Expressionism Expressionist composers succeeded in completely eliminating harmony and tonal melody (melody

Expressionist composers succeeded in completely eliminating harmony and tonal melody (melody based on a particular key) from their music. The resultant sounds were often not very melodically and harmonically pleasant to hear and, as a result, the Expressionist style of music did not (and still does not) appeal to the majority of audiences. Using this experimental style of writing, composers such as Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951) attempted to intentionally eliminate what we call tonality; music that is based on scales and the progression (movement) of chords from one to another.

In Edward Munch’s famous painting, The Scream (Image 7.3), we see an excellent example of the parallel movement of expressionism taking place in the visual arts. Expressionists looked inward, specifically to the anxiety they felt towards the outside world. This was in stark contrast to the impressionists, who looked to the beauty of nature for inspiration. Expressionist paintings relied instead on stark colors and harsh swirling brushstrokes to convey the artist’s reaction to the ugliness of the modern world. Abstract Expressionism took this concept to a greater extreme, by abandoning shape altogether for pure abstraction. This style is typified by the works of the American painter Jackson Pollock (see Image 7.4).

Expressionism also affected the rapidly-developing cinematic arts as well. Like Expressionist painting, this film movement rejected realism and sought to capture the inner, subjective experience through objective, external means. Expressionism films used highly stylized acting, high contrast, and dramatic lighting techniques to capture expressions of fear, horror, and pain.  These and other expressionist film techniques were later adapted by iconic directors including Orson Welles and Alfred Hitchcock and their influence can still be seen in American gangster and horror films of today. 

One of the earliest and most famous examples of German Expressionism in film is The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. The trailer is below. Note the use of light and shadows as well as the exaggerated acting and facial expressions.