What Is Expressionism In Music? An Overview

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Expressionism first originated in the visual arts and was later applied to music and other arts in the early 20th century. Following impressionism in art and music, the harsh, bold expressionism era can be considered a counterpoint to impressionism’s gauzy sweetness.

Instead of ethereal impressions of beauty in nature, expressionism focuses on the inner angst and fear lurking within the subconscious mind. Expressionism in music embraces jarring dissonance and radical distortion.

Expressionism was heavily influenced by expressionist art and protest movements of the time. Originating primarily in Germany and Austria, expressionist music’s freely displayed angst and turmoil attracted some of the 20th century’s most respected and diverse composers from the United States and around the world.

When Was the Expressionist Era?

While the expressionist era in music begins in roughly 1900, the term “expressionist” was probably first applied to music in 1918 regarding Arnold Schoenberg, an expressionist painter and composer.

The expressionist era held influence in the musical world until approximately 1930.

Like all good musical ages, expressionism was hugely influenced by preceding musical eras, especially modernism (1890-1975) and impressionism (1890-1930).

Expressionism was also a contrast to the earlier romantic and post-romantic periods of the 19th century.

During the expressionist period, many protests were taking place with civil rights for people of color and women at the forefront of national debates in the United States.

In Germany and Austria, a young democracy was struggling to take hold.

The artificial prosperity that eventually led to the collapse of American markets and preceded the Great Depression.

And World War I took place firmly in the center of the expressionist era.

Eager to express the intensity and emotion surrounding the fight for freedom and the world’s struggle to throw off the yoke of oppression, musicians and artists used chaotic, dissonant, and distorted artistic tools to express the angst of generations.

Style of Expressionism

In sharp contrast to impressionism’s watercolor softness and delicate innocence, expressionism represents the darker aspects of the human unconscious.

Psychologist, musicologist, and composer Theodor Adorno stated that “the depiction of fear lies at the centre” of expressionist music, and so the “harmonious, affirmative element of art is banished.”

Dissonance is the crucial element of expressionist music and consonant harmonies are nowhere to be found here.

We can think of expressionist music as a complement to expressionist paintings.

Think of Edvard Munch‘s iconic painting The Scream as a musical piece – that is expressionist music.

If you were to draw the color and textures from distorted, nightmarish expressionist paintings and transpose them into increasingly dissonant chords and out of tune instrumentation, you would have expressionist music.

Serialist composer Alban Berg’s opera Wozzeck and Schoenberg’s Die Glückliche Hand provide ideal examples of expressionist compositions.

Considered one of the elemental and most influential expressionist works in music, Schoenberg worked on Die glückliche Hand from 1908 to 1913.

The music is highly atonal and accompanies a dramatic plot centered on the main character’s endless anguish

The story begins with a man hunched in the middle of the stage, bearing a beast upon his back.

His wife has abandoned him for another, and the man is in complete despair.

The wife returns to the man, but he is in such pain he does not see her.

Believing she is still gone, the man goes to a forge and pounds out a masterpiece of steel, even as the older, more experienced blacksmiths show aggression towards him.

The wife returns, and having regained his confidence and power, the man sees her this time.

He implores his wife to stay, but instead, she rejects him, kicking a rock at him.

The final scene shows the man once again crouching in the center of the stage with the beast upon his back once again.

Arnold Schoenberg – ‘Die Glückliche Hand’

Expressionistic style in music often contrasts high-pitched vocals or instrumentation in slower tempos with hyper-active instrumental parts playing frantic runs, arpeggios, and staccato bursts in rhythms thay play against, rather than with, the vocal melody.

New Musical Forms

In addition to a high level of dissonance, expressionist music often employs some common effects, usually in extremes:

  • contrasting dynamics.
  • changing textures.
  • Melodic and harmonic distortion
  • wild leaps in tempo, rhythm and chord structure
  • extreme pitch es and tonal changes
  • absence of cadence

The new musical forms born of expressionist music were primarily based in the implementation of instrumental range and contrasts in textures, tempos, and tonality.

The emphasis in expressionist music is placed on atonality, and harmonious accompaniments or complementary tonal or textual expressions are discarded in favor of the more discordant patterns characteristic of expressionist music.

Dissonance in The Expressionist Era

In music, expressionism stems from German/Austrian influences and is closely linked to the second Viennese school and atonality.

Expressionism focuses on expressing more base and dissonant emotions, like anger, despair, and grief.

Expressionist music aims to fully express these darker and often extreme emotions through equally extreme, disruptive, sometimes even violent music that aims to provoke unsettled, disturbing responses from listeners.

Some prime examples of expressionist music include:

  • Elektra, Richard Strauss (1908)
  • Fünf Orchesterstücke, Op. 16, Arnold Schönberg (1909)
  • Symphony No. 2 ‘prélude à la nouvelle journée’, Matthijs Vermeulen (1920)
  • Symphony No. 1, Kurt Weill (1921)
  • Violin Concerto, Alban Berg (1935)
  • Symphony No. 3 in C minor, Op. 44, Sergei Prokofiev (1928) 

Important Expressionist Era Composers

Schoenberg, Anton Webern and Alban Berg, the Second Viennese School members, are the three most visible figures in expressionist music.

In addition to these most visible composers, there are some standout expressionist composers of the era:

  • Ernest Krenek (1900-1991) is most noted for the Unisono passage of his Second Symphony (1922), an early work that features a long unisono passage for shrieking violins alone in the final movement.
Ernst Krenek – ‘Symphony No. 2 (1922)’
  • Often compared to other great German composers like Bach, Beethoven, and Wagner, Paul Hindemith (1895-1963) is considered the only composer of the 20th century to write music in every usable genre during his lifetime. “The Young Maiden” is one of his most renowned expressionist works.
  • Russian-born composer, conductor and pianist Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) is considered one of the most influential composers of the 20th century. Like Hindemith, Stravinsky was noted for his stylistic diversity. His work “Three Japanese Lyrics for Voice and Piano” (1913) is one of his most famous expressionist pieces. 
Igor Stravinsky – ‘Three Japanese Lyrics for Voice and Piano

Instrumentation

Expressionist music used the same instrumentation as previous musical eras, but expressionism changed how composers and performers used them.

Common expressionist instruments include organ, wind instruments, string quartets, violins, piano, flute, and voice.

However, composers and performers took these instruments to extremes in tempo, octave, and range.

Instrumentation, tone, texture, and tempo were often deliberately mismatched.

Summary

Expressionist music played a significant role in changing musical expression and widening musical repertoire.

Today, listeners can hear the influence of expressionist music in heavy metal, death metal, and other progressive rock forms.

The influence of expressionist music has shifted a bit north from Germany and Austria.

Today, expressionist music genres like heavy metal and death metal are heavily influenced by Scandinavian songwriters, mainly from Norway and Sweden.

Expressionist music was a unique artistic expression in music history.

We hope that you’ve gained a new understanding of how expressionism uses particular themes and motifs from the subconscious to create intense emotional responses using music.

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Written by Dan Farrant
Dan Farrant, the founder of Hello Music Theory, has been teaching music for over 10 years helping thousands of students unlock the joy of music. He graduated from The Royal Academy of Music in 2012 and then launched Hello Music Theory in 2014. Since then he's been working to make music theory easy for over 1 million students in over 80 countries around the world.