A history of the musical movement known as Serialism
|To look at the origin of Serialism, we must look at the style of music that was present just before it emerged. By the Late 19th-Century, composers such as Wagner were writing music where chromaticism was used more and more freely , for example his Prelude to Tristan und Isolde, creating a lot of expression and emotion. Additionally, with the ending of the First World War, composers and artists were looking for ways to convey the trauma and stress it caused, meaning that such expressive music attracted a lot of interest. Arnold Schoenberg was a composer greatly influenced by Late-Romanticism, for example his orchestral piece Verklärte Nacht reflects many of the characteristics of Late 19th-Century Romanticism. He took chromaticism further so that by around 1908 he was writing genuinely atonal music. In the 1920s, it was Schoenberg who developed the ‘twelve-tone technique’ which is an important component in understanding and defining serialism. The twelve-tone technique is a pure focus on atonality, straying away from functional tonality by purposely lacking any form of tonal centre, making it difficult for the ear to know what to expect to hear.
The twelve-tone technique uses all 12 notes of the chromatic scale, where no same note is repeated until all 12 have been used. A composer chooses their order of 12 notes, and this is the ‘prime order.’ There are techniques used to develop the prime order so as not to be using the same row of notes repeatedly, they are retrograde, inversion and retrograde inversion.
Retrograde - The prime order is played backwards, pitches in reverse order
Inversion - The prime order is vertically inverted
Retrograde Inversion - The prime order is both reversed and inverted.
A numbering system is incorporated which works by numbering the starting note as 0, and the chromatically following notes as 1 then 2 etc. For instance, if C was the starting note: C=0, C#=1, D=2, D#=3 etc. This enables composers to have each row form with every available starting note, such as retrograde 5, inversion 1, and the original row would be prime 0. It is possible to set up a 12x12 matrix with all the possible row forms on, with prime rows going across from the left, retrogrades going across from the right, inversions going down the columns and retrograde inversion going up the columns. This makes it easier for composers to see the rows they have available. Originally, twelve-tone restricted only the order of notes, however later on, ‘integral serialism’ or ‘total serialism’ restricted the order of rhythmic values, dynamics, articulation and register as well. As well as row forms, serialism uses other idiosyncratic compositional techniques. Octave displacement is when the actual pitch of a note in a row is kept the same, but the register of the note is moved up or down by one or multiple octaves leading to some extreme disjunction, and often unidiomatic writing for many instruments. This is prominent in Webern’s Quartet Op.22: movement 1. Verticalisation is when the tone row is used to create chords. A good example of this is Goldsmith’s Planet of the Apes: The Hunt. Interestingly, even whilst using the twelve-tone technique, it is possible to make some tonal implications by re-iteration of a pitch centre or making a brief introduction of a tonal chord progression.
The Expressionist movement shared qualities with serialism such as relaxed approach to dissonance and atonality, extremes of range and disjunction. However Expressionism has a deeper root with emotional expression than serialism, particularly in paintings. Expressionist artists focused less on capturing the real physical image, but instead on the personal meaning of the painting which led to excessively distorted images.
As with any style, there were certain key composers who contributed to the serialism movement in different ways. Arnold Schoenberg is often considered the creator because of his twelve-tone technique, and two other important composers are Anton Webern and Alban Berg, who were his pupils. This group of composers make up the Second Viennese School. Each composer had their own distinct style and had their own direction of where to go with serialism. Schoenberg started out writing music influenced by late-Romanticism, using both atonality and chromaticism freely. Even before he developed his unique compositional technique in the 1920s, he had began writing entirely atonal works like his 5 orchestral pieces Op.16. But it was his twelve-tone idea that provided a real breakthrough and moved serialism forward with music lacking any tonality but keeping complete structure and organisation. His personal use of the technique was not identical from work to work, he used it differently for each piece, meaning creativity was still an important aspect.
Anton Webern, like Schoenberg, started out composing late-Romantic style pieces however they have less significance as Webern really identified with twelve-tone music. He wrote a lot of atonal music, not just instrumental pieces but many songs as well. Webern was interesting in his use of tone rows, he cleverly worked in an internal symmetry which reduced variation possibilities but created a unity between motifs and intervals. Klangfarbenmelodie is a technique used by Schoenberg and Webern and is the idea of transporting a melody line across different instruments, which collaborated well with the use of tone rows. Furthermore, it provided evidence of Webern’s influence from ‘Pointillism’ ( a focus on dots) because it essentially gives an impression of ‘dots’ of sound. Webern’s works were often concisely structured, he often worked with traditional techniques and structures in his own style, canons in particular.
Alban Berg’s compositions had particular characteristics compared with that of Schoenberg and Webern. Of the opera composers in the Second Viennese School, his performances are the most widely performed. Berg was seen as the composer who brought something ‘more human’ to serialism with more personal feeling and sentiment. He often worked with the idea of variation, starting with a single motif or phrase and constantly developing and moulding it into something different. This is the entire basis for his Piano Sonata Op.1, where the opening phrase was used for the rest of the composition. The melodies Berg writes are often more lyrical than that of Schoenberg and Webern, evident in his Concerto for Violin and Orchestra which still incorporates the twelve-tone technique but in his own style. This is one of his most famous works, along with his opera Wozzeck which is now considered an important milestone in contemporary music.
Other composers who are important because of their development of serialism are Olivier Messiaen and his pupil Pierre Boulez. Although they worked with many other types of music, they both played an important role with ‘Total Serialism.’ Messiaen was one of the earliest composers to experiment with it, and did large amounts of research into the idea of Total serialism whilst never actually making great use of the twelve-tone technique himself. Boulez’s total serialism piece Structures makes use of twelve-tone as well as rows of dynamics, articulation and rhythm, meaning the rules were a lot more stricter than earlier Serial pieces. Nevertheless, Boulez was not completely dedicated to total serialism, he eventually eased the strictness of his composing into his own methods.
Serialism still had influences much later on. Sir John Tavener wrote The Lamb in 1982 but it reflected Serial characteristics. He used symmetrical patterns with inversion and retrograde interspersed with simple monophonic and homophonic textures, as well as brief tonal ambiguity. Goldsmith’s Planet of the Apes: The Hunt contains hints of serialism combined with tonal aspects such as using all 12 notes of the chromatic scale in the space of 2 bars resembling a prime row, however the piece is not technically Serial.
Anton Webern’s Quartet Op.22: movement 1 was used as a reference earlier as an example of various compositional techniques, it is a piece I have studied in depth and is a good illustration of serialism and the twelve-tone technique. It has an unusual lineup of instruments, all featuring unidiomatic writing with wide ranges and disjunct writing. It is completely chromatic and avoids any functional harmony or conventional chord progressions. Typical of Webern, it has an organised structure that is essentially a re-working of sonata form, with an exposition, development and recapitulation. An interesting technique he uses is mirror canons, where pairs of instruments are treated in canon, with the second part an exact inversion. This piece was written in 1930, and succeeds in encapsulating Webern as a composer, and showing some distinctive features of serialism.