Serialism | The Canadian Encyclopedia





Serialism. A method of composing music governed by one or more series (sets, rows) of notes (a more precise term is 'pitch classes') and/or of other musical elements (dynamics, durations, articulations, registers, etc) which enjoyed currency among concert composers in Canada, as in most western countries, in the three decades following World War II. The series' length may vary according to the composer's wishes, but the most common form of serialism is '12-tone technique' (dodecaphony; 12-note technique), where the 12 different pitch classes of the Western chromatic scale are arranged in a particular order (known as the prime form, abbreviated P), and the resulting series is manipulated according to the wishes of the composer in order to create a composition. Any given series will yield three corollaries through the process of inversion (I), retrograde (R), and retrograde-inversion (RI; see figure); each of these may in turn be transposed to begin on any of the remaining 11 pitch classes. The resultant matrix of 48 distinct but related forms of the series constitutes all the possible pitch material available for a strict 12-tone composition; most works composed in this manner employ considerably fewer forms, however.

The 12-note method was developed by Arnold Schoenberg over a period of several years leading up to the fall of 1921, growing out of Schoenberg's need to establish a methodology for composing atonal music. Joseph Hauer devised a 12-note method of his own during the same approximate time (1912-21), which differs from Schoenberg's in several critical respects and did not achieve anything like as widespread use. Schoenberg's method stipulates that only one basic set be used in a composition, promoting unity, and that octave doublings and the over-emphasis of any particular pitch class be avoided to minimize the danger of interpreting such tones as tonics.

Schoenberg's 12-tone method proved to be adaptable to the compositional styles of a wide variety of composers, beginning with his two most famous pupils - Berg, who subscribed to a freer conception of dodecaphony which did not avoid tonal allusions, and Webern, whose use of the method was the strictest of the three, and whose interest in systems of organization applied to other musical elements in addition to pitch classes (such as dynamics, articulations, etc.) led the way towards the post-World War II 'total serialism' movement. Besides Webern, the pioneers in this field were Milton Babbitt, Olivier Messiaen, Karlheinz Stockhausen, and Pierre Boulez. Also influenced by Webern was Igor Stravinsky, whose In Memoriam Dylan Thomas (1954) is among the pieces by numerous composers exemplifying the use of a series of fewer than 12 pitch classes.

In Canada, John Weinzweig pioneered dodecaphony in a way that was selective and individualistic from the outset, employing the row as the source of various motives (Piano Suite No. 1, 1939) rather than exploiting it systematically. Weinzweig's contemporary, Barbara Pentland, was introduced to the serial method by Dika Newlin, a pupil of Schoenberg, but was not inspired to use it until she heard the music of Webern in 1955. Once persuaded, however, she used the method with great freedom. A kind of '12-tone school' developed at the University of Toronto from Weinzweig's use of the technique as a training for young composers. Notable among the products of this 'school' are certain works of Harry Somers, whose piano fugues 12 X 12 (1951) reflect Bach and Schoenberg and whose Woodwind Quintet (1948) explores the Weinzweigian principle of motivic selection from the 12-tone row. Works of Norma Beecroft, Bruce Mather, and several others also carry forward the open-minded approach to serialism advocated by Weinzweig.

The severely exploitive, highly mathematical applications of serialism pioneered in France by Boulez found a strong response in French Canada - particularly in Serge Garant's Asymétries No. 1 (1958), Offrande I-III (1969-71), and Circuits 1 (1972) and III (1973) - but also in English Canada in Udo Kasemets' works of the 1950s.

Otto Joachim's serialism, of which a forthright example is the Twelve 12-tone Pieces for Children (1961), derives more directly from the Viennese prototypes and from Krenek, and John Beckwith's - in A Chaucer Suite (1961), and the 'Children's Song' from The Trumpets of Summer (1964) - belongs with the non-chromatic approach of Stravinsky and Britten, though full chromatic series are used, 1963-7, in the Concertino, Circle with Tangents, the other movements of The Trumpets of Summer, and other works of that period.

To summarize - or, rather, to risk summarizing - it may be said that dodecaphony's strictest (as distinct from strict) adherents in Canada have been Anhalt (from 1950 to 1965), Garant (occasionally with modifications), and Kasemets (in the works 1950-60). Those who have written some strict works are Beckwith, Ford (from 1969 to 1972), Hartwell, Hawkins, Joachim (until the late 1960s), Laufer, Papineau-Couture, and Pentland (after 1955). Those who have incorporated a modified dodecaphony in most of their works are Beckwith (between 1960 and 1973), Buczynski, Cherney (1960s), Dolin (1940s-1960s), Fodi (1965-7), Ford (late 1960s to early 1970s), Freedman (1940s-1960s), Joachim (until about 1969), Prévost (after 1959), Somers, and Weinzweig. Composers some of whose works employ a modified series include Beecroft, Lorne Betts, Alexander Brott, Dolin (1960s and 1970s), Garant (though most are strict), Hawkins, Klein, Laufer, Mather, Mercure (the late works), Morel, Pentland (after 1955, along with some strict works), Gilles Tremblay, Vallerand, and Wilson. Composers whose works demonstrate traces of dodecaphonic influence include Murray Adaskin, Applebaum, Douglas, Eckhardt-Gramatté, Pedersen, Schafer, and Robert Turner. The jazz composers Gordon Delamont (the author of the textbook Modern Twelve-Tone Techniques), Doug Riley, and Don Thompson (1970s) have employed dodecaphony in some of their compositions.

Many Canadian composers abandoned serialism after the mid-1970s, while others adopted a more flexible approach, perhaps inspired by the freedom of Berg's 12-tone technique.

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