Revolution in New Music: Webern and Beyond

Since the early years of the twentieth century, when Debussy and Schoenberg made their experiments beyond the familiar ground of tonality, composers have been faced with the problem of choosing a style from a large and exceedingly miscellaneous group of alternatives. These days composers can pick from a selection that ranges from modified romanticism (Poulenc) or modified Puccini (Menotti) through Stravinsky's neo-classic manner to Schoenberg or Berg or exotic explorers like Varese. Of course, a composer can scramble two, or three, or ten of these together and arrive at something unrecognizable enough to prompt the conscientious newspaper reviewer to style him "a distinctly original voice." This is not a satisfactory solution for many composers, who frequently suffer bewilderment amid rapidly changing styles.

Inheritance Poses Problem

At the heart of the composer's predicament is the problem of what to do with his inheritance from the nineteenth century and the last few hundred years of Western music in general. How much shall he keep, and how shall he replace what he discards? If he decides to preserve tonality (which might be defined briefly as a system in which one tone, or a chord built on that tone, acts as a sort of aural home base) he has the advantage of manipulating the vocabulary of musical relations and tensions with which most of us are familiar since we have grown up in a world dominated by eighteenth and nineteenth-century tonality. Bartok's tonality is not Mozart's but it is tonality nevertheless, and many of Bartok's devices are familiar nineteenth century formulas.

Strong Organizing Force

Despite the advance beyond tonality in the early years of this century, the power of this great organizing force has been strong enough to dominate most of the production of Bartok, Stravinsky, and Hindemith. It dominates a good deal of the music being written today. The atonalists have not found it easy to resist. How can a piece of music be held together without the familiar tonal relationships? Some composers (Elliott Carter, for example) have attempted highly individual and cerebral ways of unifying a large work. Others have seen a revivifying solution in the twelve-tone system, from which has grown one of the most important languages in contemporary music.


The basis of this system is the row--the twelve tones of the tempered scale set in a particular order by the composer. Once he picks a row, he can manipulate it in countless ways and at the same time avoid any suggestion of tonality, since each note is equal, i.e. none of them is emphasized as tonality emphasizes its main tone, its resting point. A substantial part of the system's appeal to composers lies in its highly organized nature: the destruction of the complex system of tonal relations seems to demand another complicated set of rules. Schoenberg, the twelvetone pioneer, set up such a system, but curiously enough he retained much of the texture and form of tonal music, writing works that might be said to resemble Brahms quartets played through a twelvetone baffle.

Such incongruities suggested that further changes were necessary; twelve-tone music needed a language of its own--not one borrowed from a previous system. The solution was not to be found by Schoenberg's famous pupil, Berg, who frequently used tonality, and whose arch-romantic operas stand far closer to the nineteenth century than to Berg's twelve-tone colleagues. In time it became clear that the major influence on the succeeding generation of twelve-tone writers was Anton Webern, another Schoenberg pupil who has been the subject of a major renaissance in the past few years.

Webern's Music: Reaction

In a certain sense, Webern's music was a reaction to the nineteenth century elements that flooded Berg's music and kept on pushing into Schoenberg's. And so a Webern score is extremely economical with notes: most of the pieces are short (some last only a few seconds); virtually every work is full of silence; the sounds heard are frequently very soft and are clearly the result of delicate calculation. There are few mass effects--rather, the attention is concentrated upon a succession of single tones. There is formal economy, too: the care Webern spent in organizing his structures finally resulted in pieces in which every note is closely related to a small amount of material--perhaps only a few notes--presented at the beginning.

Refreshing Language

The spare, subtle language of Webern's music must have seemed extraordinarily novel and refreshing to twelve-tone composers, while his concern for highly schematized structure seemed to be the necessary concomitant to an idiom so unlike Western music. The post-Webern school, as its name implies, has carried these methods a good deal further. There was ample evidence of the wide spectrum of this music at a concert held in Paine Hall on Mar. 5, devoted largely to the post-Webern representation at Harvard, which raised some hard questions about the aims and future of advanced music.

In an evening of music which made demands on the attention not usually required of an audience, Christion Wolff's music was perhaps the hardest to grasp. There were two pieces, both for two pianos, the second running almost 15 minutes. From the surface of the music it is easy enough to catalogue the extensions of Webern's devices: only a few notes are played at a time; these are usually very soft (or else very loud); there is constant preoccupation with color: most of the music is very high or low, piano strings are plucked with the fingers, there are elaborate pedal effects, and so on. The silences have become much longer and more frequent. How, then, were the notes chosen?

'The Row Idea'

Wolff's solution involves a number of techniques, the most important of which deals with an extension of the row idea. In Schoenberg and Webern only pitch is set in order. Now the concept of "total organization" puts other musical materials into a row: dynamics, time, tonecolor all have their own rows, frequently connected with one another.

The idea of the row, or series, has so taken hold that post-Webern composers might better be called serialists. Wolff's rows for these piano pieces involve, among things, serial ordering of units of time in seconds, so that the performers require stopwatches.

Another major device is the degree of freedom Wolff affords his performers. While he may be mathematically precise at times, frequently he gives the pianist his head, allowing him to vary the written notes rhythmically or even choose notes of his own. In the shorter work he sets up a kind of game between the two pianists--each must follow a cue given by the other, and each has a certain number of alternatives for every cue. Wolff is writing for his performers quite as much as for his audience. In discussing this technique he does not refer to Western precedent, but talks about Hindu instrumental virtuosos, who play complicated rhythmic games with each other; the winner is the performer who succeeds in upsetting the other's patterns.

Tone Color Combinations

Again, a preoccupation with subtle combinations of tone color informed the short piano pieces by Bertram Baldwin and David Behrman (a violin also entered Mr. Behrman's piece for a while). There were row structures, not so elaborate as Wolff's, but complicated enough to be hardly perceptible. The avant-garde leader Boulez would tell us that structure has gone underground. But does this subterreanean structure really give shape to a piece, or does it happen accidentally, or not at all? In a short composition like Baldwin's it is easier to give a sense of cohesiveness; this piece, rather aptly titled Conversations with Gryllus in August, was a collection of handsome sounds. Behrman's delicious piece contained several subtly insinuating probes which occasionally gave off small clouds of ylang-ylang and incense, but left little doubt as to the sensitivity of the composer's ear.

Serialists deal in extremes, and so, opposed to the pianissimos and silences of Wolff was a gusty piano piece by Frederick Rzewski, a remarkable fortissimo rush of runs, heavy chords and long trills in Rzewski's rather personal style. There is little nontechnical description one can give about such a work, except that it confirmed the impression of force and individuality made by Rzewski's earlier pieces last year. William Wilder's Duo for String Quartet, another example of minimal performance instructions did not quite come off, perhaps because the players did not take full advantage of the near-complete rhythmical freedom they were given. John Cage's Six Melodies for Violin and Keyboard, which employs only eleven sounds, turned out to be a rather lame divertimento, though several Islamic touches near the end provoked cautious amusement.

The concert closed with Webern, as many serialist concerts do; in this case the Three Small Pieces, Opus 11, superbly performed by Judith Davidoff and Rzewski. As usual, Webern made his successors seem rather tentative and shapeless (the exception was Mr. Rzewski's vastly self-assured piece), but he did not detract from their clear achievements, largely in the matters of color and dynamic subtlety. Whether or not the structural question has been answered is problematical. Wolff and others say that sense of direction should not necessarily be looked for in this music, that many works ought to be regarded as static. If this is so, then aduiences will have to learn a completely new way of listening. It is not altogether improbable; since 1900 composers have learned new ways of writing that amount to a revolutionary change in style