first create a tonal framework and then obscure it (p. 111). The use of note-combinations that do not suggest tonalities is another option. Consequently, diatonic and chromatic substitution notes (a note that takes the place of a harmony note adjacent to it) are two ways of achieving obscurity of tones.
Schoenberg continued on to explain the many ways of weakening functional harmony, namely the absence of passing tones, abundance of “vagrant” chords, aufgehoben (suspended tonality), schwebend (wavering of tonality) and the “impressionistic” or “coloristic” use of chords. The former is referred to as Stufenreichtum (richness of degrees).
Some of Schoenberg’s famous works include Four Orchestral Songs (1913), Op. 22 (1914), George songs and Op. 15 (before 1912), Pierrot lunaire, opera Erwartung, Five Orchestra Pieces, Op. 16, Six Little Piano Pieces, First String Quartet, and many others. His music of tonally dissonant composition were an elaboration and extension of the old diatonic and chromatic harmony rather than a revolutionary reversal of it (Nicholls, 1991, p. 90). The George songs, Op. 15 are a concrete example of atonal music. Although it catered only to a selected number of audiences, atonal music endured to influence the works of his students, Anton Webern and Alan Berg, Pierre Boulez, Milton Babbit, Olivier Messiaen, Elliot Carter, and Wolfgang Rihm. Specifically, Stravinsky’s nightingale music in the second act of the Le Rossignol is quite similar to Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire. The Rite of Spring by the same composer is also noted to have influenced the said opera.
Schoenberg’s inspirations for this new style namely poetry, a new intensity of expressions, and liberation from the formalities of music, are all Dionysian in nature. The birth of atonality occurred simultaneously with the works of other composers, i.e. Bela Bartok’s Fourteen Bagatelles, Aleksandr Scriabin’s Prometheus, and Charles Ives’ Set No.1 for Small Orchestra (Simms, 2000, p.7).
This is indeed proof of a widespread and cooperative effort for change in the world of music.
Tonal or Atonal Music
Cecil Taylor, a jazz composer achieved atonality in his composition by allowing his music to spill over areas other than the center of tonal gravity itself (Schuller, 1989, p. 66). Despite this fixation, many critics have lobbied on the different meanings conferred upon “tonality” and “tonal”, rendering Taylor’s works neither and either atonal. According to Schuller (1989),
One definition is the indication of a specific harmonic system and another, the intervallic relationships between tones. Much of Taylor’s works have not ventured out into non-tonal areas; this supports the first claim. Moreover, the determining force of note choice lies in the underlying chord structure of some works. His less conservative Transition Lp is on the borderline of being tonal and atonal.
Atonal Music and Its Critics
The new style did not escape criticisms. Historians, writers and musicians alike had a lot to say about the characteristic of the atonal music as a necessary expression of its time, taking into consideration the stressful crisis brought about the revolution of music during the turn of the century (Simms, 2000, p. 4). Still other critics said it was a unique showcase of the composer’s emotions, his traumatic experiences during WWI, thus imparting to his listeners the brutality and severity of the reality of wars and chaos. A sense of hope amidst the harshness of life is likewise offered by atonal music.
The advancement in technology has not spared the field of music. However, the young musicians and composers of today have already been spared from misconceptions and prejudices of the evolution of their music. This is simply because today is a time when everything is compiled and compacted under one small box and presented neatly. Research need not be quite extensive given the rampant recordings and studios, live performances and analytical books and articles (Schuller, 1989, p. 140). The negligence of the importance and relevance of 20th century music (especially the atonal music of Schoenberg) to the type that has emerged today is a shameful reality. Teachers and professors in the field need to reconsider this profound loss.
As any piece of art, music can be perceived either with wide acceptance or extreme criticism. What matters in any artistic procedure or technique or system is not what it is, but what it had become, what it can create – a hard lesson many critics seem to have difficulty learning (Schuller, 1989, p. 66). For atonal music, with or without the presence of tones, a simple or complicated interrelationship between them (the latter results in the style’s tones’ non-perceivability), the important thing to note is what the style has become and helped to create – the powerful and dynamic music that people of today can be proud of passing on to the next generations.
Brindle, R.S. (1986). Musical Composition. Oxford University Press.
Nicholls, D. (1991). American Experimental Music, 1890-1940. Cambridge University Press.
Samson, J. (1995). Music in Transition: A Study of Tonal Expansion and Atonality, 1900-1920. Oxford University Press.
Simms, B.R. (2000). The Atonal Music of Arnold Schoenberg, 1908-1923. US: Oxford University Press.
Schuller, G. (1989). Musings: The Musical Worlds of Gunther Schuller. US: Oxford University Press.