Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Serial music - exploring the labyrinth

Several interesting points came out of my 'In Conversation' event with Alina Ibragimova before last night's Britten Sinfonia concert. One of them was that, following her CD of Karl Amadeus Hartmann's music, Alina's next recording will be the two violin concertos of Mykola Roslavets. In his excellent A Concise History of Western Music (CUP ISBN 0521842948) Paul Griffiths writes that 'The past is not a path we and our predecessor's have travelled but a labyrinth, and a labyrinth forever in flux', and Mykola Roslavets is an excellent example of how we are still exploring the labyrinth that is serial music.

Received wisdom tells us that Arnold Schoenberg originated serial composition, but did he? Mykola (Nikolai) Roslavets (left) was born in Ukraine in 1881. Although he was influential in the early years of the USSR as a champion of progressive Western composers, his music was politically suppressed at the end of the 1920s. Due to this he spent most of the remainder of his career as a ‘non-person’, and died in Moscow in 1944. But post-perstroika his music is having something of a renaissance.

Roslavets is of more interest than the many minor Russian composer of the period. He used a form of serial composition, and it may have pre-dated Schoenberg. The two composers approached the new tonal landscape from very different directions. Schoenberg used serial techniques to create a horizontal thread through his compositions, whereas Roslavet aggregated them vertically in a manner influenced by his countryman Alexander Scriabin. Roslavet's output included orchestral. chamber and piano music, as well as the two violin concertos that Alina Ibragimova is recording.

But Nikolai Roslavets is not the only pretender to the serial music crown. The Austrian Josef Matthias Hauer (below) was indisputably working ahead of Schoenberg. In 1919 he devised a proto-serial composition technique using twelve-tone rows with variable tone sequences. Hauer lived from 1883 to 1959, and his compositions were branded 'degenerate art' by the Nazis. In a link to another path Hauer is thought to have been a model for characters in both Thomas Mann's Doktor Faustus and Hermann Hesse's The Glass Bead Game. There is much unpublished music by Josef Mattias Hauer, and all his compositions after 1940 are described by him as Zwölftonspiel or Zwölftonmusik - twelve-tone song, or twelve-tone music. A recording project there perhaps?

Another piece of received wisdom worth revisiting is that serial techniques were the sole preserve Central European. In 1956 the English composer William Alwyn (below) developed his own take on the new tonalities in the Allegro of his Symphony No. 3. This uses an alternation of eight note and four note groups in a pattern suggested to the composer by Indian classical music quite sometime before Philip Glass and others made such fusions fashionable. William Alwyn may not have the cachet of his American and Central European peers, but his music certainly deserves greater recognition.

But in the end it doesn't really matter who invented serial music. As Paul Griffith explains history is not linear, but is a labyrinth where change is constant. Within the labyrinth several composers independently developed their own serial languages, and they are all worth exploring. Alina Ibragimova's CD of Nikolai Roslavets' violin concertos is being recorded with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, and will be released by Hyperion in 2008. And there is more on William Alwyn here.

* I am aware that 'serial techniques' and 'twelve-tone music' are terms that may not be familiar to all my readers. Here is a wonderfully lucid explanation from A Pilgrim Soul by Meirion and Susie Harris. Which also gives me an opportunity maintain the gender balance by linking to another English pioneer of serial techniques, Elisabeth Lutyens:

'Serialism, the twelve-tone method was a logical extension of the abandonment of tonality (the key system) which had begun long before the end of the nineteenth century. As music progresses towards dissonance and away from tonality, it became obvious that some other source of coherence would be needed, some alternative means of organising the material as effectively as the key system had done.

The key system gave automatic priority to certain notes in the scale; but to those using the serial method, all twelve notes of the octave, black and white, were equally important, and all were used as the basic material of any composition. In serial music the fundamental idea of the composition was presented in a series of the twelve notes in a characteristic order, with no note repeated until all the others had been used, to ensure that none had precedence. The whole piece was to be evolved from this basic set, by a process of continuous variation and development, so that every part of the work could in some way be related to the original idea.

Both the horizontal and the vertical dimension of the musical 'space' were penetrated by the basic idea, so that not only the melodies but also the harmonies were regulated by the order of notes within the series and the relationship between them. For variety, the series could also be played upside down, back to front, and transposed up or down the scale, as long as the order of the notes was preserved.

Those who used the serial technique felt it vital to explain that it was no more mechanical, no more a formula than the key system with all the rules it possesses. It was not a prescription, but a tool to help different composers express themselves differently, adapting the method to their own ends. 'I do not compose principles,' wrote Schoenberg angrily, 'but music'.'

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  1. A point of music trivia.

    Susie Harris, who is one part of the husband and wife team who wrote the excellent Elisabeth Lutyens biography Pilgrim Soul, is the daughter of Neville Marriner.

  2. "There is much unpublished music by Josef Mattias Hauer, and all his compositions after 1940 are described by him as Zwölftonspiel or Zwölftonmusik - twelve-tone song, or twelve-tone music. A recording project there perhaps?"

    There have been several remarkable recording projects of Hauer's works over the past generation, and I have in my LP collection one recording of his piano cycles on either the 1750 Arch Street or New Albion labels (Herbert Henck?) (Richard Friedman can probably provide more details since I see from quick research that he was involved in broadcasting Hauer in the early to mid 1970s, in the San Francisco Bay Area.)

    An additional quick search comes up with these two items: a set of 15 sound samples from the MD & G Label Ensemble Avantgard recording of Hauer from 2001, and two AMADEO LP recordings of various Hauser works. (There are reportedly about 1000 Hauer "Zwölftonspiel" or Zwölftonmusik" works from ca. 1940 to 1959, many titled with dates.)


    Thanks for the wonderful article!

  3. Humphrey Searle?

  4. Bob, yes, Humphrey Searle indeed.

    Additions from other readers are very welcome. Roberto Gerhard and Richard Rodney Bennett are certainly on the list, and Lennox Berkeley's Third Symphony flirted with serial techniques.