Atonality in music

by jadanmendoza

The Second Viennese School is the name given to a group formed by some of the first composers to explore expressionism in music, namely Schoenberg and his disciples. One of the techniques explored by these composers was the idea of atonality. Atonality was one of the most radical new musical ideas to be explored during the XX century. Atonality is defined as the “absence of or disregard for an established musical key in a composition.” An example of this kind of music is Schoenger’s Pierrot Lunaire, which is part of a song cycle set to German poems. This song cycle also uses a technique called Sprechstimme, which is a vocal technique between singing and speaking, that I think fits perfectly with the atonal music. This is Pierrot Lunarie:

Many of Schonberg’s contemporaries were outraged with the results of his divergence from the musical tradition, and the discussions regarding atonal music were controversial and rather intense. This is a quote from one of his critics “[atonal music is] the self-gratification of an individual who sits in his studio and invents rules according to which he then writes down his notes.” To which Schoenberg responded that the critic  “wishes for only whores as listeners”.

Personally I found this music to be extremely hard to listen to, although I do sympathize with the idea of new composers exploring new ways of creating music and trying to use new styles. This seems to be the motivating force behind Shoenberg’s creations, Richard Taruskin, an American musicologist, has described that Schoenberg had “the conviction that what matters most in a work of art is the making of it, the maker’s input, and that the listener’s pleasure must not be the composer’s primary objective.”

This made me realize how important tonality can be when listening to music, and how easily we as listeners are able to realize something is off about a particular piece music even if we don’t know what that is. I think any listener could notice that Pierrot Lunarie is not your standard piece of music, even if they have no idea of what tonality means.

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