12-tone music gets a rebrand

12-tone music gets a rebrand


norman lebrecht

March 29, 2014

Die Zwölftonmethode – totgeschwiegen und totgeredet, geliebt und verehrt, verhasst und verdammt – ist eine jener Mysterien der Musikgeschichte, die unser Leben wie kein anderes in den Bann ungeahnter tönender Dimensionen zu ziehen vermag. Lassen wir uns erklären, wie unser Alltag durch Anhörung der herausragenden atonalen und dodekaphonen Werke von Arnold Schönberg, Alban Berg und Anton Webern eine höhere Dimension erlangt. Die Metaphysik der Töne – in ein einziges Album gebannt. Nie war diese Musik zwingender als jetzt. Suchtgefahr!

Made in 1977 by Robert Conrad, the founder of WCLV classical radio in Cleveland, Ohio, USA. The script was written by conductor Kenneth Jean and Mathias Bamert is said to have had a role in the production.

Video: ascvideo (Arnold Schönberg Center, Wien)






  • John Borstlap says:

    One would wish such analytical understanding widespread in the new music scene.

  • Anonymus says:

    Twelve tone music is a still born idea, since it denies the physical foundation of music, harmony, the interval relations, the universal and archetypical principles of harmony, consonance and dissonance etc. In short, it stands for the human that has lost touch with his roots in the real world – real as in perceived through the cognitive mind – and lost touch with his own humanity.

    It was justified as an experiment. Experiments fail, that’s normal. Smart people understand and move on.

  • Serialism was an inevitability given the collapse of tonality that began with Wagner’s Prelude to Tristam und Isolde. On analysing much late romantic music prior to the establishment of the twelve-tone system, the complete disintegration of the diatonic tonal system was taken to ever more extreme ends until suddenly all that was left was the development of a new system.

    I don’t know how inevitable it was, but modulations went to ever more distant keys, more exotic harmony that challenged the Classical ideals were apparent. Certainly the members of the 2nd Viennese School believed this to be the case, and when one compares their non-serial works e.g verklarte nacht (Schoenberg) and the sieben fruhe lieder (Berg) with later work, the development in style is consistent.

    Dismissing it as an experiment is a bit harsh. I often wonder what would have happened culturally in Vienna if there was no Third Reich as anti-semetism was responsible for the disintegration of the Vienna Circle, one of the most diverse and interesting groups of people with disparate ideas the world has seen.

    One reason I have an interest in Aesthetics is to establish a reason why certain pieces of music have worth when they are not to my taste. Personal taste is just that, personal, and yet great works of Art be they fine Art, Theatre or Music can be that and polarise opinions.

    I certainly could not describe Berg’s work as “having lost tough with the real world- real as perceived through the cognitive mind-and lost touch with his own humanity”. Berg’s music is very human and grounded in the real world. His relationship with other people comes shining through (e.g his admiration for Freud -Lulu and Wozzeck, and as a reaction to grief, the Violin Concerto). Maybe Webern’s music is more cerebal and less grounded, or maybe I’m being prejudiced as I don’t like it.

    There is nothing Universal about the Western principles of harmony. They may have their basis in Pythagoras and work through sound groundings in physics, but they are very alien to Eastern ears. In establishing equal temperament in the 17th and 18th Centuries, musicians had squashed the perfect intervals and dispensed of any true allegance in physics as a fundamental tenet of harmony and counter-point. One could argue Bach managed that when he composed “the 48”. As for intervallic relations, they are subjective. What is consonance and what is dissonance is cultural, hence the differences between them East v. West.

    It is far too easy as someone familiar with Western Musical Systems to believe they are Universal. They are not. They have evolved out of a system that has a European bias.

    I actually like Berg’s music, and Schoenberg’s is growing on me. I find Webern difficult

    • John Borstlap says:

      “Serialism was an inevitability given the collapse of tonality that began with Wagner’s Prelude to Tristan und Isolde. On analysing much late romantic music prior to the establishment of the twelve-tone system, the complete disintegration of the diatonic tonal system was taken to ever more extreme ends until suddenly all that was left was the development of a new system.”

      Then I stopped reading. Namely, this is a misreading of music history, first used by Schoenberg to justify his idiosyncratic ideas about new music, and after WW II – via Adorno’s thoroughly neurotic ‘Philosophie der neuen Musik’ – entering modernist ideologies which had to find comparable justifications for its break with tradition and all ‘the past’ stood for. Then it became convention, mindlessly repeated, filling educational instruction literature, spreading like a virus through the educational institutions, cementing nonsense in the heads of youngsters who, with pop music in their ears, discovered a ‘historical reason’ why they could not also be composers.

      Tonality is a natural binding force which enables composers to construct large spans of musical narrative, expressive communication, and diversification of musical nuance. In the 19th century, the range of tonality was widened considerably, adding to the expressive possibilities of music. Tonality was not undermined, but intensified, as the later operas of Wagner amply demonstrate. Saying that with Tristan tonality began to dissolve is nonsense: in Tristan, tonality was intensified and broadened. After Tristan, with Mahler and Strauss and Debussy, tonality found even more diverse applications. Nobody with some residu of musicality would claim that in the work of these composers, tonality was disintegrating – in contrary, they were able to use tonality in very effective and diverse ways. Schoenberg never understood this and created a myth which would paint him as a historically crucial figure in the linear development of European music. But even his middle period works, like Erwartung and the Five Orchestral Pieces, are still tonal: their effect – which is highly expressive! – depends upon the tonal tradition to which the music is alluding all the time in a very strong way. For example, the first of the Five Orchestral Pieces, which can be considered the Most Aggressive Orchestral Piece in existence, far more aggressive than any of Xenakis’ monstruosities because of being MUSICALLY aggressive, derives its effect from the symphonic treatment of all the parameters: it is organized anger and frustration, and as such as ugly as possible, the emotions in the raw. But since they are worked-out in a way which is embedded in the symphonic, German tradition of Mahler and Strauss, these raw emotions come across in a very expressive way. The same with Erwartung.

      What gradually disintegrated in the 19th century was the classical way of organizing musical form. In the classical era, form was determined by a strict relationship between key areas which provided strong frameworks within which themes and motives could freely roam. When more chromatic directions began to be used, these key relationships lost much of their meaning and composers found other ways of creating unity and narrative logic.

      The great alternative to Schoenberg’s musings was Debussy, who discarded classical ways of organisation and invented many new and original ways of organizing music, but still based upon tonal relationships. Schoenberg got it all wrong and all theorizing following him was based upon the same misconceptions.

      All this has nothing to do with taste, subjective appreciation / rejection or cultural background, but everything with EARS….

      • John you should not have stopped reading. By only reading part of the arguement you have missed the point.

        I make the point based on the question that with verklarte nacht being an early work, what drove Schoenberg to compose things such as Pierrot Lunaire. Is it wrong that the mind is challenged in such a manner.

        With Serialism, Barbarism (Stravinsky and Bartok) and Impressionism all occuring simultaneously one has to ask the question why? After that is it wrong?

        Your ears and someone elses ears may be telling each listener a completely different thing.

        I think you are being rather dismissive (both of me and Arnold Schoenberg).

        • John Borstlap says:

          I’m not dismissive of anybody…. I am merely correcting a false narrative: the myth of linear music history that should justify Schoenberg’s misconceptions and postwar modernism, based upon them.

          I am a great admirer of Schoenberg – that is, the Schoenberg of before his dodecaphonic idea. He was a composer of genius, as his 1st Chamber Sympohony amply attests. But his ideas about his own music and ‘German superiority’ were just crazy. His misconception of music history has been taken far too seriously, and therefore the Viennese School Commercial is a hilarious correction. Also it points to a very obvious thing: much of the music of the Holy Three sounds awful, and a composer can only do that once or twice… Of course if one likes ugliness more times, and dislocated notes for most of the time, there is plenty to enjoy, nothing wrong with that. But that is different from claiming that a false projection of music history rests upon reality.

          Schoenberg and Webern had totalitarian tendencies, Webern even cultivating a fierce enthusiasm for the nazis. Surprised? Listen to the music and try to listen objectively – to what is actually there. Berg was a more humane character, burdened with the silly idea that he had to write both dodecaphonically and half-tonally and excusing himself to Schoenberg for a triad here and there.

          No really, one should take the commercial more seriously for what it implies.

          • It did give me a good laugh- Norman posted it on the wrong date tommorrow before 12pm would have been better. Or does Spaghetti grow on trees!

            I’m not surprised about the opening of your paragraph “Schoenberg and Webern had totalitarian tendencies..”. I always did think that Berg was more humane, perhaps this is why I appreciate his music the most.

            As for listening to what actually is there, I always do that! As a second year undergrad, I attended a concert at the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival and one of the die-hard fans got lost in the middle of it. I was sitting with a couple of first year composing students at the time and we were also finding it hard to make head-or-tail of this piece. I was so glad when this lady (the die-hard fan) admitted she didn’t know what she was listening to! I think we’d counted the sections correctly and were not about to applaud before the end!

          • John Borstlap says:

            New music life is full of conceptual pitfalls. In one Gaudeamus Festival (new music festival in Holland) a Swedish organist played so many fortissimo clusters on the concert hall’s organ, that the electric system caught fire, but the audience thought it was part of the piece. Numerous are the stories of concept art mistakes like the cleaning lady who took a pile of rubbish in a museum for what it was, i.e. rubbish, and unknowingly destroyed a work of art worth of a couple of hundred thousands of euros. In Holland a couple of years ago, an empty tent has been presented as a work of art, showing the ‘essence of nothingness’, funded by the city. The pinacle of confusion about the boundaries between art and real life is the story of the man who hung himself in a modern sculpture park, which was only discovered as a suidice after many days of audiences passing-by and innocently thinking it was part of the work.

            In ‘music’, we have the John Cage mystifications, like a bad performance of 4’33”, and copyright quarrels about the score (published by Peters). No doubt there will be an Urtext publication in the future.

            The radio orchestra of Baden Baden had a much higher rate of medical complaints, depression, and divorces among the players than average in German orchestras, due to the contemporary repertoire they had to play. And so on and so forth.

            But it all began with Schoenberg’s lack of sense of reality… There is a video on YouTube (forgot title) where a very serious chamber ensemble performs his Serenade in the open air in a beautiful garden next to a castle, one of these nice summer festival venues in Germany or Austria, with birds tsjilping all around, in short: a welcoming and pleasant atmosphere and an audience decently lined-up and politely, though puzzled, listening to the sounds. And in the midst of this civilized concert framework, musicians very seriously producing these short wrong note constellations like a misconceived attempt at atonal gymnastics. It looks like a spoof.

  • “…the collapse of tonality…” Rarely have I read a more laughable phrase. It is a veritable line in the sand that disappears seconds later under the soft onslaught of a spring wind.

    • John Borstlap says:

      This is arguably the first time that the concept of atonality has provoked a line of poetry.

    • Do you men do poetic licence? From the mid 19th Century diatonic tonality and the conventional rules of harmony were under severe attack and in decline in large parts of Europe (or am I just listening to different pieces of music than you) A piece that cannot establish a key throughout is challenging out conceptions of the tonal system. Within the prelude to Tristran, there is established tonal centre. Look as how Wagner uses the Tristan chord and how readily it ” modulates” without getting going before changing direction again. It is in a constant state of flux.

      • John Borstlap says:

        There is a difference between the major-minorsystem and tonality. The latter is a natural force operating in the former. Where chromatic music (like many passages in Tristan) modulates all the time and is in a flux, delayed resolution does not mean there is no tonality operating, in contrary. In Scriabine, where keys cannot be established, the intensity is due to tonal forces.

        And then: music history – like many other forms of history – mainly focusses upon the moment where conspicuous exceptions take place while ignoring the ongoing practices. Brahms’ entirely diatonal but nonetheless superb Violin Concerto was written in 1878, the 2nd Piano Concerto in 1881 – no chromatic flux there. Not even to speak of Mahler IV written in 1899-1901, fully diatonal music. Etc. etc.

      • John – the person who stuck up for you on over definitions of tonality the last time you questioned it on slipped disc was me. You can’t have your cake and eat it on this one.

        Don’t you think I know that there is a difference between “tonality” and “diatonic tonality”. I have not forgotten in less than a month.

  • steve says:

    I adore the 12 tone commercial. It’s done with a spirit of affection as opposed to malice. Ironically, the bulk of the music examples aren’t 12 tone. At the very outset we hear Schoenberg’s Variations for orchestra.

    One of the composers who developed this technique in a very personal way was Milton Babbitt. His music doesn’t sound angry all the time!