Listening to Serialism

Twelve-tone serialism is a method of composing music developed in the early part of the twentieth century based on a series of notes (a ‘tone row’) played in a predetermined order.  The three pioneer composers in this field were Schoenberg, Webern and Berg – the so called Second Viennese School.

Berg: Kammerkonzert (1923-25)

This chamber piece is scored for piano, violin and 13 wind instruments.  The opening of the first movement introduces three tone rows – one for each of the three composers based on the spelling of their names, played respectively on the piano, violin and horn.  The movement continues with variations on these themes, using modifications such as playing them backwards or inverted (though this is not obvious to me through listening alone).  Interestingly, although the first series sounds like random disconnected notes, when the violin and horn enter and play some of their notes together I feel a definite sense of A minor tonality.  Later on the piano solo parts remind me slightly of Rachmaninov and I think are quite beautiful.  The second, slow movement predominantly features the solo violin accompanied by the winds; the wandering melodies make me feel very tense.  Although it does appear to be atonal, I don’t find this as difficult to listen to as some other music from this era (Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire springs to mind) – the melodies are given shape and direction and the harmonies are often colourful without being too harshly dissonant.  The final faster movement I found to be more chaotic and random sounding.

Schoenberg: Variations for Orchestra (1926-28)

The melancholy theme for this work based on a 12 note tone-row is played out briefly by the strings before continuing on into a set of variations.  Each one has a different character – some, like no 8, are very rhythmic and others have a less well defined pulse and are more atmospheric.  Some of it I find very noisy and unpleasant, with instruments appearing to play quite randomly against each other.  The finale starts with tremolo strings and then becomes very harsh, with chords that sound like screaming.  The theme itself however has a feeling of desperation and tension which appeals to me.

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