Atonal music for violin

Edited: February 17, 2019, 12:49 AM · What are some important atonal works for violin and orchestra/piano accompaniment?

How does a violinist approach an atonal work as opposed to a tonal composition? Is it more about bringing out a certain feeling rather then stating a melody?

Replies (51)

February 17, 2019, 1:52 AM · Well you have the Berg violin concerto. Thats the only thing I can of at the moment
Edited: February 17, 2019, 6:35 AM · Me improvising at home, with the occasional quarter-tone thrown in ;)

Some of Gesualdo's madrigals verge on the atonal; they are playable as string quartets. I have great respect for the singers who can master those beautiful pieces.

February 17, 2019, 7:29 AM · Schonberg, Max Davies, Rautavaara, Ligeti, Gerhard concertos? It's a while since I listened to any of them so I can't remember how atonal they are.
I wouldn't like to comment on how 'important' they might be. I suspect Schonberg could be classed as important because even Hilary Hahn said she had to extend her technique in order to play it.
February 17, 2019, 7:37 AM · As Heifetz said, the most important thing about atonal violin music is that it reminds us how thankful we should be for Beethoven and Mozart.
February 17, 2019, 10:51 AM · What Cotton said.
February 17, 2019, 11:50 AM · The advice I remember from a long-deceased conductor is not to play it like it's "new" music; it all derives from the classical tradition and the same classical values apply. Yfrah Neaman's recording of the Gerhard concerto (I've currently got it playing on youtube) is a perfect example of how to extract lyricism from seemingly gritty material - I'm really pleased to be making its acquaintance so thank-you Peter
February 17, 2019, 12:39 PM · Schoenberg's Fantasy for violin and piano.
February 17, 2019, 8:08 PM · "Some of Gesualdo's madrigals verge on the atonal"

Um, even with the word "verge", that's statement is really misleading and just not true. Gesualdo is still very much grounded on modal principles. Just because its harmonic organization is often disturbing and baffling doesn't mean we can just throw out the it-anticipates-atonality card. That's just pretty intellectually lazy.

Just because atonal music do not have a tonal center doesn't it mean it lack rhetoric, gestures, and other words, there's awesome story telling to be found in let's say Schoenberg's fantasy and concerto. I'm happy Heifetz can serenade what he likes with the angles up in heaven, and others musicians here now can play awesome works besides Mozart and Beethoven :)

February 17, 2019, 9:08 PM · The first atonal work that I was taught was Webern's Four Pieces, which is a 12 tone work. I found it to be incomprehensibly weird.
February 18, 2019, 2:05 AM · I wonder if we shouldn't re-tune the violin in diminished fifths, to remove those stifling tonal resonances?

Seriously though, I find that atonal, (or even highly chromatic) writing is exhausting to learn as the usual links between sounds are studiously avoided by the composer.

Edited: February 18, 2019, 7:59 AM · Lydia - I agree. I can recall many years ago in college playing one of the Webern pieces in chamber orch. It was almost impossible to count correctly and figure out where to come in. As frustrated as I was, I eventually concluded that whether I came in precisely at the right time or not hardly mattered. The thing sounded awful regardless. As Blair Tindall pointed out in her book Mozart in the Jungle, Webern was accidentally shot and killed at the end of WWII by an American soldier, although some people may have wondered if the soldier did it on purpose to forestall more of his awful compositions.

The other thing I can say is that a fairly prominent composer of serialist/12-tone stuff named Arthur Berger was a close friend of my father's. My father had very good taste in music and did not like his music but felt out of loyalty that he should get all of Arthur's new records. Arthur knew my father did not care for his music much, and one day when they ran into each other in the record store, Arthur asked my father what he was getting. My father said, "Your latest record." Arthur responded, "you know, Frank, you won't like this one any more than the last one."

February 18, 2019, 9:11 AM · "But, I wailed, good broadcasting and great art offer a kind of serendipity that expands your horizons rather than keeping you in an eternal feedback loop." ~Stuart Jeffries

from "Why a forgotten 1930s critique of capitalism is back in fashion"

February 18, 2019, 9:17 AM · Threnody

The Scream


February 18, 2019, 12:14 PM · Jeewon - if you go to the Musee de l'Homme in Paris, you can see the mummy that was apparently the inspiration for the Munch when he did the Scream. Poor fellow probably died suddenly in the middle of some atonal or twelve tone concert.
February 18, 2019, 12:39 PM · The biggest problem is in interpretation. The second biggest problem is if you don’t have absolute pitch, it can get quite dicey. The third biggest problem is that the rhythms these 20th cemtury composers used are often challenging.
As an example, there is a HUGE difference between early recordings of Anton Webern and late Boulez and Ensamble Intercontemporain recordings of the same works with more a more developed school of interpretations.
That said, for me, Berg was the most lyric of the serialists writing for violin.
February 18, 2019, 3:03 PM · "As Heifetz said, the most important thing about atonal violin music is that it reminds us how thankful we should be for Beethoven and Mozart."

While I'm sure that many concertgoers feel exactly that way, and I would also agree that such compositions are often too abstract to be appreciated as music, I think that statement also somewhat misrepresents Beethoven. Beethoven composed at least one piece which to modern ears sounds like jazz, and certainly didn't take a static view of music, and advanced it in his own time to well beyond that. Had he lived in the 20th century, it doesn't take much of a stretch to imagine that he would be very comfortable with the music of Stravinsky and Shostakovich among others. Whether or not he would have tried some antonal elements or brought it even farther ahead in profoundly artistic expression would be more speculative, but not out of consideration.

Edited: February 18, 2019, 3:25 PM · Lots of the late classical and romantic music experiments with some very out-there sounds, just like atonal music and all the other postmodern junk. The difference is that that music still had some sort of emotional centre, and energy, and spontaneity to it.
Modern atonal/ minimalist/ whatever music is so cynical and dead.
"People before me have already written better music than can ever be written again, so let's just throw everything out the window and make horrible noise nobody can enjoy so that we can at least stand out a little bit".
Many of those composers even got their process down to a formula. For example, invent a random passage using all twelve chromatic notes at least once and repeat that phrase over and over in different instruments or registers until it hits the 15 minute mark.
Edited: February 18, 2019, 7:56 PM · With all due respect (to the commenters, not the OP), the reason classical music is supposedly 'dying' is because pretentious wealthy old people refuse to program anything later and more innovative than Mahler in the concert hall, thus propagating the belief that western art music is exclusively for the upper-class.

My personal favorite atonal works for violin:
Ligeti Violin Concerto
Berg Violin Concerto
Schoenberg Violin Concerto
Saariaho Nocturne (unaccompanied, but still absolutely gorgeous)
Ginastera Violin Concerto

February 18, 2019, 8:10 PM · Everything I play is atonal. Or maybe I just have bad intonation :p
February 18, 2019, 8:20 PM · Thanks everyone for your responses. I actually got interested in atonal music by learning an atonal piece, L'Antienne (chant) composed by Georges Delerue, circa 1983. It's a short piece - 3 minutes long - and intermediate in difficulty, which is perhaps rare for an atonal work. I'm curious what others think of this piece. Personally, I think it very accessible and uses the violin effectively. I've appended a link here:
February 18, 2019, 8:59 PM · While I don't love atonal music, its hate for its own sake is unwarranted, in my view. I most certainly do not listen to much of it-its puzzle-like theory is painful to my mind-but undoubtedly there must be many who find joy in listening and performing at least some of it.

Much of it is more cerebral, and not intended to move us as much. That doesn't make it bad. It's just not tonal, and harder for most of our tonally-raised brains to get accustomed to.

In all honesty, I find some later modern-and much more tonal-works much less palatable and excruciatingly boring. I never enjoyed minimalism, for instance, and sometimes modern music gives the impression of trying too hard to do something "new", even when it may not sound jarring at all.

(I am not even sure serial music is that much of a thing anymore among the latest modern composers, quite frankly. Seems to me like another older Classical idiom to me, and there was obviously a lot of thought put into those atonal works.)

February 18, 2019, 9:29 PM · "the reason classical music is supposedly 'dying' is because pretentious wealthy old people refuse to program anything later and more innovative than Mahler in the concert hall"

I don't find that to be entirely true. In a local chamber music series I happen to attend, there is quite a lot of new music played (among the older - many quartets seem to like to start with Haydn for some reason), and while most of that would not be called atonal, some of it is quite "out there", and notably, the old people who almost exclusively populate the audience, more often than not "get it", and show their appreciation. I've found that surprising, but it shouldn't be surprising that people who have a love and ear for music would be able to appreciate it in new forms. But I don't know why there aren't more young people in the audience. I guess they don't know or appreciate what they're missing.

Edited: February 19, 2019, 10:21 PM · So Tom, if you had to represent The Scream, or the horror of Hiroshima, or the absurdity of an accidental death, or the cold, lonely emptiness of space, what kind of harmonic language would you suggest.

Do you share the opinion that all music which has no immediate personal (or popular) appeal is "junk".

Or that cynicism or "deadness" must be a quality of the artist, rather than a reflection of the world the artist tries to reflect.

Is it the artist's sole purpose to make their audience feel good, or happy, or offer a means of catharsis: to sell.

February 20, 2019, 1:28 AM · Jeewon, there is much tonal, (or non-atonal!) music which expresses the world you describe, using the expressive character of the various intervals to greater effect than putting all intervals rigorously on an equal footing.
February 20, 2019, 6:31 AM · Jeewon - good question. I'll give it some thought.
February 20, 2019, 7:02 AM · Adrian, examples?

Atonal not= serial

February 20, 2019, 7:53 AM · I can add to Adrian's comment by mentioning that in some Irish fiddle music, especially from the West coast of Ireland, there are a few tunes that have a quarter-tone between C-nat and C-sharp on the A string, for expressive purposes. These don't necessarily appear as such in some tune collection editions because the transcriber assumed, wrongly, that what he heard was a C-nat or C-sharp played out of tune, and notated his best guess accordingly. However, there are other editions which draw attention to the quarter-tones.

Bartok, in his solo violin sonata, uses quarter-tones in places, but there is a commonly used version, suggested by Menuhin, where the quarter-tone passages are replaced by alternatives using semi-tones.

A major microtone composer of the last century was the Czech composer Alois Haba, who established in the 1930s an influential department of microtonal composition in the Czech Conservatory. He was prolific, composing mostly for quarter-tones, but occasionally fifth- and sixth tones (now there's a challenge for a string quartet!). His Op 9a is a Fantasy for solo violin in quarter-tones, which has been recorded by Antonin Novak. His music is definitely tonal, the microtonal aspects coming from Eastern European folk music.

February 20, 2019, 4:16 PM · Jeewon, I was first thinking of Stravinsky, Bartok, Britten or Shostakovich, with a "stretched" tonality which I find expressive of the 20th century violence and anguish. But also of "non-tonal" works by e.g. Varese or Penderecki.

"Atonality" for me is a conscious rejection or avoidance of tonal combinations. It begins with the exacerbated tensions of Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire, Berg's Wozzeck, or Webern's Op.5 for string quartet, where intervals still have differentiated expressive values. Then Schoenberg in particular wants to "emancipate" dissonance as I must "emancipate" trafic or aircraft noise in my immediate environment..

Serial composition seems to me a little like the secret codes that musicologists like to find in Bach or Schumann. It helps the composer to manage his material, but has no real incidence on the value of the composition.

February 20, 2019, 5:37 PM · It is acceptable to play atonal music with poor intonation?
February 20, 2019, 6:56 PM · Paul - given my experience playing Webern (see above), it may well be that no one could tell the difference.
February 20, 2019, 7:07 PM · Adrian, I think you're making my point for me. When those composers use tonality I think it's in an ironic or nostalgic way, and all the 20th C expression is contained in their "stretched" parts, much closer to Schoenberg than Beethoven, though not disjointed from the revolutionary composer, who himself was considered noisy and incomprehensible by his critics. In any case I think you agree a new language had to be developed to express a new, post-world war, post-holocaust, post-apocalyptic experience of the world.
Edited: February 20, 2019, 7:26 PM · Interesting how the general public find atonal music difficult to listen to but would feel it makes sense as a soundtrack to a movie at the appropriate dramatic point.

To illustrate, I wrote some music for an animation some years ago:

Had to be atonal at 2.20 on...:)

February 20, 2019, 7:29 PM · Jeewon - I think a new musical language of sorts was developed, but I am not sure that it expressed anything in a way that conveyed meaning to people, at least not to most people. Partly, this occurred because of the Holocaust. Many of the Jewish composers who were killed by the Nazis and whose sheet music was destroyed were tonal composers. Schoenberg was the most important surviving composer, and his legacy ruled the field, somewhat by default. He did nothing to promote the music of the tonal composers who did not survive. A good example was his brother-in-law, Zemlinsky, a wonderful composer in the Mahler tradition who managed to get to the US but died during the War. Schoenberg did nothing to promote the excellent music Zemlinsky composed.

The post-war musical landscape might have looked very different and much more tonal, had the War not obliterated so many good composers. Those composers might have created a language which could have more adequately and accessibly conveyed the experience.

February 20, 2019, 8:14 PM · "It is acceptable to play atonal music with poor intonation?"

It is not, for any music. :(

February 20, 2019, 11:52 PM · First of all, Atonal music is a contradiction in terms.

I kid.

Edited: February 21, 2019, 2:23 AM · Boulez did an interesting unaccompanied violin piece. And John Harbison did a suite.
February 21, 2019, 7:55 AM · Tom -- that's what I was thinking too. LOL
February 21, 2019, 9:30 AM · I disagree it "had to be invented" because of the wars-otherwise, it should be the standard music for our divided, ethnic and religious "war-happy", and often bigoted world.

Also, I have nothing against atonal and serial music, which origins have been pre-world wars. It's just another cerebral art form. But I don't think it's the one valid way to express "doomsday-all is gloom, the world has ended" feelings. Even in tonal music there's plenty of gloom and anger if you know where to look (talking before Shostakovich.)

Of course the serial composer may work on pieces inspired by a war-ravaged world.

I do not like to hate on those styles (I remain neutral) but just wanted to state that they are music, beyond the sad times in which they may have been created.

No disrespect meant. I never learned to love it as much as respecting it as a valid art form during my 20th century music studies (used to be called as such.)

February 21, 2019, 12:57 PM · @Tom - what an amazing slant you give to Schoenberg's career. Surely you know that his music was declared "entartete" by the Nazis. In 1934 he emigrated to the US where he converted to Judaism (about the best thing he ever did).
February 21, 2019, 2:50 PM · Steve - how could it not be declared entartete by the Nazis. He was Jewish by their lights and his music was not tonal. So, yes, he emigrated, but the other stuff I said is also true. For those interested in the composers who were obliterated by the Nazis, I recommend the Orel Foundation website, established by Maestro James Conlon who has done more than most to resurrect these composers and their music: When Conlon was Music Director in Cologne, Germany, he was able to get funding from the City to record most of Zemlinsky's oeuvre because Zemlinsky had been born there.
February 22, 2019, 12:27 AM · Tom, I'm not sure what you're arguing anymore. The mid-twentieth C musical landscape may have been different if Schoenberg had died and those tonal composers you mention had lived, but not because of the survival of tonal composers of which there were many, (including Zemlinsky's student Korngold, Kurt Weill, Gershwin, Bernstein, Copeland, William Schuman, etc.) Perhaps all you wish is that Schoenberg had never existed, or had traded places with your list of composers, as you seem to imply Webern's accidental death was serendipitous.

But the great upheaval from Wagner's late Romanticism, through Mahler's "maximalism" (Taruskin) and Strauss's decadence, to the beginnings of Schoenberg's expressionism was pretty much established before WWI. And also, Schoenberg was a modernist. Of course they weren't inventing a new language for the sake of expressing what we can see in hindsight as the horrors of the 20th C. They were working out the technical and formal problems of the consequences of highly chromatic and increasingly non functional harmonic progression, preoccupied with their part in the evolution of music, of which they were quite self-aware.

Schoenberg's influence didn't happen by default as you suggest, but it was notable for its break from the line of development completed by Mahler and Strauss. Though he was perhaps rejected by Schoenberg, for understandably supporting his wife (Zemlinky's sister) over Schoenberg when she eloped with that other guy(?), and for not following him into atonalism, Zemlinky was not overshadowed by Schoenberg, but rather by Mahler. Why should Schoenberg have promoted him exactly?

Schoenberg's revolution happened quietly as you suggest, his second string quartet transitioning to an atonal ending without any warning signs, or anyone noticing, but his work had a profound (if reviled by you and Cotton) influence on 20th C music (obviously through the 2nd Viennese School, and subsequently to composers such as Boulez, Nono, Stockhausen.)

But my point is that the techniques developed by all post-tonal composers, including those listed by Adrian, and others such as Ligeti, Cage, Glass, etc., provide a new language uniquely suited to an artistic response to the 20th C experience, and are therefore important.

Edited: February 22, 2019, 6:54 AM · I like the terms that are emerging here: extended tonality, post-tonal, atonal, non-tonal. How about "anti-tonal"?

By which I mean the Emancipation of Dissonance of the Second Viennese School, pretending that all musical intervals are equivalent, when out ears tell us otherwise, and resulting in Schoenberg's atonal "serenade", or his atonal "romantic" violin concerto.

Berg's concerto, on the other hand has distinctly tonal echos, thanks to it's "g-minor" tone-row.

February 22, 2019, 6:45 AM · Another of Tom's points that seems a little cockeyed; during his lifetime Schoenberg hardly "ruled the field" in Austria and Germany (where for much of the time his music was banned) or in the rest of Europe where national schools such as the Russian, French and British carried on regardless. Then in the 1950's it was influential figures such as Pierre Boulez and William Glock who decided tonality was dead. I don't think this was ever Schoenberg's ambition so let's accept him for what he was - a somewhat arrogant genius whose influence didn't stifle western music but nourished it. And I can't stand him!
Edited: February 22, 2019, 7:04 AM · What a lot of people don't realise is that the 1st and 3rd mvts of Bartok's concerto no.2 contain many 12 tone passages. The genius is in the very well thought out intervallic calculation, combined with a slow moving bassline. I can assure you that this is probably the most beautiful 12 tone music you will come across. As for how to approach this kind of music: play with the intervals and try to feel intent behind the relationships. Technically, I guess 12 tone is a subset of atonality... but similar principles apply.
February 22, 2019, 12:21 PM · I like atonal music more than tonal music. The latter sounds, in my opinion, simplistic and outdated.

While wonderful with other instruments, like piano, I have my doubts about atonal music on the violin.

But the Webern's Four Pieces are all beautiful, especially the second.

February 22, 2019, 12:39 PM · Steve - I think Schoenberg regarded classical tonality as dead before WWII. I suspect it was his ambition to move music beyond tonality, but I agree that his influence had some positive effects on Western music although it had lots of negative effects, ending with much of classical music finding itself at a dead-end. However, the fact remains that with his influence after WWII, he did nothing to help save and promote the music of the exterminated composers.

Jeewon - I don't wish Schoenberg never existed. For intellectual reasons, music would have had to at least try the atonal/12-tone/serialist/noise types of music in the same way that artists had to spray paint a large canvas with a single color or sign a toilet. While some of the post-war spin-offs of the trends started by people like Schoenberg were good, I am not really a fan of most of it.

February 22, 2019, 1:30 PM · "There is still plenty of good music to be written in C major," said Schoenberg to his advanced composition class at UCLA in 1940. It should be noted that Schoenberg wrote tonal music side-by-side with his serial and nontonal music, especially in the 1930s and 1940s.

Tom, why do you feel that Schoenberg had a particular obligation to preserve and promote the music of composers murdered by Nazis? Do you think it was incumbent on Schoenberg to have both the same historical awareness of these composers that you have, and also the resources and access to the compositions in question (especially from his home in America), to do this work? I'm just not sure why you single out Schoenberg here.

February 22, 2019, 4:13 PM · Adrian: "pretending that all musical intervals are equivalent, when out ears tell us otherwise"

I truly wonder how can a composer write music with that in mind. It seems to me that ignoring the intervals we know it's altogether impossible.

Edited: February 22, 2019, 5:07 PM · Scott - After the War, Schoenberg was either the most, or one of the most, important/influential living composers of classical music. He was also Jewish and converted back to Judaism during this period. His BIL, Zemlinsky, managed to escape the Holocaust but only lived until 1942. He certainly would have known who these composers were, particularly his BIL. So, I really wonder why he did not do more to preserve and promote their legacy. Why did Maestro James Conlon become the first to really promote Zemlinsky's music?
Edited: February 22, 2019, 5:34 PM · World War II went on in Europe until 1945. I'm not sure Schoenberg would've had access to the music of the composers you talk about. Schoenberg died not long after the end of the War (1951, in Los Angeles), and in the years immediately after the war, how likely is it that anyone was thinking about the legacies of composers?

In the last six years of his life Scheonberg was busy composing (some works, like "A Survivor from Warsaw," "Moses und Aron," the cantata on Genesis, "Dreimal Tausend Jahre" on the Jews' return to Palestine, etc concerned his faith and the fate of the Jewish people). He was also teaching, writing, and supporting his family. I am also not sure, despite his status now, that he would have had much of a platform in the 1940s with which to do any kind of promotion. Antisemitism was a powerful force in the America of that time, too. There were positions and opportunities Schoenberg was denied because he was a Jew.

Also, maybe he just didn't like much of Zemlinsky's music. I don't disagree with your basic claim that these composers shouldn't be forgotten. I just don't know how realistic it is to expect, in the years immediately following the massive upheaval and destruction of World War II, that an immigrant composer in America would see it as his responsibility to preserve the legacies of a handful of the millions killed by the Nazi regime, even if they had the same artistic interests. Perhaps the fact that they were composers was less moving than the facts of their deaths. Maybe the whole thing was so horrible that Schoenberg, like many others who escaped Hitler's Germany in those days, did not want to think about it.

Edited: February 23, 2019, 4:55 AM · I would say Schoenberg was a "great" composer by sheer talent, not through atonality. And his pedagogical treatises on classical harmony, composition etc. are unequalled. His early atonal works are "expressionist" ranging from the spectral to the tortured. Then he claims "to have made a discovery that will ensure the supremacy of German music for centuries to come" i.e. the twelve-tone row. And tries to write charming or romantic works where even consonant intervals are used only for texture, rather than expression.

I listen to Hilary Hahn's disc of the Violin Concerto for the sheer beauty of her tone as she leads us through a Brahmsian landscape littered with lumps of cast iron..

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