Between 1919 and 1923 Arnold Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony, op. 9 (1906) and Franz Schreker’s Chamber Symphony (1916) were repeatedly programmed together on public concerts in Germany. Critics reviewing these and other postwar performances often framed the two works in a distinctive and, by today’s standards, surprising way: they aligned Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony with an “expressionist” and Schreker’s Chamber Symphony with an “impressionist” musical aesthetic. With roots in prewar German critical and historical writing, impressionism and expressionism functioned as multifaceted, contextually contingent concepts in postwar music criticism. They bore not only music-stylistic but also psychological, national, and racial implications, thus serving as important mechanisms through which critics could engage music in broader cultural and political debates.
Even as critics writing after the Great War almost universally—if certainly reductively—aligned Schreker’s Chamber Symphony with impressionism and Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony with expressionism, they fiercely disagreed about the relative cultural value of these contrasting orientations. Schoenberg and Schreker were thereby implicated in discussions that related their music to pressing contemporary questions of political radicalism, national identity, and Jewishness. Critical reception of postwar performances of this “unlike pair” of chamber symphonies thus documents a consequential yet neglected chapter in the conceptual history of musical “impressionism” and “expressionism”: a chapter in which German-language critics first connected the two terms in a complex, politically laden relationship.