Part 5, Project 15 – A Serial Piece

To understand this movement in music in more detail, I began my work researching Arnold Schoenberg.

Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951) was an Austrian composer and painter and was leader of the Second Vienese School, which comprised of a group of composers and associates in the early twentieth century. It was here that Schoenberg’s atonality through total chromaticism was taught, and later, his serial twelve-tone technique.

Based in Vienna, Schoenberg’s principle members at the school were Alban Berg and Anton Webern, who were amongst his first composition students. Others included Hanns Eisler, Egon Wellesz, with John Cage, Lou Harrison, Earl Kim and Leon Kirchner joining later.

Schoenberg’s twelve-tone technique was a specific way of using a set series of the twelve notes in the chromatic scale.

His compositional output spanned three distinct periods. The first period, which fell between 1894-1907, saw music that followed the legacy of the high-Romantic composers and also the ‘expressionists’ of poetry and art.

His second period of writing between 1908-1922 saw Schoenberg abandon the normal key centres, which was described as ‘free tonality’. From 1923, the third period concerned itself with Schoenberg’s invention of his dodecaphonic, twelve-tone technique.

Much of his work was not very well received, although the 1913 premiere of the ‘Gurre-Leider’ in Vienna received a 15 minute standing ovation and Schoenberg received a laurel crown. His twelve-tone technique was difficult for people to understand, in part because of the ‘truly revolutionary nature’ of the system (Ethan Haimo). Ernest Krenek reviewed an unamed brand of music in 1920 as ‘self-gratification of an individual who sits in his studio and invents rules according to which he then writes down his notes’; it is presumed Krenek was writing about Schoenberg et al. Schoenberg responded in kind by saying he wished for ‘only whores as listeners.’

To continue my research further, I listened to the following pieces to get a better idea of what Serialism sounds like:

Schoenberg’s ‘Verklarte Nacht’ (Transfigured Night), Op. 4
I listened to the orchestral version of this piece, which was written in 1899 for string sextet.  This version had a violin and cello duet accompanied by piano.  The violin and cello work together with polyphonic lines.  It is a beautiful melody, very rich and reminiscient of the romantic era.  The piano has a shimmering chromatic part and each instrument compliments one another both harmonically and texturely.  There is tension introduced with a very dramatic moment at 1′ 25 when the strings play in unison and then suddenly in harmony with one another.  The piece is beautiful and I liked it very much, but this was one of his earlier works that preceded Schoenberg’s atonality and twelve-tone technique, and so harmonically, it was diatonic, which I far prefer.

Schoenberg’s ‘Gurre Lieder’
This piece is set out in three parts and a total of 22 movements; 11 in Part 1, 1 in Part 2 and 10 movements in Part 3.
I listened to Part 1: 1 – Orchestra Prelude
This felt very gentle and pastoral, with woodwind opening the piece with subtle strings beneath.  The occasional trumpet punctures through the texture, and a soft triangle is heard at times.  Slowly, the harp joins and the piece builds.  A sudden crescendo at 1′ 20 with the strings then softens just as suddenly.  It sounds and feels very romantic, and I felt that it had a sense of Disney about it; magical, floating, a sense of expectation.
Schoenberg moves the tonality around; major to minor and back again within bars and with this, a shimmering effect that takes the listener almost into a dreamy like state.  I didn’t hear it rooted within any tonic key – rather, more inverted chords, which reinforces the romantic period’s preoccupation with rich harmonies.
I really liked this piece and look forward to exploring the rest of the movements.

Schoenberg’s ‘Pierrot Lunaire’, Op. 21
This was written in 1912. I’ve heard this piece before and upon second listening, I remember exactly how it affected me; it disturbed me!  I couldn’t make any sense of the piano, flute and violin lines, each of which sounded like they were choosing random notes and improvising along with one another (such was the atonal harmonic ‘structure’). The female vocalist sounds like she’s in pain singing extreme notes up and down the registers.  Dramatic dynamics, harmonies that by definition of free atonality have no tonal centre.  Whilst this piece is important to demonstrate Schoenberg’s free atonality phase, it is extremely difficult to listen to and I personally would not enjoy exploring it any further.

Schoenberg’s ‘Variations for Orchestra’, Op. 31
This piece was written in 1928 and is made up of 12 movements. I listened to the first one, the Introduction.
It opens with tremelo strings and woodwind.  It feels uneasy, anxious almost.  We hear tonguing in the flutes and all the parts explore very chromatic, constantly moving parts.  Schoenberg gets each section to play alternately and the movement has an undercurrent of unrest, very unsettled feelings that makes it  both difficult and intriguing to listen to.  This piece demonstrates Schoenberg’s use of the twelve-tone technique and it is because of this that everything sounds at odds with one another.  It is difficult to discern a tonal centre and at times it is uncomfortable to listen to.  I didn’t enjoy it as much as his much earlier romantic pieces.

For my project, I took the basic set from my course materials and wrote the principal melody line for the clarinet.  It explores this basic set and it’s retrograde, inversion and retrograde inversion patterns.  The second melody line, the violin part, only explores the basic set and it’s retrograde.  And for the cello part, I wrote it to explore the inversion and retrograde inversion:

Project 15 – A Serial Piece

And it sounds like this:

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