Dirty Dozens: A HyperHistory of Serialism

Dirty Dozens: A HyperHistory of Serialism

James Reel Originally, Retrograded, Inverted, and Retrograded & Inverted
Serial permutations by Amanda MacBlane

A fad diet called serialism swept the American academy some 40 years ago. It promised to shed the fat of Romanticism, loosen the gristle of Futurism, tone the flab of Impressionism. Serialism was scientific, developed and refined by the leading minds of Europe. Serialism was intellectual and elevating, certain to flex the mental muscles of composers and boost the stamina of audiences. And serialism wasn’t merely some sugar-coated or caffeinated short-term supplement; it was a total change of musical lifestyle, a regimen that would last a lifetime.

Well, here we are less than a lifetime later, and a concert program featuring a new, strictly serial work is as rare as a restaurant menu offering the dieter’s special of peach half and cottage cheese on a lettuce leaf. Yet our current cultural nutritional guidelines retain some of the tenets of the serialism diet. Claims that serialism is dead aren’t quite true. And, in any case, to understand American music since the middle of the 20th century, you have to understand serialism and its special appeal to university-based composers in the 1950s and ’60s.

The story of mid-century American serialism, though, begins in Europe before World War I, with the Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg. (American insurance salesman Charles Ives claimed to have developed the principle behind serialism first, but Ives revised his early music so heavily in later decades that one hesitates to take him seriously. Besides, Ives failed to influence other composers at the time, whereas Schoenberg’s theories almost immediately inspired a near religion of aesthetics that drew disciples from across Europe and North and South America.)

With Schoenberg’s emigration to the United States in the 1930s, serialism was well on its way to becoming an American phenomenon. Claims for Boulez and Stockhausen aside, ultimately it took American know-how to completely systematize Schoenberg’s system. German armed forces didn’t even come close to conquering the United States, but after the war, it was German music theory that occupied America. Serialism’s elegant complexity finally brought self-respect to a nation of composers fighting America’s century-old (and only partly deserved) reputation of derivative provincialism and naive populism. And despite serialism’s seemingly intractable strictness, American individualism found new ways around the system. The movement even attracted a few women composers.

The serialists reigned supreme in American art music for a good two decades. They were firmly ensconced in the academy, which had become about the only place composers, like poets, could count on making a living, and they zealously imparted the harsh wonders of serialism to their students. Serialists sat on the boards that awarded grants, prizes, and occasional recording opportunities to other serialists. Even such senior American-based composers as Aaron Copland and Igor Stravinsky took up the technique toward the end of their careers, determined not to be regarded as living fossils.

In the outside world, though, the realm of symphony subscribers and ordinary chamber-music mavens, serialism never caught on. Open-eared audiences developed a certain respect for the more tonal-sounding serial works and the musicians brave enough and skilled enough to play them, but no serial composition, aside perhaps from Alban Berg’s reasonably accessible Violin Concerto and Lyric Suite, entered America’s standard repertory. We’re conditioned to understand the patterns and hierarchical relationships of diatonic music; general audiences had neither the training nor the inclination to sort out the complex, severe beauties of serial works. Indeed, many listeners categorized serialism along with aleatorics and musique concrète as sheer noise to be avoided at all costs. Music had become composer-centered and theory-besotted, and came to have no more impact on the general public than the proverbial tree falling in an uninhabited forest.

Since the Bicentennial commissions of 1976 exuberantly imposed a great variety of new music on American listeners, U.S. composers—employing a multitude of techniques and aesthetic theories—have become more sensitive to the limitations of the public ear, and listeners have become more receptive to new music in general (nudged along, in part, by the increasingly avant-garde tendencies of certain branches of popular music and the fresh scales and rhythms of world music). American composers and audiences alike have unashamedly embraced a new hedonism, more instinctive music propelled by rhythm, timbre and, sometimes, tune. Such serial composers as George Perle, who wrote with the public in mind all along, are in no immediate danger of eclipse. But the serialists have lost their hegemony.

Twelve-tone techniques remain popular in determining the pitch content of new electro-acoustic music, but otherwise serialism is just one more collection of tools at a composer’s disposal. Serialism’s high priests and fervent devotees are going the way of the Druids. Yet just as the Druidical veneration of nature survives in different forms among this country’s population of environmentalists (and, yes, New Agers), serialism has permanently insinuated some vestige of itself into the subconscious of composers who value rigor, craftsmanship, and intellectual challenge, even if they now prefer to achieve these values through other means.

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