What is… Serialism?

Stephen Johnson gets to grips with classical music's technical terms

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Serialism is a compositional technique pioneered by Arnold Schoenberg using all 12 notes of the western scale – all within a fixed set of rules.

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No single musical technique has elicited such extravagant praise or such pungent opprobrium. Reading its leading exponents, it’s sometimes hard to tell which side they think they’re on. ‘What we were doing,’ proclaimed serialist apostle Pierre Boulez in 1963, ‘was to annihilate the will of the composer in favour of a predetermining system’.

So was this an extreme interpretation of the Nietzschean proclamation ‘God is dead’? Was it an understandable reaction to the destruction unleashed by the unrestrained human will in two world wars? Or was it simply the final expression of what Nietzsche also called ‘the will to power’ in music?

Strikingly, Schoenberg, the great Lawgiver of 20th-Century Music, invented his version of serialism in the aftershock of WWI. Looking back on the wild experimentalism of his atonal works before the war, he seems to have reacted like someone waking suddenly from a terrifying dream.

There had to be unity, a means of organising non-tonal music that might replace the old ‘system’ of tonality. Schoenberg came up with a device to keep all 12 notes of the chromatic scale in constant, ordered rotation: a ‘12-note row’. A theme?

It’s both more and less than a theme: less in that it has no rhythmic dimension and therefore no existence in time; more in that everything – absolutely everything – in the resulting composition must derive from it. 

Compared to the elastic, wonderfully ambiguous language of tonality, serialism was a deterministic nightmare. Some of Schoenberg’s efforts to fuse it with the stylistic features of Brahmsian Classical-Romanticism in the 1920s and ’30s can remind one of the tragic Trojan priest Laocoön, wrestling desperately with huge constricting sea-serpents.

Yet, perhaps inspired by the less fanatical efforts of his pupil Alban Berg, Schoenberg later began to relax the rules and introduce tonal elements to his rows, and from then it’s arguable that the flow of real masterpieces resumed.

What Boulez and his confrères attempted, in the wake of yet another world war, was to bring other musical parameters – rhythm, dynamics, instrumental colour – under serialist control.

It was a heroic, almost certainly doomed enterprise. When asked, at the 1999 Edinburgh Festival, why the public resolutely refused to love serialism’s children, Boulez replied wistfully, ‘Perhaps we did not take into account sufficiently the way music is perceived by the listener.’

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This article was first published in the September 2015 issue of BBC Music Magazine