‘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