Today we continue our journey into the world of Schoenberg and his disciples with serial music. The term “serial music” is often misused as a synonym for “Twelve-tone music ” or “ atonal music“. In fact this term appeared with Schoenberg, Berg and Webern in the descriptions of works composed after 1920 which were written using the twelve-tone rows.
The main idea of serial music is that elements of the row are all equal in rights and governed by the order in which they appear. To abolish the notion of hierarchy between sounds, Schoenberg used serialism, but applied it to only one of the four fundamental parameters (pitch, duration, timbre, dynamics): the pitch. Using the twelve tones of the chromatic scale, Schoenbergian serialism reveals itself to be also dodecaphonic, which is why we often associate the twelve tone technique with serialism.
Technically, the tone-row is composed of twelve tones of the tempered chromatic scale, set in an order defined by the composer but each tone can appear once and only once in the row. The number of possible rows is very high, in mathematical terms, it is a permutation of 12 elements, 12! (1x2x3x4. … x12) So 479,001,600 possibilities. The composer, once the row has been defined, can use it in various forms:
- - prime form (Grundgestalt) , so without change
- - retrograde , the prime form is taken backwards (from the last note to the first)
- - inversion : prime form turned upside-down.
- - Retrograde inversion combination of the two previous changes
Each of these forms can also be transposed to the other eleven degrees of the chromatic scale, bringing the number of possible forms of the same row to 4+4×11=48. The composer may play several tones of the row simultaneously (in vertical form, so “chords”) or horizontally, but change registry, or overlay different speeds. We can clearly see that the possibilities are almost endless, but more important, the row can not be regarded as a theme in a classical meaning, as it is not easily recognizable melodically, but is more like a succession of intervals.
One can deduce important conclusions from the foregoing :
- 1. Serial does not mean dodecaphonic: the tone-row may be composed of less than twelve sounds (in Stravinsky for instance), more than twelve sounds (in microtonal music) or affect other parameters than the pitch (the rhythm for example).
- 2. Serial does not mean atonal: Some series can be chosen to evoke a tonal character
- 3. If works written by Schoenberg with his “method of composition with twelve tones which are not related” are basically atonal, dodecaphonic and serial, this is only a special case of atonality and serialism.
We have only spoken of Schoenbergian dodecaphonic serialism but we could also speak of dodecaphonic serialism in Western tonal music, also based on the twelve tones of the chromatic scale. Here are some examples you might find surprising : we can find a twelve-tone row in the recitatives of Mozart’s Don Giovanni , or at the beginning of Liszt’s Faust Symphony or in the fugue of Strauss’ Also sprach Zarathustra … Amazing, isn’t it?