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date: 21 February 2020


  • David Fanning


David Fanning

A term applied to prominent artistic trends before, during and after World War I, especially in the visual arts and literature in Austria and Germany. By analogy it may apply to music of that time, or more generally to any music, in which an extravagant and apparently chaotic surface conveys turbulence in the composer’s psyche.

In a narrow sense Expressionism in music embraces most of Schoenberg’s post-tonal, pre-12-note output – that of his ‘free atonal’ period, roughly from 1908 to 1921. Certain works from this time by his pupils Berg and Webern also qualify. This ‘pure’ Expressionism communicates as a kind of psychogram (Einstein, 1926); its musical language takes Wagner’s chromatic melos and harmony as its starting-point (notably Kundry’s music in Parsifal) but largely avoids cadence, repetition, sequence, balanced phrases and reference to formal or procedural models.

The term is often used more broadly to include other music from the same period with shared characteristics. Indeed, it is almost impossible to frame a definition of musical Expressionism in terms of style or aesthetic which would include the ‘central’ free-atonal music of the Second Viennese School and exclude near contemporary works by Mahler, Skryabin, Hauer, Stravinsky, Szymanowski, Bartók, Hindemith, Ives, Krenek and others. Furthermore, a number of important stage works of the 1920s, especially some by Weill, Hindemith and Krenek, have proved problematic to commentators because they retain strongly expressionistic textual and visual aspects while their musical language has moved on to different aesthetic principles....

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