The Decline of Serialism and the New Romanticism: Control and Chance in the New Music

October 1, 1979

The wisest thing to do is to open one's ears immediately and hear a sound suddenly before one's thinking has a chance to turn it into something logical, abstract, or symbolical.

The mention of the word "romanticism" has, for the greater portion of our century, caused a sneer of disgust to appear on the faces of most "contemporary" composers and performers; this is the stile antico of the twentieth century. Even as Gerhard Herz suggests that the revival of the polyphonic tradition of Bach in the nineteenth century was a force which led to the downfall of Romanticism and the development of Neoclassicism, there has been a movement in the last two decades in subtly reversing this trend. Defining serialistic techniques as being a classical course, by the very formalistic nature of its composition and analysis, one can see some of the more recent contemporary techniques, and especially aleatory, as a new, but, of course, not neo, romantic path.

The Harvard Dictionary of Music defines romanticism as a reaction "against the intellectual, formalistic classical tradition . . . with a greater emphasis on man's instincts and feelings than on his intellect. In music, romanticism was characterized by emphasis on subjective, emotional qualities and greater freedom of form."2 In an amazing remark on his approach toward serial technique, Webern announced in a lecture attended by Willi Reich in 1932, "only now is it possible to compose in free fantasy, adhering to nothing except the row"3 (italics mine). Have we been wrong in our statistical regimen for the analysis of his music? Did Webern conceive of his work as free sound impressions controlled only by the sequence of pitch dictated by the row, or was he not aware of the seeming stricture this control aurally put on his style?

The first objection of many opponents of serialistic procedure is that the finished work seems rather cold and impersonally mathematical (it is interesting to note that many of the post-Webernian practitioners came from math-engineering backgrounds [Babbitt, Stockhausen, Xenakis]). Yet there are many anecdotes of how emotionally serialists react to their own music. By the pianist who premiered the Piano Variations, Opus 27, Peter Stadlen, we are given more insight into Webern's vehement emotion toward this esoteric piece:

As he sang and shouted, waved his arms and stamped his feet in an attempt to bring out what he called the meaning of the music, I was amazed to see him treat those few scrappy notes as if they were cascades of sound.4

Intimating a more romantic approach on the part of Stravinsky, Roger Smalley has theorized that the composer wrote his melodies first, and then abstracted his rows from them, since some of his rows are less than twelve-note forms. Hans Keller, in criticism of this idea, is starkly unrhetorical, and perhaps a bit banal: "Tunes don't strike one the way his rows go."5

Ernst Krenek has made a similarly atypical philosophical comment concerning an outlook on the twelve-tone method: "In turning to serialism, the composer has liberated himself from the dictatorship of inspiration." In a more generally held concept of serialism, Nicolas Rouwet explains that structuralism was the rationale for its inception and sustenance. He states: "Indeed, it was introduced to keep alive a certain unity, even a certain uniformity, after the collapse of the system of tonal relations in the musical language."6 This thread of thought is also pursued by Henri Pousseur in relation to the originator of the method:

When we listen to the music of Schoenberg it becomes apparent immediately that the symmetries found within it . . . are the fruits of a harsh irony, or, at most, of bitter nostalgia. They are proof enough that its composer is still dreaming of what he considers a "golden age" (though it may have been gilt), while at the same time he is well aware that it has long since vanished into the past.7

From a letter by Schoenberg we are given a clear image of what an evolutionary process his incorporation of the twelve-tone method was:

The method of composing with twelve tones had many first steps. The first step was taken about December 1914, or at the beginning of 1915, when I sketched a symphony, the last part of which later became Die Jacobsleiter, but which has never been continued. The scherzo of this symphony was based on a theme consisting of the twelve tones. But this was only one of the themes. I was still far from the idea of using such a basic theme as a unifying means for a whole work. After that I was always occupied with the aim of basing the structure of my music consciously on a unifying idea which produced not only all the other ideas, but also regulated their accompaniment and the chords, the "harmonies."8

In an obviously not too recent statement, Leonard B. Meyer quotes George Rochberg as supporting serialism for the way it can produce intervallically related tonal functions, without relying on the "exhausted machinery of historic tonality."9

KOSTELANETZ: The difference between your music and say Milton Babbitt's music is that he is very much concerned with finished products, and you are more concerned with processes.

CAGE: Yes, and they want to have a result which will be in accord with the things they do, to bring it about. Everything is determined to bring about what would presumably be the best result. I'd imagine that notions such as unity and precision might enter into their minds.10

Henry Pleasants in The Agony of Modern Music remarks that the move from simple techniques and textures in music usually has been pushed ahead by composers in the name of progress; this causes a composer-audience crisis, resulting in listeners' demands for more clarity and simplicity.11 This then gives the impression that all romantic eras in history have been composer-instigated, and all classical periods have been brought about through pressure from the listening public. The progression from simple to complex is usually evolutionary, requiring some time, but the revolt against complexity is usually a blitz brought on by popular disgust over esoteric devicism and extravagance.

Only four years after Webern's death, Messiaen composed his piano work, Mode de valeurs et d'intensit, the first composition to break the trend of mono-dimensional serialization, and apply the technique to duration and dynamics, in addition to pitch. In 1952 Boulez, in homage to his mentor, used the Messiaen "mode" as row material for his two-piano piece, Structures, the most complex unit of serial writing to that time. If surpassable, Structures may be eclipsed only by Stockhausen's Kontrapunkte in complexity. Hans Oesch analyzes these essays by the post-Webernists as being a completely new sort of music. In contrast to other periods of technical turmoil, more innovations affecting all parameters of music had been made in these postwar years, thus assuring that this was a completely new era.12 It is an interesting dichotomy that Structures and Kontrapunkte should both appear the same year as their absolute antithesis, Cage's 4' 33" (but then, all periods of change are characterized by paradoxical juxtaposition of aesthetics). Cage's first published attempt in the area of aleatory (or as he prefers, indeterminacy) had been Music of Changes, dating from the year before 4' 33".

David Cope mentions an early aleatoric treatise, The Art of Composing Music by a Method Entirely New, Suited to the Meanest Capacity (1751), by William Hayes, which "describes a technique of composition by spattering notes onto staff paper by running a finger over a stiff bristled brush dipped in ink."13 There is also a piece attributed to Mozart, Musikalisches Würfelspiel (K. Anh. C30.01), which bears the description in the 1806 London edition: "Mozart's Musical Game, fitted in an elegant box showing by an easy system to compose an unlimited number of Waltzes, Rondos, Hornpipes, and Reels."14 The work is a choice of first measures, second measures, and so on, which may be randomly ordered by throws of the dice.

There are basically two types of aleatoric compositions: pieces as Cage's Music of Changes in which the compositional process involves the indeterminacy, and the performance is reproductive (but even in this piece Cage warns the performer that in some places the notation is irrational, and the performer must use his discretion); and works such as Stockhausen's Zyklus or Barney Childs's Take Five in which the indeterminate factor involves performance.

Robert D. Wilder calls aleatory "the most serious challenge to the Western tradition of music."15 It is against this artistic tradition of the West that Cage rebels. He feels tradition to be such a burden upon art, causing the perceiver to react in a certain predictable way, instead of opening a variety of possible responses for him. Cage's study of Zen philosophy, under the tutelage of Columbia's D.T. Suzuki, brought him to a point beyond the traditional Western expectation of accomplishment, or at least beyond "striving" toward some goal. Indeed, in a silence (not silent) piece such as 4' 33", he revels in not striving for anything, but rather allowing his occidental audience to make an accomplishment for themselves. The influence of oriental culture is also obvious in Stockhausen's Musik für ein Haus (1968), with its meditative readings interspersed between the improvisatory movements for the players.

Many composers are in the faction of the "middle left"; that is, limited aleatory. As Lutoslawski states,

I am not even partially interested in avoiding responsibility for my work. I am not interested in music entirely determined by chance. I want my piece to be something which I myself have created, and I would like it to be the expression of what I have to communicate to others. I am an adherent of a clear-cut division between the role of the composer and that of the performer, and I do not wish even partially to relinquish the authorship of the music I have written.16

Cage views a piece of music as a progressive event, not static in character. Then from this point of opinion the element of limited aleatory should not change the basic character of a work, but rather each performance is a variation or progression from earlier performances. Not often is it noted the extent to which the element of chance plays in the performance of all music of the Western tradition. What has frustrated so many composers is that no matter to what extremes of absolute notation they go, the live performance of a work will be contingent in so many aspects. Thus the division into two camps: the aleatoricists, recognizing and making artistic use of this indelible human factor; and the electronicists, forswearing any connection with unpredictable acoustic instruments, relying on computers, synthesizers, and magnetic tape for a "hewn-in-granite" repeatable performance.

Stockhausen's enchantment with electronic music began with his disenchantment with acoustic instruments used in serial music, in regards to timbre. In Stockhausen's thinking, traditional instruments were too diverse, physically and artistically, to have a "common denominator," and without this "common denominator," no truly serial concept can exist.17 Of course, even in electronic music there is the aspect of the unforeseen in out-of-the-lab performances, since different tape machines, synthesizers, and speakers will react as radically different as any live virtuosi.


ROBERT ASHLEY TO CAGE: It seems to me that your influence on contemporary music, on "musicians," is such that the entire metaphor of music could change to such an extent that—time being uppermost as a definition of music—the ultimate result would be a music that wouldn't necessarily involve anything but the presence of people. That is, it seems to me that the most radical redefinition of music that I could think of would be one that defines "music" without reference to sound.18

George Rochberg, like many composers, has stated varying emotions toward aleatory. At one time he negatively asserted that it would turn its audience into nothing more than automatons nurtured only by "stimuli-response situations"; they would be empty beings taking nothing to the event, and receiving nothing from it.19 In another comment Rochberg supports aleatory over the total serialistic technique:

While the stream of events in totally serialized works may be continuous in the sense that sound is always in motion, the discourse has lost its sense of direction, resulting in a type of unplanned indeterminacy. Planned indeterminacy, on the other hand, seeks to be utterly discontinuous and perceptually unpredictable in order to preserve spontaneity, the living freshness of the living situation.20

Boulez has also professed to be against uncontrolled aleatory. He has said that he writes in some chance elements by making the music too complex to be performed in the absolute notated time, and thus the performer must make the adjustments according to his or her own skill.21 This can be interpreted as a rationalization for Structures, which has been criticized for being so complex that no human being could play it accurately; the end effect, these critics point out, could thusly have been achieved through chance procedures. The original title for Structures Boulez had considered was that of an engraving by Klee, "At the Limit of Fertile Land."22 It is evident that Boulez considered Structures to be just that, for, as Messiaen before him, he saw this absolute control to be a deadend course, and in the future moved in a less restrictive path. Le Marteau sans maître is a definite "warming" of emotional content when compared to Structures. It was against pieces as Structures that the idea of "collective ad libitum," as Lutoslawski calls aleatory, arose in rebellion—against the completely abstract concept of music as "a series of acoustic phenomena occurring in time."23 Yet so few performers or listeners recognize the change in the composer with Le Marteau. As Lukas Foss has said: "I am yet to hear a precise and spirited performance of Boulez's Marteau, instead of all the counting, watching and approximating."24


KOSTELANETZ: But is Milton Babbitt a seer?

CAGE: No, because he's making something that then is part of our environment—an object which he puts outside of himself, which he puts outside of us, and which he then has to write long articles about, and so forth; and then to have . . . all the mathematical business in order to convince us that if we didn't agree on an ear level, we will be obliged to agree on a mathematical level.25

A curious aspect of an outstanding book by Wilfrid Mellers is a chart he includes in Caliban Reborn: Renewal in Twentieth-Century Music. It may be only that it is easier to find fault in an objective graphic generalization than in Mr. Mellers's lucid, subjective verbal analyses; but it is quite incongruous that the author shows John Cage to be in direct lineage, only a little to the right, from Beethoven. Disciples of Messiaen are aligned far to the left, and poor Luigi Nono is disconnected in a no-(no-no?)-man's-land somewhere between.26 Perhaps Mellers regards Cage as the bearer of the mantle of Beethoven in the sense that Charles Wuorinen has called Cage "the ne plus ultra of romantic avant-gardism."27

One characteristic our post-1950, electronically communicative age has generated is a globally cosmopolitan new music style. As time progresses, we will experience a melting pot of musical styles in which all techniques of the past and present can, and will, be used without fear of the criticism of being behind the times, or too eclectic. We are already experiencing some of this now; serialism has declined in usage from the fervor with which it was explored and exploited in the Fifties and Sixties as the method of composition, but it still is being used; aleatory has mellowed in its concept—no longer are many composers' sole indication to the performer: "Play the Music of the Universe"; and even a revival of harmonic techniques in the classical tradition has taken place. As Henry Pleasants suggests concerning serialism, if one chooses to embrace or reject any or all of the current trends, one will be in good company.28 The important thing is the music; whatever the method, it is only a means to that end.



Apel, Willi. Harvard Dictionary of Music. Second edition. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of the Harvard University Press, 1973. Article, "Romanticism," pp. 737-8.

Austin, William W. Music in the 20th Century. New York: W.W. Norton, 1966.

Babbitt, Milton. The Function of Set Structure in the Twelve-Tone System. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1946.

Basart, Ann P. Serial Music: A Classified Bibliography of Writings on Twelve-Tone and Electronic Music. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1961.

Beckwith, John and Udo Kasemets. The Modern Composer and His World. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1961.

Boulez, Pierre. "Alea," Perspectives of New Music, III (Fall-Winter 1964), pp. 42-53.

_________. "At the Ends of Fruitful Land . . .," Die Reihe, I (1958), pp. 19-29.

_________. Boulez on Music Today. Translated by Susan Bradshaw and Richard Rodney Bennett. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1971.

_________."Sonate, Que Me Veux-Tu?," Perspectives of New Music, I (Spring 1963), pp. 31-9.

Bracanin, Philip K. "Analysis of Webern's 12-Note Music—Fact and Fantasy," Studies in Music, II (1968), pp. 103-10.

Cage, John. "To Describe the Process of Composition Used in Music for Piano 21-52," Die Reihe, III (1959), pp. 41-3.

Collaer, Paul. A History of Modern Music. Translated by Sally Abeles. Cleveland: The World Publishing Co., 1961.

Cope, David. New Directions in Music. Second edition. Dubuque, IA: W.C. Brown, 1976.

Cott, Jonathan. Stockhausen: Conversations with the Composer. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1973.

Edwards, Allen. Flawed Words and Stubborn Sounds; A Conversation with Elliott Carter. New York: W.W. Norton, 1971.

Eimert, Herbert. "The Composer's Freedom of Choice," Die Reihe, III (1959), pp. 1-9.

Foss, Lukas. "The Changing Composer-Performer Relationship: A Monologue and a Dialogue," Perspectives of New Music, I (Spring 1963), pp. 45-53.

Gredinger, Paul. "Serial Technique," Die Reihe, I (1958), pp. 38-44.

Herz, Gerhard. "Toward a New Image of Bach," Bach, I/4 (October 1970), pp. 9-27.

Jack, Adrian. "The Meaning of Serial: An Introduction to Schoenberg's Method and Its Application," Music and Musicians, XXII (October 1973), pp. 42-6.

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Kostelanetz, Richard. John Cage. New York: Praeger, 1970.

Ligeti, György, Witold Lutoslawski, and Ingvar Lindholm. Three Aspects of New Music. Stockholm: Nordiska Musikforlaget, 1968.

Mellers, Wilfrid. Caliban Reborn: Renewal in Twentieth-Century Music. New York: Harper and Row, 1967.

Messiaen, Oliver. The Technique of My Musical Language. Translated by John Satierfield. Paris: A. Leduc, 1956.

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Perle, George. Serial Composition and Atonality: An Introduction to the Music of Schoenberg, Webern, and Berg. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1972.

Pleasants, Henry. The Agony of Modern Music. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1955.

Pousseur, Henri. "The Question of Order in New Music," Perspectives of New Music, V (Fall-Winter 1966), pp. 93-111.

Reti, Rudolph. Tonality, Atonality, Pantonality. New York: Macmillan, 1958.

Reynolds, Roger. "Indeterminacy: Some Considerations," Perspectives of New Music, IV (Fall-Winter 1965), pp. 136-40.

Rochberg, George. "The New Image of Music," Perspectives of New Music, II (Fall-Winter 1963), pp. 1-10.

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White, John Reeves, and André Boucourechliev. "Aleatory Music," Harvard Dictionary of Music. Second edition. Edited by Willi Apel. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of the Harvard University Press, 1973, pp. 26-7.

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1Michael Nyman, Experimental Music: Cage and Beyond (London: Cassell and Macmillan, 1974), p. 1.

2Willi Apel, Harvard Dictionary of Music (Second edition; Edited by Willi Apel; Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1973), p. 738.

3Philip K. Bracanin, "Analysis of Webern's 12-Note Music—Fact and Fantasy," Studies in Music, II (1968), p. 104.

4Walter Kolneder, Anton Webern: An Introduction to His Works (London: Faber and Faber, 1968), p. 143.

5Hans Keller, "The Contemporary Problem," Tempo, LXXXIII (Winter 1967-68), p. 25.

6Nicolas Rouwet, "Contradictions within the Serial Language," Die Reihe, VI (1964), p. 67.

7Henri Pousseur, "The Question of Order in New Music," Perspectives of New Music, V (Fall-Winter 1966), p. 99.

8Adrian Jack, "The Meaning of Serial: An Introduction to Schoenberg's Method and Its Application," Music and Musicians, XXII (October 1973), p. 42.

9Leonard B. Meyer, Music, the Arts, and Ideas: Patterns and Predictions in Twentieth-Century Culture (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1967), p. 300.

10Richard Kostelanetz, John Cage (New York: Praeger Publishers, 1970), p. 10.

11Henry Pleasants, The Agony of Modern Music (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1955), p. 87.

12Hans Oesch, "Die Ars Nova des zwanzigsten Jahrhunderts," Melos, XXXIV (November 1967), p. 385.

13David Cope, New Directions in Music (Second edition, Dubuque, IA: W.C. Brown, 1976), p. 166.

14John Reeves White and André Boucourechliev, "Aleatory Music," Harvard Dictionary of Music (Second edition; Edited by Willi Apel; Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1973), p. 27.

15Robert D. Wilder, Twentieth-Century Music (Dubuque, IA: W.C. Brown, 1969), p. 277.

16György Ligeti, Witold Lutoslawski, and Ingvar Lindholm, Three Aspects of New Music (Stockholm: Nordiska Musikforlaget, 1968), p. 48.

17Paul Gredinger, "Serial Technique," Die Reihe, I (1958), p. 40.

18Kostelanetz, John Cage, p. 148.

19John Beckwith and Udo Kasemets, The Modern Composer and His World (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1961), p. 62.

20George Rochberg, "The New Image of Music," Perspectives of New Music, II (Fall-Winter 1963), p. 3.

21Pierre Boulez, "Alea," Perspectives of New Music, III (Fall-Winter 1964), p. 46.

22Pousseur, "The Question of Order in New Music," p. 102.

23Ligeti, and others, Three Aspects of New Music, p. 52.

24Lukas Foss, "The Changing Composer-Performer Relationship: A Monologue and a Dialogue," Perspectives of New Music, I (Spring 1963), p. 49.

25Kostelanetz, John Cage, p. 14.

26Wilfrid Mellers, Caliban Reborn: Renewal in Twentieth-Century Music (New York: Harper and Row, 1967), p. 183.

27Charles Wuorinen, "The Outlook for Young Composers," Perspectives of New Music, I (Spring 1963), p. 60.

28Pleasants, The Agony of Modern Music, p. 122.

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