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Timeline: The Second Viennese School

U.S. Public Domain
Artist Edvard Munch’s 1893 painting "The Scream" is an example of Expressionism in the visual arts. The works of the Second Viennese School were an extension of this new aesthetic at the beginning of the 20th century.";

Throughout music history there have been schools of thought and practice. These schools were collections of composers around an institution or geographic location that worked together in the pursuit of new musical expression. 

In the middle ages there was the School of Notre Dame, in the Renaissance - the Franco-Flemish School, in the Baroque — the Venetian School. In the Classical and early Romantic eras there was the First Viennese School made up of household names like Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and others. In the 20th century, a new generation of composers sought to take music to the next logical step of compositional practice. They have been called the Second Viennese School.

Composer Arnold Schoenberg and his pupils, Anton Webern, Alban Berg and others, started to explore expressionism in music. Expressionism was a movement in the visual arts that sought to evoke emotion through distortion. The traditional rules of perspective and color were left behind. Schoenberg and his followers began to push the boundaries of music towards new sounds that defied convention. They believed that since the time of Wagner, the standard practices of music had begun to erode. This led ultimately to a complete abandonment of tonality.

Throughout history, music has been built on collections of notes called scales. These scales exist within realms of sound that we call keys which interact through rules of dissonance and consonance. The Second Viennese School did away with all of these rules and developed a new system of organization eventually called the twelve-tone row. There are twelve individual steps between the octave, twelve different possible notes that you could play. A tone row is a series of these notes without any repetitions. This row then becomes the unique scale or key in which to compose a piece of music.

Credit US-PD
This is the tone row that Anton Webern used to compose his "Piano Variations" Op. 27.

Schoenberg’s twelve-tone technique erases any hierarchy of notes. No sound, no pitch is more important than another. There is no tonic, no home base, no ultimate place of resolution. So how do you listen to this type of music? Understand, that serial techniques like the twelve-tone row are not meant to be beautiful in a traditional sense. When we look at the paints of Edvard Munch, such as “The Scream”, what we see is not traditional beauty but an honest expression of emotion.

It’s this freedom of emotional expression that inspired many composers in the 20th century to embrace the tools and techniques developed by the Second Viennese School.  Schoenberg, Berg and Webern opened the flood gates for a new, darker and maybe even a more honest expression of music.

Timeline is an exploration into the development of Western music. Follow the Timeline on our new web app where you can hear all of the episodes in order.

James Stewart is Vermont Public Classical's afternoon host. As a composer, he is interested in many different genres of music; writing for rock bands, symphony orchestras and everything in between.
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