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Atonality


by Christoph Hust


Atonality means the absence of a tonal center as the basis for the whole or part of a piece of music. This was one of the radical innovations in music around the second decade of the twentieth century. More specifically, the term is used to describe works that are neither tonally-centered nor use the 12-tone or dodecaphonic [doh''-dek-&-fon'-ik] method of organizing pitch. Although atonality is primarily associated with the composers of the second Viennese School, namely Alban Berg, Arnold Schoenberg, [shoen'-beRg] and Anton Webern, [vay'-beRn] it was also used by other composers such as the Austrian Josef Matthias [yoh'-zef maa"-tee'-aas] Hauer, the American Charles Edward Ives, the Soviet composers Arthur Lourié and Nikolay Roslavets, and the Pole Józef Koffler. In France, Charles Koechlin's work approached an atonal style as well.

Tonal music has been described, most notably by German music theorist Hugo Riemann,1 as a system of hierarchies in which different classes of chords lead from one chord to another, such as dominant harmony or one of its substitutes resolving to tonic harmony. Establishing such tonal nets centered on the tonic chord is the essence of functional harmony. In atonality, this tonal scheme is deliberately abandoned. Accordingly, atonality is most easily and perhaps most adequately defined by what it is not, a mode of definition that mirrors the genesis of both the concept and the word "a-tonality" (see below, third paragraph). Individual pitch classes now stand on their own instead of being defined by their context, either horizontally or vertically, as they were to a large extent in tonal music. This phenomenon has been compared to the technique and aesthetics of Vassily Kandinsky's abstract painting2 and Viennese Expressionism.

Since composers of atonal music intentionally tried to avoid reminiscences of tonality, traditional chords that had derived from the layering of thirds, as suggested by Simon Sechter,3 [zekh'-teR] and chords with the added sixth (l'accord de sixte [la'-kohr d& seest] ) were scarcely used in the emerging musical idiom. Instead, chord structures, described as "pitch class sets" by Milton Babbitt, Allen Forte, and Gary Wittlich,4 became more and more complex. Nevertheless, these chord structures were not "dissonant" in a traditional sense. Tradition would contrast the concept of a consonance with that of a dissonance that must be resolved, by eliminating or adjusting "improper" tones. This contrast relied on the clear distinction between tones that were thought to belong naturally to a chord and tones that were considered not to be a genuine part of a chord.5 As this was a concept closely connected to the theoretical background of tonal music, it was argued that the dichotomy of consonance and dissonance was absurd in an atonal context. Therefore, several theorists, among them Wilhelm Keller,6 replaced the words "consonant" and "dissonant" by "personant," [paiR'-zoh-naant] or simply "sonant" to indicate a gradation of numerous chord types instead of a distinction of two opposites.

The word "atonality" was derived from the French neologism "aton," coined around 1900 meaning "without tones." The word "atonality" emerged as a polemic term to describe and to condemn music in which chords were organized seemingly with no apparent coherence. In this respect, Arnold Schoenberg, Alban Berg, and Anton Webern rejected the term for various reasons, although Josef Matthias Hauer used it theoretically to describe his own music.7 Schoenberg argued that "atonal" signifies "something that does not fit to the nature of a tone" and suggested the words "polytonal" or "pantonal" instead.8 Webern complained of the absurdity that "atonal" means "without tones,"9 and Berg summarized the popular understanding of atonality as "non-music," in a radio interview "What is atonal?"10

In Germany, the derogatory understanding of atonality became an integral part of the politically-motivated concept of "Musical Bolshevism" ("Musikbolschewismus" [moo-zeek' bohl"-she-vis'-muus] ) during the Weimar Republic, and in Nazi Germany, atonal music was discredited as "degenerate music" ("Entartete Musik" [ent-?aaR'-t&-t& moo-zeek'] ) parallel to "degenerate art" ("Entartete Kunst" [ent-?aaR'-t&-t& kuunst] ). Consequently, atonality was defined as a "symbol of subversion [Zeichen der Zersetzung [tsei'-khen deR tseR-zets'-uung] ]" "especially promoted and forwarded by Jewish circles [besonders von jüdischen Kreisen gefördert und vorwärtsgetrieben [b&-zon'-deRs fon yue'-dish-&n kReiz'-&n g&-foeR'-deRt uunt fohR'-vaeRts-g&-tRee"-ben] ]" in Josef Müller-Blattau's [?yoh'-zef mue"-ler blaa'-tow] notorious 1939 edition of Riemanns Musiklexikon.11 [Ree'-maans moo-zeek'-le-ksi"-kon]

Currently, the term "atonality" is primarily used to describe works that were composed in the early twentieth century in which tonal centers were rejected, but that do not exhibit a clear dodecaphonic (12-tone) or non-dodecaphonic pitch structure, albeit in a broader understanding, it covers a large segment of twentieth-century music. There were famous precursors to atonality in nineteenth-century music, among them Franz Liszt's [list] Bagatelle sans tonalité [baa-gaa-tel' saaN toh"-naa-lee-tay'] which dates from 1885. Further, atonality was preceded by a period of "suspending tonality" and "elevated tonality," as Schoenberg phrased it in his Harmonielehre,12 [haaR"-moh-nee'-lay-R&] in which an ever-changing tonal center was present only implicitly -- a technique often traced back to the first bars of Richard Wagner's Prelude to Tristan und Isolde.. However, Arnold Schoenberg's Drei Klavierstücke [dRei klaa-veeR'-shtue-k&] Op. 11 (starting with the seemingly tonal melodic gesture of No. 1 set against a firmly atonal harmonic background), his Fünfzehn Gedichte aus Das Buch der hängenden Gärten [fuenf'-tsayn g& dikh'-te ows daas buukh deR haeng'-&n-d&n gaeR'-t&n] Op. 15 and Anton Webern's Fünf Lieder nach Gedichten von Stefan George [fuenf leed'-&R naakh ge-dikh'-ten fon shte'-faan ge-?oR'-g&] Op. 3, three pieces composed between 1908 and 1909, are commonly respected as foundation documents of atonal composition.

A typical feature of most atonal compositions in contrast to dodecaphonically-structured music, which evolved from the atonal style during the 1920s, is their extreme brevity, often compared to the numerous writings by Viennese poet Peter Altenberg, whose poetry was set to music by Berg in Op. 4. This is the case especially with the music of Webern. His Orchesterstück Op. 10, No. 4 consists of no more than six bars (forty-seven tones) and lasts for less than twenty seconds. The phenomenon of almost unprecedented concentration of musical form and content (apart from some of the late Bagatellen for piano solo by Ludwig van Beethoven, [loot'-vikh faan bayt'-hoh-f&n] primarily Op. 119, No. 10) has been explained as stemming from a lack of new formal concepts. In the new atonal context, usual schemes of musical form, as described and codified by Adolph Bernhard Marx in the nineteenth century, fell away.13

The attempt to avoid conventional tonality finally led to pitch class sets, in which all twelve notes of the chromatic-enharmonic scale were contained. Such twelve tone fields exist in various atonal works by Anton Webern, e.g. his Op. 9, No. 1 and Op. 11, No. 3, and Alban Berg, e.g. his Op. 4, No. 3, and in Efim Golysheff's much-discussed and seldom-played Trio: Zwölftondauern-Musik. [tsvoelf"-ton-dow'-&rn moo-zeek'] Webern described the compositional process of his Bagatellen für Streichquartett Op. 9 as follows: "Here I had the feeling when all 12 tones have gone by, the piece is over." In retrospect, he explained the first bar of his Goethe-Lied "Gleich und Gleich," [gleikh uunt gleikh] from his Vier Lieder für Gesang und Klavier, [feeR leed'-& R fueR g&-zaang' uunt klaa-veeR'] Op. 12, No. 4, as a starting point of composition based on twelve tone rows.14

The use of the term "atonality" poses two distinct problems. First, it continues to carry negative connotations as a result of its early pejorative use. Second, it has developed a certain vagueness in meaning as a result of its use to describe a wide variety of compositional approaches that deviated from traditional chords and chord progressions. Some authors and academics have actively sought to solve these problems by rejecting the use of the adjective "atonal" itself and replacing it with alternative terms such as "pan-tonal," "non-tonal," "free-tonal," "without tonal center" -- or the noun "atonality" with, for example, "atonicality" ("Atonikalität") in German musicological and theoretical literature -- but these efforts have not gained broad acceptance. Today it would appear that the term "atonality," an imprecise word describing varied compositional approaches, will remain in use for the foreseeable future.


1 Hugo Riemann, Skizze einer neuen Methode der Harmonielehre (Leipzig: Breitkopf & Härtel, 1880).
2 See, e.g., Franz Marc's letter to August Macke, January 14, 1922 in August Macke and Franz Marc, Briefwechsel (Köln: DuMont-Schauberg, 1964).
3 Simon Sechter, Die richtige Folge der Grundharmonien oder vom Fundamentalbass und dessen Umkehrungen und Stellvertretungen, vol. 2 of Die Grundsätze der musikalischen Composition (Leipzig: Breitkopf & Härtel, 1853).
4 Milton Babbitt, "Contemporary Music Composition and Music Theory as Contemporary Intellectual History," in Perspectives in Musicology, ed. Barry S. Brooks (New York: Norton, 1972): pp. 151-184; Allen Forte, The Structure of Atonal Music (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1973); Gary Wittlich, "Interval Set Structures in Schoenberg's op. 11, no. 1," Perspectives of New Music, 13 (1974): pp. 41-56.
5 Johann Philipp Kirnberger was the first to differentiate between such "necessary" and "random" dissonances in Die Kunst des reinen Satzes in der Musik (1776: reprint, Hildesheim, Germany: Olms, 1988), p. 30; cf. Jean-Philipp Rameau's description of l'accord de sixte ajoutée in Treatise on Harmony, Book Two, edited and translated by Philip Gossett (New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1971), pp. 59-185. Originally published as Traité de l'Harmonie Reduite à ses Principes Naturels (Paris: Ballard, 1722).
6 Wilhelm Keller, Tonsatztechnik, vol. 2 of Handbuch der Tonsatzlehre (Regensburg, Germany: Bosse, 1959), pp. 208-217, 326.
7 Josef Matthias Hauer, "Atonale Musik," Die Musik 16, no. 1 (1923/1924): pp. 103-106 (translation mine).
8 Arnold Schönberg, Harmonielehre, 3rd ed. (Wien: Universal Edition, 1922), pp. 487-488.
9 Anton Webern, The Path to the New Music, translated by Leo Black (New Jersey: International Edition, 1975). Originally published as Der Weg zur neuen Musik (Wien: Universal Edition, 1960), p. 45.
10 Alban Berg, Glaube, Hoffnung und Liebe: Schriften zur Musik, ed. Frank Schneider (Leipzig: Reclam, 1981), p. 298 (translation mine).
11 Josef Müller-Blattau, ed., "Atonal," Hugo Riemanns Musiklexikon, 12-a-th ed. (Mainz, Germany: Schott, 1939), p. 75 (author's translation).
12 Arnold Schönberg, Harmonielehre, 3rd ed. (Wien: Universal Edition, 1922), pp. 460-461.
13 Adolph Bernhard Marx, Die Lehre von der musikalischen Komposition, praktisch-theoretisch, vol. 3 (Leipzig: Breitkopf & Härtel, 1846). Marx's theory relied on traditional harmony and traditional tonality.
14 Anton Webern, The Path to the New Music, translated by Leo Black (New Jersey: International Edition, 1975). Originally published as Der Weg zur neuen Musik (Wien: Universal Edition, 1960), p. 55.

For Further Reading

Babbitt, Milton. "Contemporary Music Composition and Music Theory as Contemporary Intellectual History." In Perspectives in Musicology. Edited by Barry S. Brooks. New York: Norton, 1972. pp. 151-184.
Berg, Alban. Glaube, Hoffnung und Liebe: Schriften zur Musik. Edited by Frank Schneider. Leipzig: Reclam, 1981.
Brinkmann, Reinhold. Arnold Schönberg: Drei Klavierstücke op. 11: Studien zur frühen Atonalität bei Schönberg. Beihefte zum Archiv für Musikwissenschaft, vol. 7. Wiesbaden: Steiner, 1969.
Budde, Elmar. Anton Weberns Lieder Op. 3: Untersuchungen zur frühen Atonalität bei Webern. Beihefte zum Archiv für Musikwissenschaft, vol. 9. Weisbaden: Steiner, 1971.
Dümling, Albrecht, and Peter Girth, eds. Entartete Musik: Dokumentation und Kommentar zur Düsseldorfer Ausstellung von 1938. 3rd ed. Düsseldorf: dkv, 1993.
Eberle, Gottfried. Zwischen Tonalität und Atonalität: Studien zur Harmonik Alexander Skrjabins. Berliner musikwissenschaftliche Arbeiten, vol. 14. München: Katzbichler, 1978.
Eimert, Herbert. Atonale Musiklehre. Leipzig: Breitkopf & Härtel, 1924.
Forte, Allen. The Structure of Atonal Music. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1973.
---. The Atonal Music of Anton Webern. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998.
Gojowy, Detlef. Neue sowjetische Musik der 20er Jahre. Laaber, Germany: Laaber, 1980.
Hauer, Josef Matthias. "Atonale Musik." Die Musik 16, no. 1 (1923/1924): pp. 103-106.
John, Eckhard. Musikbolschewismus: Die Politisierung der Musik in Deutschland, 1918-1938. Stuttgart: Metzler, 1994.
Keller, Wilhelm. Tonsatztechnik. Vol. 2 of Handbuch der Tonsatzlehre. Regensburg, Germany: Bosse, 1959.
Kirnberger, Johann Philipp. Die Kunst des reinen Satzes in der Musik. 1776. Reprint, Hildesheim, Germany: Olms, 1988.
Macke, August, and Franz Marc. Briefwechsel. Köln: DuMont-Schauberg, 1964.
Marx, Adolph Bernhard. Die Lehre von der musikalischen Komposition, praktisch-theoretisch. Vol. 3. Leipzig: Breitkopf & Härtel, 1846.
Metzger Heinz-Klaus. "Über Anton Weberns Streichquartett 1905." In Musik-Konzepte Sonderband Anton Webern I. Edited by Heinz-Klaus Metzger and Rainer Riehn. München: edition text+kritik, 1983. pp. 76-112.
Müller-Blattau, Josef, ed. "Atonal." Hugo Riemanns Musiklexikon. 12-a-th ed. Mainz, Germany: Schott, 1939. p. 75.
Perle, George. Serial Composition and Atonality: An Introduction to the Music of Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern. 6th ed. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991.
Pfisterer, Manfred. Studien zur Kompositionstechnik in den frühen atonalen Werken von Arnold Schönberg. Tübinger Beiträge zur Musikwissenschaft, vol. 9. Neuhausen, Germany: Hänssler, 1978.
Rameau, Jean-Philippe. Treatise on Harmony. Edited and translated by Philip Gossett. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1971. Originally published as Traité de l'Harmonie Reduite à ses Principes Naturels (Paris: Ballard, 1722).
Riemann, Hugo. Skizze einer neuen Methode der Harmonielehre. Leipzig: Breitkopf & Härtel, 1880.
Samson, Jim. Music in Transition: A Study of Tonal Expansion and Atonality, 1900-1920. London: Dent, 1993.
Schönberg, Arnold. Harmonielehre. 3rd ed. Wien: Universal Edition, 1922.
Sechter, Simon. Die richtige Folge der Grundharmonien oder vom Fundamentalbass und dessen Umkehrungen und Stellvertretungen. Vol. 2 of Die Grundsätze der musikalischen Composition. Leipzig: Breitkopf & Härtel, 1853.
Webern, Anton. The Path to the New Music. Translated by Leo Black. New Jersey: International Edition, 1975. Originally published as Der Weg zur neuen Musik (Wien: Universal Edition, 1960).
Wittlich, Gary. "Interval Set Structures in Schoenberg's op. 11, no. 1." Perspectives of New Music. 13 (1974): pp. 41-56.

Selected Discography

Berg, Alban. Violinkonzert, Kammerkonzert. Kyung Wha Chung, violin, György Pauk, violin, Paul Crossley, piano, Sir Georg Solti, director, David Atherton, director. Decca 452 720-2. 1996.
Schoenberg, Arnold. Die Erwartung. Op. 17. Michael Gielen, director. Intercord 860.915. 1991.
---. The Piano Music. Maurizio Pollini, piano. DGG 423 249-2. 1975.
Webern, Anton. Complete Works. Pierre Boulez, director. 3 compact discs. CBS records SM 3K 45 845. 1991.
---. Complete Works. Pierre Boulez, director. 6 compact discs. DGG 457 637-2. 2000.



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