Week 6

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NB tasks 1 and 2 please submit electronic versions as well by the end of the course (email to richard.hoadley@anglia.ac.uk)

Atonality and Abstraction in the Visual Arts

In this session we chart the parallel artistic development of music and the visual arts from figuration and tonality to abstraction and ‘atonality’ and its variants.

Graphic Abstraction presentation (pdf, 7.4MB)

Students learn what is meant by atonal music and how the concepts of consonance and dissonance have evolved throughout the course of musical history. By examining the Symphony (Op.21) of Schoenberg’s pupil Anton Webern, we start to examine the techniques by which atonal music can be created.

Preparatory Listening

Preparatory Reading

  • Hahl-Koch, J., 1984. Arnold Schoenberg, Wassily Kandinsky, letters, pictures and documents, London & Boston: Faber and Faber.
  • Meyer E. da C., F. Wasserman, eds., 2003. Schoenberg, Kandinsky, and the Blue Rider, New York & London: Scala Publishers.
  • Shaw-Miller, S., 2002. Visible deeds of music: art and music from Wagner to Cage, New Haven, CT & London: Yale University Press

Indicative Seminar Activity

  • Why did Schoenberg consider tonality ‘outworn’ by the start of the twentieth century?
  • Are we justified in drawing a correspondence between atonality in music and abstraction in the visual arts?
  • What might be the counterpart of dissonance in the visual arts?
  • In order to understand Schoenberg’s ‘emancipation of dissonance’ consider the evolution of consonance and dissonance throughout musical history, and relate this to the evidence of the harmonic series.
  • How does the atonal music of Schoenberg and his pupils avoid the consonances of tonal music (octaves, fifths and thirds)?  Analyse Webern’s Symphony, Concerto and Variations in order to demonstrate his approach towards serial technique.

Follow-Up Work

Serialism: Webern Symphonie Op.21 (1928)

We learn about Schoenberg’s discovery of serial technique as a means of composing atonal music and unifying the content of a musical work. We learn how Schoenberg’s pupils Webern and Berg each adapted serial technique to suit their own compositional purpose, and analyse Webern’s Symphonie Op.21. Students learn how to listen to atonal music. They uncover the serial construction of Webern’s Symphonie Op.21 and consider this as a model for their own serial composition.

Webern Symphony Row Matrix

Preparatory Listening



  • Salzman, E., 2001. Twentieth Century Music 111-120
  • Brindle, R.S., 1986. Serial Composition, (1966), Oxford: OUP
  • Schoenberg, A. ‘Composition with Twelve Tones’ in Kostelanetz, R. and J. Darby (eds.) Classic Essays on Twentieth-Century Music (pp.233-263), (1996) NewYork: Schirmer
  • Griffiths, P., 1983. Second Viennese School (pp.118-126) London: Macmillan


Questions to Consider

  • Why did Schoenberg arrive at the method of serial composition, rather than continuing to write free atonal music?
  • Is the technique of serialism an artificial creation, or does it have historical roots?
  • What are the characteristics of Webern’s serial style, in contrast to Schoenberg and Berg?
  • What do we make of Schoenberg’s comment that, before long, milkmen would be whistling his tone rows?

 Indicative Seminar Activity

  • Students are introduced to the twelve-note row of Webern’s Concerto for Nine Instruments and are led to uncover its properties. We examine movement 1, uncover the retrograde symmetry and discuss whether it is audible; retrograde structures in the electro acoustic domain are discussed by way of comparison.
  • The construction of movement 2 is also explained to students, and offered as a compositional strategy for their own work.

Follow-Up Work: Assessed Item 2

  • Students are required to write a strict serial composition for two or more instruments, lasting between 30 seconds and three minutes. A brief written commentary and two copies of the score should be submitted: a performing score, and an annotated score demonstrating the serial construction. See assessments for submission details.

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