Five of the best twelve-tone works

We choose some of the best works by serialist composers

Published: September 15, 2019 at 9:59 am

Schoenberg Variations for Orchestra, Op. 31 (1928)


This was his first serial work for full orchestra and a demonstration piece of the possibilities of the 12-tone row. In the mysterious, then turbulent, Introduction, the row is assembled note by note; the expressive, long-phrased theme, played by the cellos, comprises four successive forms of the row – prime, retrograde-inversion, retrograde, inversion – harmonised by other row forms; Variation 1 has the Theme in the bass – and so on. The score alternates between the harshest and most delicate textures, vividly orchestrated.

Berg Violin Concerto (1935)

Prompted by the death of the young Manon Gropius and composed in Berg’s last summer, this concerto is a haunting study in ambiguity. For, although 12-tone in structure, it uses a note row comprising a succession of thirds which incorporate the tuning of the violin’s open strings plus a five-note scale – elements that enable Berg constantly to insinuate nostalgic echoes of tonality, and even to introduce a Carinthian folk tune and a Bach chorale. The work has a more secure place in the repertoire than any other 12-tone score.

Boulez 12 Notations (1945)/Notations I-IV, VII (1980/98)

In 1945, when he was still studying with Messiaen and Leibowitz, 20-year-old Boulez composed a set of tiny, violently contrasted piano studies, each only 12 bars long, exploring the possibilities of 12-tone technique. Thirty years later, be began to orchestrate these, completing Nos I-IV in 1980, and adding VII in 1998. These are not just arrangements, however, but recompositions, amplifying tiny gestures in the original pieces into great swirls and tirades of complex and colourful texture for vast orchestra.

Copland Inscape (1967)

Copland’s last substantial work for orchestra uses two 12-tone rows. The first forms the awesome 12-note chords that frame the work’s course; the second row generates the austere contrapuntal argument that builds to a rhetorical climax before dissolving in a passage of mystical withdrawal – the ‘inscape’ of the title.

Copland once said that he took up serialism because it helped him discover chords he would not otherwise have heard. Yet the hard-bitten textures of Inscape sound no less characteristic of him than his popular Americana.

Stravinsky Agon (1953-57)

Stravinsky’s ballet was composed over several years. In proceeding from modal fanfares, via dances devised from chromatic four-tone motifs, to fully 12-tone dances at its centre, it reflects his gradual approach to 12-tone composition. Its mix of stylistic allusions, from Medieval cadences and Monteverdi to Webern and jazz, also pre-echoes the status of serialism more recently as just one technique among many.

Yet, the pervasive influence of Stravinsky’s idiosyncratic personality ensures that this most disparate of his scores comes over as a perfectly balanced whole.


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