Summary · The path to the new music · The decline of tonality · Dodecaphony · Serialism as maximum coherence · Dodecaphony after Schönberg Articles
History of music


The path to the new music

The Path to the New Music” is the title given by Anton Webern to a series of sixteen lectures he gave in a private house in Vienna in 1933 in which the composer wanted to illustrate the process that led Schönberg to the theorisation of dodecaphony.

From the very first meeting Webern seems to want to insist that the 'new music' (as he calls it) is the inevitable derivative of the natural course of the history of Western music. First of all he defines the concept of music by quoting Goethe: "Art is the expression of universal nature through man", according to this definition man is nothing more than a means which, in the case of music, uses sound to translate universal nature. I have used the word translate not by chance, in fact, for Webern music is a language and to be such it must be clear and coherent.

However, the laws that regulate nature are not aesthetic and therefore not even art, which is its product, can be subjected to laws that are not physical and universal. The scale of seven sounds derives from the nature of sound itself, since the first harmonics are the fifth and the third and the first harmonic (i.e. the fifth) is the most prominent. Therefore, considering the fifth above and the fifth below a sound, we find all seven notes of the scale in the first two harmonics of these three sounds:


The decline of tonality

Schönberg's dodecaphony was not the first to question the tonal system, much earlier it began due to the "conquest of chromaticism". This "super-mode" arose from the need to find original cadences at the end of the pieces, and so they began to consider every degree of the scale as a possible dominant, possibly obtained through the use of chromatic alterations. This meant that secondary chords began to acquire importance and the possibility of having several dominants created an ambiguity that distanced us from a main tone and therefore from a tonality. Weber traces this back to Bach and offers the example of the chorale "Hir ist das rechte Osternlamm" (BWV 148) in which we can already see the use of alterations in the function of sensitive to resolve on degrees other than the tonic.
However, in the classical period the importance of the theme and its development will be developed and we will see the importance of this for serialism. Romanticism, especially in its later period, instead accelerated more and more towards destruction the process that led to its total dissolution in the first decades of the 20th century. The first step was the overcoming of the two major and minor modes of tonality.

bach's choral

If with Bach, alterations were used with 'caution' to resolve on degrees other than the tonic, in Romanticism the use of chromaticism was completely cleared through customs without worrying about having to justify it harmonically. But that's not all, again in order to meet the need to create a continuous ambiguity, chords such as the diminished seventh are used, which can resolve on as many as four different tones. The symbol of this era is obviously Wagner's 'Tristan Akkord' and its importance is not due to the chord itself, but to the composer's use of it. Similar chords had been used before but in passing and without giving them the full importance that Wagner gave them. The chords became increasingly complex and distant from the fundamental triad, but above all, the ear began to accept them to the point that they became used almost exclusively. In this process, the forms well delineated in classicism began to cling to composers. Think of the sonata form which is based on a tonality from which one starts and to which, after a development which can be more or less intricate, one must return. With the liberalisation of these new arrangements, once the development had begun, it became more and more difficult to return to the starting point, so much so that returning to it would have been an unnecessary constraint. Schoenberg speaks of the discomfort he felt when in his expressionist period he could no longer return the pieces to their 'tonal' origin and how much more natural and satisfying it was to let them develop freely. At this point the step towards dodecaphony is short.


In the early years of the 20th century Schoenberg was already convinced that tonality had to be surpassed completely, but everything he wrote, despite being defined as "atonal" (a term he detested because it literally meant without sound), was instead pan-tonal, that is to say, a system that was certainly detached from traditional principles and that already included the idea of all twelve notes being used indiscriminately but that nevertheless retained, albeit vaguely, the reference to a fundamental sound and therefore to a tonic. The composer realised that the repetition of a note meant that it acquired more value than the others and risked becoming a true tonic. To avoid this, while composing, he wrote down the twelve notes on a sheet of paper and, as he used them, erased them to avoid repeating them.

From this singular way of proceeding dodecaphony is theorised: no note is to be repeated before all the other eleven have appeared, thus avoiding any hierarchy in the notes and the ambiguity, thus sought, is total. The display of the twelve notes is called the "dodecaphonic series" and, as we shall see, is the foundation of all dodecaphonic music. However, the lack of hierarchy is not only in the series, the voices must also maintain equal relationships.

During the classical period there was a move towards a development totally centred on an accompanied melody, which in itself creates a hierarchy between the voices that was much less marked in earlier periods. For this reason Schoenberg took up the contrapuntal ideas of the Flemish composers in which the voices are not only well interlocked but completely complementary. This can be seen in the development of Schönberg's series which is not played by one instrument alone but passes through all the voices. An example of this is his wind quintet Op. 26 of 1924 which is the composer's first entirely twelve-tone work.

schoenberg Dodecaphony

Already from the first bars of the piece we can see how the whole series is divided among the five instruments. Once this general rule has been defined, however, practical problems arise: although the repetition of a single note is not allowed, it is permissible to keep a note as a pedal and possibly not consider it in the development of the series. Another problem that Webern and Schönberg soon realize is that by strictly applying the rules of the series and dodecaphony, the pieces turn out to be very short, since they lack a true and proper development, given that the narrowness of the ways in which the series can be treated does not allow for too much length. It must be said that, given these problems, Schönberg and Berg soon began to consider these dodecaphonic laws with less rigor. Perhaps the most convinced of the three was Webern, while Schönberg, despite being the father of this technique, never truly freed himself from the musical tradition, as we can learn from the testimony of his lessons or from his harmony manual.

Serialism as maximum coherence

In Schönberg's mind, dodecaphony was not the final goal but a tool to be used together with others to bring music towards the greatest possible coherence. In Webern's essay the word coherence is repeated many times and seems to be the main question around which his whole discourse revolves, but what does he mean by coherence? We have already seen how music is considered by these composers as a language through which to express universal nature, but a language to be such must be clear and coherent with itself. First of all, every discourse must start from an idea to be expressed; in the case of music, the idea can be a theme, or a rhythmic and melodic succession of notes. Therefore, in order to be coherent, the musical discourse must stick as closely as possible to the generating idea, scrutinising it in all its possibilities. This way of proceeding was certainly not invented with dodecaphony, the thematic elaboration is typical of all epochs, albeit with differences.

Webern uses Bach's The Art of the Fugue as an example of coherence, which develops from a single theme used in all its possibilities and therefore never deviating from the original idea. As we will see later, serialism and dodecaphony will incorporate a series of notions directly from contrapuntal forms. In addition to the fugue, there is another form that is always linked to a single idea and that is the theme and variations. Webern even goes so far as to say that the theme and variations is an ancestor of serialism. Considering all this, we ask ourselves what is more coherent than the repeated use of the same idea without substantial modifications? So this is the second element: repetition, which can occur at different times in the piece, for example in sonata form in the reprise after the development.

However, in order to be as coherent as possible, the development should not deviate too much from the original idea. With serialism, the original idea we have been talking about up until now takes on the name of "series" (in this case we will always refer to a dodecaphonic series, but it should be specified that serialism and dodecaphony are different things and therefore the series can also be tonal or modal) and the ways in which this can be used are 49: starting from the second, third, fourth note etc. and in the retrograde, inverse and retrograde of the inverse modes. It is clear that in this way the adherence to the original idea is total, since once the series has been composed, the composer only has to choose in which of these modes he wants to develop it, and each note he writes will always be directly derived from it. For this reason Webern claims that serialism is the highest form of musical coherence that has ever existed.

Let us not forget that in pieces written with this apparently geometric and totally rational compositional technique, there must be room for expression, otherwise it becomes a pure mathematical exercise with no musical value. In literature, systems of this type have existed for some time, with the use of palindromes that maintain the same meaning when read in the opposite direction, but the most famous example, accompanied by a certain amount of mystery, is the Sator square, a very ancient phrase found engraved in some remains of Pompeii (therefore before 79 AD), which can have multiple meanings. The main characteristic, however, is that it can be read in four different senses by placing the words in a square, and for this reason it is used by Webern as an analogy with the four ways of treating the musical series.

Sator square

Dodecaphony after Schönberg

While Schoenberg and Berg used dodecaphony and serialism quite freely, Webern became increasingly strict and it was his hard line that caught on with the composers of the next generation. In particular Pierre Boulez, Karlheinz Stockhausen and Henri Pousseur took Webern's idea to the extreme by creating "integral serialism"" in which the series is composed not only of note pitch, but also of rhythm, timbre and dynamics.

Boulez himself wrote the famous article entitled "Schönberg is dead!" in which he wrote "From Schönberg's pen abound, in effect, - not without provoking irritation - , the dreadfully stereotypical writing clichés, representative, even here, of the most ostentatious and most obsolete romanticism." Thus, the desire to go even further than dodecaphony and to break free from any tradition seemed clear. Perhaps, however, the true great contribution of dodecaphony was in non-dodecaphonic music.

After Schönberg, in fact, a large number of musical genres and avant-gardes developed, which probably originated from the break with the past conceived by the Austrian composer, and this is probably the main merit of his revolutionary intuition.

By Stefano Vivaldini
music manuscript by J.S. Bach
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