The story goes something like this: It was a summer garden concert on the White House lawn. The next selection was announced as ''a piece of 20th-century music.'' It was, in point of fact, to be a piece from the beginning of the 1900s by Cecile Chaminade, a gifted composer of sweet salon music - in short, nothing that would startle the frailest of temperments. However, following on the heels of the announcement, over the live, nationwide broadcast microphone, was heard the digusted moan of the Chief Executive's child.''Oh no, not that !*!*!* 12 -tone stuff!''
Apochryphal? Perhaps. But representing the knee-jerk reaction of a large segment of the world, it clearly rings true.
What 12-tone music is, and what it isn't, remain unclear for many lovers of music. This is a particularly ripe time to be discussing it, since, over the last couple of years, it has lost much of the didactic grip it used to hold on the styles and ambitions of composers near and far.
One thinks of Arnold Schonberg in tandem with 12-tone composition, and rightly so, for the serial system so named was largely of his devising, around 1920-23. Stated purely, the serial method was set up as the ultimate escape from tonality, considered then to be at the heart of Romanticism's decadence. Treating all twelve tones (C,C-sharp,D,D-sharp,E,F,F-sharp,G,G-sharp,A,A-sharp, B) as equals instead of assigning roots (key notes), the serial system was considered an improvement over mere atonality, which consciously avoided tonality, but too easily and too often slipped back into it, wanting serialism's strict mathematic methods of locking out dreaded tonal implications.
A distinction needs to be made between atonal, 12-tone and serial. One can find atonality in amazing places in music literature, for instance in parts of Debussy, where tonal elements are used for anything but tonality; even more eye-opening are some passages from Chopin or J. S. Bach(!). Twelve-tone music, while it is usually assiduously atonal, is music which doesn't necessarily use either serial techniques or slippery, deceptive tonal tools. The music of Charles Ives falls into this category, as does that of latterday figures like Olivier Messiaen and Gyorgy Ligeti, who present sheets of sound, but far removed from mathematic organization.
Only serial describes music composed according to the system set down by Arnold Schonberg and his followers. In it, one or more groupings of all the twelve tones, called tone rows, are set up, from which come all the pitches used in the compostion. They can be inverted and retrograded (actually a thematic device centuries old), but none is repeated until all of its twelve notes have sounded. Elaborate arithmetic permutations of one-to-twelve are also used, and all of this is expressly designed to ward off any hints of tonality.
Time revealed two basic flaws in the system, however. It very soon became rigid, too often employed as an end - an accomplishment - in itself; and it became obvious that, by adroitly constructing one's tone rows, pieces of a quite plainly tonal nature could be written! This latter point was made most undeniably by Igor Stravinsky, when he tried his hand at the technique, and by Schonberg's own pupil, Alban Berg.
In the minds of everyone, the triumvirate of serial music will remain its three early giants, Schonberg, Berg and Anton Webern. But among these three (and although Schonberg himself said, in mid-career, that a lot of good music remained to be written in the key of C major), it is the music of Berg which has come to be the most widely performed and to make the strongest impact when heard. Indeed, in terms of their amalgamating of technical mastery, creative genius and red-hot communicative power, Berg's finest works stand virtually unmatched in all of serial music's history since his passing in 1935.
Probably the most self-evident reason for this lies in seeing that Berg's use of the 12-tone serial method was subjective in the extreme. His was a peculiar working-out of this austere technique, enabling him to express, uniquely and personally, what was inside him.
No one who knows his Chamber Concerto (1925) could doubt that his mastery of serial composing was remarkable. But for Berg the serial method was a sometime, an off-and-on, thing, whereas for Webern and his later followers it became the end-all. His first opera, Wozzeck (1921), was written before he had come around to the technique, and the second, Lulu (1935), often loosens patterns for the sake of the larger dramatic need.
But Berg's crowning achievement will surely always be the Violin Concerto, his last work, a tragic, transfigurative instrumental allegory about life and death. Aside from both its listenability (on the basic of its rhythmic interest alone), and its overwhelming emotional impulsion, the remarkable feature of the Concerto is the row on which the work is built:
It is remarkable to consider that this plainly serial work inhabits as it does, from its germinating material, the keys of G minor and B-flat major. But what is just as plain as its seriality is that such things meant less to Berg than finding the most intimate and passionate human cords and plucking them tellingly.
Nothing but hearing a fine performance of this work can make it apparent enough that a technique is a tool only, and that the human creative instinct, when it is genuine, can even transcend a rigid, arid system (or anything else) and fructify in spite of it.