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Characteristics of the Musical Repertory Often Described as ‘expressionist’

Twentieth-Century essay

What are the principal characteristics of the musical repertory often described as ‘expressionist’? Illustrate your answer by reference to works by at least two composers.


Expressionism. This word is an often troubling and difficult term to define for many musicologists. However, it is undisputedly in the context of music history, a modern movement developed at the beginning of the 20th century (Mitchell, 1951). After the First World War, the art scene was devastated and as such required a revolution. In Arnold Whittall’s book, Music Since the First World War, he suggests that the World War might perhaps have been necessary for that revolution. Romanticism was discarded quickly after the war and gave rise to a radical movement called “Expressionism” (Whittall, 1995). Expressionism could be sometimes seen as an extension of Romanticism but on an extreme level.

Expressionism is irrational, unstable and nightmarish. (the language of…) It primarily seeks to express the composer’s troubled inner soul and feelings. Expressionist music is organic, subjective and psychological (Adorno, 2006). Since composed with a reliance on intuition, it allows the music to be uncontrolled and free-forming without any one fixed structure (Mitchell, 1951). Arnold Schoenberg, an expressionist composer, describes the composition process of expressionist music as gradual and “in accordance not with any wish or will, but with a vision, an inspiration, it happened perhaps instinctively.” (Whittall, 1995).

Expressionist Music although highly organic have common principle characteristics about them. In this essay, characteristics such as the lack of tonal harmony, extreme dynamics, high use of dissonance, the importance or timbre and extreme melodic pitches will be discussed.

Lack of Tonal Harmony

Expressionistic music of the 20th century is often characterised by a lack of tonal harmony. As such, the difficulty in identifying a fixed key has led to a term often described as “atonal”. Expressionist composers wanted to express their inner self without any barriers. The music is truthful and genuine to the soul. Expressionist music also seeks the freedom the express and therefore breaks out of the usual compositional elements one sees in older music. As such, the extreme desire to express oneself have led expressionist composers away from tonal harmony and into atonality.


In the First Movement of Arnold Schoenberg’s Drei Klavierstück, the lack of tonal centre is evident. As seen in the extract, there is no key signature used and there is heavy use of accidentals in both hands in the piece. Between Bars 31 to 38, all 12 notes of the chromatic scale are used. Refer to APPENDIX A and extract below.


Figure 1: Bars 31-38 of Drei Klavierstück

In Arnold Webern’s Fünf Sätze Für Streichquartett, the key of the piece is also hard to establish as evidenced by the heavy use of accidentals. Similar to Drei Klavierstück, in Bars 1 to 3 alone, all 12 notes of the chromatic scale are used. Refer to APPENDIX B and extract below.

Considering that music before the 20th century is largely tonal, the lack of tonal harmony in expressionist music certainly strays away from normal conventions. However, this characteristic often puts listeners in a state of unease. The music becomes unpredictable and foreign. As such, expressionistic music may be less pleasant to listen for many as compared to classical music from the previous centuries.

Extreme Dynamics and Dynamic Contrast

A common feature of expressionist music includes the use of extreme dynamics and dynamic contrast. This came about due to the desire the composer’s desire to overtly express the inner soul. This feature is largely exclusive the 20th century music and modern music, arguably starting from expressionistic music.


In Bar 15 of Fünf Sätze Für Streichquartett , there is a pianissississimo (pppp) notation in all four instruments of the string quartet. However, just in the next Bar, the dynamics quickly changes into a fortissimo (ff) and in Bar 17, a fortississimo (fff). Just within the three bars, the extract features dynamics at both extremeties and stark contrast in a short time. Refer to APPENDIX B or extract below.

In the Bars 8-9 of the 13th Movement of Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire, “Enthauptung”, there is an alternating pattern of loud and soft dynamics. The beginning of Bar 8 features a fortississimo (fff) but quickly decrescendo down to a piano (p). Obvious dynamic contrast can be seen in Bar 9 as evidenced by four-time change in dynamics. Refer to APPENDIX C and extract below.

These extreme dynamics along with the sudden changes and contrasts, often brings about a “shock” or “scare” effect on the listener. Loud dynamics, in particular, mimic a “scream” in expressionistic music. This characteristic therefore effectively depicts the nightmare world the composer wishes to convey in expressionist music. However, not all expressionistic music might include such exaggerated dynamics, and it most certainly does not always last throughout the entire work. Neither should one turn a blind eye to this characteristic of expressionistic music as it is prominent and obvious.

Heavy Use of Dissonance in Expressionistic Music

A common characteristic of expressionistic music is the heavy use of dissonance. Dissonance in itself has an unstable sound quality in which usually resolves into a consonant harmony. Considerable use of dissonance is music results in unresolved tension which is uncomfortable to the listener.


Alban Berg’s most famous expressionistic work, Wozzeck Opus 7, is known for the use of dissonances. Wozzeck is an opera about a soldier who hallucinates as a result of the experiments done on him and eventually succumbs to his insanity, killing both his wife and himself. Similarly, to the almost sinister narrative, the dissonance in the music creates an atmosphere of tension and brutal oppression. The tritone B and F is used throughout the opera but is especially evident in Act III, Scene 2, Waldweg am Teich. As seen from Bars 80 to 83, the B and F tritone repeats often. A tritone is an augmented 4th interval (or three whole tones) which has a dissonant quality of sound. Refer to APPENDIX D and extract below. Notes highlighted in yellow are the B and F tritones whereas those highlighted in turquoise are other dissonant intervals (e.g. minor 2nd). 

In line of what expressionistic composers often think of the world: dark, cruel and painful, dissonance became a useful compositional tool to express that perspective in their music. This resulted in unnerving, highly intense music What was avoided in the previous centuries due to the jarring sound quality of dissonance was used to cause purposeful discomfort in expressionistic music.

High Importance of Timbre in Expressionistic Music

To define “timbre”, it represents the quality, character and colour of sound that can be distinguishable from one another. The role of timbre was important to expressionistic works as it gave musical texture, and basic important element in music. With the knowledge that expressionistic music was mostly atonal, timbre became higher in importance.

Up until the turn of the 20th century, older instruments were improved on and modified, along with the addition of new instruments to the orchestra, such as percussion instruments. The composer, by then, had more variety of options in terms of both instruments and sounds to experiment with. Previously mentioned in the above sections, expressionistic composers sought to break out of the conventional rigid compositional techniques and structures. As such, they go beyond normal instrument usage and use may freely use many unique performance directions, to create the sound colour they wanted.


In one of Schoenberg’s more popular expressionistic works, Five Pieces for Orchestra Opus 16, the third movement is especially notable for musical timbre. Schoenberg carefully selects his orchestral instruments and splits the melody between instruments to create timbre and texture to his work. This compositional technique then came to be known as “Klangfarbenmelodie” or sound colour melody. He also indicates different performance directions between instruments both concurrently and throughout the whole orchestra work to further enhance the timbre of the music. Refer to APPENDIX E and extract below. Performance directions used to create timbre are highlighted in yellow. Melody is not highlighted but is spread across the different orchestral instruments.

By paying careful attention to and organising the piece in which treats musical timbre importantly, Schoenberg was able to create colourful orchestral works with layers of musical texture. It was said that Schoenberg was inspired by expressionist painters at that time. Schoenberg himself was also an expressionist painter himself, painting works such as “der rote blick”. His attempt to colour and texturize music as if it was a painting may have been considered successful.

Use of Extreme pitches

Unlike composers in the past centuries that limited themselves to a comfortable instrumental range, composers in the 20th century started to experiment with the whole range of pitches especially in orchestra. It was discovered that different pitches produced different sound colour and therefore, this led to the experimentation of pitches that were beyond the usual sound colours and into the extremities.


In this example, the popular work by Schoenberg, Five Pieces for Orchestra Opus 16, will be revisited. The fourth movement, “Peripetie”, is known for the use of the whole range of pitch across all instruments in the orchestra. Since the piece requires musicians to move out of the comfortable instrumental range, this movement is notably hard to play. In Bars 1 to 3, the movement already features the wide instrumental range of the orchestral woodwinds, quickly leaping from the lower registers to the higher pitch registers. Refer to APPENDIX F and extract below.

Another example would be the last three bars of the movement in which the Double Basses have to a tremolo at very high pitches.

Using the full range of pitches in orchestral instruments may produce a plethora of musical colours but as mentioned, may be extremely challenging to orchestral musicians. However with the expanded range of musical colours, composers could then explore expressions that could be more effectively used to convey the inner emotions and feelings of the composer.

Diversity of temperments and personality. Highly subjective, self conscious, autobiographical. Renunciation of tonality so that more free forming. Stress on intuition. Wide gapped instrumental or vocal line. Extreme dynamics. Vivd orchestral colours


Traditional music had to be restrained to limited tonal compositional techniques, especially veertical harmonies. Mainly focus on melodies and harmonies. Howvever, Schoenberg converge the basic aspects of music and equally developed them, (Tone Colour melody concept- simple timbral alternation of identical instrumental sounds can acquire melodic force without anything melodic in the traditional sense occuring)  Philosophy of New Music. Theodor W.Adorno. Translater Robert Hullot-kentor.  University of Minnesota Press. 2006, pg 44-45, schoenberg and progress)

Distorted musical language. Instrumental colours (e.g. sul ponticello, harmonics). Timbral music experience. Instrumentsused in extreme and unusual registers and dynamic levels. Enormous variety of instrumental combinations. An Introduction: twentieth century music. Eric salzman. Prentice-hall history of music series. 1988. Chapter 4: The Revolution: Vienna, pg36

Five Orchestra Pieces or “Farben” is realised on subtle harmonic and timbral changes.

Nearly all Schoenberg’s early period techniquess are in Pierrot Lunaire. It is severely patterned in a symmetrical and prophetically serialized arrangement. Motivic annd intervallic constructions of every kind are used, incoporated into complex linear textures exmploying some kind of canonic form, sometimes closely organised and sometimes free. Show exceptional sensitivity of texture (An Introduction: twentieth century music. Eric salzman. Prentice-hall history of music series. 1988. Chapter 4: The Revolution: Vienna, pg37). Pierrot Lunaire- Half sung and half spoken (The Language of twentieth Century Music. Robert Fink and Robert Ricci.  Collier Macmillan Publishers (London). 1975

Berg an instinctual lyricist whose music links with tradition. Placed great faith. Webern as an intellectual, nnumerical abstractionist, prophet of advant grande. (^pg 37-39)

Wozzeck about the human condition. Music has range and grandeur












  • Mitchell, Donald, ‘What is Expressionism?’, in Donald Mitchell, Cradles of the New: Writings on Music 1951–1991, ed. Mervyn Cooke (London and Boston: Faber, 1995), 203–27
  • (Music Since the First World War. Arnold Whittall. Oxford University Press, 1995).
  • Philosophy of New Music. Theodor W.Adorno. Translater Robert Hullot-kentor.  University of Minnesota Press. 2006, pg 43, schoenberg and progress)

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