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date: 22 February 2020


  • Paul Griffiths


A method of composition in which a fixed permutation, or series, of elements is referential (i.e. the handling of those elements in the composition is governed, to some extent and in some manner, by the series). Most commonly the elements arranged in the series are the 12 notes of the equal-tempered scale. This was so in the technique introduced by Schoenberg in the early 1920s and employed by him in most of his subsequent compositions. Serialism was quickly taken up by his pupils, including Berg and Webern, and then by their pupils, but not at first by many outside this circle, the most important exceptions being Dallapiccola and Krenek. The method spread more widely and rapidly in the decade after World War II, when Babbitt, Boulez, Nono and Stockhausen produced their first acknowledged works. These composers and their colleagues sometimes extended serialism to elements other than pitch, notably duration, dynamics and timbre. At the same time serial techniques began to be used by already established composers; here the outstanding example was Stravinsky. The diverse range of composers so far mentioned should indicate that serialism cannot be described as constituting by itself a system of composition, still less a style. Nor is serialism of some sort incompatible with tonality, as is demonstrated in works by Berg and Stravinsky, for example, though it has most usually been employed as a means of erecting pitch structures in atonal music....

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