Very nice article in today’s NYT online on 12-tone music by Anthony Tommasini. The point of the article is that 12-tone music isn’t dead, but is merely part of the musical richness that is new music, to the point that people like us can choose from whatever musical techniques we want, taking a little bit of this and that, etc.

I think he’s correct. Having been a “12-tone composer” many years ago, I was turned off by the rigidity of the system, just as I was turned off by the rigidity of tonality. But I still like to listen to a lot of 12-tone music. And rows do at times creep into my more recent music, even though it’s in another galaxy in terms of its distance from dodecaphonism. Indeed, I think that’s one of the great things about our current situation—we can pick and choose what we want to do, and not be servants of any particular movement, be it serialism, the new romanticism, postminimalism, minimalism, indeterminacy…whatever.

Incidentally, Tomassini has a nice video clip of him explaining all this. He’s a pretty good pianist, and I like his short excerpts from Schoenberg’s opuses 11 and 25.

So is 12-tone music dead? Is that question even meaningful? Should we care?

18 Responses to “schoenberg is…not dead”
  1. james sproul says:

    indeed, I agree with you. And, to add, not only can with pick and choose the “styles” we write in, but we can marry different techniques even within the same piece. That has been a fun experiement for me in the last few pieces I have written, being able to incorporate 12-tone, indeterminancy, set theory, and even minimalism into the same 8 minute piece is extremely fascinating and let’s face it, just plain fun.

    And on your last few questions, I think the question “Is (insert your style here) really dead?” is a meaningless question. Nothing is dead, only transformed. Style these days means very little the young composers. I am not sure why, or how, but I feel composers of the last 20 maybe even 30 years have not had the pressure to pick a school, or technique, as it were. we are much more free to do whatever we want. Although composers of the past have left certain styles it was more often leaving one and going to another, (i.e. Stravinsky, Part and many others). but now, as an under 40 years old composer, I feel perfectly welcome to write in any technique I wish and no one is going to call me names. and I do!!

    and one last point, I agree, it was a fine article indeed. I find i nice that someone wrote an article on 12-tone music, it has probably been a long time since anyone has done that, at least in my reading.

  2. Yes, we can do all these things. We can choose, we can mix, we can change. The world of musical poetics has simply turned into a supermarket.

  3. Anthony Cornicello says:

    It’s not a bad article, although it’s a bit optimistic. I gave it to my students, since we’re going over that period in history. I think he did a good job of explaining the whole 12-tone thing.
    My only nitpicking point is how he described Messiaen as tinkering with 12-tone. Hmmm, which piece? “Mode de Valeurs et Intensities”? That piece assigns rhythms to specific pitches, but the pitches come from modes, and they’re not used in any systematic fashion, from what I recall. Am I missing something? Any help, David – you’re a Messiaen fan as well?

  4. Kyle Gann says:

    I believe Livre d’orgue (1951) for organ was Messiaen’s one 12-tone piece.

  5. Rodney Lister says:

    I’m hard pressed to see that he explained much of anything about how one might write music using “the system,” (for instance five minutes into the seven minute audio thing he was still talking about Schumann) although the background about how it all came about wasn’t too bad. He still didn’t really get at all into how it solved any of Schoenberg’s problems, let alone why it would be of use for anybody to use it. About the only thing he said was that you couldn’t repeat a note until you’ve done the other eleven, which aside from being a not terribly important aspect of things, is just manifestly untrue.

    It was refreshing to have somebody write/talk about “twelve-tone music” without its reminding one (me) of Anne Coulter in one of her more disagreeable and intolerant moments, so I guess on that count it was alright.

  6. david toub says:

    Sorry to come back late in the game, Anthony—for some reason the comments weren’t being picked up by my RSS reader, but that’s another story. Technically, you’re correct that Mode de valeurs doesn’t use the 12 tones in a strictly serial way. But he does serialize everything else and I always felt it was a point of semantics about his use of tones in that piece.

    Rodney, has that harpy racist, anti-Muslim, anti-semitic freak ever had an agreeable and tolerant moment?

    It is quite true that you don’t have to avoid repeating a note until you’ve hit the other 11, although in the original sense, Tommasini is correct. This is how Schoenberg used the row in his first 12-tone piece from op. 23, but realized that it was pretty limiting and moved on to make the “system” more flexible. Incidentally, I am pretty sure this is how Ruggles is said to have composed (not repeating tones until the other 11 had been sounded), but I have yet to find any real examples of this. Ruggles just strikes me as a much more intuitive composer, to his credit (antisemitism aside)

  7. zeno says:

    “Ruggles just strikes me as a much more intuitive composer, to his credit” (dt)

    David, given Schoenberg’s large — often, in my view, highly intuition-based tonal, atonal, religious, mixed-tonality technique, and visual works, I find this statement of yours highly questionable. Yes, Schoenberg was an academic and music-theorist, as well as a ‘free’ composer (unlike, say, Stravinsky). However, name, if you can, a more intuitive, academic composer or composer-theorist.

    I don’t have time to go into greater detail now, but press me later if you so choose.

  8. zeno says:

    I left ’12-tone’ out from my list of Schoenberg’s techniques. Sorry.

  9. Kyle Gann says:

    David, hello? Can you hear me? Livre d’orgue is Messiaen’s 12-tone experiment, not Modes de valeurs. Ruggles would refrain from repeating a pitch until seven or eight or nine others (depending on the piece) had gone by, not 11 – it was one of the rules he inherited from Charles Seeger’s definition of dissonant counterpoint. And while I agree that every reference to Anne Coulter should include the words “harpy racist, anti-Muslim, anti-semitic freak,” does every reference to Ruggles, from now to eternity, have to include a reference to his antisemitism?

  10. david toub says:

    Kyle, I hear you. I never said Mode de valeurs was 12-tone (well, I did once many moons ago and subsequently stood corrected, although I have seen some references to Mode as a 12-tone work, in all fairness). I couldn’t remember how many tones would go by before Ruggles would repeat, but thought it was 12. No, every mention of Ruggles does not and should not refer to his antisemitism, but the last time I brought up my praises of Ruggles’ music, I got hammered for seemingly ignoring this aspect of his life. So I figured I’d mention it as a proactive strike of sorts.

    Zeno, as much as i love Schoenberg’s music, I don’t know that I’d say no one was more intuitive than he was, although if you restrict the search to academics, then perhaps you’re correct.

  11. zeno says:

    Thanks, David.

    However, I never said “no one was more intuitive than [Schoenberg] was …”.

  12. Fernand Raynaud says:

    It seems we should reserve a special place of dishonor for Schoenberg in recognition of his having single-handedly side-tracked, if not blocked, the development of music for a hundred years. Unfortunately he is not quite out of the way, though it IS coming, and only after his legacy is swept aside along with other insanities of the 20th century, will harmony return between composers and the public. So there.

  13. Steve Layton says:

    Oh boo, Fernand. Schoenberg didn’t side-track or block anything. Especially the development of music; seems to me that there has been plenty of development in the last 100 years, from a huge spectrum of composers that happily includes Schoenberg. Or maybe it was Monteverdi, or even Leonin, that *really* got us all side-tracked from the “true” development of music? What were we thinking, ever leaving the modes, or even going polyphonic??!?

  14. Kyle and David,
    Regarding Messiaen’s Mode de valeurs.. (1949)-
    It’s referenced as the first work of “integral serialism,” and that the octave, register, duration, dynamics, and mode of attack are predetermined for every note. But, alas, the pitches are not ordered in the traditionally 12-note pattern–as Kyle points out.
    The mention of Seeger’s dissonant counterpoint is always a pleasure to hear, even if it’s a passing reference. It seems that few are aware of that american development (Henry Cowell, Ruth Crawford –both students of Charles Seeger).

  15. Hucbald says:

    “… I was turned off by the rigidity of tonality.”

    Rigid is as rigid does: Tonality can be plenty plastic if you view every modulatory possibility as an opportunity to express a modal character. Why not modulate to a mixolydian, lydian, phrygian, or dorian mode, for example, versus the tired old ionian/aolean systems? Or, why not mix them all together?

    I do stuff like that all the time. Have for decades.

    OK. I’ll go back to lurking and shaking my head now.

  16. Jeffrey Quick says:

    Of course 12 tone is dead. So is the symphony. So is the isorhythmic motet.
    So make like Dr. Frankenstein already…

  17. Rich Hill says:

    Why not take a 12-tone row and make each note a key center for a ii-V7 or IV-V7 or just a temporary tonic? You get the freakiest sounding pseudo-jazz. Try it. I just did for a woodwind quintet I wrote and LOVED it. I also used the matrix in ways that would make Boulez throw a tantrum. It’s just a compositional device, not a holy relic. If it sounds good to you ears, use it. People can tell if you’re just pooping out notes.

  18. Wolfgang says:

    Why do you think the symphony is dead?
    It still has purpose and meaning!..The symphony!

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