This article seeks to reassess Arnold Schönberg’s concept of colour in his atonal music in light of a reading of the «Death Dance of the Principles», a text written by Schönberg in 1915. In his text Schönberg expressed in poetic formulations the critique of fundamental truths serving as the foundation for traditional systems of knowledge in aesthetics, philosophy, and science. Inspired by Dehmel, Strindberg, and Balzac/Swedenborg, Schönberg’s «Death Dance of the Principles» describes the dissolution of the categories of perception and cognition, originating in the epistemological crisis of the Viennese fin-de-siècle. The re-assessment of central works of the atonal period such as Pierrot lunaire and Jakob’s Ladder in light of the «Death Dance of the Principles» reveals how crucial the scrutiny of symbolic and metaphorical aspects of colour was for Schönberg’s musical quest for spiritual transformation prior to World War I. After breaking colour down into its fundamental function as an element of perception and cognition, Schönberg saw that colour became the source of a new sensitivity enabling new kinds of cognition and knowledge, once the old principles were ‘danced to death’.

Keywords: Arnold Schönberg, colours in atonal music, death dance of the principles, fin-de-siècle epistemological crisis