Is Serialism Still Relevant? Erik Schaepers



Erik Schaepers
Photo by Edi Portmann

On “Historic Necessity”

“My invention of twelve-tone music will guarantee the supremacy of German music for the next hundred years,” said Arnold Schoenberg after developing his concept of what is now commonly known as atonal music. The claim itself represents an intellectual misconception, which may, for the sake of brevity, be referred to as “The Idea of Historic Necessity.”

Schoenberg was convinced that the age of tonal music was over and that the advent of twelve-tone music was a necessity in music history. In his book The Open Society and its Enemies, Sir Karl Popper explains how the concept of “historic necessity” came into being, and why it is one of the main enemies of an open society. Popper reminds us that it was the 19th-century philosopher Friedrich Hegel, who first claimed that history could be treated like a science. Hegel boasted of having discovered “the iron laws of history” and much to the delight of his employer, the archconservative Prussian king, he declared that everything that happened in history came out of “necessity.” Hegel’s philosophy not only justified the strict censorship and oppressiveness of the Prussian regime, it also helped to pave the way for the “closed” and totalitarian societies in Europe in the 20th century: Marx followed Hegel, predicting the “necessary” downfall of capitalism; Hitler asserted that “historic necessity” would make him overthrow Stalin, also a product of that same necessity; and “historic necessity” justified the building of the Berlin Wall.

In 1989, Erich Honecker celebrated East Germany’s 40th anniversary, declaring that “the antifascist protection wall will be here in a hundred years.” This prophecy, and its utter failure, puts Honecker and all of the aforementioned in the same league as Arnold Schoenberg. This should come as no surprise when we understand that they all share a common Hegelian heritage: the exploitation of “historic necessity.” Sir Karl Popper identifies the basic flaw in Hegel’s system. “History is not a science, and predicting history is logically impossible. It may be, to a certain degree, possible to understand what happened in the past. But things that will be developed and discovered tomorrow can only be known tomorrow. Not today.”

So simple and self-evident, it is almost embarrassing that we needed a major philosopher to formulate it. And if it is true for the history of society, how can it be untrue when applied to music? And yet, many music scholars and composers still endorse a predominantly Hegelian perspective. This perspective hinders the natural development of composition students.

Composers who announce to their audiences before a concert that “…we are not pursuing the writing of themes any more,” because “…we are now at a point in history where the finding of pitch has become irrelevant” reflect Hegel at his purest. One can only hope that Sir Karl Popper’s book will become mandatory reading one day.

Maybe we should readdress ourselves to the actual meaning of “music history.” Music history, without the capital H, is simply a result of selections that audiences have made after listening to works of music. Those works which have survived because of their inner beauty and originality were created by individuals, who composed music on their own terms, independent of historic prophecies and unencumbered by “historic necessity.”

In The Open Society and its Enemies, Sir Karl Popper writes “…we have to be able to live with the uncertainty of not exactly knowing where we are in history and where exactly we are going…since it is the only attitude that will keep us from following false prophets into large-scale experiments, most of which end up in disaster.”

We have seen a century of disasters in Europe, nearly all of which were intellectually encouraged by Hegelian concepts. In the field of music, harmless though it may seem by comparison, Schoenberg’s experiment has turned into a disaster of its own kind. The composer as a respected and relevant artist is no longer existent in central Europe, and German music has almost completely disappeared from the international scene.

I was born and raised in Europe, and I have decided to leave the Hegelians to their own matters and make a fresh start in New York. As far as I can see, America was built on the idea that its citizens shape their own, and hence their nation’s, destiny. There has never been room for mysterious historic forces that make decisions of their own, ultimately reducing citizens to subjects. I believe that we, as composers, are the ones who are responsible for what becomes of music in the future. No one else!