“Atonal music” can be
described as music without a key. It is a term that can be used for music in
which the twelve semitones of the scale are “of equal value, as there is no
fundamental note or tonic thus: at the outset no note is established being more
important than another.” (Erwin Stein). Going further, as no note is more
significant than another, melodies must be formed in such a manner so that no
note predominates. It is essential that dissonances rather than consonances are
the harmonic norm. Key centres are abolished, and the common chord is abandoned.
This “school” has been prominent since about 1907 when the term was coined by
Joseph Marx. Some critics used the word “atonal” as a derogatory term for music
that they deemed as “non-musical.”
Examples of “atonal music”
would include Arnold Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire (1912), the final movement
of his String Quartet No.2 (1908) and Alban Berg’s opera Wozzeck (1925).
Atonalism would soon shade off into twelve-tone, integral serialism and indeterminacy.
It should be noted that Schoenberg
and Alban Berg did not approve of the term “atonal.” The former preferred the term “pantonal,” “denoting
[a] synthesis of all keys.”
In 1934, composer and conductor
Constant Lambert (1905-51) published his idiosyncratic but lively and
provocative study of the then-contemporary music scene, Music Ho! A Study of
Music in Decline. His comments on Atonalism are both witty and pertinent.
He did get wrong the ongoing impact on subsequent classical music. Nowadays,
however, many listeners can enjoy atonal music as well as works constructed on traditional
Lambert wrote: “There is one objection to atonalism so simple and childish that no one seems to have had the courage to make it. Although atonalism has produced complicated and objective fugal structures that can with justice be compared with the Kunst der Fugue of Bach, subjective and neurasthenic operas that can be compared with Tristan and Isolde or Parsifal, it has produced nothing that we can set beside Chabrier and Offenbach, let alone the comic operas of Mozart. The dance movements in the Serenade and the op. 25 Piano Suite, which are Schönberg's nearest approach to this genre, are sufficient proof of the essential solemnity of atonalism. An atonal comic opera is a chimerical thought, and though it is unlikely that either Schönberg or Berg would in any case wish to attempt such a genre, the mere fact that the task would be impossible is a proof of the narrow emotional range offered by their idiom.