IX. Twelve-Tone Music

History and Context of Serialism

Mark Gotham

Key Takeaways

Serialism is much discussed and anthologized; in addition to all of the technical and analytical details, it’s worth taking a moment at the end of this section to consider where it came from and what it’s “really” about.

Why Serialism? What’s the Attraction?

Some grand narratives of 20th century music cast atonality as a logical consequence of a historical trend towards ever more chromaticism, and serialism as a matter of creating a radically different kind of structure out of the total chromatic. It would appear to achieve that end, at least for composers who joined Schoenberg in viewing it as a “method of composing with twelve tones which are related only with one another” (Style and Idea, 1975, p.218) – contrast that with the fundamentally hierarchical tonal system. It may not be coincidental that it emerged in inter-war Europe, when there may well have been a desire to start anew.

Equal tones? A new world order? Maybe, but the method has served a wide range of composers with correspondingly diverse aims, so it’s not so straightforward to summarize. There’s also a totalizing angle here that’s rather less utopian. Schoenberg is famously alleged to have described ‘his’ discovery as one ‘which will ensure the supremacy of German music for the next hundred years’ (Stuckenschmidt 1977, p.277). Schoenberg may or may not have actually said this, but Boulez definitely did later describe every composer to have remained ‘outside the serial experiments’ since their discovery as ‘useless’ (‘Schönberg est mort’, Score, 1952, reproduced in Notes of an Apprenticeship, 1968, p.274).

A Series of Precedents?

There is a great deal of precedent for general forms of musical thinking pertinent to serial technique, from simple melodic inversion to furiously complex crab canons, and certain works like Bach’s Art of Fugue are notable partly for the strictness and comprehensiveness of design in general, and the healthy dose of ‘mirror writing’ in particular.

In these cases, the mirror is usually “horizontal”, giving versions of the twelve-tone technique’s I-form. The R-form of retrograde symmetry (given by a “vertical” mirror, if you will) is a primarily a 20th Century concern, serial and otherwise. Non-serial 20th Century examples include a great deal of Bartók, the prelude/postlude pair in Hindemith’s Ludus Tonalis, and Britten Cantata Academica movt II (tellingly titled Alla rovescio). There are earlier examples, such as the Menuet al Roverso from Haydn’s Symphony No. 47 in G, but they are very rare.

There are (equally rare and also rather dubious) cases of tonal works that are said to exhibit the specifically twelve-tone practice of rotating through all the pitches. Often cited examples include the choice of keys in the development of the finale to Mozart’s Symphony No. 40. 

Conversely, there are 20th century composers who write music that is serially organized in the sense that we would recognize, but in such a way as to embrace the sound world of an extended tonality (Example 1). Examples of this include:

  • Alban Berg’s Violin Concerto, with its row centered on triads and fifths;
  • Hale Smith’s Evocation which the composer notes to have an ‘affinity’ with jazz. Among the ‘jazzy’ and / or ‘tonal’ elements of this piece is the foregrounding of set [0,2,7] which the scholar Horace J. Maxile, Jr. links to ‘the quartal harmonic and improvisational stylings of bop and post-bop schools.’[1]
  • Benjamin Britten’s Turn of the Screw, which adopts a similarly quartal structure in the row from which both the theme and tonal centres for the acts are serially organized.

Example 1. Tonal Tone Rows by FourScoreAndMore

Speaking of ‘tonal serialism’, the trappings of tonality are not limited to pitch: what composers do with the other parameters is equally important. It’s often observed (usually critically) that Schoenberg’s early serial works may have used the 12-tone technique in the pitch domain, but still adopted tonal forms, rhythms and idioms such as waltzes.

The Emergence and Evolution of the Twelve-tone Technique

Schoenberg is intimately associated with the twelve-tone technique and was quite content to described it as ‘his’ discovery (as above), though many people arrived at the idea largely independently around the same time, notably including Hauer and Eimert. Schoenberg famously discussed relevant considerations like the ‘Emancipation of the dissonance’ early on, but his thoughts on serialism only emerged later, after those two others.

Josef Matthias Hauer’s theory as expressed in his Zwölftontechnik. Die Lehre von den Tropen (1926) is notable for its early formalization of the twelve-tone technique and for organizing the millions of possibilities into 44 ‘tropes’ (types) of tone rows in 4 groups based on symmetries among the unordered hexachords (with the prefixes Poly-, Mono-, Endo-, Exo-).

After the first generation of ‘classic’ serialists, we start to see a wider range of serial practices emerge including a move towards ‘integral’ or ‘total’ serialism which applies serial technique to parameters other than pitch, particularly rhythm, dynamics and articulation. I say ‘after’ but Ruth Crawford Seeger was already writing what later came to be known as ‘integral’ or ‘total’ serialism as early as c.1930.

The most frequently cited examples came later, in a burst around 1950:

  • Milton Babbitt: Three Compositions for Piano (1947)
  • Olivier Messiaen: Mode de valeurs et dʼintensities for piano (1949-50);
  • Karlheinz Stockhausen: Kreuzspiel for oboe, bass clarinet, piano, and two percussion (1951);
  • Pierre Boulez: Structures 1 for two pianos (1952)

There were also signs of this mentality already in those ‘classic’, early works. For instance, in the first movement of Webern’s Symphonie Op.21 (discussed further here), the exposition sees pitch classes fixed in specific registers, and his Op. 27 Variations for piano have pitches, durations, and dynamics all aligned (for instance, B and G# are always eight notes, legato, and forte).


  1. Horace J. Maxile, Jr.: 'Hale Smith's "Evocation": The Interaction of Cultural Symbols and Serial Composition', in Perspectives of New Music, Summer, 2004, Vol. 42, No. 2 (Summer, 2004), pp.122-143

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