The Veer Towards Serialism

By Chanan Hanspal

There is an abundance of literature based on serialism, and one who wishes to pursue research in this area is confronted with a wide variety of sources and approaches. Some writers endeavour to examine the technical aspects of serialism, in particular Paul Griffiths’ in Modern Music And After (1995), Reginald Smith Brindle in The New Music (1975) and in Analytic Approaches To Twentieth Century Music (1989) by Joel Lester. Some emphasise the importance of antecedents such as John & Dorothy Crawford in Expressionism In Twentieth Century Music (1993) and The Second Vienna School: Expressionism and Dodecaphony (1977) by Luigi Rognoni. Whilst others find it appropriate to explore serialism within a social and political context, Robert P. Morgan Modern Times from World War I to the Present (1993) or from an aesthetic and philosophical perspective, Brian K. Etter, From Classicism to Modernism (2001). The acknowledgements above are a mere drop in the ocean in relation to the wealth of information on this topic, and this essay will concentrate solely on that particular material. The content contained thereof will be addressed and cross referenced in the hope that serialism and related matters may reveal a specific approach pertinent to each writers’ analyses and view points.

However radical or eminent a movement or style of music is, it is invariably, in part, a product of an antecedent. The formulation of serialism was the result of a number of factors, which prior to the consolidation of it gave rise to the increasing search for a new musical language that would adhere to principles postulated by the protagonists of modern music. The sociological aspects in the first quarter of the 20th century and the psychological temperament of members of the second Viennese school would have an important impact on the way orchestral music of this period was written. The self conscious precision of serialism had been in the process of evolution since Wagner’s opera Tristan und Isolde and along with works of Mahler and Strauss helped set the precedent for the eventual dissipation of diatonicism. To outline the evolutional developments of serialism, its crystallisation and eventual permutation it is necessary to take into account the aforementioned determining factors which culminated in the meticulous application of such extreme measures in order to avoid replication of music of the past.

Firstly, it would be appropriate to reflect on how the issue of antecedents is explained and if there is a common thread between J&D Crawford’s Expressionism In Twentieth Century Music and Luigi Rognoni’s The Second Vienna School: Expressionism and Dodecaphony. Romanticism is frequently referred to as being the determining factor in the subsequent dissipation of tonality. In the 19th century, composers such as Wagner, Mahler, and Strauss had challenged diatonicism and implied in their compositions through the extensive use of chromaticism a shift from the tonal heritage established hundreds of years prior. J&D Crawford’s book develops a convincing description of the evolutionary events of expressionism set forth by 19th century romanticism. The operatic work Tristan und Isolde was to have an indelible effect on Arnold Schoenberg. And, in light of the fact that Schoenberg was to develop chromaticism to the extent by which it was no longer used as a fleeting embellishment but as an integral part of the composition, the frequent mention of Wagner in these two books is somewhat justified. In the following extract from The Second Vienna School it is written, “Transfigured Night is a product of the Wagnerian persuasion which at that time dominated not only German but all of European music as well; and in his music, Schoenberg’s sole purpose seems to be the search for an opening in the chromaticism of Tristan und Isolde.”(Rognoni 1977, p. 3). Although this excerpt is in relation to Schoenberg’s pre-expressionist phase and way before his later serial period, Wagnerian principles formed the catalyst which would bring about atonality and eventually the mechanistic dialect of serialism. In a 1909 interview, “Schoenberg acknowledged the importance of Wagner’s music to his advance toward atonality, and mentioned specifically Wagner’s “short motives, with their possibility of changing the composition as quickly and as often as the least detail of mood requires.” (J&D Crawford 1993). It is plausible to make the deduction that the stark contrasts of orchestration in Schoenberg’s expressionist compositions may be a reflection of Wagner’s “short motives.”

The inclusion of the late romantic and expressionist composers as encompassing the spectrum of chromatic development in evolutionary increments through music is the only connecting element between these two books. The common thread ends where discussions on the destiny of expressionism begin. Rognoni devotes little more than 12 pages on the issue, whereas J&D Crawford’s book indulges to great extent the psychological aspects conveyed through the medium of expressionist composition. Expressionism in music is often described analogously with the expressionist painting movement and in this book, J&D Crawford’s reference to Munch, Kandinsky, and Kokoschka is frequent. The fact that expressionist painters aim at conveying a state of mind rather than a naturalistic representation transfers quite implicitly to music and Schoenberg’s embracement of expressionist painting was testimony to this. The reason for J&D Crawford’s elaborative reflection on painting and its transference to music is important in that it psychologically liberated the composer and in a way justified the use of extreme musical means to depict strong inner emotions. It is the extreme musical means as a result of this liberation in tandem with romanticism by which atonality came into fruition. Therefore, “expressionist compositions, written under emotional compulsion, helped bring about a revolution in musical language which was the outward manifestation of an expansion of spirit, individualism, and ethical stance. The body of expressionist music played a crucial liberating role in the further development of modern music.” (J&D Crawford 1993). If one thinks of the “further development of modern music” as “the emancipation of dissonance” proclaimed by Shoenberg in his theory of harmony published in 1911, and the fact that shortly after, Schoenberg unconsciously began to use the serial technique; it is feasible to expound the virtues of expressionism as being the underlying musical manifestation leading to serialism. In addition, the virtues are exclusive to musical form because the structuralism of the twelve-note technique was objective and therefore the antithesis of the subjectivity of expressionism.

The emergence of atonality in Brian K. Etter’s book From Classicism to Modernism is juxtaposed with an in-depth exploration of philosophical and aesthetic ideas. There is strong reference to Adorno and Etter challenges some of his writings, in particular the concept of the ideal, whereby Adorno questions: “is such belief in the ideal possible in our ravaged world?” Etter in response to the rhetorical question proposes that “Before accepting Adorno’s negative answer, it would be well to reflect upon the consequences of its rejection…without a vision of something better, surely there would be no reason to seek to transform the world, no hope that there might yet be something better. Indeed, without an ideal, what reason is there to go on living?” (Etter 2001, p. 96). Idealism makes a profound imprint on the psyche and seems to postulate the fanaticism often associated with it in order to defy anything that may threaten the plight to secure the superiority of the endeavour. Idealism is inherently flawed because although it establishes a set of rules in which to govern the idea it is not indissoluble and will consequently dissipate into interpretation and permutation therefore weakening its initial state. At the same time, it is impossible to function without the ideal for in its absence only chaos will ensue. The philosophical perspective at which Etter pitches from is interesting purely from the fact that modern music is symbolic in its association with philosophical ideas. Although intriguing, this standpoint is not revelatory considering Adorno expressed philosophical ideas in The Philosophy Of Music. It is also common knowledge amongst Shoenberg scholars that Schoenberg did in fact embrace ideas set forth by Nietzsche and Schopenhauer. Etter sights an array of philosophers from Plato and Aristotle, Kant and Hegel, and sets them in sequence with lucidity to support his own arguments which claim validity on philosophical grounds in application to modern music.

What sets this book apart from the others is the great depth at which Etter goes to philosophise the domain of tonality and its connoted sociological significance as a pre-requisite for the repudiation of its existence. Etter establishes bifurcation as grounds for extensive argument on the formulation of serialism and generic concepts of the avant-garde in contrast to the strong hold on traditional forms. In his epilogue, he writes “…the culture of preservation and the culture of innovation rest on diametrically opposed metaphysical premises. The former, the realm of classical music defined by the stylistic practice of tonality, represents a teleological conception of the temporal order, corresponding to the immanence of the good or the ideal. The latter, the realm of the avant-garde defined by the rejection of tonality, represents a rejection of the concept of order altogether, because order is perceived to be the enemy of the human spirit.” (Etter 2001, p. 224). From this quote, it is evident that the polarity of “preservation” and “innovation” indicate to Etter, the necessity for investigation into the initial causes of tonality and atonality by means of metaphysics and teleology. Whereas in J&D Crawford’s Expressionism In Twentieth Century Music the methodology is dissimilar in that the division between tonality and atonality is discoursed through the Romantic and Expressionist movements. Rognoni hints at a similar methodology but he is much more interested in the technical elements of modern music.

So far, we have looked at three books that survey the materialisation of serialism, which provides the only related feature, however the methodologies are in extreme contrast with one another. The philosophical approach is interesting only in that it questions and suggests alternatives to established doctrines, but the philosophical aspects had been extensively drawn out by Adorno many years prior to Etter’s publication. Rognoni’s musically analytical and historical approach with interjections of expressionist evaluation is appealing to the musical analyst and the brief acknowledgement of expressionism sets it apart from say, Paul Griffiths’ book Modern Music and After or Joel Lester’s Analytic Approaches to 20thCentury Music which are primarily concerned with technical developments. J&D Crawford set out to reveal the ideological connection between the school of thought derived from expressionist painters and that of expressionist composers. Expressionism In Twentieth Century Music is also biographical and historical in content with iconographical examples of expressionist paintings. Because of the difficulties presented to the scholar who wishes to find a cohesive musical language in expressionism, the book does not redeem in explanation of what constitutes musical techniques of expressionism in the same way as concrete definitions can be found in other types of music. Therefore, it is plausible that the highly personalised compositions of this period, for example Schoenberg’s Five Pieces for Orchestra (1909) and Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring (1913) and the subsequent inference of an expressionist style be understood from the premise of which renders diversity as being the only related element of musical expressionism.

An example of the historical understanding of Serialism is set out in Robert P. Morgan’s Modern Times. There is comparability with J&D Crawford’s and Rognoni’s books in that Morgan acknowledges “…the most extreme compositional manifestations of the pre- war period are best understood as forming the final stage of musical Romanticism: Schoenberg’s atonality, for example, as the ultimate consequence of extreme personal expression and visionary subjectivism. These developments can be viewed as the latter-day products of the progressive, expansionist view characteristic of western thought during the years preceding the war.” The linkage is axiomatic; the fact that expressionism played an imperative role in the lead up to serialism is given great emphasis. However, after World War I, the personality and subjectivity which had prevailed in Romanticism and Expressionism respectively came to an end and Schoenberg embarked on a mission to proclaim to the world a new musical order.

The consolidation of the dodecaphonic principle in 1923 had been the result of the new constructivist mind set induced by the calamities of World War I. between 1915 and 1923; Schoenberg did not publish any music and seems to have been exclusively concerned with the construction of the 12-note system. However, composer Josef Hauer had happened upon his own interpretation of dodecaphony as early as 1915 and although slightly different to Shoenberg’s version concerned Schoenberg to the extent whereby he took pains to conglomerate his and Hauer’s ideas through written correspondence and to consolidate the dodecaphonic principle. For whatever reason they continued to remain independent of each other in their formulation of the 12-note technique. What is unusual is “Schoenberg’s desire to be first in announcing the technique in light of the fact that he postponed publishing any 12-note work until 1923, years after he began using the method.” (Peyser 1999, p. 32). As a point of interest, out of all the books read on modern music, it is only in Peyser’s book one finds acknowledgement to this potential rivalry, and one could deem the omission from the other books as inconclusive in describing all accounts of serial formulation. It also clarifies that Shoenberg was not alone in his quest for the dodecaphonic principle.

“The method of composing with twelve tones related only to each other,” dramatically altered the course of composition in the 20th century. Schoenberg never taught the technique, and so, it was left to the analysts to make deductions and to subsequently publish their findings. It is the technical analysis of serialism where one finds a substantial, almost superfluous amount of literature. One of the leading exponents of twelve-tone analysis is Milton Babbit. He has published articles and books that give extensive information on the matter. Babbit’s analyses of Shoenberg’s serial technique and the application of it to other domains have proved to be indispensable supplements for those teaching and researching the twelve-tone technique. In Brindle’s The New Music it is suggested that although the pre-determinacy of integral serialism seemed “certain to determine the pattern of music for some considerable period… [By the late 1950s]…in Europe at least, the system had fallen into decline…yet today it would seem that in the U.S.A., under the influence of Milton Babbitt, integral serialism continues to flourish.” (Brindle 1975, p. 52). Although that extract is derived from a book nearly 30 years old, the trend set by Babbit of integral serialism analysis and his nomenclature is ubiquitous and the premise of which has been referred to often in; Basic Atonal Theory John Rahn (1980) Modern Music and After Paul Griffiths (1995) Analytical Approaches To Twentieth-Century Music Joel Lester (1989) and The Structure of Atonal Music Allen Forte (1973).

As Hitler’s power increased and with it, his determination to eradicate modern art in the 1930s, serialism was destined to go underground only a few years after its emergence. Shoenberg fled Europe for the United States where the hegemony of Neo- Classicism proved to be all pervading. The next revolution in modern music was to take place in France between 1945-48 and the composer primarily responsible for this upsurge was Pierre Boulez. Although Boulez is accounted for the revolution with integral serialism, Griffiths and Brindle acknowledge Boulez was not the first. In 1947-48, Babbitt wrote an important work called Composition For Four Instruments. It was an example of integral serialism and composed before Boulez’s Structures (1951-52) and Messiaen’s Mode de Valeurs (1949). Neither Babbitt nor Messiaen received the attention Boulez’s Structures did. Peyser writes “There is something about Boulez’s presentation that creates a strong effect, that fixes the notice of serious men upon him…Thus Boulez’s Structures, perhaps because of its stridency, turned out to be far more trailblazing than Babbitt’s more intellectual and academic work.” (Peyser 1999, p. 201) Although Babbitt idolised Schoenberg, there were other composers who expressed hostility toward him, “It became evident that the younger generation showed distaste for Schoenberg’s music, regarding it as heavily burdened with late romantic expressionism, shackled by traditional melodic and rhythmic elements, and unsuitable for beginning a new musical language.” (Brindle 1975).

In To Boulez and Beyond: Music In Europe Since The Rite of Spring (1999) Joan Peyser explores in great detail the enigmatic nature and severity of Boulez. It is refreshing, and gives the reader an insight into the life of Boulez, which one cannot so readily find in other books mentioned in this essay. However indifferent and closed Boulez’s personality appeared to be, there is an evocation in the Boulez interviews conducted by Joan Peyser to allure some kind of emotive redemption from him in order to contrast the reputed impenetrable persona of the man. In Peyser’s book, the seemingly cold veneer of modern music and the assumed decadence is softened by the appeal to the emotive side of modern composers, in particular Boulez. The book is less analytical in the musical sense and is testimony to the possibility that one can yield emotional qualities from such a strictly formulated and constructivist idiom.

It is interesting to find a multiplicity of approaches on modern music research, there appears to be a great quantity of information on the technical aspects of it. One might say, that research in this area offers many resources, and clearly defined expositions of the ambitious undertakings of modern composers. Boulez’s Book of Structures provides an explanation of total serial devices employed in Structures. In Technique de Mon Langue Musicale Olivier Messiaen gives views on melody, harmony and modes in his music. Babbit’s articles Some Aspects of the Twelve–Tone Composition and Series Structure as a Compositional Determinant elucidate the Twelve-Tone principle. Therefore, one would assume, conjecture on the technicalities of serialism is almost non-existent. The technicalities of the expressionist period however, are more elusive, unlike the structuralism of serialism which is lucidly set out. The ambiguity of a specific musical technique embracing a range of compositions in the expressionist period is understandable when we take into account the following quotation from J&D Crawford’s Expressionism in Twentieth Century Music. “Musical expressionism is to represent psychological states.” (J&D Crawford 1993). Psychological states being relative to each composer with they’re own personality and idiosyncrasies, culminating in a diversity of forms of expression emulated in music suggesting the inability to homogenise expressionistic techniques.

Etter’s book From Classicism to Modernism is a difficult read. Etter labours to ratify the significance of the symbiosis between philosophers and composers. Nevertheless, the book is intriguing and Etter argues his point very convincingly, defining the co- existence of theosophy and the music of Schoenberg, the nihilism derived from Nietzsche and the establishment of Kant metaphysics and Hegelian principles as being relative to his interpretation of modern music. In conclusion, and in using the particular material addressed in this essay as a yardstick by which to measure the type of research in serialism in strictly generic terms, it appears that there is a larger quantity of books available which identify serialism through technical analysis. And, to a lesser extent philosophy, perhaps; it is difficult to be absolute on this due to the fact of the limitations of source material studied as a cause of a specific time span in which to do so, this limitation may suggest further study.


Crawford, John C. and Dorothy C. Expressionism in 20th Century Music.
USA: Indiana University Press 1993.

Griffiths, Paul. Modern Music and After.
Oxford: Oxford University Press 1995.

Lester, Joel. Analytic Approaches to 20thCentury Music.
New York: W.W. Norton and Company 1989.

Morgan, Robert P. Modern Times from World War I to the Present.
London: Macmillan Press Limited 1993.

Peyser, Joan. To Boulez and Beyond, Music in Europe Since the Rite of Spring.
New York: Billboard Books 1999.

Rognoni, Luigi. The Second Vienna School: Expressionism and Dodecaphony.
London: John Calder 1977.