Kandinsky and Schoenberg: An Historical Analysis of Expressionism and Modernism
7 December 2007
Vienna at the turn of the nineteenth century and Berlin between World War One and Two were cities whose social makeup fostered vibrant artistic and musical movements. In Vienna, the decadence of bourgeois society and the effect of World War One produced Expressionist art and atonal music; in Berlin, the destructive consequences of the war and the desperate desire to create something new led to the development of Modernist abstract art and 12-tone music. While Expressionism and Modernism are inexplicably tied to their social contexts, these artistic and musical styles came to reflect each other as well. Therefore, by visualizing music through art (and vice-versa), one can define both Expressionism and Modernism in Vienna and Berlin. For example, Kandinsky’s painting Composition IV (1911) mirrors the radically new musical styles created and promoted by Arnold Schoenberg: heavy brush strokes akin to dramatic rhythms and emphatic accents, each vibrant color a hint of chromaticism and the overall chaotic nature of the painting echoing the confusion one feels after listening to atonal music. Similarly, Kandinsky’s abstract, geometric painting Within the Black Square (1923) reflects the simple, yet innovative, 12-tone system of music developed by Schoenberg in the 1920s. In this way, art becomes a physical manifestation of the music. Thus, the works of Kandinsky and Schoenberg can be combined to show how Expressionism and Modernism reveal the turbulence inherent in Austrian and German society before, during and after World War One.
While it is true that almost all forms of art and music can be viewed as reflective of each other, for the purposes of this essay the focus will be on the works of Wassily Kandinsky (1866 – 1944) and Arnold Schoenberg (1874 – 1951), both of whom lived in Berlin at various points in their lives. While there were many important contributors to Expressionism and Modernism, Kandinsky and Schoenberg epitomized the cultural flux inherent in their radically changing time periods. Hence, their art exceeded the traditional bounds placed upon them. While Kandinsky and Schoenberg stood out as rebellious individuals against what was perceived as the decadent past and its traditions at the turn of the century and thereafter, both the artist and the musician became part of a collective movement in the 1920s and 30s (Modernism) to help update and reformulate a culture that was devastated by war. As a result, Kandinsky and Schoenberg’s works reflect the overwhelming discontent that defines the four decades in Austria and Germany between 1890 and 1930: nostalgia for the stability of the past, anxiety towards an uncertain future, Angst towards the total destruction caused by the war and liberation from the traditional restraints imposed upon them in the past.
In more relative terms, Kandinsky and Schoenberg are ideal artists to study because their works reflect the fluidity and interconnectivity of artistic disciplines. Arnold Schoenberg experimented extensively with Expressionist painting, producing over two-thirds of his work between 1908 and 1913. Still, Schoenberg remained “musical” in his painting styles because he created a motif that unified most of his art. Schoenberg used the theme of “gazes” or “penetrating eyes, usually directed straight at the viewer, which are so strong in expression and dominating and intensive in their effect” that Schoenberg can be counted among the great names of Expressionism. Similarly Kandinsky, although admittedly not as prolific in music as Schoenberg was in art, had a “musical sensitivity” that informed the creation of his musical tableaux. For instance, the series of canvases titled Improvisation, Composition and Impressions (of which Composition IV is a part) imply that Kandinsky’s art attempted to depict the gestures we hear in atonal music. Expressionist artist Franz Marc best defines this effort as “color hearing.” Marc further explains this term by revealing the unique relationship between art and music to his friend and fellow artist, August Macke. Marc asks, “Can you imagine a music in which tonality…is completely suspended? I was constantly reminded of Kandinsky’s large Composition, which also permits no trace of tonality…and also of Kandinsky’s ‘jumping spots’ in hearing this music, which allows each tone sounded to stand on its own....” Evidently the correlation between art and music was apparent not only to Kandinsky and Schoenberg but was also expressed by other artists associated with the Expressionist movement. Still, why is it so important to note the close relationship between art and music? This time it is Macke who responds, “the miracle that makes music so beautiful works also with colors in painting. Only it needs tremendous vision to coordinate them all like musical notes.” In other words, a canvas or a piece of music becomes more profound if it can be expressed, understood and translated across multiple media. Kandinsky and Schoenberg present interesting case studies because their work so eloquently presents these cultural movements, Expressionism specifically and Modernism generally.
Before the turn of the twentieth century, the era often referred to as fin-de-siècle, Vienna was a cosmopolitan, culturally charged city that came to represent the larger trends that dominated the Austro-Hungarian Empire and much of the European continent as well. On the surface, Austria-Hungary was a stable and seemingly permanent regime; the line of ruling Hapsburgs had sustained itself for over 700 years. As a result of this stability, Viennese bourgeois truly indulged themselves in all aspects of culture: art, music, theater, dance and sex. In the Viennese experience above, the Victorian era earned its “decadent” reputation. Additionally, the end of the nineteenth century saw a general advance in innovation, both inside and outside of the Austro-German realm, resulting in many types of scientific and technological developments. It was at this time that Wilhelm Röntgen discovered X-rays, Marie and Pierre Curie uranium and radioactivity, Lord Rutherford the atomic nucleus, Max Planck “quantum theory” and Albert Einstein the atomic theory as well as the special and general theory of relativity (E=mc2). Reflective of the stability and “golden age” of Austria-Hungary, the rapid development of scientific knowledge had significant repercussions, among them a radical decline in traditional religiosity. The continuing shift away from a belief in a higher being that began in the earlier years of the Enlightenment helps to explain the intense devotion to art and music in Vienna, a trend that led to a type of artistic fanaticism. Stefan Zweig, a Viennese bourgeois and literary artist, commented in his autobiography that one “was not a real Viennese without this love for culture, without the sense, aesthetic and critical at once, of the holiest exuberance of life.” Clearly, art and music had become an alternative to religion in fin-de-siècle Vienna. Indeed, the swift development of science and technology, paired with an excessive enthusiasm for the arts, produced the cosmopolitan, culturally infused atmosphere of fin-de-siècle Vienna that inevitably produced the radical Modernist movements of the twentieth century.
To truly see and understand the decadence of the Victorian middle classes, one can look to art, in particular to Gustav Klimt’s The Kiss (1907-08), which fully captures the opulence of Viennese bourgeoisie. The subject of Klimt’s painting—a kiss—serves as a throwback to the Enlightenment and Romantic periods, two historical precursors that helped establish fin-de-siècle Viennese society. While it is hard to the see the influences of the Enlightenment, the simple fact that this painting is an expression of Klimt’s individuality as a painter reflects the power of human liberty and thought emphasized by Enlightenment thinkers. In contrast, the portrayal of a kiss, which is in itself a move away from traditional Enlightenment themes, such as victories of human reason and logic, reflects intimacy and passion, two specifically Romantic ideals. Lastly, Klimt’s excessive use of gold leaf and attention to intricate detail (making his work look more like a mosaic than a painting) not only reflects Victorian decadence but it also harkens back to the galant artistic styles of Enlightenment and Romantic painters and musicians, such as Jean Honoré Fragonard (painter) and Franz Schubert (composer). Thus, The Kiss serves as an explanation for Victorian decadence by encapsulating the artistic progression from the Enlightenment to Romanticism and ultimately, fin-de-siècle Vienna.
In music as in art, it becomes easy to see the preference for classical trends amongst the Viennese middle class by tracing its roots back to its Enlightenment and Romantic precursors. Classical composers of the Old Style—Mozart, Beethoven, Haydn, Schubert and Brahams—had become cultural icons and their music the standard from which all other musical styles were judged. Old Style composers, specifically those from the Enlightenment and Romantic periods, produced tonal music, which is defined by its clear harmonic progressions, typically moving from the home key (referred to as I or tonic) and towards the closely related dominant key (based on the fifth note of the tonic scale). This passionate desire to create predictable music is reflected in Classical aesthetics and Enlightenment ideals. In what has been referred to as the “cult of the natural,” musicians in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were obsessed with logical harmonic progressions because it made their music appear more natural and less forced, directly contrasting with the artificiality of the Baroque era. At the same time, tonal music parallels the “golden age” of Austria-Hungary in orderly and predictable harmonic progressions that reflect the stability and reliability of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It was this illusion of permanence that first stimulated resistance to the status quo and ultimately the progression towards new artistic and musical developments.
Although devoted to the arts, Viennese bourgeois were exceedingly reluctant to accept and support the increasingly pronounced development towards new artistic and musical styles. In his historical overview entitled, Schnitzler’s Century, Peter Gay asserts that the Victorian “bourgeois character…[was] largely built [on] prohibitions that middle class people will not do and words they will not allow themselves to say.” He continues: “But if the bourgeois motto is self-abnegation, that is not because their passions are feeble but because their passions are harnessed.” Answering his own question, Gay uses Freud’s psychoanalytic theories to explain that the upper middle classes living in Vienna at the end of the nineteenth century “harnessed their passions” because of various manifestations of cultural anxiety. Gay claims that it was “the dizzying inventions and discoveries, the unsettling ideas that invaded every domain of Victorian life…[that] gave its bourgeois culture an air of tension, of hopeful enterprise with anxiety following it like a shadow.” In other words, the rapid social, economic and artistic developments of Vienna’s “golden age” intimidated the majority of Viennese bourgeois who, as a result, sought solace in the familiar, unchanging traditions of the past. Thus, the late nineteenth century in Vienna was characterized by a glorification of classical artistic styles in all media from architecture to art and music.
As a result of the reluctance to experiment among the Viennese bourgeoisie, there was a degree of animosity towards new artistic and musical styles that began to reject prevailing traditions. While Zweig reveals the overwhelming enthusiasm in Vienna for the arts, he fails to identify which movements were accepted and which were repressed. For instance, even before the beginning of the nineteenth century, Gustav Klimt led a group of “rebellious” artists called the Viennese Secession. These artists produced works that coincided with the larger European Art Nouveau movement and critiqued the bourgeois idolization of classical artistic trends as static and archaic. While Ringstrasse architecture presented a blend of Greek, Roman and Renaissance ideals, this style of construction “became a museum of historical architecture.” For example, the intimacy of Klimt’s three paintings, Philosophy, Medicine and Jurisprudence (1899-1907) as well as his Beethoven frieze (1986)  reflect a deliberate break with the past and the start toward self-analysis and the development of an individual style. Parallel to artistic developments, there were composers at the turn of the century that formed a second wave or New Style of music. For example, Gustav Mahler became one of the first to emphasize the importance of emotional expression through his conducting styles; he was so emphatic that he stood rather than sat while directing his orchestras. Klimt and Mahler together pioneered the beginning of self-analysis as a justifiable mode of artistic expression. It was this tendency to favor individual rather than collective concerns that not only contradicted the prevailing artistic preferences amongst the Victorian middle class, but also helps explain the absence of a unique bourgeois style, whether in music, art or architecture. Thus, it was the lack of originality among the middle-class that sparked resistance and innovation.
Expressionism and Modernism have their roots in the problematic Viennese fin-de-siècle society. Although the Victorian bourgeoisie did not create its own artistic style, the period and society in which they lived plays a formative role and serves as a striking contrast to the generations that followed. While Peter Gay describes the associations of rebels in Vienna at the end of the nineteenth century as “rather mild in their departure from accepted norms,” he nonetheless credits artists like Klimt and Mahler with being forerunners for the later, more radical movements. “These associations of rebels,” Gay writes, “spawned secessions from the [Viennese] Secession as the subversives as one generation became the establishment of the next.” Clearly, the trends that sparked the successive development of Expressionism and Modernism began in Vienna before World War One.
Expressionism can best be described as the embodiment of protests against inherited prohibitions as well as of new trends emphasizing individuality and self-analysis. Expressionism in the early twentieth century, in particular, was a “result of artists’ unique inner or personal vision, and often [had] an emotional dimension.” The four essential elements of Expressionism can be seen in Edvard Munch’s Scream (1893). First, the wide, heavy brush strokes and vibrant colors boldly defy classical artistic conventions, revealing Expressionism’s severe move away from artistic traditions. Second, a scream is an “outer manifestation of inner suffering.” From this, Munch’s painting can be viewed as a representation of his own inner emotions, such as anxiety, anger and confusion. Scream becomes an emblem of self-analysis and an exploration of the unconscious mind, two defining characteristics of Expressionist art and music. Finally, the act of screaming is a way of letting loose and revealing the unrestrained emotions within, a trend that goes along with the rejection of classical cultural practices. All in all, Scream helps illuminate the essential elements of the Expressionist movement.
More, German Expressionism, or early Modernist art in Austria-Hungary, became an exploration of color and form: both were used to distort reality and reflect inner emotions and critiques of traditional artistic standards. Two groups stood as the forerunners of German Expressionism: Die Brücke (The Bridge) and Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider). The first group, created in Dresden in 1905, included artists such as Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and Emil Nolde. These artists created tableaux with “harsh colors, aggressively brushed paint and distorted forms [that] expressed the painters’ feelings about injustices of the society and their belief in the healthful union of human beings and nature.” Clearly, Die Brücke rejected the decadence of Viennese high society by experimenting with color and form. On the other hand, Der Blaue Reiter, established in Munich in 1911 by Wassily Kandinsky and Franz Marc, revolted against artistic norms by combining a manipulation of color and form with their beginning explorations of abstraction. Marc’s famous painting Fate of the Animals (1913) portrays a blue wolf amidst a wild array of blurred colors. This unique combination of the tangible with the abstract helped Marc to relate an inner truth, a personal expression he believed was not found in classical art. Meanwhile Kandinsky was more heavily influenced by abstract art than Marc. He admitted that once seeing his art turned on its side, he realized that it was “the object that harmed [his] art.” Thus, Kandinsky’s abstractions proved to be some of the most profound expressionist work because he utterly rejected traditional standards and definitions of art.
Kandinsky’s Composition IV (1911), in particular, epitomizes expressionist ideals and reveals why painting became an ideal medium through which to express the discontent and frustration that were festering in Vienna and Berlin since 1910. For example, the jumble of lines and nondescript shapes painted in bright colors and set against an empty white space rejects the predictability seen in nineteenth-century art. Because of the lack of order in Composition IV, our eyes are constantly diverted around the canvas, unsure of which line to follow. This confusion and lack of a central focal point mirrors the chaotic nature of early twentieth-century Austro-German society. While the bourgeoisie felt anxious towards the Expressionists, the Expressionists themselves communicated their individuality unyieldingly and both traditionalists and modernists struggled to comprehend the threat of cultural decline and a world war. Thus, Composition IV is a perfect example of Expressionism because Kandinsky remakes the standards of traditional art, builds on the ideals of the Expressionist movement while using these to match his own individual emotions and critiques.
In music, Expressionism is found in the atonal style. The most important quality of atonal music is the avoidance of a tonal center; unlike classical music, it is hard to identify a “home key.” In order to achieve this effect, atonal composers attempt to emancipate the dissonance by using total chromaticism, a musical technique that maximizes the number of dissonant notes and chords, confusing the melodic line and thereby masking any tonal center. As a result, atonal music became a style that “was about expression, achieving a new way to express thoughts in music.” Emotional expression drove the production and development of atonal music, as it did for Expressionist art. However, atonal music is not as radical as its artistic Expressionist counterpart because the music still retains a semblance of a tonal center; this tie to musical traditions better reflects artists of the Viennese Secession rather than later Expressionists from the groups Die Brücke and Der Blaue Reiter. Nevertheless, the desire to communicate using unique forms became the thrust behind musical Expressionism.
A good example of atonal music is Arnold Schönberg’s, Pierrot Lunaire (1912). This collection of 21 poems, written by Belgian symbolist poet Alfred Giraud, was set to music and has become one of the pioneering examples of musical Expressionism. Pierrot is a clown who is tormented by threatening images of the moon. In order to capture these images in his music, Schönberg experiments with atonality. For example, he produces a variety of colors, both light and dark (depending on the phases of the moon), by using a combination of instruments—flute (piccolo), clarinet (bass clarinet), violin (viola), cello and piano—alongside an increase in chromaticism and dissonant chords. In this way, Schönberg’s music avoids a strict tonal center, or even a clear melodic line. Rather, Pierrot Lunaire is dominated by rhythmic and tonal motives. For example, the eighth movement (Black Moon) has a rising minor third and a descending major third (E-F-Bflat), a tonal motive that is elaborated upon throughout the 21 movements. Similar to the thematic development in classical music, both rhythmic and tonal motives in atonal music are constantly transformed throughout a piece. The act of presenting an idea or a motive and drawing out variants of the idea/motive through inversion or retrograde variation (backwards) is referred to as developing variation, a technique also found in Schoenberg’s later 12-tone style. Lastly, Pierrot Lunaire uses Sprechstimme, an imitation of spoken dialogue that “follow[s] the notated rhythm exactly but only approximates the written pitches in gliding tones of speech.” The replacement of singing with Sprechstimme reflects Schoenberg’s constant desire to find new ways of musical expression. In these enumerated ways, Pierrot Lunaire serves as an exemplar of atonal music.
To identify better the significance of atonal music and expressionist art, one must evaluate the two media with respect to each other. In Kandinsky’s treatise, Concerning the Spiritual in Art (1914), Kandinsky reveals and explains the interconnectivity between artistic disciplines and music. In this treatise, Kandinsky assigns a form and a function to the primary colors—yellow, blue, green, black, white, red, orange, purple and brown—all the while comparing these colors to the timbre of particular instruments. But why does Kandinsky create such correlations in art and music? Are these connections artificial? Kandinsky argues that the relationship between art and music is profound, so much so that art can help define music and vice-versa. He writes,
A painter…in his longing to express his inner life, cannot but envy the way with which music, the most non-material of the arts today, achieves this end. He naturally seeks to apply the methods of music to his own art. And from this results that modern desire for rhythmic painting, for mathematical, abstract construction, for repeated notes of color, for setting color in motion.
In other words, because music is abstract in nature, Kandinsky envies music’s almost effortless yet successful attempts to portray inner emotions. And so, Kandinsky attempts to make his art more expressive by eliminating form and focusing entirely on color; that is, he makes his art more musical. Using the relationships defined in Kandinsky’s 1914 treatise, one can say that Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire becomes colorful and artistic in form. Specifically, Schoenberg’s use of various instruments not only masks the tonal center, a defining feature of atonal music, but (according to Kandinsky), the instrumentation also produces a rainbow of color: the flute is a light blue; the violin is placid green; cello a dark, more profound blue; and the piano an intense and aggressive yellow. This application of color to music can be done to all types of music and as a result, strips the barrier between the arts. And so, by defining art in relation to music and vice-versa, the Expressionist and Modernist movements respectively become more profound.
Building upon his analysis of color in relation to music, Kandinsky’s Composition IV can be used to show the characteristics of atonal music. Peter Gay writes that Expressionism “took strong, simple, aggressive colors, the consciously primitive craftsmanship, the passionate and cruel distortion of the human figure—all discovered before the war—to new extremes.” Here, the “primitive craftsmanship” to which Gay refers to can be seen in the flat, white backdrop of Kandinsky’s Composition IV. This blank space can be seen as Kandinsky’s removal of Victorian decadence in his artwork, a type of decadence that defined artistic styles before the war. Similarly, the use of total chromaticism in Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire rejects the traditional notion that dissonance is mere ornamentation; in Pierrot Lunaire the addition of chromaticism creates color in the piece and serves as a defining stylistic feature. Furthermore, because of its abstract and chaotic nature, Composition IV reflects an “inner reality…a truth that demanded emancipation from the ‘lie’ of convention and tradition.” Here, the stress on the individual—whether it is the artist or his viewer—represents a rejection of the past, a major feature of Expressionism. This move away from tradition is also inherent in the definition of atonality. Using the same vocabulary, the “emancipation of dissonance” not only creates a more chaotic, ambiguous piece of music, but it also serves as a criticism of the strict adherence to tonal structure and predictability in classical music. Furthermore, one can compare the confusion created by the bold lines in Composition IV to the lack of a tonal center in Pierrot Lunaire and the vibrant colors to the increased use of chromaticism and dissonance. Overall, it is clear that Expressionism was a movement that encompassed both musical and artistic styles. Kandinsky’s Composition IV and Schönberg’s Pierrot Lunaire illustrate the pioneering new artistic trends in Austria-Hungary and Germany, Vienna, before and Berlin thereafter.
With the conclusion of World War One, “life would not let art alone” and Berlin became one of the most prominent, cosmopolitan cities in Europe between 1918 and 1933. In fact, “artistic life in Germany between the wars witnessed a virtual explosion of forms, subject matter and ideologies.” In one city, Modernism enveloped movements such as Dadaism, Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity), Gebrauchsmusik and Bauhaus. Among all these movements, a sense of internationalism was ever present, effecting the type of art that was produced as well as who produced it. Some artistic movements became functionalist (serving a practical purpose) and defined their art as a medium through which to achieve progressive social and political goals. Other movements restated the functionalist theory and emphasized the unity of artistic media. The early Bauhaus movement under Walter Gropius harkened back to medieval/Baroque craftsmanship, the arts and crafts and European Art Nouveau movements, which stressed unity amidst all the arts. For example, Einstein’s Observatory (1920-21), designed by Erich Mendelsohn, reflects an organic unity to architectural design. Of course, as modernization and industrialization (Americanization, Fordism, etc.) took hold in Europe between the wars, the Bauhaus movement became more standardized and functionalist in nature. Another example is Wassily Kandinsky himself. A native Russian, Kandinsky was criticized by his contemporaries for moving to Munich (and later Berlin) rather than staying in Russia to help ferment a Russian nationalist art movement. The rise of internationalism in art changed the form and function of Modernist art and “[b]y 1919, the belief that Expressionism had run its course was widely shared by many on all sides of the artistic spectrum.” In other words, the face of Modernist art changed fundamentally and the center of all this artistic activity was now in Berlin.
Still, Berlin’s society was immersed in turmoil. Created on November 9, 1918, the Weimar Republic was overwhelmed by inflation, war reparations and the social instability of the Republic itself. Although there was a relative period of stability from 1924-1929, the early phase of the Weimar Republic was dominated by two stages of inflation: demobilization inflation from 1919-1921 and catastrophic hyperinflation from 1922-1923. In 1923, due largely to resistance to French occupation of the Ruhr, the German currency collapsed. Widespread hunger and unemployment dominated Berlin society between the wars. For example, some 40% of Germans were unemployed in 1932. The situation was exacerbated further by the high, seemingly impossible demands made by the Allied Powers in the Versailles Treaty. In addition to the war guilt clause, which held Germany fully responsible for the war, the Weimar Republic was expected to pay for all of the damages incurred by the war, which approximated 269 million gold marks. Moreover, the Weimar Republic and its new left-center parliamentary coalition government were so weak that immediately after its creation in November 1918, a series of revolts, protests and mass movements dominated the political scene. Despite the successful Reichstag elections on June 6, 1920, “in less than 15 years of Weimar, there were 17 [separate] governments.” All in all, it was the world war and its aftermath that served to catalyze the plethora of new artistic conventions that changed the face of the Modernist movement, making Berlin the most culturally infused city of the time.
Modernism as an artistic and musical movement can be used to describe the mentality of the interwar years. By definition, Modernism “reassessed inherited conventions…and challenged…perceptions and capacities.” While this definition is very broad (since it even encompasses Expressionism), Modernism is unique in the sense that its adherents were looking to “re-make the past.” In this sense Modernist trends reflected the contemporary social, economic and political realities in Berlin and the Weimar Republic generally. The war had devastated Germany’s inherited structure, forcing it to regenerate into a modern republic. In addition to facing incredible financial burdens, Germany lost considerable territory and 13% of its population, totaling six million people. Consequently, Weimar was almost forced to adopt new social, political and artistic structures. Similar to their Expressionist precursors a decade earlier, Modernist artists rebelled against traditions, such as the French Impressionism and Naturalism that had become the artistic norms.
However, Modernists went further in their rejection than the Expressionists of the earlier periods. As a result of the total devastation of World War One, there was hardly anything left to critique. Thus, artists and musicians worked to create a new artistic model: Modernism. As mentioned above, there were many guises of the Modernism that developed between the wars in and beyond Berlin. There were two artists in particular whose styles captured the spirit of Modernism generally: Paul Klee (1879 – 1940) and Wassily Kandinsky. Klee’s goal was to show the invisible forces at work in Berlin after World War One. Because of the war, political foundations, national boundaries and traditional conceptions of reality were all challenged and to an extent, destroyed. Nevertheless, both Germans and Europeans struggled to rebuild their respective societies. It was this process, which as invisible because not tangible, was exactly what Klee strove to portray in his art. As he himself notes:
Art does not reproduce the visible; rather it makes visible…[t]he formal elements of graphic art [which] are the dot, line, plane and space – the last three charged with energy of various kinds…Formerly we used to represent things visible on earth, things we either liked to look at or would have liked to see. Today we reveal the reality that is behind visible things.
Clearly, Klee felt strongly tied to his society and attempted to help rebuild dilapidated artistic structures through his art. In his painting Twittering Machine (1922), Klee uses birds, oddly constructed, to represent the world before World War One and steely black lines to represent machines and technology in post World War society. The birds are welded to the black lines, the same way Germans and Europeans were so closely tied to the process of modernization to help rebuild their society. By examining Twittering Machine, it becomes clear that Modernism resulted in radical forms of art that provided the Weimar Republic and the larger European world with new and distinct cultural goals and ideas.
Modernism is often referred to as abstraction, the rejection of identifiable figures, objects and space that totally re-vamped traditional perceptions of art. Kandinsky felt that through his art he was “destined to create a new world…the symphony of spheres.” This belief embodies the spirit of Modernism and the simple desire to create. In his painting Within the Black Square (1923), Kandinsky moves away from the bold, fluid brushstrokes that defined Composition IV and uses geometric shapes juxtaposed with vast, blank spaces, leaving his viewers unsure of the point. From a historical perspective, Within the Black Square can best be explained in relation to the history of Weimar Germany and post World War Europe. The lack of a distinct expression or meaning in the painting mirrors the lack of substantial structures in Weimar Germany; it also parallels the general destruction in Europe as a result of the war. Thus, Within the Black Square reveals the move toward simplicity and ambiguity to create a new artistic trend for Weimar Germany and the larger European scene.
While modern art was abstract, modern music developed into the methodical 12-tone system. This system developed by Arnold Schoenberg is a “form of atonality based on systematic orderings of 12 units of the chromatic scale.” The same way abstract art rejects traditional perceptions of art to create a new form, Schoenberg’s 12-tone music denies both the customary forms and functions of tonal and atonal music. Schoenberg replaces different keys from the tonal system with 12 tones (pitches) from the C major scale and assigns each pitch an integer designation. In this new musical scale, the “12 tones are related only to one another (rather than the tonic).” As a result, 12-tone music is not restricted in any way. Rather, Schoenberg created a new system that is fundamentally free. Although it is easy to make comparisons with tonal and atonal music—such as associating the basic set with a “tonal region” or motive and different transformations to “modulations”—one must remember that in 12-tone music there is no theme. Notes in the 12-tone series are related to each other but, because the concept of a key has evaporated, there is no longer a concept of a “free note” or a non-chord tone (dissonance). Thus, Schoenberg successfully emancipated dissonance from its traditional function in tonal music. Taken together, Schoenberg effectively created a new form of music.
Although Arnold Schoenberg pioneered the revolutionary 12-tone system of music, his student Anton Webern in his Opus 27 Piano Variations (1936) for example, develops the main components of the 12-tone system his teacher produced. In Webern’s work, measures one through four make up the basic set in its prime (original) form in which all 12 tones are introduced. Immediately following the prime form, measures four through seven transpose the basic set by writing the musical pattern backwards (retrograde); this retrograde is repeated exactly in measures 15 – 18. In measures eight through fifteen, the basic set is split into smaller sets and becomes “fragments of the theme.” These smaller sets, despite their inversions, maintain their original groupings that are presented in the prime form (mm1 – 4). For instance, there are four groups of fragments – (541), (e76), (302) – whose order may be varied but only within themselves. In this way, Webern creates unity in his seemingly haphazard piece by repeating and varying the four fragments embedded in the opening “theme.” Thus, an analysis of Webern’s Piano Variations not only reveals the characteristics of 12-tone music but also shows the particulars of a radically new system of music that was based on Schoenberg’s prior work.
While Webern’s Piano Variations can be used to illustrate the basic components of 12-tone music, Schoenberg’s Opus 33a (1928) reveals the larger trends and elaborations that are possible in the new 12-tone system. As in Webern’s work, Schoenberg’s music is defined by the absence of a melodic line. The “theme” in Opus 33a is a pitch series that is further varied and elaborated throughout the rest of the piece. Unlike tonal music, Opus 33a does not have any distinct phrases but moves in relation to the number of variations upon the prime form. This technique is called developing variation. Similarly, there is no sense of harmonic direction. Typical of tonal music, one can hear a clear harmonic progression towards a final cadence. But because 12-tone music has liberated dissonance and abolished the tonal center, there is no such thing as the need to resolve. As a result, 12-tone music seems chaotic and confusing to the listener, but upon a closer examination clearly shows an order hidden beneath the disorder. Lastly, 12-tone music is defined by its odd rhythms and frequent drastic changes in tempo. In Opus 33a, Schoenberg begins in 4/4 meter but on the last page, he switches between 5/4 and 6/8, only to end in 3/4. These shifts in tempo are mirrored by a change in dynamics; Schoenberg rapidly switches from pianissimo to forte at the end of the opus. Together the changes in tempo and sound create a more dramatic, expressionist piece of music. Thus, Schoenberg’s Opus 33a is typical of 12-tone music and reflects the burning desire to create a new way to communicate musically.
The same way that Kandinsky’s Composition IV illustrates the elements of atonal music, Within the Black Square mirrors the characteristics of the 12-tone system. Upon listening to 12-tone music, the pieces appear to have no direction. This ambiguity is reflected in the flat, empty spaces of Within the Black Square. In contrast, the painting includes clearly defined geometric shapes, which are similar to Schoenberg’s 12 chromatic pitches with integer equivalents, organized into strict forms and fragments. Clearly, there is order beneath the disorder, one that may be more readily visible in the abstract paintings. While this new concept of art and music may be less expressive, the fact that both disciplines work to create a new image or sound completely out of nothing is what defines Modernist art and music. Finally, it may be said that abstract art, however profound, is not necessarily aesthetically pleasing. The same can be said about 12-tone and atonal music. When Schoenberg premiered his music in Vienna in 1900, “[his] songs met laughing and hissing.” But all together, the lack of a “pretty” melody and the absence of a traditional form mirror the social realities of Weimar Germany, which as a result of World War One, had to be reconstructed and rebuilt in modern guise. Reflecting this trend, Kandinsky and Schönberg “turned more and more towards an abstract style….” In a fundamental sense then, abstract art and 12-tone music served to fill the cultural vacuum that was a direct result of World War One and its aftermath.
To sum up, it is clear that art and music are artistic media that more than reflect each other’s styles. Both mirrors the societies in which they are embedded in as well. By revealing the close relationship between art and music, Kandinsky and Schoenberg’s works themselves become more profound. Kandinsky’s Composition IV becomes more than a mess of lines and colors on a canvas and Within the Black Square is not just a collection of shapes. Similarly, Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire is not a bizarre collection of songs and Opus 33a is not just a hectic mess of notes on a page. Rather, both Kandinsky and Schoenberg’s early works express the desperate desire for change in early twentieth-century German society while their later works reveal an attempt to create new media of artistic and musical communication after 1918. This analysis of Expressionism and Modernism, as exemplified in Kandinsky and Schoenberg’s works, reveals the creative turbulence that characterized Vienna and Berlin across a forty-year period.
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