2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: Musical genres, styles, eras and events

Atonality describes music not conforming to the system of tonal hierarchies, which characterizes the sound of classical European music between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries. Atonality usually describes compositions written from about 1907 to the present day, where the hierarchy of tonal centers, in some cases, may not be used as the primary way to organize a work. Tonal centers gradually replaced modal organization starting in the 1500s and culminated with the establishment of the major-minor key system in the late 1600s and early 1700s.

The most prominent school to compose in this manner was the Second Viennese School of Arnold Schoenberg, Alban Berg, and Anton Webern. However, composers such as George Antheil, Béla Bartók, John Cage, Carlos Chávez, Aaron Copland, Roberto Gerhard, Alberto Ginastera, Alois Haba, Josef Matthias Hauer, Carl Ruggles, Luigi Russolo, Roger Sessions, Nikos Skalkottas, Toru Takemitsu, Edgard Varèse, and others, including jazz artists such as Anthony Braxton, Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane, and Cecil Taylor (Radano 1993, 108-109), have written music that is described as atonal, and many traditional composers “flirted with atonality,” in the words of Leonard Bernstein.

History of atonality

While music without a tonal centre had been written previously, for example Franz Liszt's Bagatelle sans tonalité of 1885, it is with the 20th century that the term atonality began to be applied to pieces, particularly those written by Arnold Schoenberg and The Second Viennese School.

Their music arose from what was described as the crisis of tonality between the late 19th century and early 20th century in classical music. It was described by composer Ferruccio Busoni as the “exhaustion of the major-minor key system” and by Schoenberg as the “inability of one tonal chord to assert dominance over all of the others” .

The first phase is often described as "free atonality" or "free chromaticism" and involved the conscious attempt to avoid traditional diatonic harmony. Works of this period include the opera Wozzeck (1917-1922) by Alban Berg and Pierrot Lunaire (1912) by Schoenberg.

The second phase, begun after World War I, was exemplified by attempts to create a systematic means of composing without tonality, most famously the method of composing with 12 tones or the twelve-tone technique. This period included Berg's Lulu and Lyric Suite, Schoenberg's Piano Concerto, his opera Jacob's Ladder and numerous smaller pieces, as well as his final string quartets. Schoenberg was the major innovator of the system, but his student, Anton Webern, then began linking dynamics and tone colour to the primary row as well, making the row not only of notes but other aspects of music as well. This, combined with the parameterization of Olivier Messiaen, would be taken as the inspiration for serialism.

Atonality emerged as a pejorative term to condemn music in which chords were organized seemingly with no apparent coherence. In Nazi Germany, atonal music was attacked as " Bolshevik" and labeled as degenerate (Entartete Musik) along with other music produced by enemies of the Nazi regime. Many composers had their works banned by the regime, not to be played until after its collapse after World War II.

In the years that followed, atonality represented a challenge to many composers — even those who wrote more tonal music were influenced by it. The Second Viennese School, and particularly 12-tone composition, was taken by avant-garde composers in the 1950s to be the foundation of the New Music, and led to serialism and other forms of musical experimentation. Prominent post-World War II composers in this tradition are Pierre Boulez, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Luciano Berio, Krzysztof Penderecki, and Milton Babbitt. Many composers wrote atonal music after the war, even if before they had pursued other styles, including Elliott Carter and Witold Lutosławski. After Schoenberg's death, Igor Stravinsky began to write music with a mixture of serial and tonal elements. During this time, the chord progressions or successions designed to avoid a tonal centre were explored and named. A vocabulary described as musical set theory encompasses all pitch and pitch-class sets, whether used in tonal, atonal, modal, or other music. Iannis Xenakis generated pitch sets from mathematical formulae, and also saw the expansion of tonal possibilities as part a synthesis between sound and science which he saw also in the music of ancient Greece.

Atonal music continues to be composed, and many atonal composers of the late 20th century are still alive and active. However, serial atonal composition began to fade in the 1960s — where, on one hand, aleatoric music, spectral music, and electronic music demanded more and more attention and, on the other, musicians influenced by Eastern mysticism, modality, and Minimalism began writing music based on ostinato patterns.

Controversy over the term itself

The appropriateness of the term "atonality" has been controversial. Schoenberg, whose music is generally used to define the term, was vehemently opposed to it, arguing that "The word 'atonal' could only signify something entirely inconsistent with the nature of tone. . . . [T]o call any relation of tones atonal is just as farfetched as it would be to designate a relation of colors aspectral or acomplementary. There is no such antithesis" (Schoenberg 1978, 432). For some, the term continues to carry negative connotations.

"Atonal" 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. Attempts to solve these problems by using terms such as "pan-tonal," "non-tonal," "free-tonal," and "without tonal centre" instead of "atonal" have not gained broad acceptance.

Composing atonal music

Setting out to compose atonal music may seem complicated because of both the vagueness and generality of the term. Additionally George Perle (1962) explains that, "the 'free' atonality that preceded dodecaphony precludes by definition the possibility of self-consistent, generally applicable compositional procedures." (p.9) However, he provides one example as a way to compose atonal pieces, a pre- twelve tone technique piece by Anton Webern, which rigorously avoids anything that suggests tonality, to choose pitches that do not imply tonality. In other words, reverse the rules of the common practice period so that what was not allowed is required and what was required is not allowed. This is what was done by Charles Seeger in his explanation of dissonant counterpoint, which is a way to write atonal counterpoint.

Further, he agrees with Oster and Katz that, "the abandonment of the concept of a root-generator of the individual chord is a radical development that renders futile any attempt at a systematic formulation of chord structure and progression in atonal music along the lines of traditional harmonic theory." (p.31). Atonal compositional techniques and results "are not reducible to a set of foundational assumptions in terms of which the compositions that are collectively designated by the expression 'atonal music' can be said to represent 'a system' of composition." (p.1)

Perle also points out that structural coherence is most often achieved through operations on intervallic cells. A cell "may operate as a kind of microcosmic set of fixed intervallic content, statable either as a chord or as a melodic figure or as a combination of both. Its components may be fixed with regard to order, in which event it may be employed, like the twelve-tone set, in its literal transformations... Individual tones may function as pivotal elements, to permit overlapping statements of a basic cell or the linking of two or more basic cells." (pp.9-10)

Audio examples of the role of dissonance and tonality claimed as part of our own physiological make-up (the ear) may be heard in the following links (which also are examples of the interaction and effect of consonance and dissonance upon each other). Click here The effect of context on dissonance, and here: The role of harmony in music. An experiment easily done on any piano can be found here: Experiment. Scroll down or search page for "experiment". In the content of those audios and critical arguments, a reader or composer may judge whether these perceptions are learned only by conditioning or are physically based.

Criticism of atonal music

Composer Anton von Webern held that "new laws asserted themselves that made it impossible to designate a piece as being in one key or another" (Webern 1963, 51), whereas musicologist Robert Fink has stated that all music is perceived as having a tonal centre .

Famous Swiss conductor, composer, and musical philosopher Ernest Ansermet, a critic of atonal music, wrote extensively on this in the book Les fondements de la musique dans la conscience humaine (Ansermet 1961) where he argued that Beethoven was unique in presenting the eternal ideal of the hero, his struggling and victory (the Fifth Symphony) and the typical Western universal ideal of a community of all social and loving humans (the Ninth Symphony) so forcefully and clearly. For Ansermet, the classical musical language was a precondition for that with its clear, harmonious structures. Tonality based on relatively simple interval relations is absolutely necessary in Ansermet's opinion. So the incomprehensible (to Ansermet) modern atonal music, by choosing interval relations seemingly at random, could not achieve such an impact, ethos and catharsis for an audience. Influential critic Theodor Adorno argued, however, that one could express anything from tragedy to a smirk in atonality, provided one had compositional ability .

In the historical view, however, neither of the extremes of prediction have come about: atonality has neither replaced tonality, nor has it disappeared. There is, however, much agreement amongst many composers that atonal systems in the hands of less-talented composers will still sound weak expressively, and composers with a genuine tonal gift are capable of writing exquisite works using twelve-tone methods. In other words, both good and bad music can be created under any system, or without using one at all. Serialism itself has been taken up by a few tonal composers as a modest replacement for the common practice tendencies of certain traditional forms to conform to certain tonal expectations.

Composers of the American minimalist movement, such as Steve Reich, Philip Glass and John Adams, were reacting against what they saw as the stilted academicism of American university composition departments.

Retrieved from ""