Since its first appearance in the early 1920s, twelve-tone composition has been a highly controversial, often-maligned manner of handling musical material. Although considered the dominant style in American art music of the mid-20th century, within the past forty years or so its influence has waned, although it hasn’t disappeared entirely. Joseph Straus has written an admittedly partisan yet nonetheless valuable and insightful history of twelve-tone composition in North America that is meant to challenge some of the received ideas not only about its history but also about its ongoing, if less visible and widespread, influence on contemporary composition.
Twelve-tone composition—”composition with twelve tones related only to one another,” as Arnold Schoenberg, the founder of the style, described it—is often thought of as a postwar phenomenon in American music, but as Straus shows, its roots go further back, to the 1920s and the indigenous style of dodecaphonic writing associated with the Ultramodernists, a group of composers which included Charles Seeger, Ruth Crawford and Wallingford Riegger. Working from second-hand information, some of it supplied by Adolph Weiss, an American who had studied with Schoenberg in Vienna and Berlin in 1925-1926, the Ultramodernists crafted atonal works that were driven more by their own aesthetic ends than by a desire to faithfully recreate Schoenberg’s methods. The Ultramodernists saw serial organization of pitch material as a useful means for achieving the “dissonant counterpoint” that had been a major element of their aesthetic prior to their acquaintance with European serialism. Although they composed works consisting of operations on defined pitch sets, their sets did not always include all twelve pitches and their operations did not always correspond to the operations of conventional serial composition. Crawford, for example, wrote her Diaphonic Suite No 1 (1930) for a seven-tone series subject to rotations and transpositions; Carl Ruggles similarly used ordered series of pitches to structure his own kind of non-diatonic polyphony. None of this counted as orthodox serial method, but the results were no less musically valid or interesting when taken on their own terms. More important, the Ultramodernists’ unorthodoxy set a precedent for what Straus describes as the “hybrid” combinations of twelve-tone and non-twelve-tone forms and methods that would subsequently be a hallmark of American serial music.
Political events in Europe in the 1930s forced the emigration of many artists, including twelve-tone composers, to America. Crucially for the development of composition in the U.S., Ernst Krenek, Stefan Wolpe, and Schoenberg himself all arrived here during that period. In addition to continuing their own work, these composers—Wolpe and Krenek in particular—left their mark by helping to form the next generation of American twelve-tone composers through their teaching. Wolpe’s students including Morton Feldman, Ralph Shapey and Ursula Mamlok; Krenek, who taught George Perle, was an especially prolific source of information on dodecaphonic composition.
It was really in the postwar period that American twelve-tone composition became a major force. Milton Babbitt, who had become interested in Schoenberg’s serial composition as early as the 1930s, is the best known of this cohort of composers which also included Perle; Ben Weber, who largely learned from Perle; and George Rochberg, who very publicly renounced twelve-tone composition in the 1970s after having composed it for twenty years. Later generations included Charles Wuorinen and Ralph Shapey and, working into the 2000s, Andrew Mead, Peter Lieberson and Jeff Nichols. The list is far from exhaustive, but it does give a sense of twelve-tone composition’s deep roots and longevity in American music.
To the popular mind—at least to the extent that the popular mind thought of it at all—twelve-tone composition entailed a rigid, strictly regulated method for ordering tones (and later other musical parameters such as duration and dynamics) that for all of its underlying order produced surfaces seemingly made up of random sound events. There may have been an orthodox method of composing with twelve tones, but if so it was honored more in the breach than in the observance; what emerges from Straus’s telling instead is a picture of a way of handling musical material that was—and is—highly flexible and diverse, varying sometimes greatly from composer to composer.
Using detailed musical analyses of examples of works by all of the composers he surveys, Straus convincingly shows that American twelve-tone composition wasn’t reducible to a uniform method let alone a strictly-prescribed system. Something as basic as the handling of the row could be approached with flexibility and sensitivity to the overall musical context rather than to a preconceived, systemic logic. Babbitt’s combinatoriality of hexachords may have tracked closely with Schoenberg’s example, but even here Babbitt’s complex and shifting combinations and divisions of the series resulted in a richness of line open to multiple possibilities. Nor was the appearance of a tonal center ruled out of play: Perle’s so-called “twelve-tone tonality” was based on motives and harmonies made of freely-combined tones implying tonal references. Composer Barbara Partland even incorporated improvisation into her work, albeit as constrained by the available pitch aggregates. The row turns out not to have been a locked motif or diffuse ostinato but rather an ordered pool of pitches and intervals that can be deployed and altered as local or overall conditions suggest. As Straus points out, Mead’s characterization of the row as “a hierarchy of availability” seems an apt summarization, as does Straus’s own conclusion that typical North American twelve-tone composition—to the extent that there could be such a thing–is in fact a “hybrid” of twelve-tone and non-twelve-tone methods.
The flexibility and variability of twelve-tone methods as actually practiced go some way toward answering one of the most commonly raised claims regarding dodecaphonic music: That its precompositional structures—i.e., the underlying series and the operations conducted on it—can’t be heard in the surface of the music. Straus calls this the “myth of imperceptibility.” Although he is critical of studies that would seem to demonstrate that listeners do find twelve-tone structures imperceptible, he as much as concedes that most listeners would in fact find it very difficult to hear the precompositional structures underlying the surfaces of much dodecaphonic music. But the very flexibility and diversity of the methods and materials used by American twelve-tone composers would seem to indicate that these structures more often than not were of secondary importance compared to the actual sound of the works themselves. And even if there is an incommensurability of conventional listening skills and twelve-tone music, this isn’t a fatal situation; Straus does note that this music’s audience is attracted to it at least in part because it offers them a new way to make sense of music.
Straus’s point is a good one and leads to the question, Does it really matter whether or not the composition’s deep structures are audible on the surface? If the history of twelve-tone music shows that the precompositional scheme is a starting point, a source of material rather than an unyielding blueprint, wouldn’t it follow then that the surface, reflecting a flexible relationship to the structures underlying it, would be of interest in and of itself as an aesthetic object?
A significant source of the surface’s musical interest is the way in which a good number of twelve-tone composers have created especially vivid klangfarbenmelodie through the imaginative distribution of discontinuous, non-implicative pitch collections among instruments. As a result—perhaps ironically, given twelve-tone music’s initial focus on the organization of pitch—twelve-tone composition helped direct listeners’ focus away from pitch relationships and toward sound and timbre instead. Consequently we can explore the richness of the surface through all of its elements, of which pitch is just one. And here one can’t resist paraphrasing the title of Babbitt’s most famous article: Who cares if you can hear the precompositional structure? The surface offers pleasures of its own.