Atonal music

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Arnold Schönberg around 1948

Atonal music generally describes music characterized by so-called atonality , which is based on the chromatic scale , the harmony and melody of which is not fixed on a tonal center or a fundamental tone - in contrast to the (major-minor) tonality or modality . The term was initially used with polemical intent by conservative music critics on the compositions of the Vienna School , in particular on Arnold Schönberg's Three Piano Pieces op. 11 (1909), and was originally more a catchphrase than a music theory term. Both Schönberg and Alban Berg rejected this term because they understood it in the sense of “without tones” (instead of “without key”) (e.g. in the radio dialogue Was ist atonal? From 1930).

In retrospect, the paradigm shift between tonality and atonality at the turn of the century represents less of a "revolution" than an "evolution", the boundaries of which are increasingly blurred by the addition of "free" (tonality / atonality) in (music) scientific terminology. Although there are already strong chromatic passages in works of the 16th century, especially in the “Mannerist” Italian madrigal , which were taken up again in the late Romantic period, atonality can only be spoken of from the early 20th century. The early atonality of the first half of the 20th century can be divided into a phase of so-called free atonality and from around 1925 into a phase of twelve-tone , later serial atonality.

The abandonment of tonality, apart from a few counter-movements, is one of the few constants of new music and a connecting element of various styles of modernity , such as aleatoric , microtonality or micropolyphony . Thus, on the one hand, atonality has contributed to the increasing complexity (from the point of view of its proponents) or to the increasing arbitrariness (from the point of view of its opponents) of contemporary music and the associated "break with the audience", on the other hand, due to its diverse manifestations, it is prohibited A general aesthetic judgment (be it positive or negative).

historical development

Franz Liszt and Alexander Scriabin had already touched on atonality in his late piano pieces . The overgrown use of chromaticism during the late Romantic period or by composers like Max Reger had an atonal tendency. The use of bi- or polytonality , the use of two or more keys at the same time, also led to the border area of ​​atonality. The first phase, which consists in giving up traditional harmony, is also called "free atonality". Schönberg tried to create a principle of order within atonal music and developed the method of “composition with twelve only related tones” (later apostrophized as the twelve-tone technique ), which he began in 1923 (in some of the Five Piano Pieces op. 23 and in most of the movements of the Suite for Piano Op. 25 ) was first used. This twelve-tone principle does not necessarily guarantee atonality, but merely a largely even distribution of the twelve tempered semitones within the compositional movement. Depending on the row structure and the vertical organization of the tones, it is entirely possible to compose pieces in row technique that are perceived as tonal. Schönberg even deliberately constructed some of his complementary rows in such a way that, after the vertical unbundling of their hexachords, they can be aligned with a tonal center. Through appropriate material disposition, he then generates alternating tonal and atonal zones with a single basic row. In the Piano Piece, Op. 33a and in the Piano Concerto, Op. 42 , this approach is combined with a clear intention in terms of form and content.

The twelve-tone technique evolved into serialism after World War II and dominated the avant-garde of serious music during the 1950s in Europe.

Other important pioneers of atonal music were, besides Alban Berg and Anton von Webern , who, together with Schönberg , are subsumed under the so-called Second Viennese School , Ernst Krenek , Igor Stravinsky , Béla Bartók and many others.

Aesthetic Debate

In his Philosophy of New Music , published in 1949 , Theodor W. Adorno advocates Schönberg's atonal compositional style and contrasts this with the neoclassical style of Igor Stravinsky, which is viewed as a relapse into obsolete compositional technique . For Adorno, Schönberg's step towards atonality around 1910 means the liberation of music from the constraints of tonality and thus the unhindered development of musical expression qua free atonality with the full instinctual life of the sounds. On the other hand, in the same writing, he decidedly opposes the twelve-tone technique (later developed by Schönberg) because he saw the danger of a mechanical composition here. The comment by old Schönberg when he was informed that his method of composition had spread across the world also fits in with this: "Yes, but do you also make music?"

Like every artistic revolution (which from a later point of view often presents itself more as evolution than further development), the means of atonality were also violently attacked by conservative minds. The conductor Ernest Ansermet, for example, in his book The Basics of Music in Human Consciousness from 1961, denied atonal music its right to exist at all, since in it a meaningful musical formal language is abandoned and, due to the loss of a meaningful tonality, a sound aesthetic judgment by the listener is not is possible. The creation of a psychic echo in the listener through atonal music only feigns meaningfulness. ( In his article, Carl Dahlhaus criticized Ansermet's polemics against Schönberg (Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, 1966) as unscientific.)

Most objections are based on two basic assumptions:

  • Tonality is a language or at least the basis of a language and its surrender would be tantamount to the senselessness of joining words (= sounds) together without grammar.
  • Tonality is based on principles of nature - in particular the vibrational relationships of the natural tone series , which led to the interval orders of the circle of fifths - and leaving this basis would inevitably make the works "unnatural".

On the other hand, it was argued that

  • Tonality obeys rules, but is by no means linguistic. In particular, it is not possible to create a doctrine of meaning beyond illustrative effects (e.g. swaying sixteenth- note chains = water bubbles) or literarily introduced tone symbols ( keys of the cross = crucifixion of Christ );
  • The Central European systems of music are the result of thousands of years of practice and can only be traced back to a limited extent to the laws of science. In the system of tempered tunings , which are usually assumed as soon as third and sixth as well as fifth / fourth are recognized as consonances, in principle no intervals other than the octaves are “purely” tuned.

Atonality beyond New Music

Atonality is also referred to in the area of ​​popular music, as exemplified by the Berlin Atonal Festival, which has been taking place again since 2013.

Around 1960 atonal structures were achieved in free jazz . Free improvisations (partly in a collective) and a very free design are decisive here. At the same time, basic rhythmic patterns are often maintained. Jazz research was able to show that improvising musicians often orientated themselves to modal scales, i.e. tonal influences are also integrated into the game ( Jost 1975). The use of leading tones or basic motifs is also typical. Similarities with and differences to post-serial music are analyzed by Kumpf (1976).

Atonal sound patterns also often exist in film music; especially often in sound design .


(see also: new music , chromatics , twelve-tone music ) chronologically

  • Herbert Eimert : Atonal music theory. Breitkopf & Härtel, Leipzig 1924.
  • Josef Matthias Hauer : Tonal and atonal instruments. In: Musikblätter des Anbruch . No. 6, 1924, pp. 246-248.
  • Heinrich Rietsch : Atonality. Strache, Warnsdorf 1927.
  • Theodor W. Adorno : Atonal Intermezzo? In: Musikblätter des Anbruch. No. 5, 1929, pp. 187-193.
  • Alban Berg : What is atonal? . In: Twenty-three - a Viennese music magazine . No. 24/25, 1936 (already broadcast as radio dialogue on April 23, 1930).
  • Theodor W. Adorno: Philosophy of the new music. Mohr, Tübingen 1949. 2nd edition: Europäische Verlagsanstalt, Frankfurt 1958. 3rd edition: 1966.
  • Heinz-Klaus Metzger : Failed terms in theory and criticism of music. In: the series. No. 5, 1959 (including “atonal”).
  • Friedrich Blume : What is music? In: Musical questions of time. No. 5, 1960 (the term from a reactionary point of view sparked heated debates).
  • Alan Forte : Context and Continuity in an Atonal Work. A set-theoretical approach. In: Perspectives of New Music. No. 1.2, 1963.
  • Ernst Krenek : Atonality Retroactive. In: Perspectives of New Music. No. 2.1, 1963.
  • Reinhold Brinkmann : Arnold Schönberg: Three Piano Pieces op. 11. Studies on early atonality in Schönberg. Steiner, Wiesbaden 1969.
  • Elmar Budde : Anton Webern's songs op. 3. Investigations into the early atonality in Anton Webern. Steiner, Wiesbaden 1971.
  • Harthmut Kinzler : Atonality. In: Concise dictionary of musical terminology . 23. Delivery. 1995.
  • Ludwig Finscher : Gesualdo's “atonality” and the problem of musical mannerism. In: Archives for Musicology . 1972.
  • Werner Schmidt-Faber: Atonality in the Third Reich. In: Ulrich Dibelius (Ed.): Challenge Schönberg. Hanser, Munich 1974, pp. 110-136.
  • Ekkehard Jost : Free Jazz. Silcritical studies on jazz of the 1960s. Schott, Mainz 1975.
  • Hans Kumpf : Post-serial music and free jazz: interactions and parallels. Reports, analyzes, workshop discussions. Döring, Herrenberg 1976.
  • Burkhardt Rukschcio, Roland Schachel: Adolf Loos . Life and work. Residence, Salzburg / Vienna 1982 (For the Loos / Schönberg relationship, see pages 101f, 162f and 181.)
  • Albrecht Dümling : "Dangerous destroyers of our racial instinct." Nazi polemics against atonality. In: New magazine for music. No. 1, 1995.
  • Benedikt Stegemann: Theory of Tonality. Wilhelmshaven 2013, ISBN 978-3-7959-0962-8 .

Web links

Individual evidence

  1. “Above all, I find the expression 'atonal music' extremely unfortunate. If someone called flying the 'art of not falling down', or swimming the 'art of not falling down', he proceeded in the same way. ”(Hauer's theories, note dated November 9, 1923) Schoenberg Institute. . Schönberg made similar statements as early as 1921 ": ... I am a musician and have nothing to do with atonal. Atonal could only denote: something that does not at all correspond to the essence of sound ... A piece of music will always be tonal at least to that extent must, as there must be a relationship from tone to tone, by virtue of which the tones, placed next to or on top of one another, result in a sequence that can be understood as such. " (Harmony, 3rd edition. P. 486). He suggested the term polytonality or pantonality for the tonality of the twelve-tone row. (Harmony, 3rd edition. P. 487). He also expresses this point of view in another text, in which he explains that every tone has a (tonal) meaning that can be changed by adding a second tone ("Stil und Gedanke", edition Fischer-TB 1976, p. 51 , Schönberg's version of this text dates from 1946). He also speaks of the "method of the twelve tones that are only related to one another". That means the tonal reference is still there - even if "only" from tone to tone!
  2. Hartmuth Kinzler: Atonality. In: Concise dictionary of musical terminology . 23rd delivery, 1994, p. 21.
  3. The full text of Alban Berg's radio dialogue What is atonal? Wikisource .
  4. cf. Theory of Tonality , 2013, p. 155ff.
  5. Bayerischer Rundfunk: June 8, 1936 - "What is atonal?" by Alban Berg appears: Evolution instead of revolution | BR classic . June 8, 2018 ( [accessed June 8, 2018]).