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Atonality in its broadest sense describes music that lacks a tonal centre, or key. Atonality in this sense usually describes compositions written from about 1907 to the present day where a hierarchy of pitches focusing on a single, central tone is not used as a primary foundation for the work. More narrowly, the term describes music that does not conform to the system of tonal hierarchies that characterized classical European music between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries.
More narrowly still, the term is used to describe music that is neither tonal nor serial, especially the pre- twelve-tone music of the Second Viennese School, principally Alban Berg, Arnold Schoenberg, and Anton Webern.
Composers such as Alexander Scriabin, Béla Bartók, Paul Hindemith, Sergei Prokofiev, Igor Stravinsky, Edgard Varèse, however, have written music that has been described, in full or in part, as atonal.
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 nineteenth century and early twentieth century in classical music. This situation had come about historically through the increasing use over the course of the nineteenth century of
ambiguous chords, less probable harmonic inflections, and the more unusual melodic and rhythmic inflections possible within the style[s] of tonal music. The distinction between the exceptional and the normal became more and more blurred; and, as a result, there was a concomitant loosening of the syntactical bonds through which tones and harmonies had been related to one another. The connections between harmonies were uncertain even on the lowest—chord-to-chord—level. On higher levels, long-range harmonic relationships and implications became so tenuous that they hardly functioned at all. At best, the felt probabilities of the style system had become obscure; at worst, they were approaching a uniformity which provided few guides for either composition or listening.—Meyer 1967, 241
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 oratorio Die Jakobsleiter and numerous smaller pieces, as well as his last two string quartets. Schoenberg was the major innovator of the system, but his student, Anton Webern, is anecdotally claimed to have begun linking dynamics and tone colour to the primary row, making rows not only of pitches but of other aspects of music as well (Du Noyer 2003, 272; see also Ircam's page dedicated to Webern (fr)). However, actual analysis of Webern's twelve-tone works has so far failed to demonstrate the truth of this assertion. One analyst concluded, following a minute examination of the Piano Variations, op. 27, that
while the texture of this music may superficially resemble that of some serial music . . . its structure does not. None of the patterns within separate nonpitch characteristics makes audible (or even numerical) sense in itself. The point is that these characteristics are still playing their traditional role of differentiation. (Westergaard 1963, 109)
Twelve-tone technique, combined with the parameterization of Olivier Messiaen, would be taken as the inspiration for serialism (du Noyer 2003, 272).
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.
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 innovation. 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 (du Noyer 2003, 271). Iannis Xenakis generated pitch sets from mathematical formulae, and also saw the expansion of tonal possibilities as part a synthesis between the hierarchical principle and the theory of numbers, principles which have dominated music since at least the time of Parmenides (Xenakis 1971, 204).
The twelve tone technique was preceded by Schoenberg's "freely" atonal pieces of 1908-1923 which, though "free", often have as an "integrative element...a minute intervallic cell" which in addition to expansion may be transformed as with a tone row, and in which individual notes may "function as pivotal elements, to permit overlapping statements of a basic cell or the linking of two or more basic cells" (Perle 1977, 2).
The twelve tone technique was also preceded by "nondodecaphonic serial composition" used independently in the works of Alexander Scriabin, Igor Stravinsky, Bela Bartok, Carl Ruggles, and others (Perle 1977, 37). "Essentially, Schoenberg and Hauer systematized and defined for their own dodecaphonic purposes a pervasive technical feature of 'modern' musical practice, the ostinato" (Perle 1977, 37).
The twelve tone techniques shares with free atonality premises including the general avoidance of a key or the overemphasis of one note, and some of the rules of the twelve tone technique are designed to ensure this, such as the non-repetition of a pitch before the statement of all other pitches in the row. Twelve tone practices differ from previous atonal practices in two important ways: all pitches are used and ordered.
Controversy over the term itself
The appropriateness of the term "atonality" has been controversial. Arnold 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," "multi-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 explains that, "the 'free' atonality that preceded dodecaphony precludes by definition the possibility of self-consistent, generally applicable compositional procedures" (Perle 1962, 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 (Seeger 1930).
Further, Perle 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" (Perle 1962, 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" (Perle 1962, 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" (Perle 1962, 9–10).
Criticism of atonal music
Composer Anton 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). Composer Walter Piston, on the other hand, said that, out of long habit, whenever performers "play any little phrase they will hear it in some key—it may not be the right one, but the point is they will play it with a tonal sense. . . . [T]he more I feel I know Schoenberg's music the more I believe he thought that way himself. . . . And it isn't only the players; it's also the listeners. They will hear tonality in everything" (Westergaard 1968, 15).
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 the classical musical language was a precondition for musical expression with its clear, harmonious structures. Ansermet argued that a tone system can only lead to a uniform perception of music if it is deduced from just a single interval. For Ansermet this interval is the fifth (Mosch 2004, 96). So the incomprehensible (to Ansermet) modern atonal music, by choosing interval relations seemingly at random, could not achieve such an impact, ethos, or catharsis for an audience.
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