SERIALISM. The very name has come to stand for a musical bugaboo. Treated interchangeably with "dodecaphony" or the "twelve-tone technique", serialism refers to a style of twentieth-century composition that is notoriously standoffish and difficult to get into. The starting point for the style goes something like this: Tonality — the system of harmonic organization in most Western music from the 1600s on* — by emphasizing one note over and above all of the others. One way to get away from tonality, then, is to prevent any one note from being super emphasized by coming up with a system to make sure that all twelve notes are played roughly the same number of times. The key mechanism to this is the "twelve-tone row", a specific ordering of all twelve pitches in the Western musical system that can be transposed, flipped upside down, and played backwards in any combination. This results in music that lacks a tonal center, music that does not operate along the same tropes of tension and release, expectation and fulfillment as other Western music; it is obeying a different set of rules.
Composers being the individualistic and quarrelsome lot that we are, actual implementations of this system vary considerably. Some composers assiduously sought to eradicate all traces of tonal harmonies from their music, while others deliberately constructed their rows to mimic the very same harmonies. (Predictably, they also got into furious squabbles over these and other matters.) There is some debate over how much he was influenced by earlier attempts to codify a dodecaphonic system, but there can be no question that the person who put serialism on the map was the Viennese-born Arnold Schoenberg (1874 - 1951). In addition to being a composer and painter, Schoenberg was an avid and often polemical music theorist and historian, and discussions of the theoretical underpinnings of his works often get tied up in evaluating whether and how well the music he wrote embodies the principles he was espousing (sometimes quite self-aggrandizingly).
Here and now, I'm not particularly interested in diving into the morass of these questions. Schoenberg was a phenomenally controversial and influential composer (I've written before about his influence on early Hollywood scores, for example), and vast quantities of ink have been spilled explaining, deriding, and promoting his music and his claims of his own place in the evolution of Western concert music. Crack open any volume on the history of Western concert music in the twentieth century, and his name will be inescapable. Suffice it to say that Schoenberg is often a flashpoint for strong opinions and controversy, up to and including the question of whether he was launching a new phase of modernism or really one of the very last late Romantics.
One thing I do want to emphasize, tho, is the timeline: The wind quintet we're featuring today was written in 1923-4, and it's the first large-scale piece that fully deploys his twelve-tone technique. This is almost exactly contemporary with the launch of Parisian neoclassicism — the 1923 première of Igor Stravinsky's octet for winds is often cited as the beginnings of the movement**. These two wildly divergent were both products of similar intellectual trends, and their simultaneous existence and flourishing should give pause to any attempts to flatten music history into a single arc of increasing dissonance and bitterness. Indeed, despite the surface dissonance of Schoenberg's music, one can actually argue that it's more optimistic than the bubbly offerings of his French contemporaries: The Parisian neoclassicists' brave face is almost always tinged with melancholy, their lightness with regret; their works are, in some ways, a deliberate retreat from the musical fields of their predecessors — there's a sense that those battles have been lost, and all that's left to do now is make the best of it, using whatever untainted scraps of the past they can find. For the serialists, on the other hand, the future is bright and wide open with possibility. They have a new system in place, one that will ensure they don't make the same mistakes as the past, and with it, they can usher in a new age of rich possibilities. Led by Schoenberg, many of them really did believe that, with a little exposure, audiences would become accustomed to their disjoint melodies and acerbic harmonies and come to find them as beautiful and moving as a melody by Bach.
Even if subsequent events didn't bear this hopefulness out — serialism has always had a reputation for being difficult, and has never been especially popular with audiences (tho this, too, was turned into a virtue with the increased wariness of demagoguery after World War Two — it's hard to imagine populist Fascist propaganda set to twelve-tone rows) — it's well worth remembering, especially when dealing with early serialist works. Schoenberg dedicated his wind quintet to his baby grandson, and it bears every indication of being a lighthearted divertimento despite its fiendish demands on players and listeners alike.
Now, to be fair, much of what makes it hard to follow from an audience perspective is less its dodecaphonic nature and more Schoenberg's abhorrence of direct repetition and insistence on "developing variation". Basically, Schoenberg will often construct music not around melodies or harmonic progressions, but around small motivic atoms that are constantly twisting and changing, blending into the next section with little pause for breath. These transformations may preserve rhythm and melodic contour but not pitch, or pitch and contour but not rhythm, or any of a number of other subtle connexions, and these pile up in dense and ever-changing textures that can be bewildering to try to track in real time. So while the first movement of the quintet is in a traditional first-movement sonata form (insofar as atonal music can accomplish the goals of an innately tonal form, at least), the "themes" are less melodies as such and more five-voice contrapuntal textures rife with elaborate canonic games — one instrument will play a few notes and then be immediately echoed by a second and a third playing variations on the same, often continuing in a dense web of imitation for quite some time, obscuring just which is the primary voice. (Indeed, Schoenberg had to invent a special notational device to clue in the players as to which one of them was the most important at any given moment; these markings are a godsend in terms of making sense of what's on the page.) If you can catch these little echoes and games of mimicry, you'll be a long way not only towards not getting lost, but also towards catching the humor and playfulness that animate this music.
But even if most of the canonic jests elude you, the jauntiness of the scherzo should be at least somewhat evident after the first movement's final slump. The music is a little less relentlessly dense in this movement, and dances a little more obviously in the expected triple time. There are even a few pauses for breath, including a brief cadenza for the piccolo. And, likewise, the next movement is darker and more lyrical, even if the melodies are still far from smooth and easily singable. After this comes the concluding rondo, which embraces lightness and grace even if its giddy cheer is somewhat clouded by typical Schoenbergian intractability. It's not music that works well left on casually in the background, but if you put distractions aside and spend some quality time really listening, it will begin to give up its secrets. (For those in the US who can read music, you can download the score and follow along for free at IMSLP — it's still under copyright protection pretty much everywhere else.) After cavorting thru the usual number of refrains and interludes, the music almost seems to be trying to come to a tonal cadence in rhythmic unison, but the horn is not with the program, and the piece ends with a cackle and a yawp instead.
*Depending on how strictly you define it, you can make an argument that elements of tonality were operating much earlier in European history. Where you draw the starting line is a moot point for the purposes of this post. I'm not putting an end date there because tonal music has been written continuously since, and is still being written today. Claims that tonality "collapsed" or that music entered a "post-tonal" age in the 20th century are vastly overblown; tonality merely became optional instead of mandatory in Western music after 1910 or so.
**Last week's post on Arrieu's wind quintet featured a work from well after the Second World War, but the aesthetic principles I outlined there were very much at work before it as well. Similarly, serialism would be a driving force for considerable swaths of twentieth-century composition.