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The Development of Serialism Essays

The late 19th century and early 20th century witnessed many significant changes of the appearance of the Global politics and arts. Especially in music, after centuries dominated by tonal music, many composers of the 20th century revolted and decided to find new music styles to break with traditional music style, which marked by the appearances of the impressionism, the expressionism and the serialism. This essay will discuss about serialism and its development during 20th century. According to The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musician (Vol. 23, P. 16), Serialism is a musical composing method which was initiated by Arnold Schoenberg and adopted and developed by his students in Second Viennese School such as Edward Steuermann, Erwin Stein, Ernst Krenek, Rene Leibowitz, and especially Alban Berg and Anton Webern, and other composers of 20th century including Igor Stravinsky, John Cage, Olivier Messiaen, Stockhausen, etc. According to Gerald Abraham, there are two rules of twelve-tone serialism introduced by Schoenberg in 1920s: the order of each tone row has to be maintained during the work; any tone in a series is prohibited repeating until all other eleven tones appeared.
In Schoenberg’s attempt to make the equality in music, it was clear that those rules pleased his purpose. Because in a series, every twelve notes of chromatic scale were equal-tempered and completely atonal. On the other hand, some opinions claimed that serialism was an evolution of tonal music. According to George Perle, “The twelve-tone system is not as insulated from other contemporary musical developments as it is sometimes assumed to be.
Essentially, Schoenberg systematized and defined from his own dodecaphonic purposed a pervasive technical feature of ‘modern’ musical practice, the ostinato. ” And Arnold Whittall also stated that ‘Serialism has not replaced tonality, but coexists and interacts with it’ Moreover, some composers of later period who called serialist enriched the definition of serialism by making music with rows of series of any musical elements. The use materials could be series of pitches, of dynamics, registers, or even durations.
It was considered to be Total Serialism as known as Integral Serialism. It is important to note that for the purpose of making serialism different from free atonal which was common in Expressionism, there is a ‘formula’ that was being followed by most of serialism composers during decades of development; it named ‘magic square’. This square is somewhat similar to a mathematic matrix with columns and rows of series, and composers can choose any series from this square to compose. Example below (Example 1) shows the magic square from Schoenberg, the Suite for Piano Op. 5. Example 1 – A magic square from Schoenberg Op. 25 In a magic square, series can be used by both vertical and horizontal ways with names Prima (P), Interval (I), Retrograde (R) and Retrograde Interval (RI). The original Prima series (P-0) is decided by the composer, and the original Interval (I-0) is the interval version of P-0. Retrograde and Retrograde Interval series are the reverse versions of Prima and Interval series. Therefore, the composer will have forty-eight possible versions of the first Prima available to his work.
In addition, magic squares can be applied for not only pitch classes but also every musical element such as dynamics, durations, even register. Although Arnold Schoenberg was not the first composer thought of serialism music, he was actually the one marked serialism as one of the most influential musical style of 20th century. After the period of more than twelve years, Schoenberg had shown a lot of effort in exploration and experiment to make his music completely different from Romanticism with some free atonal works such as Erwartung Op. 7, Die gluckliche Hand Op. 18 and Perriot lunaire Op. 21; in spring 1921, Schoenberg began composing the well-known composition The Suite for Piano Op. 25, which was considered the first serial composition. Example 2a – Schoenberg, Suite for Piano Op25, Prelude, Bar 1-3 Instead of presenting his work series by series in single line or single melody, Schoenberg literally made it more interesting with variation and polyphonic texture. At the first three bars of the piece (Example 2a), Schoenberg immediately showed the Prima series which on the whole piece based.
The right hand line played the original Prima (P-0) accompanied by transposed Prima series (P-6) from left hand. However, after the forth note, there was an addition to the left hand part. It was clear that Schoenberg also separated that series into three tetrachords showed in Example 2b below and applied an overlap of the second and third tetrachords. Therefore, The left hand’s melody appeared as an echo of the right hand with some additional variations. Example 2b – Suite for Piano Op25’s P-6 series separated to three tetrachords.
Another point to note is that although serial music was anti-Romanticism, Schoenberg’s music still contained materials from earlier period’s music such as rhythm structure. Take the third movement from the Suite Op. 25 – Musette (Example 3) – as an example, the rhythm (especially left hand part) was sound dance-like and remind about Musettes from Baroque period, although the top part was not really song-like. Example 3 – Schoenberg, Musette from the Suite for Piano Op. 25, bars 20-25 Example 4 – Schoenberg, Overture from The Suite Op. 9, bars 1-4 About Schoenberg’s structure, according to Malcolm MacDonald (2008), Schoenberg himself declared in the writing to his fellow composer Zemlinsky in the opening bars of the Suite Op. 29 (Example 4), he used tonal music’s cadences tonic- subdominant- dominant- tonic with four hexachords. Indeed, if we choose E-flat as the tonic of the composition and consider the movement of the bass, we can get correctly the form I-IV-V-I, although the essence of those hexachords was not tonal.
Although Schoenberg’s argument was not so convincing, it was still an idea to continue to compose his later works. In his String Quartet No. 4 Op. 37, the third movement was formed with A-B-A-B structure with a modulation was carefully introduced before the reappearance of section B. Schoenberg built the first foundation for serialism, but without the contributions of his two most prominent students, Alban Berg and Anton Webern, the picture of serial music would never be completed.
Anton Webern, after adopted the idea of serialism, continued aiming at the extreme concentration and he made his music with unique forms, textures as well as unique magic square. On the other hand, Alban Berg attempted to harmonize serialism with tonal music and made his music friendlier to listener. Abraham (1974) also stated about the difference of Berg and Webern’s music: “Webern stylistic development led to the most attenuated lyricism, with the emotive impulse subtilized and sublimated almost out of existence, while Berg’s lyrical vein is ardent, nervous, sensuous, and feminine.
Berg looks backwards to the romantic past and, in spite of his whole hearted adherence to the twelve-note method, he maintained a link with tonal music…” For instance, in Violin Concerto (1935), Berg combined and interconnected four minor and major triads in his tone-row (Example 5a). Moreover, the last chords (0246) of the row – the rising up of three whole tones – appeared in the end of Bach’s Cantata No. 60 (Example 5b). In addition, the combinations of D-F#-A-C made a Half-diminished seventh chord (0258) and C-E-G#-B – minor augmented tetrachord (0148) also appeared in Example 6b.
Example 5a – The Prima tone-row from Berg’s Violin Concerto (1935) Example 5b – J. S. Bach, Cantata No. 60, chorale setting for “Es ist genug” It was clear that Berg succeeded with this series; tonality and serialism coexisted in one work. In contrast to Webern and Schoenberg, Berg’s music actually was much easy to understand for the listeners who were familiar with tonal music. Besides, in his first serial work – Lyric Suite (1926), he used a tone-row, which was discovered by his pupil Fritz Heinrich Klein, called all-interval series (Example 6a).
This tone-row based on all eleven intervals of dedocaphonic system extract octave. Furthermore, in the last movement, Berg combined two different series to make a series duality, and Whittall also claimed that ‘the second derived from the first which in turn derives from the series used in the first and third movements. During the movement, music flow with questions and answer (Example 6b), moreover, this combination also made his work sound more tonal. Example 6a – Klein’s all-interval series Example 6b – Berg, Finale part from Lyric Suite, bar 1-9 Opposite to Alban Berg, Anton Webern was a pure serialist.
His music was also considered ‘purer’ than Schoenberg’s during the early period of serialism in the appreciation of a later serialist Messiaen: “Webern was the ‘real’ serial composer; Schoenberg and Berg were the precursors” . Indeed, although Webern’s compositions are not easy to listen to most of listener, they contain many creative values and serialism material. An important example about Webern’s creative idea is the symmetry in Symphony Op. 21, which Whittall commented was ‘an analogy between old and new, between fifth-based hierarchy and diminished-fifth-centred symmetry, implies tension as well as balance’.
Following example (Example 7a) illustrates the main series which used in the Symphony Op. 21 and the reflection of intervals. The symmetry does not only appear in tone-rows, but also in the matrix square shown in Example 8b. Example 7a – Webern, Symphony Op. 21, main series Example 7b – Magic Square from Symphony Op. 21 As can be seen in the square above, the position of F and B – a tritone – make the symmetry of letter X. With deeper observation, it is clear that every pair of rows of which started notes is tritone are always reverse version of each other.
For example, P-0 and P-6, I-5 and RI-7, etc. Moreover, in a single row, the first six notes are symmetric with the last six notes by a tritone. Webern actually did not decided all twelve note, he just finished first half of the row, avoiding the appearance of tritone and this six-tone row which would decide the rest of the series as well as whole square. During the first half of the twentieth century, serial technique is not only stay in Second Viennese School, but also rapidly spread all over the world and was developed by many European as well as American composers.
Milton Babbitt is an American composer who was converted from a mathematician, despire his interest in the theory of serial music, he was not really pleased by Schoenberg’s twelve-tone technique: ‘Schoenberg could not have foreseen and probably was only peripherally aware of the wilderness into which his music led us’. Therefore, during decades, he attempted to find the new definition for the purest serial music which innovated to the total serialism and time-point technique after that in 1960s.
Following example has shown the row of twelve time points and twelve dynamic values used by Babbitt in Post-Partitions (1966). Example 8 – Babbitt’s series of Time-points and Dynamics Composer needs to separate one bar to twelve duration unit. And the point number show which position in the bar the note will attack. Example 9 demonstrates how the time-point series shown in Example 8 work, each bar is separated into twelve semi-quavers, and the notes attacked in corresponding point in a bar. Example 9 – Time-point technique
Furthermore, before the time point technique was introduced by Babbitt in 1960s, there was an innovation of serialism called total serialism of which essential idea is applying series on all elements of music with the contribution of two well-known serialists: Olivier Messiaen and Pierre Boulez. Example 10 – Series in Mode de valeurs et d’intensite Example 11 – Boulez, Structure IA, bars 1-7 In Example 10, three series of pitch, dynamics, durations and articulations was used by Messiaen in Mode de valeurs et d’intensites.
Although in this composition Messiaen did not completely follow the rules of serial technique because of some repetitions, it inspired his pupil Boulez to compose Structures I (Example 11) in 1952 which was considered ‘totally serialized’by the critics. The work does not only contain serial rhythm and pitch, but also sets of twelve dynamic values, 12 indications of attack. After more than four decades, despire becaming more difficult to understand, serial music finally evolved into another level – total serialism.
In summary, compared with others music style of 20th century, despire being considerd just a composing technique, serialism totally broke the radical of the music from previous periods – the tonality – and made a world-wide influence throughout the century. All in all, although in 1920s, serial technique was introduced by Schoenberg the first time, after decades of developments by Second Viennese School’s members as well as serialists, serialism has eventually proves its worth and become a symbol of twentieth century music’s revolution. Bibliography Abraham, Gerald.
Cooper, Martin (ed. ) (1974) The Modern Age, 1890-1960. New Oxford History of Music, 10. London: Oxford University Press. Babbitt, Milton. Stephen Peles (ed. ) (2003) Collected Essays. Princeton: Princeton University Press. MacDonald, Malcolm. (2008) Schoenberg. The master Musician. New York: Oxford University Press. Perle, George (1977) Serial Composition and Atonality, 4th edition. Los Angeles: University of California Press. Sadie, Stanley (ed. ) (2001) The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, 2nd edition. New York: Macmillan Publishers Limited. Schoenberg, Arnold.
Stein, Leonard (ed. ). Black, Leo (trans. ) (1975) Style and Idea. London: Faber & Faber. Simms, Bryan (ed. ) (1999) Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern, A Companion to the Second Viennese School. New York: Greenwood Press. Taruskin, Richard (2005) The Early Twentieth Century, The Oxford History of Western Music, 4. New York: Oxford University Press. Taruskin, Richard (2005) The Late Twentieth Century, The Oxford History of Western Music, 5. New York: Oxford University Press. Whittall, Arnold (2008) Cambridge Introductions to Serialism. New York: Cambridge University Press.

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