Assignment 2 – An insight into serialism

Posted on January 6, 2013


An insight into serialism

Tibor Kovacs, Open College of the Arts

Historically, serialism in music was initiated in the early twenties in Austria, in the immediate aftermath of the twentieth century. However, to understand the background of serialism we have to turn our attention first to the end of the nineteenth century and the first two decades of the twentieth, when, for a growing number of composers the traditional tonal system based on diatonic scales appeared insufficient or irrelevant. Towards the end of the late romantic period chromatic elements and a loosening of strictly defined key relationships started to “pollute” compositions of composers such as Wagner (e.g. Tristan und Isolde) and Liszt (e.g. Bagatelle sans tonalité). A tendency of dissolution of the tonal structure of entire, large compositions is clear in the works of Mahler and Richard Strauss (before the nineteen-twenties). The compositions no longer gravitate around a single dominant key, but are built on complex interplay of two or more, often poorly related keys.

As the first two decades of the twentieth century brought about great advances in science in, based on new, revolutionary theories, such as the theory of relativity, evolution and psychoanalysis, a strive towards more abstract and highly individual expressive forms became obvious in visual arts. The rapid changes in the way artistic creation was regarded at the beginning of the twentieth century, emphasizing progress and individuality led many composers to drastically challenge and even abandon the traditional ways music was created in the past. In a short few years masterpieces were created by breaking the limits of classical tonality and rhythmic structure. The fast advances in science and visual arts were paralleled in music by the emergence of composers such as Claude Debussy, Igor Stravinsky, Ferruccio Busoni, Eric Satie, Alexander Skryabin and others, whose music endeavored to territories far away from traditional structures. Radical changes in musical thinking transformed not only pitch organization, but also the way composers regarded rhythm, tone color, texture, measure and other elements.

However, the most courageous, self-aware and radical rejection of the traditional was, however, declared and theoretically founded by a group of composers known as the Second Viennese School, with its major exponents being Arnold Schoenberg, Alban Berg, Anton Webern, Hans Eisler and Joseph Matthias Hauer.

Arnold Schoenberg is widely regarded as the founder and pioneer of serial music. Schoenberg was the son of a Jewish shopkeeper and a piano teacher, a mostly self-taught musician, grown up in the rich musical tradition of Vienna, who in his early years of composition was experimenting with a synthesis of late romantic music. He was interested in the further development of music along the German expressionist current in poetry and visual arts. From the initial years of his career as a musician he became increasingly aware of the limitations and constraints of traditional tonality over the expressive possibilities of music. His initial compositions were characterized by an expansion of chromatic elements and harmonic relationships that were considered dissonant, as compared to the classic triadic structure. After a gradual departure from the diatonic system, in his Second String Quartet (op 10, 1908) Schoenberg definitively crosses the border of tonality, its fourth (last) movement being considered completely atonal. The 10-12 years following the publication of this work were characterized by largely intuitive experimentation with the powers of a music where the intervals between the notes gained expressive power by their own means, the composer studiously avoiding any diatonic relationships or progressions. Schoeneberg’s approach is clearly the most radical among a generation of musicians who were knowingly standing for the liberation of music from old constraints. This process started in the years of optimism and confidence that characterized Western societies before the First World War.

After the war, however, a need to draw some structure into the newly discovered world of independent notes started to manifest among the exponents of atonal music. This was somewhat similar to the aspirations of the neoclassical composers (Satie and the Les Six group, Stravinsky, Bartók etc.), that aimed to contain, simplify and synthesize the abundance of revolutionary compositional techniques discovered in the previous 20-30 years. Schoenberg was aiming for nothing less than a universal musical theory that could incorporate both old and new. The new system that he devised is based on a pre-compositional organization of the twelve notes of the chromatic scale in “rows” that provide the harmonic and melodic foundation of the composition. The pitches and intervals between them are used as points of reference for the work, and the original row would undergo transformations such as the intervals being inverted, notes played backwards (retrograde) or both. The original row and all his variants can be transposed to any of the twelve notes. The row and the overall structure of the compositions with all the transpositions are then related to each other in a unique fashion.

Joseph Matthias Hauer (1883-1959) – an Austrian born schoolteacher devised a twelve-tone system of composition – with the twelve tones of the chromatic scale ordered in clusters called “tropes” consisting of two hexachords containing all the twelve pitches. Hauer was experimenting with this system before Schoenberg, with whom he was in contact in the early twenties, when both of them were interested in drawing order into previously free-flowing atonal music. Hauer was attracted to philosophies postulating the eternity and universality of Melos, regarding musical pitches as universal concepts that could be organized in relation to each other by rules that would define the composition. He regarded the composition as being a “game” based on such rules, where the notes and the intervals between them are the subjects of experimentation.

Alban Berg started to study with Schoenberg in the same year (1904) as Webern, and the three composers walked into the history of music together as the Second Viennese School, being closely linked together during their creative lives and having reciprocal influence upon each other’s work. Berg was by far the most popular among them though, his music being more comprehensible to the public due to frequent links to more traditional musical forms. He had a unique ability to blend the old with the new, traditional tonality, freely atonal and dodecaphonic music. For example, his opera Wozzeck was structurally linked to the classical idiom (e.g. his second movement maintains all the sequential elements of a symphony), it uses mainly free-flowing atonal music that sometimes imitate popular dances (e.g. polka in Act III) and it carries the seeds of serialism, using tone rows at times and variations based on different characteristics of music (note, rhythm, theme, duration etc. in the inventions in Act III). This is highly dramatic, expressive music, faithfully following the development of the theatrical events. His later compositions, like the Violin Concerto and the Lyric Suite are more indebted to the twelve tone system, but Berg maintains his freedom to change the sequence of the pitches according to the emotional-expressive requirements of the composition.


Musical example: Berg’s Violin Concerto evokes intensive feelings, taking the mind of the listener through a journey about life and death without cliché’s and repetitions. This piece of music was composed in 1935, commissioned by the virtuoso violinist Louis Krasner, and it was dedicated to Manon Gropius, the daughter of Alma Mahler and the painter Walter Gropius, who died of polio at the age of 18. The concerto is composed of two movements, the first intended to represent life and the second death.


Ivry GITLIS, violin – WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln – Hans Vonk, conductor

The structure of the piece as well as the tone row at the basis of the piece illustrate Berg’s tendency to combine traditional with radically new, tonal with atonal. Although the original tone row conforms with the requirements of twelve-tone music and contains all the notes of the chromatic scale, these are organized in a way that clusters of the notes correspond to diatonic chords, i.e. G minor, D major, A minor, E major and four notes of the more exotic whole-tone scale.


The concerto was first performed on 19th April 1936 at the Palau de la Música Catalana, Barcelona shortly after the tragic death of the composer in December 1935.


In contrast to Berg, Anton Webern started to use serial compositional techniques around 1925 and he never turned his view towards more traditional music afterwards. He regarded the composer being much like a researcher, who makes discoveries about the inherent rules of music. While Berg was using the tone row relatively freely, Webern remained strict in his adherence to the twelve tone structure, his music being more theoretically coherent and abstract in its nature. He regarded the twelve-tone system as a  logical process of evolution, using each of the twelve tones of Western music with equal  Also, the tone row is far from being a mere theme in itself. He was trying to discover the inner governing rules and characteristics of each row, building the formal structure of the composition, as much as possible, along these rules. Symmetrical structures can often be found, and smaller, few-note cells of the original row are used distinctively from each other, often assigned to different instruments, or having their own rhythmic signature. Berg used complex interwoven canonic structures, which enhance to the lyrical and expressive characteristics of his music.


Musical example: Webern’s Variations (op. 27) This is the only solo piano work published by Webern. The piece was composed in 1935-193, a difficult period in Webern’s life, as his art was rejected by the dominant Nazi party, which practically meant the end of his career as a conductor. In conditions of financial hardship ,he was supporting himself by providing composition lessons to a few interested pupils. Nevertheless he continued to develop his rigorous approach of twelve tone music, developing his unique style, which is well exemplified by this piece.

Glenn Gould playing Webern’s Piano Variations op. 27

This short piece (lasting for little longer than 5 minutes) comprises three movements, in a format similar to the traditional sonata or variation forms. It’s structure is very clear and economical, lacking any redundancy and repetition, which is so characteristic to Webern’s compositional style.  There are elements of apparent symmetry in pitch organization and rhythm, some of the phrases are organized in a palindrome manner, however, this symmetry is not perfect, leaving space for artistic creativity. Overall, the piece provides a great opportunity to enjoy the “dance” of pure musical notes in a way never heard elsewhere, giving an interesting  sensation of freedom supported by a rigorously built structure that one can intuitively feel in the background.


Integral serialism


Although Webern was far from being famous in his time, his later influence to the development of avant-garde music cannot be overestimated. His systematic approach inspired musicians in the 1950’s and 1960’s, such as the group known as the Darmstadt School of composition, represented by Karlheinz Stockhausen, Luigi Nono, Pierre Boulez, Bruno Maderna, Henri Pousseur and many others associated with the group worldwide. Musicians applied rules of serial organization to different characteristics of music other than pitch, such as duration, rhythm, dynamism and attack. The freedom of the composer was maintained in the higher order structure of the compositions, as well as elements like its tempo, intensity and register choice. This approach has become known as integral serialism.

Boulez was perhaps the first French composers who broke away from the neoclassical style. From very early in his carrier he has been composing atonal music, conscientiously trying to explore and re-define the internal relationships in music. His early music was markedly influenced by Schoenberg and Webern. However, starting from his Second Piano Sonata, Boulez extended the limits of serialism to several aspects (or parameters) of music. By his systematic approach to music, serializing several variables of music he was associated with a larger movement known as integral serialism.


Musical example –  Pierre Boulez – Structures (I and II) for two pianos. Boulez composed   Structures I in 1951, and it became one of the first and most successful works using the principles of integral serialism.

Structures for two pianos, performed by Pi-Hsien Chen and Ian Pace

When composing the piece, Boulez associated each pitch with a specified duration, type of attack and dynamics, which he ordered in numerical tables of twelve. New tables were created by transpositions which could be automatically calculated from the first, moving the pitch with its associated elements to a different position in the row. Structures II was created by re-working the material in Structures I about ten years later.


Boulez is considered an important theoretician of abstract and experimental art forms. After studying with Messiaen and René Leibowitz, he taught at the Internationale Ferienkurse für Neue Musik in Darmstadt, Germany working with composers such as Luigi Nono, Pierre Boulez, Bruno Maderna, Karlheinz Stockhausen and others. This group became known as the “Darmstadt school”, and were perceived as following a strict dodecaphonic musical approach. One of the drives of the group, leading to a greater level of abstract quality in the music was to create a form of art that could not be misused by political ideologies in the way the Nazi’s were using the music of Beethoven and Wagner.

Karlheinz Stockhausen – a pioneer of electronic music, one of the most influential and controversial composers of the century. He started to compose music along serialist principles after he attended the Internationale Ferienkurse in Darmstadt in 1951. He departed very early from the twelve-tone system devised by Schoenberg and, in a way similar to that of Boulez’, he applied serial operations to various elements of music. He worked with separate units of sounds with defined characteristics, combining them in a “punctual” way (punktuelle Music). The punctual elements are then organized in larger structures, characterized by progressive development. It is characteristic that the initial set of pitches undergoes a progressive rearrangement on a larger scales process. His rhythms are often based on subdivisions of larger durations and the different subdivisions provide a dynamic character to his music, which doesn’t fit the metric tradition. Also, Stockhausen experimented with a greater freedom of the performers and some of his scores could be started on any of the pages or they can be played in any direction. He experimented with “spatial music”, where the audience would be in the middle of an auditorium where sounds come from loudspeakers organized on a spherical arrangement.


Musical example: Stockhausen – Kontra-Punkte – this work was premiered in 1953 at the World Music Days organized by the International Society for Contemporary Music (ISCM). It was composed shortly after Stockhausen attended the Darmstadt Summer Course in New Music (in 1951), which turned his attention towards serial music.

Karlheinz Stockhausen: Kontra-Punkte, 1953, performed by Orchestra Sinfonica di Roma, conductor Bruno Maderna

            Kontra-Punkte exemplifies Stockhaousen’s interest in composing music that undergoes some process of transformation from the beginning towards the end of the piece. In this case, the original tone row is the chromatic scale in the incremental order of the notes, but the order of the pitches is subject to constant permutations, so the same thing never happens again. The piece is composed for 10 instruments. At the beginning the sounds are widely distributed among the instruments, and are played in distant registers, giving the (pointillistic) impression of small separate and apparently unrelated distinct elements. As the music “progresses” a reduction in the timbral variety and a tendency toward unification and homogeneity becomes noticeable, reaching towards the last measures played on a single instrument (piano), with increasing dominance of one particular – low – register winning over the last few high-pitched notes. 


In the United States, one of the early serialist composers was Milton Babbitt, who continued to explore the dodecaphonic system introduced by the Second Viennese school. Although he was perhaps the first composer to serialize musical elements other than pitch, his music remained centered on formal operations concerning pitch and rhythm. His music reached additional complexity by the juxtaposition of multiple layers (usually played by different instruments or different modes on the same instrument), where the pitches of a dodecaphonic raw are arranged in aggregates exploring different pitch relationships.

Igor Stravinsky, while living in America started to compose serial music at the beginning of the 1950s and dedicated his later years to experimentation with serial techniques (e.g. Threni – 1958, Movements – 1960). However, his music preserved his unique style, incorporating many compositional elements so characteristic to his previous compositions, i.e. complex rhythms, dramatic pulse and sophisticated lyricism.


Influence to other musicians and musical currents


Serialism influenced a great number of composers throughout the century. One of the earliest composers who experimented with the new structure was Oliver Messiaen, a French composer, organist at the Église de la Sainte-Trinité in Paris and professor of harmony and composition at the Paris Conservatoire. He studied and taught serialism and had a number of pupils who later became prominent composers rooted in serialism, such as Stockhausen, Boulez and Goeyvaerts, among other prominent pupils. However, Messiaen did not follow any strict Schoenbergian set of rules. Rather, he is using a unique musical language in his compositions, based on a set musical scales with symmetrical structures that he called modes of limited transposition. Some of these modes have already been known and used, such as the whole tone scale, but Messiaen provided a structured theoretical approach to their use, outlined in his treatise Technique de mon language musical (The technique of my musical language) published in 1944 in Paris.

Besides pitch structure, one of the determinant elements of his music is his use of rhythm. Messiaen applied mathematical rules to rhythmic units, mainly augmentation and diminution of note length with a fixed value. He greatly admired Stravinsky’s ingenious use of rhythm in his early ballets, especially The Rite of Spring. As a consequence of his affinity towards mathematically structured musical elements, Messiaen was often making use of palindrome rhythms (also called nonrertrogradable rhythm, where a rhythmic segment will maintain the same structure played either forward or backwards). His Quatre Études de rythme composed n 1949 – 1950, especially the third piece of the four, was especially seminal for younger serialist composers. Other notable elements of Messiaen’s music are his affinity to link sound and visual color in a synaesthezic fashion, and his in depth study of bird songs and making them one of his most important compositional sources.

With regards to Béla Bartók, although he was not an adept of serialism, he often used all the notes of the chromatic scale in aggregates dispersed across complex compositional structures. John Cage studied the twelve tone-system with Schoenberg and used its techniques in his early compositions, before turning his interest towards indeterminacy. In the second half of the century, serial techniques provided a background for experimentation with textural music in the case of Krzystof Pendercky and György Ligeti in eastern Europe,  as well as Ralph Shapey and Elliot Carter in America. One of the most original composers of the century, Ianis Xenakis produced music that he called „stochastic”, where the elements of music were not determined individually, but generated according to probabilistic principles of mathematical statistics.

Besides music, there was widespread interest for the concepts of serialism in fine arts, leading to the creation of abstract arrangements of modular units connected by combinatorial rules.

Serialism opposed to political ideology, including fascist, communist and other political currents. Serial music was not particularly popular and essentially non-commercial, which I think is a blessing, as it allowed its free development, partly with government and university support in Germany and USA.

Personally, I draw much enjoyment from serial compositions. They always stimulate and strike me with a sensation of novelty.




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