The Development of Serialism

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  • Topic: Twelve-tone technique, Serialism, Arnold Schoenberg
  • Pages : 7 (2320 words )
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  • Published : November 1, 2012
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The late 19th century and early 20th century witnessed many significant changes of the appearance of the Global politics and arts. Especially in music, after centuries dominated by tonal music, many composers of the 20th century revolted and decided to find new music styles to break with traditional music style, which marked by the appearances of the impressionism, the expressionism and the serialism. This essay will discuss about serialism and its development during 20th century. According to The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musician (Vol. 23, P.116), Serialism is a musical composing method which was initiated by Arnold Schoenberg and adopted and developed by his students in Second Viennese School such as Edward Steuermann, Erwin Stein, Ernst Krenek, René Leibowitz, and especially Alban Berg and Anton Webern, and other composers of 20th century including Igor Stravinsky, John Cage, Olivier Messiaen, Stockhausen, etc. According to Gerald Abraham, there are two rules of twelve-tone serialism introduced by Schoenberg in 1920s: the order of each tone row has to be maintained during the work; any tone in a series is prohibited repeating until all other eleven tones appeared. In Schoenberg’s attempt to make the equality in music, it was clear that those rules pleased his purpose. Because in a series, every twelve notes of chromatic scale were equal-tempered and completely atonal. On the other hand, some opinions claimed that serialism was an evolution of tonal music. According to George Perle, “The twelve-tone system is not as insulated from other contemporary musical developments as it is sometimes assumed to be. Essentially, Schoenberg systematized and defined from his own dodecaphonic purposed a pervasive technical feature of ‘modern’ musical practice, the ostinato.” And Arnold Whittall also stated that ‘Serialism has not replaced tonality, but coexists and interacts with it’ Moreover, some composers of later period who called serialist enriched the definition of serialism by making music with rows of series of any musical elements. The use materials could be series of pitches, of dynamics, registers, or even durations. It was considered to be Total Serialism as known as Integral Serialism. It is important to note that for the purpose of making serialism different from free atonal which was common in Expressionism, there is a ‘formula’ that was being followed by most of serialism composers during decades of development; it named ‘magic square’. This square is somewhat similar to a mathematic matrix with columns and rows of series, and composers can choose any series from this square to compose. Example below (Example 1) shows the magic square from Schoenberg, the Suite for Piano Op.25.

Example 1 – A magic square from Schoenberg Op.25
In a magic square, series can be used by both vertical and horizontal ways with names Prima (P), Interval (I), Retrograde (R) and Retrograde Interval (RI). The original Prima series (P-0) is decided by the composer, and the original Interval (I-0) is the interval version of P-0. Retrograde and Retrograde Interval series are the reverse versions of Prima and Interval series. Therefore, the composer will have forty-eight possible versions of the first Prima available to his work. In addition, magic squares can be applied for not only pitch classes but also every musical element such as dynamics, durations, even register. Although Arnold Schoenberg was not the first composer thought of serialism music, he was actually the one marked serialism as one of the most influential musical style of 20th century. After the period of more than twelve years, Schoenberg had shown a lot of effort in exploration and experiment to make his music completely different from Romanticism with some free atonal works such as Erwartung Op.17, Die gluckliche Hand Op.18 and Perriot lunaire Op.21; in spring 1921, Schoenberg began composing the well-known composition The Suite for Piano Op.25, which was...
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