Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

Inside 20th-century music

Nineteenth-century composer Robert Schumann once wrote that the best discourse upon music was--silence. I couldn't agree more. However, . . .

What I'm doing in these lines isn't Just A Job. Far from it. And because it isn't, I am always concerned that as many people as possible who read it, have as clear an idea of what I am talking about, as it is possible to give without a blackboard, piano and hi-fi to help.

About these ads

Probably the biggest area of confusion in words-about-music has been with us for the first eighty-two years of this century, and has involved professional musicians just as surely as it has other people. Three terms that concern me in their misuse for one another are: atonal (music), 12-tone (music) and serial (music). The distinctions, are important only as far as names matter to us at all. Still, as I have said, some clarity seems in order.

* Atonality. In order to understand it, one must first understand tonality, of course. As simply defined as possible, tonality is the setting up, in music, of expectancies. Tonal centers are either sounded with a firm thump, as with Handel or Verdi; or vaguely suggested, coyly hinted at, as in passages by Chopin or Mahler. The important thing is the expectation--the certainty, however fleeting, that can either rejoice in the resolutions when they happen, or can defer the joy with a kind of mental shorthand when the music slithers around them. Atonality describes passages or pieces which simply do not carry any hints at tonal centers that can be picked up. This can happen in the course of a composition, when the harmonies change so subtly--Chopin was a great one for this--that the listener is tonally traveling on faith, although in the context of hearing the piece, he may not be aware of it.

* 12-tone. Atonal music may use tonal building blocks, such as the traditional scales and chords, to do its job of avoiding the appearance of depending (leaning) on them. Twelve-tone music, in doing the same job, does not. It takes all twelve tones of our Western scale and plays with them in a much freer way than a lot of otherwise atonal music. Mind you, this is a subtle distinction: for 12-tone music is atonal, but not all atonal music is necessarily 12-tone in the way it builds its chords and melodies.

* Serial. This term and 12-tone are frequently and usually treated as the same, and, for a great deal of 20th-century music, that is perfectly correct. But we shut out a few interesting ideas about modern composing when we do that.

Twelve-tone serialism is a numeric pitch-choosing system, and was largely the invention of Arnold Schonberg, around 1923. By it, he was trying to bring to bear some kind of ordering principles on what had become a free-for-all, anarchic approach to Modern-period atonal composition. By that date, in freely atonal writing, any note could follow or combine with any other note; virtually all of the traditional rules of harmony had been thrown overboard; and few composers were proving up to the demands made on taste and imagination to come up with something new and unheard-of every time they sat down to compose.

What Schonberg provided was a system wherein a composer chooses a ''row'' of all 12 tones, arranged in any order, for a piece, and stays with it. He can stack the notes in chords, spin them out in melodic lines, forwards, backwards, inverted, but not repeating any one note until it comes again in the sequence. This was designed as a way of avoiding tonal centers that was less strenuous than in previous atonal writing, in which the composer ''agonised'' over practically every note combination.

But Schonberg's system only takes care of pitches.

About these ads

Music since World War II has shown us that other facets of music can be serialized, such as setting up number schemes for metres and rhythms, or laying out designs for variety in instrumental colour. Much more besides pitches can be ''done by numbers,'' so the word serial by itself can mean any number of things.

Another wrinkle in the serial story, which some composers have shown us, is that serializing one's pitches does not mean that the music cannot be ''in a key.'' It is possible to construct a piece, using the right patterns of numbered notes, having quite a traditional-sounding harmony. One needn't even be limited to twelve-note patterns (or ''rows''): the irrascible Igor Stravinsky, in his Sonata for Two Pianos (1944), in one movement employs what can be considered a 29-note row. There are plenty of repeated pitches in it, to be sure, and the total effect is jolly-well one of G major, but is nonetheless an example of serializing technique.

What all this means is that, before we brand composers--or whole areas of 20 th-century music - with a name, it's wise to be mindful of what we're about. Claude Debussy's music can be frequently atonal, even though you can see, right on the printed page, the kinds of very traditional chord and melody materials he is using. Because large sections of Charles Ives' music are 12-tone, using thick , cosmic screens of all the notes together, that doesn't bring him at all close to Alban Berg, who mastered serialism, and refined it, so thoroughly.

But, above all, it must be kept in mind that practice (born of time), usage (born of the moment), and artistic temperment have the final say in all talk of composing. The first two give the real drive and profile to musical creativity, since the names we append (like ''atonal'') are all after-the-fact and serve to make us think we know more about the actual creative process than in fact we do. And it is temperment, coupled, of course, with talent, which equips the composer with the genius for knowing what he wants, and with the courage to take what he needs from the incredible array of materials and styles available to him as an artist of the 20th century.