Thursday, December 8, 2022, 7:30 PM

Flexible Serialism

by Nicky Swett

In a 1931 radio talk on his Op. 31 Orchestral Variations, Arnold Schoenberg laid out foundations for a system of musical craft based on fixed sequences of the twelve pitches of the Western chromatic scale. He emphasized that when composing with this technique, these so-called “rows” came from a theme he imagined, and not the other way around—that his overarching sequences of intervals and resulting tonalities in some way sprung from a singable, melodic idea. In the piece he discusses in that talk, he introduces the row pitch by pitch to emphasize its identity as a reservoir of expressive gestures and not some abstract set of rules to follow.

Many 20th-century composers were attracted to a strict approach to so-called “serial” writing. But others saw a row of 12 chromatic notes as a highly flexible starting point for creating tunes, motifs, or harmonic and timbral contrasts. Dmitri Shostakovich, who was initially skeptical about 12-tone writing, used intermittent rows to create new harmonic spaces in his Twelfth String Quartet; Chen Yi, in her 1987 Woodwind Quintet, finds relations between foundational tone rows and the intervals of a Chinese folk tune; and Hannah Kendall introduces different pitches derived from a foundational 12-tone row in different sections of Vera for Clarinet, Violin, Viola, and Cello, a work that will be heard on this New Milestones concert. This playlist explores works from the 20th century that take advantage of this more flexible kind of serialism.

Cellist, writer, and music researcher Nicky Swett is a program annotator and editorial contributor at the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center.