Bayan North­cott

Mu­sic jour­nal­ist

BBC Music Magazine - - Contents - IL­LUS­TRA­TION: CHRIS WADDEN/DE­BUT ART

‘Sur­vey­ing the many se­rial mas­ter­pieces of the last 100 years, I’m struck anew by the sheer va­ri­ety of style, ex­pres­sion, form and char­ac­ter that com­posers have drawn from the tech­nique.’

Does your heart sink when you read that a new com­po­si­tion uses ‘se­rial tech­nique’? Is your mind filled with hor­ri­ble dis­so­nances at the very thought of the dreaded ‘12-tone row’? Yet if a mu­si­cal se­ries is de­fined as an or­dered se­quence of pitches, then any com­po­si­tion, such as a fugue or sonata, in which de­fined themes gen­er­ate much of the tex­ture, could be de­scribed as at least partly se­rial. In­deed, a sim­ple round or canon such as Frère Jac­ques in which the en­tire har­monic tex­ture is pro­duced by se­quen­tial en­tries of the same un­chang­ing melody is ef­fec­tively a se­rial form.

In a sense, then, se­rial tech­nique has ex­isted in Western mu­sic al­most back to its begin­nings. Granted, the melody or ‘se­ries’ of Frère Jac­ques only uses the di­a­tonic scale – the seven ‘white notes’ of the oc­tave – with many pitches re­cur­ring. Se­quences of all 12 pitches of the chro­matic scale with none re­peated have been rarer in mu­si­cal his­tory, but they are to be found, from Bach to Richard Strauss. Mozart stag­gers through all 12 in the jagged tran­si­tion into the de­vel­op­ment of the fi­nale of his Sym­phony

No. 40, while the open­ing theme of Liszt’s

Faust Sym­phony com­prises all 12 pitches with­out rep­e­ti­tion. It was when, in 1921, Arnold Schoen­berg first at­tempted to ma­nip­u­late a se­ries com­pris­ing a spe­cific ar­range­ment of the 12 pitches, to gov­ern ev­ery melodic and har­monic note of an en­tire piece, that the trou­ble be­gan. Yet the para­dox was that Schoen­berg had de­vised this tech­nique in an at­tempt to re­solve an even greater trou­ble – which he him­self had been partly re­spon­si­ble for in the first place.

This was the so-called cri­sis of tonal­ity. For cen­turies up to Schoen­berg, Western mu­sic had been founded on the har­monic prac­tice that all dis­so­nant chords should re­solve onto con­cords and, on the struc­tural level, that all tonal mod­u­la­tions should re­turn to the ‘home’ key from which a work be­gan. But as the

19th cen­tury pro­gressed and struc­tures grew more elab­o­rate, the mod­u­la­tions tended to be­come more in­ces­sant, the tran­si­tions be­tween them more chro­matic – think of Wag­ner’s Tris­tan und Isolde – while com­posers such as De­bussy be­gan jux­ta­pos­ing chords for their in­nate colour rather than for any struc­tural func­tion. By the 1900s, pas­sages were turn­ing up in more ‘pro­gres­sive’ works – in Richard Strauss’s Elek­tra, for in­stance – where it was hard to hear any key cen­tre at all: the mu­sic was on the verge of what came to be called ‘atonal­ity’.

More ad­ven­tur­ous com­posers, with Schoen­berg and his pupils Al­ban Berg and An­ton We­bern in the lead, took this as a lib­er­a­tion: with no re­strain­ing har­monic rules, one could ex­press one­self freely at last! And in the sen­sa­tional Ex­pres­sion­ist parox­ysms of his Five Or­ches­tral Pieces, Op. 16 (1909), fully ex­ploit­ing what he hailed as ‘the eman­ci­pa­tion of dis­so­nance’, Schoen­berg came close to ful­fill­ing such an aim. But it soon be­came ev­i­dent that while such un­fet­tered out­bursts could achieve a vis­ceral im­pact, they could only be sus­tained for short pe­ri­ods and har­boured no long-term struc­tural pro­ce­dure to re­place tonal­ity. In­deed, by the end of the First World War, a num­ber of com­posers were wor­ry­ing away at this prob­lem and try­ing to de­vise quasi-se­rial schemes to solve it.

‘‘ The open­ing theme of Liszt’s Faust Sym­phony com­prises all 12 pitches with­out rep­e­ti­tion ’’

Schoen­berg be­lieved that se­ri­al­ism would ‘en­sure the supremacy of Ger­man mu­sic’

Schoen­berg’s even­tual idea was that if you chose a spe­cific or­der­ing of the 12 semi­tones to form your orig­i­nal row (prime), then you could also run the row back­wards (ret­ro­grade), turn it up­side down (in­ver­sion) and run the up­side-down ver­sion back­wards (ret­ro­gradein­ver­sion). If you then trans­posed each of these four forms suc­ces­sively onto the 11 other notes of the chro­matic scale, you would have 48 ver­sions of the row, all in­tri­cately re­lated, from the com­bin­ing, lay­er­ing and cross-cut­ting of which you could de­rive ev­ery theme, har­mony and coun­ter­point of a piece. Once these elab­o­ra­tions set in, it might not be pos­si­ble for the ear to fol­low the ins and outs of the row it­self, but it would per­me­ate the mu­sic as a kind of DNA, hold­ing to­gether and char­ac­ter­is­ing the piece from be­gin­ning to end. At first, Schoen­berg in­sisted, any hint of tonal­ity should be ex­cluded so as to fo­cus on what could be de­rived from the new method (he never called it a sys­tem) alone; in later years, he thought it might then be com­bined with other tech­niques, el­e­ments of tonal­ity even. In 1921, he wrote his first com­plete 12-tone piece, a brief pre­lude to a pi­ano suite. It seemed to work.

Ini­tially he was in­clined to re­gard the method as his pri­vate dis­cov­ery, fear­ing – all too ac­cu­rately, as it turned out – that pub­li­cis­ing it would give the im­pres­sion he was merely a cere­bral math­e­ma­ti­cian. But then, on pub­lish­ing his first 12-tone scores in 1923, he sum­moned his pupils, and ex­plained the dis­cov­ery which he thought would ‘en­sure the supremacy of Ger­man mu­sic for the next 100 years’. This was prob­a­bly not an out­burst of cul­tural chau­vin­ism but rather a way of say­ing that the new method would en­able Ger­man com­posers once more to do what they had al­ways done best: com­pose large-scale sym­phonies, con­cer­tos, string quar­tets and op­eras. Thus, what the mu­si­cal world came to re­gard as a rad­i­cal, even trou­bling new tech­nique, was in Schoen­berg’s mind, rather, a restora­tive, even con­ser­va­tive move.

Although he had some­thing of a Mes­sianic be­lief in his role in mu­si­cal his­tory, Schoen­berg in­sisted that his new method was a means, not

an end. He con­ceded that it would not suit ev­ery com­poser, and that there was ‘still plenty of good mu­sic to be writ­ten in C ma­jor’. In­deed, he re­fused to teach the method and in­sisted those of his pupils who wished to take it up should find their own way. This, Berg and We­bern im­me­di­ately pro­ceeded to do: Berg elab­o­rat­ing his hy­per-ro­man­tic scores by labyrinthine in­ter­twin­ing of row-forms; We­bern pre­fer­ring to slice his tone-rows into three or four-note fig­ures, var­i­ously jux­ta­posed to spin his sparse tex­tures. Mean­while, Schoen­berg got on de­vel­op­ing the new method in his later quar­tets and con­cer­tos. One of his own proud­est achieve­ments was elab­o­rat­ing the en­tire tu­mul­tuous two acts of his opera Moses und

Aron (1932) from a sin­gle 12-tone row.

By the late-1930s, he felt con­fi­dent enough in his method to be­gin (as he had en­vis­aged from the start) to read­mit el­e­ments of con­so­nance and tonal­ity where he felt ex­pres­sion re­quired them – if to the dis­may of his more doc­tri­naire fol­low­ers, such as the Pol­ish the­o­rist-com­poser­con­duc­tor René Lei­bowitz. And it was Lei­bowitz who taught ba­sic 12-tone tech­nique to the young Pierre Boulez – soon to make him­self leader of a gen­er­a­tion, in­clud­ing Karl­heinz Stock­hausen and Luigi Nono, who be­lieved the cul­tural dis­as­ter of the Sec­ond World War ne­ces­si­tated a rad­i­cal rein­ven­tion of mu­sic. Boulez ar­gued that the se­rial idea of­fered a ba­sis, but that Schoen­berg had be­trayed it by com­pos­ing in tra­di­tional forms. What was needed was a more rig­or­ous se­ri­al­i­sa­tion of ev­ery as­pect of mu­sic – pitch, rhythm, dy­nam­ics, even – to cre­ate specif­i­cally se­rial forms. Not en­tirely coin­ci­den­tally, the young Prince­ton-based Amer­i­can com­poser and aca­demic Mil­ton Bab­bitt was seek­ing to de­velop Schoen­berg’s the­ory on a more sci­en­tific ba­sis, even­tu­ally es­tab­lish­ing an or­tho­doxy in US univer­si­ties against which such later com­posers as Steve Re­ich and Philip Glass felt the need to rebel (though their Min­i­mal­ism could, para­dox­i­cally, be con­strued as a sim­ple kind of se­ri­al­ism).

In Europe, the ‘In­te­gral Se­ri­al­ism’ fiercely ad­vo­cated by Boulez and co at the Darm­stadt Sum­mer School held sway rel­a­tively brief ly, but the post-war resur­gence of the se­rial idea in gen­eral had its ef­fect. Even es­sen­tially tonal com­posers such as Poulenc, Wal­ton, Shostakovich, Tip­pett and Brit­ten f lirted in pass­ing with as­pects of 12-ton­ery, while Stravin­sky and Co­p­land felt drawn to take on the tech­nique quite late in their ca­reers – though both made their own adap­ta­tions of it in the good old Schoen­ber­gian tra­di­tion. In more re­cent decades, the pro­gres­sive ac­cess in per­for­mance and record­ing to the en­tire his­tory of Western – and not only Western – mu­sic has meant that se­ri­al­ism had be­come just one of the many tech­niques and styles for com­posers to choose from in the post-mod­ern pick and mix. Yet there have been some un­ex­pected man­i­fes­ta­tions. How many re­alised that Jerry Gold­smith’s Os­car-nom­i­nated score for the 1968 fea­ture film Planet of the Apes is strictly 12-tone; how many have dis­cerned the in­tri­cate se­rial ma­tri­ces be­neath the at­trac­tive sur­faces of the works of Oliver Knussen? Schoen­berg’s fraught in­no­va­tion of 1921 may still have a few mu­si­cal sur­prises to spring.

Atonal art: Moses und Aron

Pi­o­neers of se­ri­al­ism: (top) a 1959 pro­duc­tion of Schoen­berg’s Moses und Aron; (above) Berg and We­bern; (top right) Planet of the Apes has a 12-tone sound­track

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