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Saturday, March 1, 2008

Twelve Is the Magic Number

Self-portrait in blue by Arnold Schoenberg
© The Arnold Schoenberg Foundation
Arnold Schoenberg and the Birth of Serialism.
by Paul Pelkonen.
One hundred years ago, Arnold Schoenberg took the "rule book" of music, and blew it to smithereens. Schoenberg started out as a late example of the post-Romantic sound, writing gorgeous tone poems (among them, Verklaerte Nacht) for huge orchestral forces. His biggest work, the choral cycle Gurrelieder requires a small army of musicians. But, faced with a musical dead end, Schoenberg struck a different path and changed music forever.

With the premiere of the song cycle Pierrot Lunaire, Schoenberg created a new system that inspired composers in the 20th century to push the envelope and change the way music sounded. He fused the chromaticism of Richard Wagner with the post-classical complexities of Johannes Brahms, Schoenberg wrote music that was atonal (without tonality or a fixed key). Eventually, Schoenberg developed the twelve-tone system.Schoenberg, and his two famous students (Anton Webern and Alban Berg) are referred to as the Second Viennese School.

Here's how it works. Take a 12-note scale starting with C:


Now, instead of that "normal" order, the composer takes the twelve tones and rearranges them to create a note row in any order he wishes. Sometimes, the note rows are based on strict mathematics. Sometimes, they are just the composer's own arrangement. Here's an example.


(This is not an actual note-row, just a hypothetical) This new tone row can then be played retrograde (backward), inverted) upside-down or in other permutations. The composer can also organize or "serialize" the rests between the notes, the intervals, or any other aspect of the composition that can be thought of. All these techniques together are known as serialism.

The idea of "atonal" or "serial" music can intimidate the first-time listener. Once the ears adjust to the fact that this music is not following the "traditional" mold, new sonic possibilities open up. Schoenberg, and his two famous students Alban Berg and Anton Webern are among the most important composers in the repertory.

To start exploring, check out these recordings:

Schoenberg: Piano Works, Maurizio Pollini, Piano
Verklaerte Nacht, Pelleas et Melisande, Philharmonia Orchestra, cond. Giuseppe Sinopoli (Deutsche Grammophon)

The Pollini disc is an essential one-disc survey of Schoenberg's complex, spidery piano works. It was recently reissued as part of DG's Maurizio Pollini Edition. Top-notch playing, and crystalline sound. Next, check out Schoenberg's early, post-romantic period, try the excellent Philharmonia Orchestra recordings of the composer's two major tone poems. The late Giuseppe Sinopoli conducts.

Berg: Violin Concerto, Anne-Sophie Mutter, Violin, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, cond. James Levine (Deutsche Grammophon)
Berg's concerto, written in 1935 and dedicated "To the Memory of an Angel" is one of the composer's most emotional, yet accessible works. Of the many fine recordings in the catalogue, this one leads the pack. The disc also includes Time Chant by contemporary German composer Wolfgang Rihm. The Mutter recording of the Concerto is also available on the 8-disc "Alban Berg Collection" box set, which includes most of the composer's major compositions, including the operas Lulu and Wozzeck.

Boulez Conducts Webern, Vols. 1-3 Various singers and ensembles, cond. Pierre Boulez (Deutsche Grammophon)
One of the most important composers of the 20th century in his own right, Pierre Boulez recorded the complete works of Webern twice, once for Sony and later for Deutsche Grammophon. The DG recordings are preferable. Instead of getting the three individual Volumes, you can pick up the six-disc Complete Webern box set which gives you the Emerson String Quartet's recordings of Webern's chamber music.

Contact the author: E-mail Superconductor editor Paul Pelkonen.

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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.