Atonality in a general sense describes music that departs from the system of tonal hierarchies that are said to characterized the sound of classical European music from the sixteenth through the nineteenth centuries. Currently, the term is used primarily to describe compositions written from around 1900 to the present day, where the hierarchy of tonal centers is not used as the primary way to organize works of classical music. Tonal centers had gradually replaced modal organization starting in the 1500's and culminating with the establishment of the Major-Minor key system in the late 1600's and early 1700's.
The most prominent school of musicians to compose in this manner were the "Second Viennese School" of Arnold Schoenberg, Alban Berg, and Anton Webern. However composers such as Josef Matthias Hauer, Béla Bartók, Aaron Copland, George Antheil and others wrote music which is described as atonal, and many more traditional composers "flirted with atonality", in the words of Leonard Bernstein.
History of Atonality
While music without tonal center 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 a circle of composers centered around Arnold Schoenberg, which came to be labelled "The Second Vienna School" by its admirers.
The Second Viennese School's music described as "atonal" arose from what was described as the "crisis of tonality" in the late 19th Century and early 20th Century in classical music. 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 patterns which had described musical form before. Works of this period include the opera Wozzeck (1917-1922) by Alban Berg and Pierrot Lunaire (1912) by Schoenberg. The second period, begun after the war, was exemplified by the attempts to create a systematic means of composing without tonality, most famously the "method of composing with 12 tones" or 12 tone music, also referred to as dodecophonic (see 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 innovator of the system, but his student Webern then began linking dynamics and tone color to his primary row as well, making the row not only of notes, but other aspects of music as well. This, combined with the parameterization of Messiaen, would be taken as the inspiration for serialism.
The word "atonality" emerged as a pejorative term to describe and to condemn music in which chords were organized seemingly with no apparent coherence. In Nazi Germany, atonal music was attacked as "Bolshevik" and labeled degenerate music (Entartete Musik), along with other music produced by enemies of the Nazi regime and those who they wished to condemn for political reasons. Many composers, even those who remained in Germany, had their works banned by the regime, not to be played until after its collapse at the end of World War II.
In the years that followed, atonality represented a challenge to many composers, and even those who did not prefer to write atonal 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 began atonal music after the war, even if before they had pursued other styles, including Elliott Carter and Witold Lutoslawski. Famously, Igor Stravinsky, who lived down the street from Schoenberg, began to write exclusively yet serial music after Schoenberg's death, incorporating a mixture of tonal elements in his personal entry into chromaticism. During this time, the chord progressions or successions designed to avoid tonal center were explored and named, creating a vocabulary described as musical set theory focusing on pitch classes and pitch sets.
Atonal music continues to be composed, and many atonal composers of the late 20th century are still alive and active. However, the peak of atonality as the cutting edge of classical music began to fade in the 1960s - where, on one hand, aleatoric music and electronic music demanded more and more attention, and on the other, musicians influenced by Eastern mysticism, modality, and John Cage began writing music based on ostinato patterns which became Minimalism, after the movement in art from the same period.
Controversy over the term itself
The use of the term "atonality" has been controversial. Schoenberg, whose music is generally used to define the term, was vehemently opposed to it, arguing that "atonal" meant "without tone." For some, the term continues to carry negative connotations as a result of its early pejorative use.
It is also pointed out by some that the term "atonal" that has 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 center," instead of "atonal" have not gained broad acceptance.
Composer Anton von Webern, musicologist Robert Fink and others have asserted that all music is perceived as having a tonal center. Others have argued that the avoidance of a tonal center produces more sophisticated music, which requires greater ability to appreciate, for example Schoenberg in his article on 12 tone composing. Influential critic Theodor Adorno argued, however, that one could express anything from tragedy to a smirk in atonality, provided one had the natural gift for creating material
Others remarked that atonal music could not express the wide range of human feelings in an appropriate way. One could translate Shakespeare into hundreds of different languages, but one could not translate a Beethoven symphony into an atonal equivalent. The "language" of music was not as arbitrary as the normal languages. Atonality was even described as "not music" or "incomprehensible".
In the historical view however, neither of the extremes of prediction have come about: atonality has neither "replaced" tonality, nor has it disappeared.
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 possiblity 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, that being to rigourously avoid anything that suggests tonality, choose pitches which do not imply tonality. In other words, reverse the rules of the common practice period so that what was disallowed is required and what was required is disallowed. 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 linkgin of two or more basic cells." (p.9_10)
Also: serialism, Klangfarbenmelodie.
- Beach, David, ed. (1983). "Schenkerian Analysis and Post-Tonal Music", Aspects of Schenkerian Theory. New Haven: Yale University Press.
- Katz, Adele T. (1945/1972). Challenge to Musical Traditions: A New Concept of Tonality. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc./New York: Da Capo.
- Oster, Ernst (1960). "Re: A New Concept of Tonality (?)", Journal of Music Theory 4, p.96.
- Perle, George (1962). Serial Composition and Atonality: An Introduction to the Music of Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern. University of California Press. ISBN 0520074300.