The Twelve Tones of Christmas

[Update below] The last thing I should be thinking about right now is teaching, following my release from it last Friday. But I’m designing, for next fall, a course that I’ve threatened to teach for years: 12-tone Analysis. I’ve been recycling the same courses (Renaissance counterpoint, 18th-century sonata, 19th-century harmony, 20th-century analysis) for years, and if I don’t come up with something new I’ll bore myself to death. I even had a vivid dream that I was teaching a serialism course, and woke up excited about it, until I started enumerating the hurdles. The main one is that the serialist pieces I really love tend to be long and huge – Mantra, Pli selon pli, Rituel, Grande Aulodia, Philomel, Monologe, Sinfonia, Fragmente – Stille an Diotima. The cost of scores would impoverish my students’ parents, and a semester wouldn’t be long enough to do more than a couple of them justice. 

But I think instead I’m going to scale it back and make up a list of smaller pieces. I really don’t want to spend a lot of time on the Second Vienna School, who don’t interest me much – the payoff for me is all post-war Darmstadt – but I think with undergrads I probably should. I could teach one of the Webern Cantatas (I’ve grown deadly tired of dissecting the Symphony) and part of Berg’s Violin Concerto to start off, plus Dallapiccola’s Piccola Musica Notturna or Sex Carmina Alcaei. I can’t think what Schoenberg to teach, since I don’t like any of his 12-tone music except for Moses und Aron. Maybe I can suppress my gag reflex and do the Orchestra Variations or a movement from the Third Quartet. I do not want to waste my time teaching pieces I don’t like in this class. I’ve been analyzing Post-Partitions for years as a Babbitt example, and while it’s easy to outline, I just don’t think it’s a strong piece.

So I’m thinking All Set, for jazz ensemble, if there’s enough documentation about it in Andrew Mead’s book. I well know the folly of trying to analyze Babbitt without a cheat sheet. I regret that Mead doesn’t discuss The Widow’s Lament in the Springtime, which would be a perfect size. For another American, I’m thinking Rochberg’s lovely Serenata d’Estate, or possibly the first movement of his Second Symphony. For Stockhausen I wouldn’t mind trying my hand at Kontrapunkte, which I rather like. (I’m a little weary of rushing through Gruppen in alternate years.) I’d love to include Maderna, but the only score I have is Aura, which is too big. I don’t want to do early Boulez, Le Marteau included; the sonatas are too doctrinaire, and Marteau seems like more work than it’s worth. Ditto the Stockhausen Klavierstucke, with the possible exception of IX. Berio’s Sinfonia would be worth spending a few weeks with; that and Mantra could be the semester’s two major works. I’m also thinking about Berio’s Circles, a more manageable score. Ligeti’s Continuum is a good teaching piece, though I’d rather do something like Melodien or Monument-Selbstportrait-Bewegung. I’d love to do some later Nono, but I’m not inclined toward Il Canto Sospeso and even less to Polifonica-Monodia-Ritmica, which are the scores I own. I’ve always had a soft spot for Pousseur, but the only piece of his for which I own both score and recording is Jeu de Miroirs de Votre Faust, which is fun but hardly seems representative of serialism. The problem, as some of you know, is that some of these pieces contain complicated hidden structures, and don’t make much sense unless someone with inside information has written about them. I once had a frustrating experience trying to analyze Requiem Canticles in class, though I’ve since found enough information to want to try again. I shy away from Sessions for this reason, too – something about his row technique I don’t get. 

What am I missing? What could I get and afford scores for, and find coherent analyses of?

UPDATE: Thanks to my readers for all your suggestions. I can now proceed feeling that I’ve left no stone unturned. Merry Christmas, happy Hannukah, have a good Kwanzaa or solstice, and all that jazz.


  1. Saul says

    Kyle, I’ve been following your blog for quite a while. I’m a fan.
    And I keep reading about a bunch of courses you’re teaching that I wish I could take. Any chance you’d be willing to video-tape and post your course on 12-tone analysis online. If it were on Itunes-U, for example, I’d subscribe in a heartbeat. (There are really too-few serious music courses there!) Even to see them on Youtube would be a treat.
    Wish I could have attended your lectures on minimalism. It would be nice to experience your lectures.
    Either way thanks for posting your thoughts.
    KG replies: Thanks, Saul. I might consent to having my 12-tone course taped the second or third time I teach it. Let’s see how it goes first. My classes don’t always turn out the way I’d like.

  2. klangfarben says

    What about Kagel’s “Anagrama”?
    KG replies: Don’t know it at all. I’ll look it up, thanks.

  3. Paul A. Epstein says

    Two pieces that I always loved teaching (in my grad course on “Text and Music”) were the Webern Op. 25 Songs and Stravinsky’s In Memoriam Dylan Thomas. The latter is of course only pentaphonically, though strictly, serial. The Webern offers a wonderful opportunity to relate serial structure to textual expression.
    Happy Holidays, Kyle.
    KG replies: Thanks, Paul. I need to think about some of the smaller late Stravinsky pieces.

  4. says

    For Schoenberg there’s the earlier “Serenade”. It’s bright and fun (for Schoenberg) and shows some of the more early explorations in serialism.
    For Stravinsky, “Movements” is a great and compact example, and a really nice piece. Or “In Memoriam Dylan Thomas”.
    KG replies: You’re right, I do sort of like the Serenade. It’s the 4th and 5th movements that are 12-tone, right? I’ll look through them. Movements is exactly the right size and density for the classroom, but a story I heard at Oberlin has always made me think of it as a morass of analytical difficulty. According to campus legend, when Stravinsky visited, a student who was analyzing Movements asked a question: “Mr. Stravinsky, I think I’ve figured most of this out, but I can’t figure out where this D comes from.” Stravinsky looked at it a few minutes, and replied, “Oh yes. You see, when I want a D, I look in my row matrix until I find a D, and I say, ‘There it is.’ And I put it in.”

  5. says

    I was going to suggest In memoriam Dylan Thomas, but since Paul beat me to it, I’ll second it. The fact the the row is five-notes long rather than twelve is a big advantage for analysis.
    I’d take a quick look at Piano Phase at the end of the course, too.
    I’d also leave room in the course to study something a student might be preparing for performance.
    KG replies: Oh, I always require them to write analyses of pieces we don’t cover, and I encourage them to analyze something for their own instrument. Not much chance of them playing something, though: 12-tone music doesn’t get pushed much at Bard. I’m kind of the guy, and even *I* neglect it.

  6. Jon Southwood says

    I like the recommendation of Stravinsky’s “Movements.” There’s a published row analysis in an issue of Music Theory Spectrum. A quick Google search shows that it was in Vol 16, No. 1 (Spring, 1994). It was my first introduction to rotation of hexachords in serial music.
    I love Donald Martino’s “Twelve Preludes,” “Fantasies and Impromptus,” and “Notturno.” I was first introduced to the “Twelve Preludes” in a 20th Century course (musicology, not theory/composition) and was blown away. I was disappointed that his name hadn’t come up in any of the composition seminars. Martino is definitely an example of someone who owned the technique rather than being owned by it.

  7. says

    Early Wuorinen is a great American example for a class like that and is often compact. For example, “Twelve Short Pieces” (1973) for piano makes a terrific teaching case — very clear to parse.
    KG replies: Ohhh, Carson, Carson… trying to annihilate my reputation.

  8. says

    Some suggestions for your list of candidates, just off the top of my head:
    Babbitt – 2nd String Quartet
    Boulez – Improvisation II (from Pli Selon Pli)
    Martino – Notturno
    Webern – 1st Cantata
    Wolpe – Chamber Piece No. 1
    I find that in these particular works the relationship between the ‘horizontals’ and the ‘verticals’ is exceptionally clear.

  9. says

    I agree with Steve about the Stravinsky “Movements”. It’s an excellent, perfect, compact, piece. And, as your campus legend points out, Stravinsky’s ear was better than any system. Which may be a lesson in itself.
    Cheers, and best wishes for 2010, which will be a profound year, numerically.

  10. Paul Beaudoin says

    Hi Kyle:
    While I haven’t taught a class specifically about serialism, I have taught many “20th Century Compositional Techniques” classes. My approach is always from a “CONCEPTS” perspective – what is it I’d like the students to learn about?
    For course on musical serialism, I would certainly include combinatoriality (Schoenberg/Babbitt), integral serialism (Nono/Boulez/Messiaen), rotational sets (Stravinsky, time-points (Babbitt/Wuorinen). These are just off-the-top-of-my-head and I’m sure there are more.
    I would include primary source reading (this would be a challenge for many students). Excerpts from die Reihe (I’m thinking esp. of the Stockhausen essays (How time passes …) and the Ligeti “analysis” of the Boulez); an essential reading from Babbitt (there are many, but I would almost certainly START the class with the infamous Who Cares essay) and include Martin Brody’s “Music for the Masses” (on the Cold War and American serialism).
    I would also make the point quite strongly that serial analysis is NOT number counting. It isn’t enough to sort out the lynes and formulate a “serial recipe” (pardon the quasi-intended pun).
    While not technically serial music, I would consider approaching the music of Carter as an offshoot of the topic (Night Fantasies) and something of Arthur Berger’s (Trio for Guitar, Vln and Pno?). (There is an excellent essay in Berger’s recollections book (Oxford) that discusses the evolution of the PhD in American Academe that would be a great reading as well).
    The aesthetic has plenty of social/economic/political/intellectual fallout …
    Actually, it’s an excellent topic …

  11. says

    So glad you’re planning this course!
    Late Stravinsky seems a promising avenue. Variations is another possibility – it would be my preferred choice.
    Speaking of Stravinsky, what about Wuorinen’s Reliquary in memory of IS? Nice use of rotations. I’d also recommend NY Notes and the Haroun Songbook. Both use a looser 12-tone language with centric devices.
    Re: Babbitt, his recent Swan Song No. 1 is a charmer and is again less thorny than some of his work. Glad you’ll be using All Set!
    Happy Holidays.

  12. John says

    This might be a bit obscure to fit into a general class, but Jean Barraque is an interesting composer from the Boulez-Messian period. His piano sonata is one of serialism’s lovelier accomplishments, in my opinion, and there is at least one recording out there (I downloaded it from amazon for ten bucks). The score may be a bit difficult to come by, though and, since it is likely an import, is probably expensive.
    Also, on this side of the pond, Ben Weber wrote some interesting 12 tone pieces. An old Stokowski recording of his Blake Symphony is available on CD (though the sound quality is not so great ), but I have no idea where to find a score.
    KG replies: I looked through the Barraqué score (it wasn’t that expensive) at Patelson’s once, which is no longer there. I’m a big Ben Weber fan (especially the piano concerto), but I can’t imagine how to get the scores, and I’m not sure I’d insert someone so unknown into an undergrad seminar.

  13. John says

    And one more thought: Riegger? Maybe the 4th symphony?
    KG replies: I need to do something for poor Riegger someday, but I’m not sure this is it. The 12-tone piece of his I like best is the Variations for two pianos, Op. 54, also in a piano-and-orchestra version.

  14. Andrew Anderson says

    I want to encourage reconsideration of at least one corner of early Boulez. NOTATIONS–the piano version–provides a nice little set of short, mostly accessible movements that students seem to get a kick out of, partly because of (a) the feeling of mastery that comes from working with some of them, and (b) the interrelatedness of the movements.
    It’s also a fun exercise to compare (audibly) the piano versions with the orchestral expansions.
    KG replies: I ran across my score of that today and thought about it. But is it 12-tone? My long-ago impression was that it isn’t. But it would certainly be more interesting to teach than the first two sonatas. I’m also considering the Flute Sonatine.

  15. says

    KG: “I’m a big Ben Weber fan (especially the piano concerto), but I can’t imagine how to get the scores, and I’m not sure I’d insert someone so unknown into an undergrad seminar.”
    Most Ben Weber scores are still available. The vast majority (including the Blake Symphony) are published by Boelke-Bomart and Music Associates of America makes them available for sale — and I believe the pieces they don’t have are with ACA.
    KG replies: Carson, you know everything. I found Weber on the ACA web page, but couldn’t figure out how to order scores. It would be great to discover some of the smaller Weber pieces through scores and recordings. Someone needs to resuscitate this poor man’s sadly neglected reputation. I’m not sure my little 12-tone class is the place to start.

  16. says

    Hi, Kyle. I know you said you’re not interested in the Second Viennese School, so how about Josef Matthias Hauer, who was never really in it, though on the periphery? One of my musical heroes, totally different approach to 12 tones. Way ahead of his time, if you ask me. I’d think you, of all minimalism-oriented folks, might concur.
    I know; he’s not everybody’s cup of tea. He’s mine though. I’ve studied his system and performed a lot of his music.
    KG replies: Hey, great idea. I adore that Hauer piece you and Sarah played, but I’ve misplaced my score and never got a recording. Once again, putting together scores and recordings is the hurdle there. And his pieces are all pretty miniature, right? I’ll do it if I can get an example. Speaking as a musician, I prefer him to Schoenberg; speaking as a professor, I admit he doesn’t have the same pedagogical urgency.

  17. Maarten Beirens says

    Hi Kyle,
    an interesting choice might be the too-often-overlooked Karel Goeyvaerts. Particularly his Opus 2 for 13 instruments and his Opus 3 ‘with bowed and struck tones’ (a real gem, if you ask me) are wonderful. Hard to imagine something that sounds more Darmstadt than that (although it’s probably closer to Stockhausen’s Punkte than it is to Kontrapunkte)! Scores are available from Cebedem and the best place to look for analyses/context is still the 1994 Goeyvaerts-issue of the Belgian review of musicology.
    As for Pousseur, the Quintette à la mémoire de Webern and the Symphonie à quinze solistes are both rather compact and very nice…
    KG replies: Goeyvaerts *invented* 12-tone music, didn’t he? (Just kidding.) I will look for those pieces. Maybe recorded on Hat Art? Can I drop by Cebedem when I come to Leuven in 2011? As for Pousseur, I own both of those scores, but no recordings. My inability to get enough documentation together to teach Pousseur has been one of the ongoing frustrations of my academic career. (Luc Ferrari, as well.)

  18. Andrew Anderson says

    About the Boulez NOTATIONS–yes, it’s 12-tone, and each of the movements uses a rotation of the row that shows up in the first movement (movement 2 starts with the second note, 3 with the third, etc). A couple of the movements are kind of…obstreperous, I guess–and pardon me, but I’m running on memory fumes, here–but some are quite easy to get a handle on. The one that begins each measure with a loud 5-note gesture is a good place to start, then working forwards/backwards toward the other movements can take care of a lot of what’s going on.
    I think there’s a thesis by a Korean guy from UNT that gives a good overview.
    KG replies: Sounds like they’d be good pieces to start off with then, thanks.

  19. bernard says

    12 tones?
    The contrary of something difficult.
    Just go back to one of its initiators, Désiré Pâques.
    KG replies: I can’t find any information on this person in English. Care to elaborate?

  20. Luk says

    He Kyle,
    I found this on Pâques. I didn’t know him myself.
    Désiré PÂQUE (Liège 1867 – Bessancourt 1939 )
    Désiré Pâque was born in Liège on 21 May 1867 and died in Bessancourt, north of Paris, on 20 November 1939. He received a thorough training in organ and composition at the Royal Conservatoire of Music at Liège. He was one of several brilliant and hard-working students (Armand Marsick, Louis Lavoye, Charles Smulders, Léon and Joseph Jongen, principally) under an inspiring principal, Jean-Théodore Radoux. Désiré Pâque was adventurous and evidently somewhat headstrong. He choose to venture abroad to seek fame, but thisattempt to found a conservatoire in Sofia in 1897 was not successful. He then taught composition in Athens from 1900 to 1902, returning to Brussels in 1902, he went to Paris in 1905, then to Lisbon in 1906, where he remained until 1909. He was there remembered for a long time for having taught Luis Freitas Branco (Lisbon, 1890 – 1955). He left Portugal for good and moved to Germany in june 1909 (Hamburg, Bremen and Berlin) before he took root in Switzerland in 1913. When World War I broke out, the composer and his family settled in Paris in the month of May 1914. Désiré Pâque tries unsuccessfully to make his mark. From 1927 to 1939, he maintains a significant creative activity (almost a fourth of his work appears during this last period), but success eluded him. He became inward-looking in the course of his increasingly harsh and morose retreat in Bessancourt, in the Valley of the river Oise.
    Early in his carrer, in 1909, his friend Busoni made him aware of the aesthetic problems posed by the emergence of Schoenbergian atonality, and he was quick to seek to define a creative strategy in a period which had thrown up so many profound questions. He fashioned his own personal mode of expression, defending it without becoming dogmatic : he called it “adjonction constante d’éléments musicaux nouveaux” which might be translated “continuous musical sequence”. This composition technique made its first appearance in his op. 67, the Organ Symphony, composed in Berlin in 1910, immediatly before his first Piano Sonata.
    It may be useful here to quote Désiré Pâque’s own words : « The arranging of fresh musical elements in a continuous sequence as a method of developping a musical work is the direct antithesis of the thematic unity though not a stylistic unity, and it is important not to confuse the two. This new system of building up a musical work consists not of exploiting one or two themes but of multiplying the musical motifs. … Continuous sequence has manifested itself in our musical production so far two aspects or on two levels. On the first level the listener finds himself in the presence of numerous themes – they might also be called clearly-defined melodic timbres – rather than in the presence of an (ideally at least) endless melodic line. This method of construction preserves virtually all the compositional procedures, except (and this is the most important point) that during the course of the musical action, i.e. as the piece proceeds, the themes are repeated, transposed, augmented and diminished without ever being distorted or mutilated by fragmentation. They remain intact, just as they were at their first appearance or exposition. What varies is what accompanies them ».
    Philippe Gilson
    Bibliothécaire du Conservatoire de Musique de Liège
    Translated by Celia Skrine
    KG replies: Thanks, Luk. Very interesting. If you’re Belgian and *you* didn’t know about him, he sounds pretty damn obscure. Love to hear an example of “continuous sequence.”

  21. says

    Just for the entertainment factor, I’d suggest Stravinsky’s “The Owl and the Pussycat”. That’s got to be the cutest serial piece ever written.

  22. says

    If all that’s stopping you from teaching Pousseur is the lack of a recording, here‘s a radio broadcast of the Quintet from a live performance earlier this year, Pierre Bartholomée directing the Ensemble Musique Nouvelles at the Ars Musica Festival, March 13, 2009. The ensemble for this piece included Jean-Luc Votano on clarinet, Charles Michiels on bass clarinet, David Nunez on violin, Jean-Paul Zanuel on cello, and André Ristic, piano. Ordinarily I don’t share this kind of material, but Pousseur is so pitifully underrecorded, and this piece has never had a commercial recording. The Pousseur partisan in me outweighs the reticence for file sharing. My apologies if you find this objectionable, in which case I will remove the recording immediately.
    KG replies: Are you kidding? I’m the world’s leading file-share advocate. Thanks a million – I’ve been wanting to hear this piece since around 1973. I’ll have to run to school and pick up my score to it – and I had to download special software to play the .flac file. But I’m thrilled!

  23. says

    Hi Kyle. Happy New Year. This sounds like a wonderful course. I’ve enjoyed reading your prospectus and also reading the suggestions. For a 12-tone piece of Schoenberg that might be really appealing why not consider the Piano Concerto? In my experience many people like it a lot, and students are surprised to learn who the composer is. But then I really like Schoenberg’s music (sorry, I can’t help it). In any case, the score and recording(s) are easily available.
    KG replies: Hi, Neely, but lord, if there’s any famous 12-tone piece that I’ve lost all patience for, it’s that concerto. I heard a great performance of it in college and tried for years to get into it (as recently, again, as a couple of years ago), and I just find it a series of unmemorable pitches articulated by corny rhythms. I had actually thought of it because it’s so widely analyzed and easy to get into, 12-tone-wise, but I don’t think I could teach it with a straight face. You’re not my only friend who loves it. Happy new year, and a chacun son gout, as ever.

  24. Tawnie says

    I know you’ve had your fill of suggestions, but since no one’s mentioned Ann Southam, I couldn’t resist bringing her up. She uses 12-tone rows in a number of works. One of my favourites is “Alternate Currents;” there’s a beautiful recording by Beverly Johnston and the score is available through the Canadian Music Centre. Southam’s use of the row is unconventional but consistent, and the piece is beautiful and easy to analyze.
    KG replies: Many thanks for the suggestion. I had no idea her music was 12-tone. I’ll check it out.

  25. mclaren says

    The adventurous heurist would consider using M. Joel Mandelbaum’s 19-tone-equal composition in which he deploys 12 of the pitches as a serial row counterposed against the other 7 pitches, following Joseph Yasser’s suggestion in “A Theory of Evolving Tonality.” (1939)
    Or even Dean Drummond’s serial just intonation compositions for Partch instruments.
    Just a thought.

  26. Rodney Lister says

    (late to the party)
    Hard to believe you can’t figure out The Widow’s Lament, which, as you say is a perfect length, and is pretty easy to follow, without breaking a sweat intellectually. It’s also a beautiful piece. You could also think about DU, which is harder, but short. Do you know the Composition for Viola and Piano? It’s a really wonderful, beautiful piece. There’s always the Semi-Simple Variations and the little piano piece called Duet.
    Actually an interesting sort of serial piece to think about is the Berger ‘Cello Duo, which looks like it might be in C, but…. (Babbitt reviewed it when it was new and described it as white note Webern).
    Happy New Year–Can’t wait for your 4’33” book.
    KG replies: The only problem with Widow’s Lament is that I’ve never found a recording. Is there one?

  27. Tawnie says

    Well, not all of her music is 12-tone. She is a remarkably diverse composer in terms of style and method! But I know that that piece makes beautifully clear use of the row. I hope you like it.

  28. Eric Shanfield says

    I love love love Stravinsky’s last period. Have you read Joseph N. Straus’s “Stravinsky’s Late Music”? Definitely the place to go for hardcore analysis, and shockingly readable for all its numbers and charts. That story about “Movements” may very well be true, but Stravinsky regularly obscured his methods to the point of lying when it suited him (see Walsh’s biography!), and he was actually very careful to make sure his notes were right to the point of having others check them. Straus also talks a lot about Krenek’s influence and set-rotation; you might consider his music for your class as well.
    Speaking of Schoenberg’s concertos, how about the Violin Concerto? I didn’t care for it until I heard the recent Hahn/Salonen interpretation which is just scorching (although beware the desultory Sibelius it’s paired with).
    BTW, I came across an advance copy of “No Such Thing As Silence” at the Strand the other day. I know you don’t get paid for the sale but I couldn’t resist. Verdict: Awesome.
    KG replies: I’ve used Straus’s book before, and bought it recently when I started thinking about this. I just heard great things about Hahn’s Schoenberg myself – maybe I’ll give it a try.

  29. says

    You’re probably already familiar with James Tenney’s Chromatic Canon I’m guessing? Some people feel that the piece sounds somewhat mechanical but seems like it’d be great for a class since it presents its ideas and processes in a very clear, audible way. Seems like it’d be right up your alley, unless you had something else in mind for your class.

    KG replies: Thanks for the reminder – I’ll be sure to play it, though it doesn’t take more than a few minutes to analyze.

  30. says

    There is only (I believe) one commercial recording of MB’s “The Widow’s Lament…” — it’s on Jan DeGaetani and Gilbert Kalish’s old “Songs of America” recording.
    It looks like there are used CD copies on Amazon for under $3.
    KG replies: Well I’ll be damned, I’ve got it. One of the things about being a critic is that you accumulate more recordings than you can keep track of as they go by. Thanks for the nudge. Now, I have to find my old Xerox score from grad school.

  31. Bob Ehle says

    I’ve been analyzing the Ben Weber Blake Symphony by ear (I don’t have a score) and I’d say that he is using a ii, V, I tone row with rootless voicings. I’d say the row is F#, C, G#, A#, F, B, D#, C#, E, A, D, G, and that the four-note groups spell ii#11b5, V#11#5 and I6/9.
    KG replies: I have that recording transferred from vinyl to CD, and will check it out.