Expressionism is a term that, like impressionism, originated in the visual arts and was then applied to other arts including music. Expressionism can be considered a reaction to the ethereal sweetness of impressionism. Instead of gauzy impressions of natural beauty, expressionism looks inward to the angst and fear lurking in the subconscious mind. In music, expressionism is manifest in the full embrace of jarring dissonance.
Expressionism was a modernist movement, initially in poetry and painting, originating in Germany at the beginning of the 20th century. Its typical trait is to present the world solely from a subjective perspective, distorting it radically for emotional effect in order to evoke moods or ideas. Expressionist artists sought to express meaning or emotional experience rather than physical reality.
Expressionism was developed as an avant-garde style before the First World War. It remained popular during theWeimar Republic, particularly in Berlin. The style extended to a wide range of the arts, including expressionist architecture, painting, literature, theatre, dance, film and music.
The term is sometimes suggestive of angst. In a general sense, painters such as Matthias Grünewald and El Greco are sometimes termed expressionist, though in practice the term is applied mainly to 20th-century works. The Expressionist emphasis on individual perspective has been characterized as a reaction to positivism and other artistic styles such as Naturalism and Impressionism.
The term expressionism “was probably first applied to music in 1918, especially to Schoenberg,” because like the painter Kandinsky he avoided “traditional forms of beauty” to convey powerful feelings in his music. Arnold Schoenberg, Anton Webern and Alban Berg, the members of the Second Viennese School, are important Expressionists (Schoenberg was also an Expressionist painter). Other composers that have been associated with expressionism are Krenek (the Second Symphony), Paul Hindemith (The Young Maiden), Igor Stravinsky (Japanese Songs), Alexander Scriabin (late piano sonatas) (Adorno 2009, 275). Another significant expressionist was Béla Bartók in early works, written in the second decade of the 20th-century, such as Bluebeard’s Castle (1911), The Wooden Prince (1917), and The Miraculous Mandarin (1919). Important precursors of expressionism are Richard Wagner (1813–83), Gustav Mahler (1860–1911), and Richard Strauss (1864–1949).
Theodor Adorno describes expressionism as concerned with the unconscious, and states that “the depiction of fear lies at the centre” of expressionist music, with dissonance predominating, so that the “harmonious, affirmative element of art is banished.” Erwartung and Die Glückliche Hand, by Schoenberg, and Wozzeck, an opera by Alban Berg (based on the play Woyzeck by Georg Büchner), are examples of Expressionist works. If one were to draw an analogy from paintings, one may describe the expressionist painting technique as the distortion of reality (mostly colors and shapes) to create a nightmarish effect for the particular painting as a whole. Expressionist music roughly does the same thing, where the dramatically increased dissonance creates, aurally, a nightmarish atmosphere.