home | news | roster | MadAminA! | about maa | contact maa      


by George Perle

The current rage for historical authenticity in performance "represents an unmistakable symptom of the present situation of our musical culture, a situation characterized by an extraordinary degree of insecurity, uncertainty, and self-doubt — in a word, by anxiety," according to an article by Robert P. Morgan in a recent anthology on "Authenticity and Early Music."

As a composer I too am concerned with authenticity — not with "historical" authenticity, but with the authenticity of my musical language, which is to say that I am concerned first of all that it should not just be "my" musical language, but a language that grows out of a tradition. That tradition derives from the common ground shared by the mainstream composers in whose work the basic tone material underwent a revolutionary transformation in the early years of this century. Since I am convinced that my own musical language has this kind of authenticity, my personal view of the situation is not at all characterized by anxiety. This is not to say that I have never been troubled by insecurity and selfdoubt in my handling of that language, but this is not at all the same thing as uncertainty as to the very existence of such a language.

I was, however, not always so serenely confident of the existence of an authentic musical language for composition in our time. The crisis in my own development as a composer came in 1937, when I was twenty-two years old. It seemed to me that the traditional means of harmonic progression and structure no longer worked, and while there were other ways to write music, these were no substitute for the coherent and integrated musical language that had been the basis of Western music for some 300 years. My "age of anxiety" came to an end in the summer of that year, through an encounter with the score of Alban Berg's "Lyric Suite." The first page was enough to give me an insight, for the first time, into the nature of my difficulties. I saw at once that it was possible to comprehend the twelve notes of the semitonal scale as an integral and autonomous structure, and I suddenly understood that I had been intuitively searching for such a possibility. It was in this way that I made my first connection with the concepts and music of the "Second Viennese School."

I published my first article on twelve-tone composition four years later. Even though this was a critique of a most fundamental kind of Schoenberg's system, I have been labelled a "twelve-tone" or "serial" composer ever since, whatever people may think they mean by these terms. My fate was sealed with the publication of my book, "Serial Composition and Atonality," in 1962. Its subtitle, "An Introduction to the Music of Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern," was misread by almost everyone as "An Introduction to the Music of Schoenberg, Berg, Webern, and Perle."

My whole development as a composer during the past fifty years implies a two-fold response to Schoenberg's work. That the seven-tone diatonic scale of the major/minor system has been definitively superseded for serious composition by a semitonal scale of twelve tones is for me as indubitable and irrevocable an event as others that have given this momentous century which is about to enter its final decade its special character — Einsteinian physics and the invention of the birthcontrol pill, for example. We cannot get rid of this integral twelve-tone scale without rewriting the history of music from Schubert through Mahler. As Susan Sontag suggests in her recent book on AIDS, social trends can't change the big picture: "The new sexual realism goes with the rediscovery of the joys of tonal music, Bouguereau, a career in investment banking and church weddings."

Has there, in fact, been a "return to tonality"? Without a connection with the past we wouldn't even be able to talk, we wouldn't have a language at all, but does one establish continuity with the past with a collage of quotations from tonal composers who have been dead long enough so that their music is in the public domain, or by endlessly repeating the same conventional harmonic progression? These things, whatever their authors' intentions, are parodies of tonality, testifying to its demise, not to its revival. The very notion that one can choose whether or not to be a "tonal" composer is self-destructive — an admission that the tonal system of the past is no longer an authentic, viable, self-contained musical language. One may borrow it, and borrow from it, but one makes an authentic statement in doing so only insofar as that statement does not pretend to constitute a revival.

This change from a scale that comprises seven of the twelve notes to a scale that comprises all of them resulted in a crisis that probably has no parallel in the history of music. The traditional functions that differentiated the scale degrees from one another disappeared, and with them the functional distinctions among intervals and chords. Since the scale now comprised all twelve notes rather than a partial collection, there could be only one "mode" and one "key." Not only is the music of the Vienna circle, Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern, in the years immediately preceding the First World War to be understood as a first attempt to cope with this crisis, but so is the music of Scriabin, Stravinsky, and Bartok. Between 1920 and 1923 Schoenberg formulated a "twelve-tone method" which he hoped would "[lay] the foundations for a new procedure in musical construction which seemed fitted to replace those structural differentiations provided formerly by tonal harmonies."

The central concept of this "new procedure" is the "tone row," a permutation of the twelve notes of the chromatic scale that is specifically devised for each composition, that can be reordered only through its literal transformations (inversion, retrogression, transposition, or combinations of these), and that is, in principle, the source of all the pitch relations of the given work. Though the row, according to Schoenberg, "is invented to substitute for some of the unifying and formative advantages of scale and tonality," it also "functions in the manner of a motive," and must therefore "be invented anew for each piece."

I saw an intolerable contradiction in this dual nature of the tone row. In tonal music the scale and its harmonic components define the language, whereas motives are what a piece is "about," a way of saying something in that language. When we are talking about tonal music we can take two pieces that are as far apart in time and style as the second English Suite of Bach and the Prelude to "Tristan and Isolde" and say of both that they are in the key of A minor. Surely, to whatever extent the tone row can "substitute for some of the unifying and formative advantages of scale and tonality," it need not — indeed, it must not — "be invented anew for each piece."

Schoenberg's "twelve-tone method" seemed to me only an understandably primitive first attempt in the direction of an authentic twelve-tone language. The first movement of Berg's first extended twelve-tone composition, the "Lyric Suite," already moves beyond this. It is the ordering of the twelve notes as a series that gives them their quasi motivic character. With Berg, that ordering is secondary to and dependent on a far more pervasive and "natural" means of establishing relations among the twelve notes, the principle of symmetry.

The twelve-tone scale is inherently symmetrical: it divides the octave into equal intervals — twelve half-steps or twelve "perfect fifths," depending on how we choose to unfold the cycle of twelve notes. The diatonic tonal system is inherently asymmetrical: it divides the octave into a series of seven unequal intervals-whole steps and half steps. The whole-tone scale, like the twelvetone scale, also divides the octave symmetrically, into six equal intervals, and is therefore a subdivision of what I should have liked to call the "twelvetone system" if that term had not already been taken over to refer to the more limited notion of music based on the Schoenbergian twelve-tone row. The extensive whole-tone sections of Debussy's "Voiles" and of the second movement of Rimsky-Korsakoff's "Le Coq d'or Suite" are a kind of twelve-tone music. In early Stravinsky and in much of Bartok cyclically derived symmetrical structures intersect with diatonic (but not major-minor) structures.

The real tone row of the first movement of the "Lyric Suite" is simply the cycle of perfect fifths, segmented into two halves of six notes each. This gives us a background structure, a level where there are no such things as "motives" or "themes," just as the diatonic scale and its component chords provide the background structure of a tonal piece. The thematic tone row of the movement is only one among several special permutations of the background row. The basic tone row of "Lulu" is derived from the very same segmented perfect-fifth cycle.

There is a second type of symmetry that is "natural" to the language of twelve-tone music, and this plays as significant a role in much of the music of Bartok as it does in Schoenberg's twelve-tone system. In the first movement of Bartok's Fourth Quartet, for example, a particular collection of symmetrically related intervals, which may be derived by aligning two diverging twelve-tone scales, is assigned priority over other such collections:

F F# G G# A A# B C C# D D# E (F
E Eb D Db C B Bb A Ab G Gb F (E

Exactly the same family of symmetrically related intervals is the principal basis of pitch structure in the first movement of the "Lyric Suite." Berg's thematic row unfolds these intervals in an order that simultaneously projects the perfect-fifth cycle:

F C G/Ab Eb Bb
E A D/Db Gb Cb

Since there is no tone row in Bartok, his ordering of these intervals is not predefined in the same way, but their shared concept of interval structure establishes a much closer connection between Bartok and Berg than his mere use of a tone row would have done. To a certain, still very limited, extent we can say the same thing about the first movement of the "Lyric Suite" and the first movement of the Fourth Quartet that we said about Bach's English Suite and the Prelude to "Tristan." They are in the same "key."

Cyclic and inversional symmetry point in the direction of a comprehensive and "natural" language of twelve-tone tonality which has been the basis of most of my music since 1939 and all of it since 1969. It is a language that has as much to do with Scriabin, Stravinsky, and Bartok as it has to do with Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern, and very little to do with the post-Schoenbergian evolution of serialism, which has been obsessively preoccupied with what are for me secondary and superficial — I would even say simplistic — aspects of twelve-tone composition.

The notion of ordering, for example, was extended to rhythm and dynamics as a way of arriving at a "total" or "integral" serialism. This required such bizarre and arbitrary constructs as a durational scale of twelve note-values and an intensity scale of twelve dynamic levels. What possible analogy can there be between our perception of pitch intervals and dynamic intervals? What is the octave of a pianissimo? Will we recognize a mezzo forte in a sustained violin harmonic and a mezzo forte in a staccato note in the lowest octave of the piano as the same dynamic? Boulez and Stockhausen were only the most prominent of the serialist composers who finally decided that they had reached a dead end and went on to other things, such as chance composition. The current "return to tonality" is mainly the work of reformed serialists. But we still have a good number of unreformed serialists with us, and if these see no future in chance composition or the "return to tonality," I can only agree with them.

Nevertheless, I think post-Schoenberg twelve-tone serial composition has been on the wrong track all along, I have never been part of this movement, and I wish that people would at last stop calling me a "serialist." As for "twelve-tone composer," by now this has all the wrong connotations. "Twelve-tone tonal composer" will do, to distinguish me from the others, who are "twelve-tone atonal composers." When I composed my first piece in what I call "twelve-tone tonality" exactly fifty years ago there was so little interest, even in Schoenberg's twelve-tone music, that it hardly seemed worthwhile, or even possible, to insist on distinctions. But all this changed a long time ago.

home  |  about maa  |  roster  |  MadAminA!  | news & events  |  contact us

© 2002-2005by Music Associates of America. All Rights Reserved
music associates of america // 224 king street // englewood // new jersey // 07631