Twelve-Tone Serialism in Music

World War I left Europe in a state of paralysis, shock and nihilism, arguably leading Europe (and others) into a direct continuation with World War II not long afterward. The unprecedented levels of damage to human life and civilization brought every area of the arts into a new era of divergence, one in which artists would use any and all methods to express their anguish and their need for answers, control and solace.

Music underwent incredible diversification during this tumultuous period. Some composers looked back to simpler times, coining the term “Neoclassicism” in music, which we’ll discuss later. Others ventured into the folk traditions of their own nations, reacting to the years of intense, direct conflict with other nations. Still other composers clung to the Romantic tradition.

A fourth group of visionaries embarked on a strange and, even by today’s standards, radical experiment. Twelve-Tone Serialism was coined by the composer Arnold Schönberg. This Austrian composer spent the early years of his composition career heavily influenced by late romantic sound. For an idea of this, listen to his earlier works (like this one). He clearly had a mastery of tonal harmony and Romantic-style writing.

Perhaps as the world around Schönberg darkened and fell into war, he felt unable to connect with this romantic style of composition any longer. Or perhaps he was simply bored with Romanticism and wanted something else. I suspect there was at some need for control, order and freedom from convention that prompted Schönberg to create the Twelve-Tone system.

To explain what this is, let’s first discuss some context. Between two octaves of the same pitch on the piano, (for example, C to C again, above or below) there are 7 diatonic pitches, meaning the major or minor scale will use every intermittent letter name once (CDEFGABC). There are, however, five pitches left out in between. If you begin on the pitch C and ascend one octave to the next highest C, playing every single pitch possible in between, both white keys and black, they will all be related by one half step (semitone), ascending in very close proximity, and there will be 12 of them. This is called a chromatic scale instead of a diatonic scale because it breaks an octave into every chromatically possible pitch in between. Some nonwestern music traditions use even smaller subdivisions, such as quarter tones, to break the octave up even further. This fundamental difference–what is the smallest possible distance between two pitches– is one of the key aspects that make nonwestern music sound so very different to the western ear.

I digress. Schönberg took full advantage of these five unused chromatic pitches in the octave, and committed himself to writing music that would use every single one of these pitches at least once before repeating them again. Sometimes, this would be done using a “tone row,” in which Schönberg would shuffle the 12 available pitches into a certain order, and he would invent a melody that used all twelve in this order. Then, the rest of the harmony would be built to accompany this melody. Sometimes, many aspects of a work were serialized, for instance rhythms may also be split into certain patterns and repeated in a certain order. Even dynamics, indicating the volume, would sometimes be put into a certain order.

Schönberg’s Twelve-Tone Serialism is not for the faint of heart. It sounds incredibly different than anything you will have listened to in earlier posts. This is an effort to break free of traditional rules of harmony, and to take the composer out of the process of composing and leave elements to math, chance and pattern. Despite this, Schönberg created a strange marriage of hands-off composing and incredibly strict rules nonetheless. You’ll hear this dichotomy at work in these pieces. They sound as if randomly thrown together melodically, rhythmically and otherwise, but they are actually composed with stricter rules even than diatonic, classical-style works were.

Pierrot Lunaire, op. 21

This is Shonberg’s most famous twelve-tone serial composition. Interestingly, this piece was completed in 1912, two years before World War I began; even I am quite surprised by this. For some context, Rachmaninoff’s very romantic-sounding All Night Vigil, which we discussed last time, was composed three years after Schönberg composed Pierrot!

Coined by Schönberg himself as a “melodrama” for small ensemble, Pierrot is a collection of 21 short movements, all set to a poetry cycle of the same name by Albert Giraud. The work was so influential that the ensemble that Schönberg wrote for– flute, clarinet, violin, cello and piano plus soprano singer– became a standard ensemble in the 20th century.

One other notable element of the piece’s structure is the use of Sprechstimme, or “spoken singing.” It is as it sounds, somewhere between singing and speaking, and is meant to emulate a state of wistfulness, haunting or even drunkenness.

Pierrot, the wistful and mentally unstable protagonist represented by the singer, is wandering around, away from home, at night. He sings about love, anger, religion, the moon, the stars, whatever and whoever is on his mind. He eventually returns home, haunted by his past and what he has seen on his journey.

Despite the oddities of twelve-tone serialism, this piece in particular shows off how gifted a composer Schönberg was. Even with such harsh parameters for harmony and melody, he manages to get contrast, create moods to match the topics being sung about, and make the work seem like a nearly-followable narrative. If anything, the audience is interested in what sounds will come out next!

Alban Berg, Violin Concerto

One of Schönberg’s most outstanding students, Alban Berg, continued in his mentor’s twelve-tone system but added what I consider an even more romantic sensibility to it. Berg’s violin concerto is truly a beautiful piece of music; I genuinely love it even though it is undeniably serialized music both melodically and harmonically.

The piece begins perhaps most curiously out of any other major violin concerto—the soloist’s first pitches are simply their open strings. You normally wouldn’t hear open strings all in a row unless a musician was tuning their instrument, so how surprising that these four simple pitches in fact comprise the first four notes in Berg’s tone row for the first movement. You’ll hear the ascending and descending pattern several times, both in the solo and orchestral parts. It’s also ironic that the beginning of the piece is so “easy” for the soloist, just playing their open strings, when in reality the entire rest of the concerto is among the most technically difficult of all violin concerti! Even after the soloist has learned the music, imagine having to memorize a 30-minute, technically very difficult part, based on 12-tone serialism instead of any familiar and predictable harmony!

Despite all the work that goes into having to prepare a serialized piece (Pierrot’s premier took 40 rehearsals!), for a piece like this violin concerto it seems worth it to me. Berg orchestrates it in a way that the audience still hears similarities to Romantic-era violin concerti that came before. Perhaps, if the notes were just a bit different, it wold be exactly like a Romantic concerto in sentiment, but the notes are what they are, and this is what creates curiosity. Is this something that makes sense to my ear or not? There’s a constant battle in my brain to answer this question as I listen, and the lack of an answer is in itself beautiful and interesting.

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