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Strict Serial Technique in Classical Music Author(s): Hans Keller Source: Tempo, New Series, No.

37 (Autumn, 1955), pp. 12-24 Published by: Cambridge University Press Stable URL: Accessed: 07/04/2009 22:40
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Vaughan Williams' inspired attacks on musical history in The Making of Music (London, 1955) have come in for some heavy censure. " There is no physical reason," he writes, " why an i8th-century composer should not have written the whole of Strawinsky and Schoenberg, provided that he had the pen and " Only the same reason," Martin Cooper comments, " that prevents paper." a monkey with a typewriter producing Hamlet." The present essay, on the other hand, which fulfils a promise given in my ' Music in The Musical Timesof last March, article on ' Contemporary proposes to demonstrate that two great i8th-century composers did in fact write with the help of a composing method which the historian regards as the one aspect of both Schoenberg and the latest Strawinsky that is exclusively of the 2oth century, namely, the method of composing with tone-rows. What is, in fact, wrong with Vaughan Williams' suggestion is that it is all too guarded. But then, he does not know about classical serial technique. Nor, for that matter, did Schoenberg. In his only written exposition of with Twelve Tones, in Style and Idea, New York, 19go, his method (Composition and London, I95I), he illustrates its classical history by a single example from late Beethoven which shows Beethoven's use of pre-classical contrapuntal devices rather than a characteristically serial approach. I am taking the liberty of explaining Schoenberg's example in my own analytical terms. The movement in question is the finale of the F major Quartet, Op. 1 3.
Ex. 1



es sein?

r b:


Es muss



+ J






r Ir


is the root motif of the body of the movement. So far, no doubt, so conscious. The unconscious method would seem to start when Beethoven goes on to turn this consequent and its sequence into an antecedent by succeeding it with a renewed consequent (Ex. I(e)). Ex. i (c) gives the retrograde version of " Es muss sein! ", Ex. I (d) re-inverts this and thus establishes the basic line of Ex. I (e) which merely fills in passing notes. Schoenberg comments: "Whether or not this device was used consciously by Beethoven does not matter at all." Such questions certainly do not matter creatively, but they matter a great deal critically, as we shall see in our final paragraph. Meanwhile, we note that while Beethoven here employs the mirror forms of twelve-tone technique, he does not avail himself of serial technique proper. In themselves, the mirror forms are old, primarily contrapuntal devices of thematic economy and by no means a decisive characteristic of serial technique; on the contrary, you can write a

" " motif of the slow introduction, is Muss es sein? Ex. i (a), the opening " Es muss sein! " consequent, which inverted in the major in Ex. i (b), i.e. its



twelve-tone piece without resorting to them, as Schoenberg himself has shown at the very beginning of his twelve-tonal development, i.e. in the fourth movement of his Serenade,Op. 24, wherein the tone-row revolves throughout in its straight form. The central point about serial technique is the unifying function of a certain succession of notes, i.e. a row; and the point about a row is that it need not be a theme or thematic unit, that it is not rhythmically committed. In my serial Dylan Thomas(Tempo, Spring, I95g), I have analysis of Strawinsky's In Memoriam described a " real " row as " sub-thematic and pre-rhythmic ". Beethoven's " Muss es sein?", however, is and remains rhythmically committed, forming as it does a strictly motivic unit: even in Ex. i (e), that is to say, the motivic entity is retained, for the three asterisked notes are the main notes of the phrase, defining it at either end and at its pivot. Nor is the mirror form which it uses absolutely true; if it were, the re-inversion (Ex. i (d) ) of the retrograde version (Ex. i (c) ) of the inversion (Ex. i (b) ) would be identical with the retrograde version of Ex. I (a). It is not, because the inversion (Ex. i (b) ) is untrue in the first place: it replaces the diminished fourth of Ex. i (a) by a perfect fourth. From the standpoint of serial technique, we might call this transformation a (tonal corruption", for what distinguishes a tone-row is that its intervals always remain the same: it is this characteristic which secures it its unifying " power. The tonal corruption " in the Beethoven example is merely a symptom of the fact that far from being the only unifying element, the basic motif is not even the strongest one: tonality is at least as strong. We are indeed a far cry from the Strawinsky " Dirge ", which also employs tonality, but which would, as I have shown, fall to pieces without its row. I should say that the strength of in tonality in the Strawinsky piece equals the strength of the basic motif the For mirror forms. Schoenberg's Beethoven example of markedly un-serial rest, we may be sure that if Schoenberg had found a more properly serial device in classical music, he would not have failed to quote it instead. Before we turn to our own examples of classical serial technique, however, we have to define the concept of serialism a little more carefully; otherwise we might justly be reproached with begging the question. There is much talk nowadays of " free " and " strict " serial technique, but while it is doubtless which possible and indeed useful to talk of free serialism in the same way in " Dissonant" Mozart's of one would talk of free diatonicism at, say, the beginning C major Quartet, I have often found that the freedom lies in the eye (not even in the ear) of the beholder: as soon as an observer (self-observers not excluded!) is unable to account for certain notes or chords in terms of traditional twelve-tone "rules", the magic term " freedom " presents itself to him and he duly uses it for the purpose of turning his confusion into a discovery. Thus, before my analysis of the Dylan Thomaspiece appeared, I heard it triumphantly said by some who, that there "acting on information received ", had tried dutifully to dissect it, " " is The cue after bars was a free passage three 3. passage certainly far more and in the else compared with Strawinsky's piece, complex serially than anything it is the since But is it only stretch in the piece irregular. procedure elsewhere, over-determined have as I note whose every demonstrated, serially, it is exactly is, twice as strict as the rest of the music. In his Studiesin Counterpoint (New York, I940), Ernst Krenek has implied some simple criteria of serial technique. My own criteria, deduced solely from Schoenberg's music and from no theoretical considerations whatever (not even his own), are somewhat different, but in order to avoid the impression that



I am making the concept of serialism suit my present purpose, I shall, for the duration of this article, withdraw in favour of Krenek. We already know his first rule in outline: " A theme is not necessarily identical with the series; on the contrary, that will only occasionally be the case. Therefore," Krenek continues pedagogically rather than analytically, " the cesuras between the themes (or, in general, between the articulated sections of the melodic line) should not coincide with the consecutive entrances of the series." Secondly, " repetition of a tone is allowed before the following tone of the series is introduced, and within the same octave. . . Repetition of a tone after the appearance of the forthcoming tone of the series is allowed in trills, tremolos, and tremolo-like formations." Later in his book, Krenek goes on to extend his " rule concerning repetition an element. . . of tones ": " generally speaking, interpolation of new materialbetween and its repetitionis permissiblein so jar as the repetition can reasonably be expected to bejelt as such." (His italics). Every piece or passage, then, which is written in strict serial technique is primarily unified by the uninterrupted rotation of a row which fulfils these conditions. I shall speak of " free " serial technique where the employment of the row is not continuous, even though serial conditions may otherwise be fulfilled. In short, strict serialism is the basis of both unity and continuity; free serialism is still an essential factor of unity, but does not equally contribute to continuity. There is already an example of free serial technique in Mozart's early C major Quartet, K. ig6 (1772). The passage in question, i.e. the opening of the first movement's development (Ex. 2 (b)), has baffled Einstein to the point of noncomprehension: " It [the development] bears indeed no relation to the themes of the exposition." (Mozart, London, 1946).

a)4 f

V ..L I ?1T.

'/.VI2. ^-UdP

i ?I

i ?

( <r ()?


Heard serially, however, it bears the closest possible relation to the first subject (Ex. 2 (a) ), which is in fact treated with the greatest respect for the rules of the game (Ex. 2 (b) ). The basic set is transposed to E minor, where Krenek's rules come into force. The one " concerning repetition of tones " has already been observed in the arrangement of the basic set, note 3; it is now also applied to note i, where we get the sort of shake-like formation of which Krenek is thinking. On the other hand, in the octave skip to the viola's b' and again in the overlapping octave on note 3, Mozart allows himself a degree of freedom that is almost Bergian. In its first statement, the basic set appears in thematic shape (as it does in the outer sections of the Strawinsky piece), but in the development Mozart follows Krenek's first rule assiduously: the rhythmic structure and the row intercut to an extent that made the theme unrecognisable to Einstein or anyone else. It is indeed no longer the theme, but simply a restatement of its row, completely different melodically, texturally and rhythmically. In this transformation, it is helped by the typically dodecaphonic octave transpositions which Mozart uses as radically as Strawinsky in the Dylan Thomaspiece; he may indeed plead in his defence that if he breaks a rule in the octave doubling of note 3, it is only in order to employ a typically serial

STRICT SERIAL TECHNIQUE IN CLASSICAL MUSIC device. At the same time, there is, of course, again intense " tonal corruption " (i.e. harmonic unity) which, however, produces a special kind of diatonic serialism: strictly speaking, the row is not one of notes, but of diatonic degrees. Nevertheless, our analysis shows that even this early Mozart example is far more Schoenbergian, more serial than the late Beethoven example which Schoenberg himself quotes, and which we have seen to be rhythmically committed. Now, I happen to know that K. I g6 was the first string quartet which Schoenberg played as a boy. (His first teacher, quartet leader, and best friend, became, generations later, my teacher, quartet leader, and best musical friend). Somewhat mysteriously, Schoenberg has described himself as Mozart's pupil. If we allow ourselves the, superficially, fantastic assumption that Mozart taught Schoenberg twelve-tone technique, the mystery vanishes, though the question remains how Schoenberg could remain unconscious of the nature of Mozart's teaching, unaware intellectually of Mozart's own serial technique. I shall venture an answer at the end of this article. Meanwhile, we note that K. 428 in E flat is another quartet of which the youthful Schoenberg had acquired an intimate, inside knowledge. The canonic opening of the first movement's development section (Ex. 3), which exposes the twelve notes within the narrowest space, is a mature example of strict serialism: an anti- (tri-) tonal row of three notes and its mirror forms (BS, I, R, RI) revolves both horizontally and vertically underneath the rotations of its own segmental subordinate row, which is a series in extremest miniature consisting of two notes at the interval of a minor second.
Ex.3 1 2 6

10 ,,I .

----4 I .


Co BSt co' o/ava 8 /a8 cr


II $



Bs / BS

-r ,-y
SI t




' | BS,s r Bs ts tr The 2nd Violin's serial method:


I \iB

This is purest Schoenberg. In a forthcoming Mozart symposium, I am in fact trying to demonstrate that the passacaglia from the chamber-musical Pierrot lunaire is actually if unconsciously modelled on this development. At the same time, the latter's technique looks far into Schoenberg's own future, down to the (pan)tonal serial technique of the Ode to Napoleon. Beside unifying the antiharmonic passage as such, that is to say, Mozart's strict serial method has to conduct it back into its wider, harmonic context, whence the series continue to rotate down to the perfect C minor cadence, every note of which remains serially determined. The last note of the last basic set is firmly doubled: the

TEMPO twelve anti-tonal notes over, it has become an unmolested, properly harmonic tonic. And as the harmonic forces have gained strength in bar 6, the rows have receded discreetly into the vertical dimension, thus entering into a perfect marriage with the diatonic unification. We shall see anon, in the case of a yet more anti-tonal passage (Ex. 4), how strictly Mozart adheres to this principle of serial cum tonal re-unification whenever diatonic unity is disrupted, and an anti-diatonic tone-row must needs take its place. In the first movement of the G minor Quintet, excerpts from the principal subject serve as serial bases for various formations at the second subject stage, including extended retrograde versions. The minuet is a serial orgy. The threenote row B flat-C sharp-D operates again vertically as well as horizontally and derives, moreover, from the first and second subjects of the opening movement (i.e. from the phrase of bars 5/4-6/2 in retrograde motion and from the horizontal and vertical dominant ninth chord of bars 31-32 respectively). This example of serial technique is a borderline case between strictness and freedom: though slightly discontinuous themselves, the rotations of the row certainly help to produce not only unity, but also continuity. The rhythmic commitment of the row is nil. Both emotionally and technically, the G minor Symphony is the G minor Quintet's closest successor; it is indeed the most chamber-musical of Mozart's MusicSurvey, December, I9go) has described how he was impressed by Heinrich
Jalowetz's observation great symphonies. Luigi Dallapiccola (Notes on the Statue Scene in Don Giovanni,

New York, October, 1944) about the quasi-dodecaphonic opening of the finale's development section, where ten different notes appear in pretty " atonal " succession. Quite wrongly, Dallapiccola speaks of a " series " of ten different notes: as in the E flat Quartet, this panchromatic order or arrangement of notes is not used serially. It must indeed be said that our twelve-tone experts have been busy counting notes in classical music, rather than listening to techniques. The appearance of most or all different notes is important enough, but its importance is negative: it signifies a panchromatic or at least anti-tonal disintegration of a structure whose context is tonally organised. The all-important positive question arises, how is the music re-integrated? We have already seen that in the case of the E flat Quartet the emergence of the twelve notes is accompanied by serial technique. In the present instance, where the tonal disintegration is far more serious and is indeed accompanied by a corresponding rhythmic disintegration-let your friends who have heard the work a hundred times whistle this passage from memory!-the very strictest serial technique is employed; every note is heavily insured, i.e. serially over-determined. Only, the row is not Dallapiccola's "series", but again a three-note row, some of whose entries he does indeed mark in his music example, without apparently realising its significance. The row consists of the diminished fourth and the diminished seventh which we have just observed in the row of the G minor Quintet's minuet. It must be borne in mind that as in the case of the E flat Quartet, the serial re-integration has to cope with a double task, namely, to secure the unity and continuity of the anti-tonal passage itself, and to secure We the unity and continuity between this passage and its tonal context. the before find that is the basic set tonality consequently already latently present disintegrates, i.e. in the notes I have marked BS? in Ex. 4; it is really here that the strict serial organisation starts:

(On the Spontaneity of Schoenberg's Music, Musical Quarterly,





iif r^
1 1

K 2 ^ T




s , 1t ," 4


i "6#f IB I Ab"i1?

9 #


The blow to the tonal organisation (relative major's tonic minor) commences with the last note of BS? and the ensuing diminished fourth which is already the first interval of the basic set's next entry as well as being the second interval of the first retrograde inversion: serialism has the situation well in hand before it gets out of hand tonally and from the standpoint of symmetrical rhythmic structure. At the far end of the passage, both continuity and unity with the resumption of the tonal organisation (dominant minor) is again secured by an overlapping and firm interlocking of the two techniques, serialism and harmony: the " lead-back " into the re-establishment of the key-system proceeds by way of the fifth rotation of the basic set and, overlapping with it, the first and only entry of the retrograde version. It will be noted that in the harmonic sphere at either end of the anti-tonal eruption, the row is filled in by the respective tonics, whereas in the course of Dallapiccola's ten notes, it is ruthlessly naked. The repeated b' duly observes Krenek's second commandment; we need hardly comment upon the fulfilment of his first. By now it will be obvious that Schoenberg failed to discover his own technique consciously in classical techniques. At the same time, his Beethoven example shows that he searched creatively, constructively, that he was not preoccupied with counting notes. Hermann Scherchen (The Nature oj Music, London, I946), on the other hand, has fallen into exactly the same trap as Dallapiccola when faced with another panchromatic passage-and here we return to where Schoenberg started us out from, to late Beethoven:
This harmonic problem [the continual broadening of tonality to a point of total relaxation] leads straight to Schoenberg. And in fact the Ninth Symphony contains the first, almost flawless twelve-note series at the words "Ihr stiirzt nieder, Millionen. . ." I can still remember, as a boy hearing it for the first time, the inexplicable, enigmatic impression left on me by this passage, feverishly groping its way up and down. I must confess my shame that I have only now discovered the reason for its strange effect.

Like Dallapiccola, Scherchen speaks of a "series" where there is none; besides, there are several even more " flawless " panchromatic successions of notes in earlier music: see, for one instance, our own Example 3. Like Dallapiccola, he is so fascinated by the negative, anti-tonal aspect of the passagethat he stops short at the all-important positive question: how is the music re-unified? He wrongly thinks that he has ' now discovered the reason for its strange effect." If the exposition of most or all different notes in a tonal piece were all that was needed to make a profound enigmatic impression, we could all easily make dozens of strange effects a day. The positive, constructive, creative fact is that like Mozart, Beethoven employs strict serial technique in order to counteract the tonal disintegration but, again, it is not the panchromatic succession of different notes that forms the series.

FALSTAFF AT EDINBURGH: Act II, Scene 2 of Karl Ebert's brilliant production of Verdi's last opera, which was a triumph for the Glyndebourne company at this year's Edinburgh Festival.

Photograph: Scotsman Publications Ltd.

Ex. 5 BS(a) ---



BS(b) der, Mil -

sturzt nie

li - o nen?Ah nest

du B

denSchip fer, Welt?




, X4
u -

ber'mSter -

nen - zelt,


ihn i -



berm Ster

Superficially, and unlike Ex. 4, the passage is squarely organised, the fourbar phrase (A) being followed by a real double sequence, i.e. the four-bar model (B) and two exact transpositions. But this is not enough for a passage over which there is no tonal hold: the intervals between the four-bar phrases remain, so far, undetermined, as does, indeed, the relation of (B) to (A). In a word, the basic factor of unity and continuity still remains obscure. As soon as we hear the undercurrent serialism, however, the complex construction becomes crystal-clear. To be precise, two 4-note rows are in operation, both overlapping, true to Krenek's first directive, with the afore-described rhythmic structures: BS(a) rotates through the first seven bars, BS(b) through the next eight. The repetitions of notes follow, of course, Krenek's second rule. I think it would be unrealistic to describe this passage as "freely" serial because two separate rows are involved, for each of them is treated according to the strictest rules, a central fact which would be difficult to communicate if the passage were said to be free. For their greater parts (3 out of 4 notes) moreover, the rows are identical: the passage is in any case more strictly serial than a great deal of socalled strict serial music, including most of Berg's. For the rest, the reader will be able to observe the re-integration with the tonal context unaided; it is easier than in the G minor Symphony because the symmetry of the rhythmic structure has not disintegrated. Every interval is clear now; there is no enigma. Yet the metaphysical mystery of the passage remains. But it is the mystery of a revelation, and the revelation radiates all the more lucidly if the means of disclosure are completely grasped. When, incidentally, one compares its textO ye millions kneel before Him. World, dost feel thy maker near? Seek Him o'er yon starry sphere! (Natalia Macfarren's translation, which replaces the first question by an imperative.)

-with that of the finale (on Stefan George's Entrickung)of Schoenberg's F sharp minor QuartetIch fiihle Luft von anderem Planeten. [I feel the air of another planet.]

-which movement's panchromatic opening anticipates, unconsciously and for the first time, Schoenberg's own twelve-tone technique, one does indeed feel the air of another planet breathing quietly and firmly through the commotions of musical history. Vaughan Williams knows the air (if not this particular whiff), and it has made him suspicious of historians. At the same time, Mozart seems to have employed serial technique far more often than Beethoven. His self-imposed tonal frameworks were much



narrower than Beethoven's, and when an elemental inspiration exploded them they were beyond tonal repair; instead, serial inspiration set in. A number of conclusions would seem to emerge from our analyses. We know from Schoenberg's music that serial technique is basically (I) melodic or contrapuntal, not homophonic. It does not surprise us, therefore, that the same is true of classical serialism, although classical music is basically homophonic. It may have struck the reader that all our examples are essentially developmental, and that three of them actually open development sections. It is at these junctures (if at all) that homophonic integration goes through a crisis: there is a stable key-scheme for the exposition and recapitulation, but not for the development. The same goes for the thematic scheme. The development must achieve a high degree of tension both thematically and harmonically, yet the structure must not burst. Quite naturally, then, contrapuntal methods of unification will be called in to overcome the threatening tonal and/or thematic disintegration. Even Ex. 2 (b) is basically polyphonic. If Einstein's euphemistic description were correct, it would simply mean that with the development, the piece is thematically disintegrating. Serialism, however, re-integrates it. The first violin's is what is called a " free imitation", but its freedom is strictly determined by serial considerations. Ex. 3 is a canon on what was, at the beginning of the exposition, a monophonic (unison) theme. Ex. 4 is again monophonic; of course, it is easy to harmonize it, but only at the expense of its entire meaning, which is horizontal and anti-harmonic. Indeed, this passage explains in a nutshell how and why atonality is correlated to serial technique, being both its cause and its effect. The same is true of Ex. 5 which again is a unison, a piece of monophony. Upon our analyses, then, one can almost predict the circumstances in which serial technique will arise in great (extremely contrasted and extremely unified) tonal music. Krenek's second rule is, of course, derived from Schoenberg's (2) principle of avoiding tonical implications. In the anti-tonal pieces of classical serialism (e.g. Exs. 3, 4 and 5), a similar principle is at work. But we find that composers follow the rule concerning repetition of notes even where they do not wish to avoid tonal implications-whether it be Strawinsky in the Dylan Thomaspiece or Mozart in Ex. 2. I think the truth is that Schoenberg was only rationalising a fundamental creative compulsion, and only discovered part of the reason. Repetitions of notes, other than immediateor ornamental,establish centres of attraction which deflect the receptive and indeed the creative attention from the purely intervallic organisationof a serial line. This is true of both atonal and tonal serialism. Schoenberg himself follows the rule in either. And it is significant that the only notes which offend against the rule in Ex. 2 (b) are the dominant and the tonic: there is no reason for avoiding centres of attraction that are pre-established centres of gravity anyway; this kind of serialism proceeds within a well-defined tonal framework, whence it is all the harder to discover. (3) While, in view of such passages as Exs. 3 and 4, it seems increasingly probable that Schoenberg was Mozart's unconscious serial pupil, his intellectual unawareness of classical serial techniques becomes, in proportion, increasingly mysterious: they would have been just the thing for his intellect to discover. With the help of psychoanalytic findings, however, we are, I think, able to solve the puzzle. Schoenberg repressed his knowledge of classical serialism because it would have injured his narcissism. He was proud of his discovery, and on that primitive unconscious level he was unwilling to share it with the



masters of the past, to have its originality diminished. This is not a criticism of his personality; on the psychic planes of which I am speaking, we are all pretty much alike, geniuses and idiots, saints and sinners. On more superficial (higher) levels, Schoenberg was only too anxious to call himself a " conservative", to try and find historical precedents for his revolution. The result of the unconscious struggle between these conflicting tendencies was what the psychoanalyst calls a "compromise formation ": he demonstrated precedents like Ex. i which left his originality fairly unimpaired, while at the same time failing to notice that they were not really very precedential. That the Schoenbergians did not get any further than the master is only in the best tradition of true discipleship. (4) What must now be quite obvious to those who have been unable to follow the development of Schoenberg's own genius is that serial technique is a basic and natural element of creative musical thinking in certain well-definable circumstances; nobody will suggest that Mozart thought consciously and "artificially" in serial terms. His serial techniques, and Beethoven's too, silence the critics of the tone-row for ever.


Prokofieff's seventh and last symphony presents a fluent, melodious aspect of the composer's many sided work: music that unfolds itself simply and naturally, individual certainly in its turn of phrase, but not provocative or challenging in the daring manner of Prokofieff's earlier works. The symphony thus represents a phase of Prokofieff's work, his last phase, and the curious fact here is that the many aesthetic and technical problems which this original composer raised in the Scythian Suite, The Gamblerand the second symphony should have been resolved in music of such bland simplicity. If indeed one can refer to this work as a resolution of these problems at all. For the deliberately naive character of this last major work of Prokofieff, appealing as it is in its uncomplicated way, does not reflect that final triumph of serenity which one might have expected such a composer to have reached: it does not correspond to the other-worldly idealism of the late works of other composers of an adventurous turn of mind, such as Faure and Vaughan Williams. Its conventionality, shot through with a sprightliness that is generally disciplined into polite musical behaviour but which nevertheless does occasionally assume the form of one of Prokofieff's ironic grimaces-this conventionality can only be interpreted as a surrender to the social demands which we know are from time to time re-imposed on Soviet composers. Prokofieff, however, was not always a Soviet composer: he is the last of the line of Russian composers including Glinka and Tschaikowsky who have attempted to bridge the ancient musical traditions of Europe and the more primitive traditions of their native country. This, of course, is a problem that has constantly faced the Russian composers in one form or another. But