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Travis Bliss

Expressionism in Music

Arnold Schonberg and Wassily Kandinsky

"Dear Professor,
Please excuse me for simply writing to you without having the pleasure of knowing you
personally. I have just heard your concert here and it has given me real pleasure. You do not
know me, of course--that is, my works--since I do not exhibit much in general, and have
exhibited in Vienna only briefly once and that was years ago (at the Secession). However, what
we are striving for and our whole manner of thought and feeling have so much in common that
I feel completely justified in expressing my empathy."

-Wassily Kandinsky

Throughout the history of man, art has been evolving in step with the social and cultural
progress of humans. In the wake of post-romanticism, the Expressionist movement came about
as a more realistic and introspective art movement aimed to express the inner darkness and

Schoenberg, Arnold, Wassily Kandinsky, and Jelena Fontaine. Arnold Schoenberg, Wassily Kandinsky:
letters, pictures, and documents. London: Faber & Faber, 1984. Print, 21

turmoil that loomed inside the modern day human. Both Kandinsky and Schnberg had a
footing in the movement but soon aimed to bring art farther into the abstract to which no one
had yet traversed. The correspondence between these two great artists began on January 18th
1911, when Kandinsky sent Schnberg a letter after seeing a concert of his.
Kandinsky was
very impressed with Schnberg's music and observed many similarities between their two
facets of art. Kandinsky wrote: "I am certain that our own modern harmony is not to be found
in the 'geometric ' way, but rather in the anti-geometric, antilogical way. And this way is that of
'dissonances in art ['], in painting, therefore, just as much as in music. And 'today's' dissonance
in painting and music is merely the consonance of tomorrow."
Kandinsky was aware of the
parallel trajectories that their work was headed, and yearned for an artistic connection with
Schnberg. Through the work of Schnberg and Kandinsky, art was able to become a true
vehicle for the expression of the inner human experience.
Schnberg himself, being both a painter and composer, shows, irrefutably, the amazing
connection between visual art and music, and through his artistic development in both of these
subjects simultaneously, one can see how his art evolved to accept his powerful emotions. In
1907, Schnberg was experiencing emotional issues such as depression and even contemplated
Schnberg wrote in his Outline for a Will: I see myself obligedto write down my
last will as preparation for some voluntary actions which I intend at this timeWhether it would
be my body that gave way, or my soul-I do not feel the difference-but I have a presentiment of

Ibid, 21
Ibid, 21
Crawford, John C., and Dorothy L. Crawford. Expressionism in twentieth-century music. Bloomington:
Indiana University Press, 1993, 69

At this time he began painting and working on a series of self-portraits, while
continuing his work on his second string quartet. The progression of both disciplines of his
work in such a specific way, show the necessity for more freedom of expression in art in order
to be an instrument for pure, true human emotion.

The first movement of Schnbergs second string quartet is firmly coming out of the
post-romantic tradition. It is a waltz entitled Massig, in the key of f# minor. In this piece
Schnberg begins utilizing some expressionistic techniques while still being, for the most part, a
romantic sounding piece. The piece starts with the first theme stated in the first violin. It
clearly outlines the tonality of f# minor. This theme is referenced again, verbatim, multiple
times in the piece as well as being used as a rhythmic motif in many other parts of the
movement. It can be seen throughout the whole, passing between the different voices. In
addition to the themes which are used constantly throughout the piece, the piece is generally
in the same key, or at least it starts and ends in the same key. Throughout the course of the
piece, this f# minor tonal center is challenged consistently and there are many moments of
harmonic and tonal ambiguity, very reminiscent of Wagners Elektra. This piece is definitely
trying to push the boundaries of tonality but Schnberg doesnt go as far as some of his later
pieces, or even the later movements in this set. Aside from these few romantic characteristics
the piece employs a great deal of expressionist techniques. This piece is very complex

Ibid, 69

rhythmically and utilizes a lot of over the bar-line phrasing as well. It has periods of intense,
stark dynamic contrast, accompanied with change of timbre to sul ponticello, and harsh note
Shortly after this time, Schnberg began painting a lot more in addition to
composing and it can be seen that his visual art was developing in many of the same ways that
his music was. It was through this that his true emotions surrounding the betrayal by his wife
came out. If you look at this self portrait of Schnberg you can see how his techniques
developed over time leading into his later painting which he entitled Red Gaze. In Schonberg
first painting it is clearly a portrait of a human figure.
The shape and contour of the face is
clearly defined, as well as the colors. But when you focus at his second painting, you can see
that an amazing transformation has occurred.
The face of the figure which was once normal
looking is now angular and misshapen. The brush strokes are hard and dense, the colors are
now blended and it is unclear where the face of the figure ends and where the background
begins. The eyes are obsessively circled in red, which forces them to the focus of the viewer.
The expression of the figure is much more primal and ominous. It looks less like a person and
more like a non-human, even extra-terrestrial, being. The third piece of Schnbergs self-
portraits goes even farther in this expressionist direction.
In this painting the human form is
abstracted so much that the only recognizable feature are the two eyes. The colors are
meticulously blended and produce a series of dark browns and purples. All conventional,
recognizable formal structures are abandoned. When compared to the way his painting

Schonberg, Self-Portrait, (see visual art example 1)
Schonberg, The Red Gaze, (see visual art example 2)
Schonberg, Red Gaze (see visual art example 3)

evolved, the progression from the first movement of his second string quartets to the second
reinforces the strong relationship between the development of his disciplines. When it is put in
the context of the marital problems with his wife and the severe depression and suicidal
thoughts that he was experiencing, it shows how the art had to evolve to express the powerful
emotions he was wrestling with. There was no way to express what he feeling without pushing
the boundaries of composition like he did.

While Schnberg continued developing his techniques as a composer and painter,
Kandinskys letter to him set in motion a powerful correspondence and relationship. These
artists were eager to push art even further into the unknown. Konrad Boehmer stated The
historic encounter around 1911 between the composer Arnold Schnberg and the painter
Wassily Kandinky occurred at a moment when the first wild revolts against traditional art, Dada
and Futurism, had just manifested themselves. Independently of those sometimes
spectacular activities, both Schnberg and Kandinsky had already come to the conclusion that
the material and the compositional methods they had relied on in the past were exhausted and
did not satisfy the development of their artistic ideas.
These artists were tired of the
traditional methods of art and sought new means of expression. For Schnberg, this meant his
journey into atonality, and for Kandinsky it meant his abstraction of color, form and line.

Boehmer, Konrad. nberg and Kandinsky: an historic encounter. Australia: Harwood Academic, 1997, ix

Kandinskys art progressed immensely from the start of his career, to the end. He
developed a very deep spiritual connection with art. Patricia McDonnell stated for Kandinsky
the artist articulated spiritual forces with are manifest in him. A work of art was born,
therefore of internal necessity and comprised a spiritual message. Kandinsky believed that
the spiritual value seeks its materialization as art is created.
He believed that art had a way
of finding its way out of the artist, and its easy to see how the art of Schnberg, and Kandinsky
evolved to this task. If you look at his paintings, and how they developed its easy to see this
progression. The art they were striving to create would be representative of the deeper human

One of Kandinsky paintings entitled The Blue Rider, painted in 1903, is an example of the
style of his early period.
It is easy to see that he was influenced by the French Impressionist
movement. He uses many short brush strokes, as well as minimal color blending. Its a very
figurative piece, and its clearly a man riding a horse in the woods. When you look at a painting
he did in 1908, Munich-Schwabing with the Church of St. Ursula, there are drastic differences
from this first piece.
In this piece Kandinsky uses much thicker brush strokes. They are much
more uneven and almost wave-like. The colors are much less realistic, than the previous one
and tend to be much more exaggerated versions of what they would be in real life. The skin of
the humans is a sickly yellow, as is the smoke coming from the factory in the background. Like

McDonnell, Patricia, and Michael Plante.Dictated by life: Marsden Hartley's German paintings and Robert
Indiana's Hartley elegies. Minneapolis, Minn.: Frederick R. Weisman Art Museum, University of Minnesota ;,
1995, 27
Kandinsky, The Blue Rider, 1903, (see visual art example 4)
Kandinsky, Munich-Schwabing with the Church of St. Ursula, 1908 (see visual art example 5)

the first piece, there is still not much blending of color. In 1911, a few years later, Kandinskys
piece Reiter began to abstract the form even more.
This piece, like the first one discussed,
features a horse and rider, but a large portion of the horse is gone, and you can just barely
make out the head and some of the hair on its back. A large portion of the rider is missing as
well, and you can just make out part of the head. The lines are brought out a lot and serve to
be a very strong structural element to the piece, especially the contrast between the black lines
and the whiteness of the space. The piece consists of a lot of non-geometric shapes as well. If
you look at Kandinskys Composition VII you can see that his style has taken on a whole new
There is no recognizable figure in this piece; it consists of almost all geometrical shapes,
and lines. There are roughly three reoccurring motifs; the circles, the diagonal lines, and the
checker patterns. Like Schnberg with his atonality and invention of the twelve-tone method,
Kandinsky has devolved his own idiomatic artistic language, free of the confines of the art
It can be seen that both Schnberg and Kandinsky were struggling with some of the
same issues, artistically, and ended up arriving at similar conclusions. The early 1900s in Europe
were not an easy time to live in. The life of the average human was difficult, and challenging
for the human psyche. The art practices at the time were not adequate for expressing this raw
emotion. For this reason, the art had to find a way to evolve, and it did so through the hands of
Kandinsky and Schnberg. These two people are not only amazing artists but very deep

Kandinsky, Reiter, 1911 (see visual art example 6)
Kandinsky Composition VIII, 1923, (see visual art example 7)

emotional people as well. It was through the progression and relationship of these two artists
that art was able to evolve to be a true vehicle for expressing the real human experience.


Boehmer, Konrad. Schoenberg and Kandinsky: an historic encounter. Amsterdam: Harwood
Academic Publishers, 1997.

Duchting, Hajo. Wassily Kandinsky, 1866-1944: a revolution in painting. Koln: Taschen, 2000.

Kandinsky, Wassily. Concerning the spiritual in art. New York: Dover Publications, 1977.

Kandinsky, Wassily, and Hilla Rebay. Point and line to plane. New York: Dover Publications,

Kandinsky, Wassily, Kenneth Clement Lindsay, and Peter Vergo. Kandinsky, complete writings
on art. Boston, Mass.: G.K. Hall, 1982.

Milstein, Silvina. Arnold Schoenberg: notes, sets, forms. Cambridge [England: Cambridge
University Press, 1992.

Rosen, Charles. Arnold Schoenberg. New York: Viking Press, 1975.
Schoenberg, Arnold, Wassily Kandinsky, and Jelena Fontaine.

Arnold Schoenberg, Wassily Kandinsky: letters, pictures, and documents. London: Faber &
Faber, 1984.

Schoenberg, Arnold, Wassily Kandinsky, Esther da Costa Meyer, Fred Wasserman, Reinhold
Heller, Magdalena Dabrowski, and Christopher Hailey.

Schoenberg, Kandinsky, and the Blue Rider. New York: Jewish Museum ;, 2003.

Schoenberg, Arnold, and Robert D.W. Adams. Theory of harmony. New York: Philosophical
Library, 1948.

McDonnell, Patricia, and Michael Plante.Dictated by life: Marsden Hartley's German paintings
and Robert Indiana's Hartley elegies. Minneapolis, Minn.: Frederick R. Weisman Art Museum,
University of Minnesota ;, 1995
Crawford, John C., and Dorothy L. Crawford. Expressionism in twentieth-century music.
Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993





Ex. 5

Ex. 6

Ex. 7