Dirty Dozens: A HyperHistory of Serialism

Arnold Schoenberg, born in 1874, started out as a conventional, overripe late-Romantic composer. But, following the late examples of Wagner and Liszt, he soon was wandering farther and farther away from traditional notions of harmony. On the path to dodecaphony, he moved from chromaticism to full atonality.

If those terms trip you up, here’s a simple map of the musical land. Western art music to the beginning of the 20th century was based largely on the accumulation and resolution of harmonic tension. Tonality revolved around a home note, called the tonic, from which rose a key, or collection of certain notes, built upon it, and other keys built upon certain important notes in the original key. Peck out a C-major scale on the piano, and as you move through the octave—the set of seven notes that make up the scale before you get to the next C—you’re skipping the five black keys that separate some of the white ones. So 12 notes are available, but only 7 make up C major, or any other key in the usual system. The in-between notes sound alien to the scale you’ve just played, and if you were to add the five notes that don’t “belong,” you would destroy the careful structure of intervals on which so-called diatonic music is based. You couldn’t tell what key you were in; there’d be no home tonality that would define the familiar and the foreign harmonies. You would be thrusting yourself into the lost world of atonality.

Schoenberg initially found delight in the untethered regions of atonality, making this the basis of his music starting with his Opus 11 collection of piano pieces of 1909. But within a few years he grew impatient with atonality’s lack of rigor—it was all atmosphere, without any guiding principles. So he developed that thing beloved of Teutonic intellectuals, a System. His Opus 25 Suite for Piano was his first completely 12-tone, or dodecaphonic, work. Virtually every aspect of the music’s thematic development was derived from a row of 12 different notes arranged in an order of the composer’s choice. No note could be repeated until the other 11 had appeared.

Once the order of tones was established, that row served as the basis of the music’s melodies, counterpoint and harmony. It wasn’t just the same dozen notes repeated again and again. There were three basic variations on the row: inversion, or turning the row upside down; retrograde, or playing it backward; and retrograde inversion, meaning upside down and backward. Add to this the possibility of transposition—maintaining the basic row pattern but starting it on different notes—and the result is 48 possible permutations of the original row.

But wait! There’s more! It’s possible to use certain fragments of the row as the basis of a new row, appending the notes you aren’t maintaining as-is in a different order. You can even make chords out of your chosen few notes. Schoenberg managed to wrangle enough variety out of what initially seems like a straitjacketed system to write well-developed compositions, often using such favorite old formats of tonal music as sonata and variation. The basic compendium of Schoenberg’s techniques is his 1928 Variations for Orchestra, Op. 31.

Schoenberg, being Jewish, found it necessary to flee the Nazis, and spent his last years (he died in 1951) in Los Angeles, teaching at UCLA. So he had some direct influence on young American students, but oddly enough, his theories made their greatest impact in this country only when filtered through the followers he’d left behind in Europe, with whom Americans would study in the late ’40s and early ’50s. Schoenberg’s two closest disciples, Alban Berg and Anton Webern, both died before the end of World War II and had a strong but necessarily indirect influence on Americans. Berg was the hedonist, applying 12-tone principles with great freedom. He is in many ways the most listenable of the early dodecaphonists, but his voluptuous departures from the system lessened his reputation among academic-minded Americans. Webern was the strict master of the 12-tone system, relying on fearful symmetries that nevertheless banished all trace of diatonicism by varying timbre constantly. His works were highly concentrated, even aphoristic; their purity, clarity, and timbral ingenuity captivated the next generation of followers.

Twelve-tone music is often called serialism. But, strictly speaking, serialism is the sequel to Schoenberg’s work. Beginning in the late 1940s, European composers led by Pierre Boulez and Karlheinz Stockhausen began applying Schoenberg’s concept of the row to more than just pitch. They developed “chromatic scales” fashioned from gradations of tempo or rhythm (Boulez’s Structures I and Stockhausen’s Gruppen are prime examples). For true serialists such as these, the basic pattern to be manipulated is determined not only by each note’s pitch, but by its rhythm, loudness, and timbre. When a tone row is turned backward, so is its rhythmic pattern. A whole note followed by an eighth note followed by a half followed by a quarter and then another eighth becomes eighth-quarter-half-eighth-whole.

From Dirty Dozens: A HyperHistory of Serialism
By James Reel
© 2001 NewMusicBox

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