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Let’s Learn About Serialism

A. Kori Hill

Over a hundred years ago, there lived a guy named Arnold Schoenberg (1874–1951). He was frustrated because Classical music had gotten so big, long, complex, and chromatic that he felt there was nowhere else to go. It was like standing at the edge of a cliff. You couldn’t go back; you couldn’t go forward. How was he to create freely with so few options?  

What Schoenberg felt boxed in by was Western tonality and Romantic era precedents. The rules that determine the order of chords (harmonic progression); the key area you stay within or move to (modulation); and the instruments that go with specific genres (string quartet, symphony orchestra). Classical music had become so big but not as diverse in content and ideas. Chromaticism (moving from E flat to E natural, to F natural, etc.) was very prominent by the start of the twentieth century (thanks Wagner and R. Strauss!). You can only do so much chromaticism before you (and your audience) get tired. So, folks decided to do something about it.  

First was a dude named Josef Matthias Hauer. He developed a new system of composing with the twelve pitches of the Western system in 1919 but his method didn’t really take off. Schoenberg’s from 1923 did, thanks to the adaptation of this technique by his students Anton Webern and Alban Berg (known as the Second Viennese School), and other major composers like Igor Stravinsky and Aaron Copland.  

Schoenberg created what we now consider to be twelve-tone technique or serialism. Instead of “free” atonality, where a composer writes a piece and throws the rules of Western tonality out the window, Schoenberg used an organizing principle called a tone row. A tone row is a specific organization of the twelve pitches that could not be repeated but appear in different orders. It could be a prime row (P), the original order of the pitches. It could be an inverted row (I), the original order upside down. It could be retrograde (R), the original order backwards; or retrograde-inversion (RI), where it’s backwards and upside down!    

The result was music that was spooky, unsettling, electrifying, and in some cases, really short. Webern’s Six Pieces for Orchestra, Op. 6 is less than 15 minutes; Schoenberg’s “Nacht” movement from Pierrot Lunaire is less than 3 minutes. By the mid-twentieth century, a lot of mainstream composers like Milton Babbitt, Aaron Copland, Igor Stravinsky, and Pierre Boulez were using serialist techniques in their works. For some, it was the new stylistic “face” of classical music. But not for everyone.  

Come back next time to hear about minimalism- another style that emerged in the middle of the twentieth century! Tonality was not thrown aside; instead, it was secondary to another important musical feature: rhythmic repetition.  

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Let’s Learn About Serialism