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7.2: Expressionism and Serialism

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    While the Impressionist composers attempted to move further away from romantic forms and romantic harmony, some Expressionist composers succeeded in completely eliminating harmony and tonal melody (melody based on a particular key) from their music. The resultant sounds were often not very melodically and harmonically pleasant to hear and, as a result, the Expressionist style of music did not (and still does not) appeal to the majority of audiences. The name of this style period can be confusing for some. The Expressionist period was not a time when composers sought to express themselves emotionally in a romantic, beautiful, or programmatic way. Due to the nature of the sounds produced by the system of composition described below, Expressionism seems more appropriate for evoking more extreme, and sometimes even harsh, emotions. Using this experimental style of writing, composers such as Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951) attempted to intentionally eliminate what we call tonality; music that is based on scales and the progression (movement) of chords from one to another.

    Screen Shot 2020-06-25 at 12.19.29 AM.png
    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): The Scream by Edvard Munch. Source: Wikimedia

    In Edward Munch’s famous painting, The Scream (Figure 7.2.1), we see an excellent example of the parallel movement of expressionism taking place in the visual arts. Expressionists looked inward, specifically to the anxiety they felt towards the outside world. This was in stark contrast to the impressionists, who looked to the beauty of nature for inspiration. Expressionist paintings relied instead on stark colors and harsh swirling brushstrokes to convey the artist’s reaction to the ugliness of the modern world. Abstract Expressionism took this concept to a greater extreme, by abandoning shape altogether for pure abstraction. This style is typified by the works of the American painter Jackson Pollock (see Image 7.2.2).

    Many of the early works of Austrian-born Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951) exemplified an expressionistic musical style. He is most famous for his experiments with atonality, that is, music without a tonal center. His music was highly dissonant and sounded quite radical when compared to earlier music, which utilized dissonance only as a means to eventually return to the stasis of consonance. However, Schoenberg saw dissonance not as a means to an end, but as the end itself. His music invited the listener to revel in various levels of dissonance, and many listeners were never able to adjust.

    Born in Austria, and of Jewish descent, Schoenberg was already composing by the age of nine. While in his teens, he studied composition with the Austrian composer and conductor Alexander Zemlinsky. In 1901 he moved to Berlin where he was befriended and mentored by the German composer Richard Strauss. Three years later in 1903, Schoenberg returned to Austria and began a long association with the renowned composer Gustav Mahler who became one of his strongest supporters.

    Screen Shot 2020-06-25 at 12.19.34 AM.png
    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): No.5 by Jackson Pollock. Source: Wikimedia.

    License | Fair Use

    In 1909, Schoenberg composed the first complete work that completely did away with tonality. This piano composition was one of three that together are listed as his Opus 11 and was the first piece we now refer to as being completely atonal (without tonality). Schoenberg’s most-important atonal compositions include: Five Orchestral Pieces (1909), Pierrot Lunaire (1912), Die Jakobsleiter (Jacob’s Ladder - begun in 1917 but never finished), Die glückliche Hand (The Lucky Hand - 1924), and Erwartung (Expectation - 1924) for soprano and orchestra.

    Schoenberg famously developed a system whereby the twelve notes of the chromatic scale were randomly organized into scale units that he called the twelve-tone row. These rows could then be further “serialized” (organized in random fashion) by a number of different techniques. This idea of assigning values to musical information is called serialism. In 1921 Schoenberg composed his Piano Suite opus 25, the first composition written using the 12-tone method. Each 12-tone composition is built from a series of 12 different pitches that may be arranged in a number of different ways. The original row may be played forward, backwards (retrograde), upside down (inverted), and backwards and inverted (retrograde inversion). All of the melodies and harmonies in a 12-tone piece must be derived in some way from the original row or from fragments of the original row.

    In 1925 Schoenberg was hired by the Prussian Academy of Arts in Berlin to teach composition, and he would most likely have continued his career as teacher and composer in Europe were it not for the rise of the Nazi party and their subsequent persecution of European Jews. In 1933 he was released from the Academy and moved first to Paris and then to Boston. In 1934 he settled in California and held teaching positions first at the University of Southern California (1935-36) and then the University of Central Los Angeles (1936-44).

    After immigrating to the United States, Schoenberg reconnected with the Jewish faith he had abandoned as a young man. The sadness he felt because of the personal accounts of the horrible treatment experienced by so many Jews during World War II led to his composition of A Survivor from Warsaw, which was composed for orchestra, male chorus, and narrator. The piece was completed in September 1947 and the entire piece is built on a twelve-tone row. This important work is Schoenberg’s dramatization of a tragic story he heard from surviving Polish Jews who were victims of Nazi atrocities during World War II. Schoenberg created a story about a number of Jews who survived the war by living in the sewers of Warsaw. Interestingly, among Schoenberg’s many and very specific performance instructions is the request that the narrator not attempt to sing his part throughout the performance.


    For audio, go to:

    Composer: Arnold Schoenberg
    Composition: A Survivor from Warsaw
    Date: 1947
    Genre: 12-tone composition for small orchestra, male chorus, and narrator
    Form: through-composed
    Nature of Text: Narration of Germans’ treatment of Jews in Warsaw during WWII
    Performing Forces: orchestra, male chorus, and narrator
    Timing Performing Forces, Melody and Texture

    Trumpet introductory fanfare built from 12-tone row.

    Trumpets, snare drum, clarinets.

    Irregular rhythmic figures built from 12-tone row.

    12-tone chordal structures built from 12-tone row.


    Celli (cellos) enter with rhythmic motif.

    Brief medodic motifs move between celli, woodwinds, trumpets, and strings.

    Rhythms are derived from the 12-tone row and are irregular.

    12-tone based chordal structures continue throughout piece.

    1:06 Xylophone added.

    Clarinet added.

    Clarinet completes instrumental introduction.


    Narrator enters.

    Instrumentation and dynamics are altered to match rise and fall of phrases in narration.

    1:57 French Horn enters.


    Narration much more intense and trumpet fanfare underscores this change.



    Bass drum begins a steady pulse with snare drum and xylophone irregular rhythms as drama in narration increases.


    Narration switches to German.

    Narrator begins to shout in German.

    3:38 Narration switches back to English. Strings play tremolo in background.

    Narration becomes more introspective.

    Strings become more lyrical to underscore change in story.



    Orchestra interlude decreases the intensity of the moment.

    4:38 Narrator returns. 7:41 Brass join chorus. Intensity in Chorus and Orchestra build. 7:52 Brass continue as chorus ends. Brass and strings build to big climactic moment and conclude piece at 8:01.


    As narrator says “faster and faster” the music begins to accelerate as well.


    Male chorus.

    Men begin to sing the Jewish prayer Shema Yisroel accompanied by strings. Brass and woodwinds are used as interjections throughout this section.


    Brass join chorus.

    Intensity in Chorus and Orchestra build.


    Brass continue as chorus ends.

    Brass and strings build to big climactic moment and conclude piece at 8:01.

    Schoenberg’s ideas were further developed by his two famous students, Alban Berg and Anton Webern. Together, the three came to be known as the Second Viennese School, in reference to the first Viennese School, which consisted of Hadyn, Mozart, and Beethoven. Born in Vienna, Alban Berg began studying with Schoenberg at the age of 19 and soon became known for his unique compositional style, which fused post-romantic concepts with Schoenberg’s cutting edge twelve-tone techniques. Heavily influenced by Richard Wagner, Berg held on to techniques such as the leitmotif and sought to couch his harmonic ideas in tried-and-true forms such as the sonata and fugue. Although he composed many famous pieces, such as his Violin Concerto and his unfinished opera Lulu, he initially made his fame with Wozzeck, an opera based on the drama Woyzeck by German playright Georg Buchner. Berg served during World War I, and much of Wozzeck was composed in 1917, during a period of leave from the Austro-Hungarian Army. The opera consists of three acts, each with five scenes organized around the variations of a musical idea, such as the variations of a theme, a chord, or a rhythmic pattern. Berg himself adapted the libretto from Buchner’s original play.

    The story of the opera centers on the title character Wozzeck. Like the main character in many romantic operas, he is a tragic figure. However, whereas the operas of the nineteenth century often depicted gods and mythical figures, the story of Wozzeck is couched in a sense of realism and addresses the type of societal problems that Berg may himself have encountered during World War I, problems such as apathy and human cruelty. The character of Wozzeck is that of a pitiful and unremarkable soldier who is tormented by his captain and used for and subjected to medical experiments by a sadistic doctor. Wozzeck, who is often given to hallucinations, eventually goes mad and kills his love interest, Marie, who has been unfaithful. The opera ends after Wozzeck drowns trying to clean the murder weapon in a pond and wading out too far.

    Listen to the recording below of act 3, scene 2, the scene in which Wozzeck kills Marie. The scene features a variation on a single note, namely B.


    For audio, go to:

    Composer: Alban Berg
    Composition: Wozzeck
    Date: 1924
    Genre: Opera
    Form: variation on a single note
    Nature of Text: Wozzeck and Marie walk by a pond. Wozzeck stabs Marie in throat with a knife.
    Performing Forces: orchestra, singers
    Timing Performing Forces, Melody, and Texture Text and Form
    0:00 Instrumental introduction evoking a low, and ominous feeling. Orchestra.

    Wozzeck and Marie enter.

    Marie wishes to leave. A syrupy melody in the strings reflects Wozzeck’s pleas to Marie to sit down.

    Marie: Dort links geht’s in die Stadt. ‘s ist noch weit. Komm schneller!

    Wozzeck: Du Sollst dableiben, Marie. Kom, setz’ Dich.

    Marie: Abe rich muss fort.

    0:45 Marie leaps up, saying, “I must go!” and low ominous notes play underneath as Wozzeck lures her back.

    Wozzeck: Komm. Bist weit gegangen, Marie. Sollst Dir die Fusse nicht mehr wund laufen. ‘s ist still hier! Und so dunkel. – Weisst noch, Marie, wi lang’ es jetzt ist, dass wir uns kennen?

    Marie: Zu Pfingsten drei Jahre.

    Wozzeck: Und was meinst, wie lang’ es noch dauern wird?

    Marie: Ich muss fort.

    Wozzeck: Furchst Dich, Marie? Und bist doch fromm! Und gut! Und true!

    2:06 A sweet melody in the strings evokes the line by Wozzeck “What sweet lips you have, Marie.” Wozzeck: Was Du fur susse Lippen hast, Marie! Den Himmel gab’ ich drum und die Seligkeit, wenn ich Dich noch of so kussen durft! Abe rich darf nicht! Was zitterst?
    2:57 Wozzeck says, “Those who are cold shiver no more. You will not shiver in the morning dew,” fortelling Marie’s death. She asks what he means and the music ceases creating a tense silence.

    Marie: Der Nachttau fallt.

    Wozzeck: Wer kalt ist, den friert nicht meher! Dich wird beim Morgentau nicht frieren.

    Marie: Was sagst Du da? Wozzeck: nix.

    3:40 The music begins to build as Wozzeck prepares to kill Marie.

    Marie: Wie der Mond rot aufgeht!

    Wozzeck: Wie ein blutig Eisen!

    Marie: Was zitterst? Was Willst?

    4:07 The music echoes Wozzeck word by word as he says, “No one, Marie! If not me, then no one!” After the act is done, the orchestra dies down to a single note and Wozzeck exclaims, “Dead!”

    Wozzeck: Ich nicht, Marie! Und kein Andrer auch nicht!

    Marie: Hilfe!

    Wozzeck: Tot!



    Orchestral interlude


    This page titled 7.2: Expressionism and Serialism is shared under a CC BY-SA 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Clark, Heflin, Kluball, & Kramer (GALILEO Open Learning Materials) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.