Listening in colour

Arnold Schönberg - Der rote Blick (1910) (probablement un autoportrait du compositeur)

Arnold Schönberg - Der rote Blick (1910) (probablement un autoportrait du compositeur)

Listening in colour: Arnold Schoenberg’s Klangfarbenmelodie (sound-colour melody), by Karine Le Bail

In the glittering Vienna of the 1900s a new world was taking shape in most of the arts and sciences as demonstrated by Sigmund Freud’s invention of psychoanalysis or in the Vienna Secession art movement by artists such as Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele and Oskar Kokoschka and in Art Nouveau architecture by advocates Otto Wagner and Josef Hoffmann. As for composer Arnold Schoenberg, he was in the process of creating what people were starting to call the « Vienna school », forging past the heritage left by post-Romantic masters from the tail end of the XIXth century – Anton Bruckner, Gustav Mahler, Richard Strauss – to explore a new musical language that by the Twenties would result in the invention of a method of composition dubbed « dodecaphonic » in France « with twelve tones with no links between them » and work featuring an established order – or « serialism » – using twelve notes in a chromatic scale.

At that time Schoenberg continued to nourish this « ideal expression and form » in both his music and painting which his appreciative friend Vassily Kandinsky liked to call « the art of only » : « a landscape is grey-green, only grey-green ». « A “vision” is only a head. Do the eyes, surrounded only by red, speak for themselves? » (Kandinsky, 1928). Schoenberg’s « feeling for colour » will end up featuring in both his artistic and musical endeavours, the composer advancing the notion that « the colour of sound – its timbre – is the vast territory of music ». In 1909, the third of his Five pieces for orchestra bears the evocative title of « Farben » (colour) and uses the Klangfarbenmelodie technique, literally « Sound-colour melodies », a term that plays on the contrast between three German words, « sound » (Klang), « colour » (Farben) and « melody » (Melodie). Schoenberg is toying with the various sounds of different instruments in the orchestra to compose melodies of timbre that create texture, just like paint on a canvas. This philosophy of sound and timbre would revolutionise the writing of music that had previously focused on tone and key.


Karine Le Bail is an historian (CNRS / EHESS) and the producer of the A pleine voix radio programme (France Musique).