Se­ri­al­ist sen­sa­tions

BBC Music Magazine - - Serialism Uncovered -

Five of the best 12-tone works

Schoen­berg Vari­a­tions for Orches­tra, Op. 31 ( 1928)

This was his first se­rial work for full orches­tra and a demon­stra­tion piece of the pos­si­bil­i­ties of the 12-tone row. In the mys­te­ri­ous, then tur­bu­lent, In­tro­duc­tion, the row is as­sem­bled note by note; the ex­pres­sive, long-phrased Theme, played by the cel­los, com­prises four suc­ces­sive forms of the row – prime, ret­ro­grade-in­ver­sion, ret­ro­grade, in­ver­sion – har­monised by other row forms; Vari­a­tion 1 has the Theme in the bass – and so on. The score al­ter­nates be­tween the harsh­est and most del­i­cate tex­tures, vividly or­ches­trated.

Berg Vi­o­lin Con­certo ( 1935)

Prompted by the death of the young Manon Gropius and com­posed in Berg’s last sum­mer, this con­certo is a haunt­ing study in am­bi­gu­ity.

For, although 12-tone in struc­ture, it uses a note row com­pris­ing a suc­ces­sion of thirds which in­cor­po­rate the tun­ing of the vi­o­lin’s open strings plus a five-note scale – el­e­ments that en­able Berg con­stantly to in­sin­u­ate nos­tal­gic echoes of tonal­ity, and even to in­tro­duce a Carinthian folk tune and a Bach cho­rale. The work has a more se­cure place in the reper­toire than any other 12-tone score.

Boulez 12 No­ta­tions ( 1945)/ No­ta­tions I-IV, VII ( 1980/98)

In 1945, when he was still study­ing with Mes­si­aen and Lei­bowitz, 20-year-old Boulez com­posed a set of tiny, vi­o­lently con­trasted pi­ano stud­ies, each only 12 bars long, ex­plor­ing the pos­si­bil­i­ties of 12-tone tech­nique. Thirty years later, be be­gan to or­ches­trate these, com­plet­ing Nos I-IV in 1980, and adding VII in

1998. These are not just ar­range­ments, how­ever, but re­com­po­si­tions, am­pli­fy­ing tiny ges­tures in the orig­i­nal pieces into great swirls and tirades of com­plex and colour­ful tex­ture for vast orches­tra.

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