View From the East: Abstract Atonality

Greg Sandow

A while ago I annoyed some readers by comparing atonal music to abstract art. I’d thought that the comparison was a cliché in conversations about 20th-century culture, but the readers I annoyed didn’t see it that way. They thought I’d called atonal music a dirty name, as if I’d said atonal music was abstract, which then apparently would mean that it was cold, expressionless, and unemotional. Never mind that this would be a silly old mistake, the old canard that atonal music is inhuman, “mathematical,” or even (as Leonard Bernstein seemed to say in his Harvard lectures) a violation of the laws of nature. Never mind that it would be an unlikely mistake for me to make, once I’d compared atonal music to abstract art, because how could anyone—anyone, that is, who knows Kandinsky or Jackson Pollock—say abstract art is unemotional?

Never mind any of that; some people to this day get so defensive about Schoenberg and atonality that this was what they thought I’d said. I don’t blame them, really; atonality has been attacked in so many silly ways it’s easy to see how someone who likes it could bristle at anything that sounds like a familiar criticism. In part because of that, I’m now returning to the scene of my crime, to examine what my dreaded comparison of atonal music with abstract art might really mean. It’s not that I need to fight with my accusers; instead, I think the question is interesting in its own right. The comparison made sense to me intuitively, but what does it really mean? Why should atonal music be like abstract art?

The first answer would be historical. Both atonality and abstract art arose at the same time about a century ago, and, roughly speaking, arose among the same group of people—advanced European painters and composers who knew each other and thought they were moving more or less in parallel directions. This is a complex discussion, which ought to look at advanced literary writers, too, and would take different directions depending on whether we looked at German expressionism, which was closely linked with Schoenberg, or at the rise of Cubism in France where the musical connections might be more informal.

I won’t try to dig exhaustively into all of this; for one thing, I’m not an art historian. But one peek at the German branch of the adventure can tell us quite a bit. We can see Schoenberg himself join his music with abstract art in a 1913 letter about how he wants his opera Die glückliche Hand to be produced: “The whole thing [the staging, he means] should have the effect (not of a dream) but of chords. Of music. It must never suggest symbols, or meaning, or thoughts, but simply the play of colors and forms.” He wanted the visual realization of his piece (which he hoped could be largely done on film) to look like abstract art. That’s why he wanted it designed by Oskar Kokoschka, Wassily Kandinsky, or Alfred Roller. (The first two were abstract painters; Roller was a set designer associated with the artistic avant-garde who was especially famous for designing productions that Mahler conducted and for his work with Richard Strauss).

But Schoenberg’s association with abstract art goes way beyond this letter. He was friends with Kandinsky, and he himself painted. Kandinsky showed his paintings in the famous “Blue Rider” exhibit of 1911, and wrote an essay about them for a celebratory Schoenberg book that was published in 1912. Schoenberg in turn wrote an essay (“The Relationship to the Text”) for The Blue Rider Almanac, published, also in 1912, by Kandinsky and Franz Marc. In it he said that music isn’t about anything. It might be inspired by a text, or explained by it (as Wagner, for instance, had explained Beethoven symphonies by writing poetic scenarios for them), but in the end music exists on its own. Like abstract art, it has no subject. Kandinsky and Kokoschka, Schoenberg wrote, “paint pictures the objective theme of which is hardly more than an excuse to improvise in colors and forms and express themselves as only the musician expressed himself until now.” He loves this, so much in fact, that he says this way of painting shows “a gradually expanding knowledge of the true nature of art.”

And then he says, “With great joy I read Kandinsky’s book On the Spiritual in Art, in which the road for painting is pointed out and the hope is aroused that those who ask about the text, about the subject matter, will soon ask no more.” At least in 1912 (problems sprung up later) Kandinsky and Schoenberg were joined, artistically, at the hip. My comparison of atonality and abstract art would hardly have surprised them; instead, they might have laughed, and told me that it didn’t go far enough.

(In passing, we might note that “abstract” definitely didn’t mean “inexpressive” to Schoenberg and Kandinsky. If anything, it meant hyper-expressive, since both Schoenberg and Kandinsky thought that their work was a direct communication from the soul, freed from all artificial conventions such as the need to paint pictures that looked like ordinary life, or, in music, to use sonata form and triads.)

But how else might abstract art and atonality be linked? In one way this is tricky because music (as Schoenberg implies in his essay for Kandinsky’s Almanac) is always abstract. It doesn’t directly represent anything, except in relatively trivial ways, as when Beethoven imitates birds in the Pastoral symphony or Richard Strauss makes an orchestra sound like a flock of sheep in Don Quixote. These moments stand out, in fact, because they’re so flagrantly not what music usually does. When, more typically, a composer like Schubert evokes a brook, as he does in several familiar songs (and very likely a dozen unfamiliar ones), he’ll do it metaphorically. The music he writes for this purpose—think of the piano accompaniment to “Wohin?” in Die schöne Müllerin—doesn’t literally sound like a brook. It sounds like what it is, a piano playing deft arpeggios that outline familiar chords. By sheer artistic magic these remind us of a brook, but that’s poetry, a comparison we intuitively make between the sound of the music and the sound of a brook. We don’t say the music literally sounds like a brook.

But then how many brooks do we hear in Schoenberg? Atonal music doesn’t go in for lovely mimicry of nature, as even Wagner did, though he was the most revolutionary composer of the 19th century. In his operas, we’ll hear the flowing Rhine at the beginning of Das Rheingold, moonlight bursting in on the lovers in Die Walküre, the murmuring forest in Siegfried, the swooning scent of elder in Die Meistersinger, all of which, if judged by the standards of advanced 20th-century music, would almost seem naïve. Certainly there’s nothing like all that in atonal music. Imagine a burbling brook in Wozzeck! When atonality arrived, even nature got twisted; the moon in Wozzeck is blood-red, and landscapes are queer and frightening. The moon is strange, too, in Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire, and the forest in his one-character opera Erwartung doesn’t murmur; it screams.

By the time Schoenberg started writing 12-tone pieces like the Piano Concerto or the Wind Quintet—which seemed more objective, more concerned with pure music than expressionist works like Erwartung or Pierrot—nature all but disappears. Nobody looks for bird calls in the Piano Concerto or, for that matter, for easily recognizable emotions, for passages that sound like warrior men or yielding, emotional, even chattering women such as we’d find in one of Mozart‘s symphonies (their meaning made unmistakable by similar passages in his operas).

So in this sense, music really did go through an evolution parallel to abstract art. Before abstraction, paintings showed us scenes from nature or from ordinary, non-distorted (though sometimes idealized) human life. Before atonality, music also did that, in its metaphorical, poetic way. Atonal music mostly didn’t, with occasional exceptions that prove the rule, like the spinal injection (or music designed to recall one) that’s such a queasy feature of Schoenberg’s String Trio. (Atonal opera would be a separate topic, with distorted human life the norm in Wozzeck and Lulu, the burning bush a strange, evocative invasion from non-normal nature in Moses und Aron, and Schoenberg’s domestic comedy, Von heute auf morgen, a true exception, but too rarely heard for most of us to know what it’s really like.)

Though really, in early 20th-century art and music, there are two related things happening—a disinclination to represent anything at all, and, when something is represented, for it to be strained, distorted, or unpleasant. Artists no longer imagined the world as an unambiguously lovely place, whose wonders could be celebrated in music, painting, and in literature. Now it seemed much more problematic. Its underside had to be exposed or else art could bypass the problem entirely by not representing anything.

Even music itself—when it was quoted in atonal works as something we might hear in normal life—could be distorted. Composers before the 20th century often quoted folk tunes or wrote music (like the scherzo of Beethoven’s Pastoral symphony, or Mozart’s Musical Joke) that evoked folk musicians. Marches and dances would show up in operas and instrumental works, not always greatly changed from the form they’d take when, out in the real world, they were real march and dance tunes to which people really marched or danced.

But in atonal music, this doesn’t happen. Think of the military march in Wozzeck, a real one transformed into a nightmare, or the jazz band in Lulu, which is similarly (if more wryly) strained. This, again, is something parallel to abstract art. Objects and people got transformed in abstract painting into shapes on canvas, which might remind someone of their origins in the real world, but didn’t reproduce how things actually looked. In atonal music, this can happen to real-life musical objects; they’re transformed into musical shapes that recall the music’s original form, without at all reproducing it. A march is heard, but it can’t be a real one, because both its eyes (figuratively speaking) are on the left side of its nose.

And finally, atonal music made abstract use of basic musical materials. Here again we have a process that’s analogous to abstract art. People who first saw abstract canvases a hundred years ago must have found them disorienting. They saw shapes, lines, colors, and the many physical traces of paint on canvas (brushstrokes, for instance), just as they might in representational art. But everything looked wrong; the lines and colors didn’t form a picture of anything, as art up to then infallibly had done. Perhaps, in one very basic way, things hadn’t changed because the principles of composition were still the same—the same play of lines and shapes that make a painting of a cathedral come alive were still very much in force, even if now they functioned inside a more abstract design. But if you were new to abstract art, that argument might seem academic. Principles of composition, sure. But isn’t a picture supposed to be of something? That’s what made it comprehensible, at least to you. Confronted with an abstraction, you’d still feel lost.

And wasn’t that exactly what happened in music? An atonal composition is made from the same things—the same 12 chromatic pitches, the same basic elements of rhythm (quarter notes, eighth notes, sixteenths)—as a tonal work. But the pitches no longer fall into familiar patterns. They don’t arrange themselves in triads, scales, arpeggios, and cadences. So if you’re not used to atonal music, you might get lost. Tonal harmony, in other words, played a role exactly parallel to representation in painting. It organized what people heard, just as representation organized what people saw.

Though atonal music went even further. It moved away from familiar forms (which, even when some semblance of them returned, in Schoenberg’s 12-tone works, were skewed and twisted). It abandoned regular, repeated rhythms, and even, in extreme cases like Erwartung, with repetition itself. Even the sound of atonal music could be strange, quite apart from the newness of atonal harmony. Textures grew complex, without any immediately comprehensible relationship between melody and accompaniment (even assuming such old-fashioned concepts were retained at all).

Orchestration grew edgy, with instruments used in new combinations or stretched to extremes of their ranges. Register and dynamics became unpredictable; a Milton Babbitt piano piece jumps all over the keyboard, and attaches a fresh dynamic to each new note. Nobody may have realized, before all this happened, how register and dynamics had created patterns that helped listeners organize what they heard, probably because these patterns were taken for granted, almost as if they were laws of nature—melody in the treble, bass line far below, entire passages either soft or loud, or getting softer or getting louder.

Before World War II, hardly anyone (or maybe even nobody), imagined that the standard elements of music could be fragmented, that every note would have its own tone color, its own register, its own dynamic, and its own shifting relationships to other notes, based on patterns of pitch and rhythm that constantly would rearrange themselves. In this respect, atonal music destroyed old-fashioned expectations even more than abstract art did. Abstract art brought out on a flow of shape and color that had always been there, even in a painting of a face or a landscape. In tonal music, too, abstract note arrangements can be found, but formal patterns large and small—from chord progressions to the shape of an entire work—themselves were standardized.

For that reason, it might have been harder for people to understand atonal music, in its early days; its formal principles lay much further under the surface of tonal works than the principles of abstract art lay under a painting of some ducks. Wagner, with his abandonment of older, academic forms, might have provided an example, but his music leapfrogged over formal problems, because it made sense purely as theater; whatever new forms it embodied didn’t have to be confronted as such. Atonal music, I suspect, came into the world far more unexpected (far more naked) than abstract art—though from writing this I’ve learned that the connections between these two key 20th-century artistic trends run deeper than I at first suspected.