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  • Writer's pictureJackson Harmeyer

94. Listening Recommendations – Post-Serialism in Central Europe

Karlheinz Stockhausen (1928-2007)

Following the conclusion of World War II in 1945, there had been an aesthetic shift away from the neo-tonalities of the interwar years and toward serialism, the method for organizing the full chromatic scale which had been introduced by Arnold Schoenberg two decades earlier. Integral serialism, a further rationalization in which elements beyond pitch could be serialized, was developed at this time, both at the Darmstadt Summer Institute in West Germany and simultaneously in American academia. POST-SERIALISM, then, is a term given to several aesthetic stances pursued by composers who came into artistic maturity in the first decade after World War II whose collective foundation until the mid-1950s had been serialism. It is a term applied primarily to the composers active in central Europe in the years 1956 to 1975, although in a broader sense “post-serialism” can be applied to any music which follows or reacts to serialism. At the outset, post-serialists included the French composer Pierre Boulez (1925-2016), the German Karlheinz Stockhausen (1928-2007), and the Italians Luigi Nono (1924-1990) and Bruno Maderna (1920-1973). Nono went as far as to call these four the “Darmstadt School” in a lecture given in 1957. Another Italian, Luciano Berio (1925-2003), would soon join their ranks and, likewise, can be grouped among the post-serialists. The older French composer Olivier Messiaen who served as a mentor to several of these younger men and had experimented with serialism himself would not, however, follow them into these next explorations; accordingly, his music will be considered elsewhere.

This unit divides into six sections, each of which focuses on a different aspect of post-serialism. Their ordering is mostly topical but also somewhat chronological. Often a previously unfamiliar composer would emerge, either through their writings or their participation at Darmstadt or a major festival like the Donaueschinger Muisktage. They would bring with them new ideas which would then encourage other composers to reconsider their own aesthetic stances. With the introduction of each new concept, these composers moved further away from the collective foundation in serialism which had united the Darmstadt group in the early 1950s. Consequently, the term “post-serialism” and these composers’ categorization as “post-serialists” loses some degree of relevance with each new development. This music, recordings of which can be found at my YouTube channel, is typically regarded as some of the most difficult to listen to in all of music history: it is mostly dissonant, and sometimes there seems to be little to grasp onto at first listening. Hopefully, the context provided by this article will help facilitate greater appreciation for this music among the average listener.

Luigi Nono (1924-1990)

I. MOBILE FORM, DISCONTINUITY. No later than 1956, the ideas of American composer John Cage began to have real impact on the European avant-garde. From Cage and his circle, the Europeans borrowed and developed what has been referred to as “mobile form.” Their application of mobile form marks the first real break with serialism as aspects of indeterminacy, especially in regard to formal construction, were introduced into the music of the Europeans for the first time. Mobile form encouraged a further separation of individual musical events than even integral serialism had produced. I refer to this separation generally as “discontinuity” as opposed to the “continuity” which I discuss momentarily. In this section, we hear works like Stockhausen’s Klavierstück XI (1956) and Zyklus for solo percussionist (1959); Boulez’s Piano Sonata No. 3 (1955-57, rev. 1963) and Pli selon pli for soprano and orchestra (1957-62, rev. 1983-89); Berio’s Circles for female voice, harp, and two percussionists (1960); as well as the oboe concerti of Maderna. Cage’s Concert for Piano and Orchestra (1957-58) and Earle Brown’s Available Forms I for 18 instrumentalists (1961) also make fitting essays on mobile form by American composers, although my unit focuses primarily on the Europeans.

II. STOCHASTICS, MICROPOLYPHONY, CONTINUITY. The natural opposite of the discontinuity posed by Stockhausen, Boulez, and the others was the continuity suggested in the works of several composers who were outsiders to the Darmstadt circle before their music became known in central Europe at this time. These composers included Iannis Xenakis (1922-2001), who Greek-born became a student of Messiaen in Paris in 1950; the Hungarian composer György Ligeti (1923-2006), who after 1956 worked in Germany and Austria; and also the Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki (1933-2020). The term stochastics is associated with Xenakis and implies an inability or unwillingness to control the individual musical events of a composition, without losing control over its larger structural dimensions. Micropolyphony, associated with Ligeti, refers to multiple events sounding at once stacked atop one another for a cumulative effect. These composers often had experience in electronic music where a sound typically had to be manipulated as a whole rather than as its individual components. They also sometimes expressed their scores through graphic notation which gave the performers an interpretive freedom in regard to individual events but not larger structure. Representative works include Xenakis’s seminal Metastaseis for 61 instrumentalists (1953-54) and Pithoprakta for 49 instrumentalists (1955-56); Ligeti’s orchestral works Atmosphères (1961), Lontano (1967), and Melodien (1971); and Penderecki’s Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima for 52 strings (1960) and Polymorphia for 48 strings (1961).

Mauricio Kagel (1931-2008)

III. EXTENDED VOCAL TECHNIQUE AND THE NEW THEATRE. This section witnesses the arrival in 1957 of Mauricio Kagel (1931-2008). Argentine by birth, Kagel was drawn to Cologne by the presence of Stockhausen as had been Ligeti a year earlier. From the start, Kagel’s music displayed a theatricality and an interest in unfamiliar sounds which is exemplified by his famous work Anagrama for four vocal soloists, speaking chorus, and chamber ensemble (1957-58). Other compositions by Kagel called into question their classification as music altogether, as on occasion elaborate stage directions would be given for actions not traditionally thought of as music at all. This extreme theatricality positioned Kagel as an experimental composer as radical as Cage and his American colleagues, a stance not without effect on the Europeans active at this time although opera itself remained for many composers a forbidden genre. Also heard in this section are vocal works by Ligeti, specifically his Aventures and Nouvelles Aventures for three singers and seven instrumentalists (1962-65) and Requiem for soprano, mezzo-soprano, mixed chorus, and orchestra (1963-65). Many composers associated and not associated with the European avant-garde have furthered vocal technique over the past half century, in no small part thanks to talented and willing singers like Cathy Berberian (for some years, Berio’s wife) and more recently Barbara Hannigan.

IV. INSTRUMENTAL TECHNIQUE, CHAMBER MUSIC, AND THE NEW VIRTUOSITY. Many new compositions were also written to showcase the elite instrumental virtuosi who emerged in the post-war years. These included cellist Siegfried Palm, oboist Heinz Holliger, flutist Severino Gazzelloni, the pianists Aloys and Alfons Kontarsky, and, from 1974, the violinist Irvine Arditti and his string quartet. Berio’s well-known Sequenzas, each written for a different solo instrument, are perhaps the most representative of these works; the first of the fourteen was written for solo flute in 1958 with the last installment, for solo cello, in 2002. Xenakis’s ultra-virtuosic Nomos alpha for cello (1965) and Evryali for piano (1973) are also considered here as are works by two new names to this narrative. These are Pression for cello (1969-70) by the German composer Helmut Lachenmann (*1935), a student of Nono, and Cassandra’s Dream Song for flute (1970) by the British composer Brian Ferneyhough (*1943). These two composers would become increasingly influential beyond 1975: while Lachenmann has led the charge to introduce noise elements into new music, Ferneyhough has continued to push musical ability to its extreme. Indeed, this new virtuosity has remained the major emphasis of most composers who have stuck with the Modernist adventure beyond 1975. Chamber works which also make new demands on their players include Ligeti’s String Quartet No. 2 (1968) and Chamber Concerto for 13 instrumentalists (1969-70) as well as Boulez’s Messagesquisse for solo cello and six cellos (1976-77).

Pierre Boulez (1925-2016)

V. ELECTRONICS, FIXED AND LIVE. New technologies were also changing the way composers created, and their aesthetic approaches shifted accordingly. The 1960s witnessed the first successful applications of what has been designated “live electronics,” sound technology that responds to and interacts with the musician during performance as opposed to the older “fixed” technologies of tape manipulation and studio synthesis. In addition to live electronics, composers also continued to integrate these fixed media into acoustic performance, for example, by including a tape part in an orchestral composition. Major works associated with this phase in electronic music include Stockhausen’s Stimmung for six amplified voices (1968), Spiral for soloist with short-wave receiver (1968), and Mantra for two pianos with ring modulators (1969-70); and Nono’s Contrappunto dialettico alla mente for magnetic tape (1967-68) and Como una ola de fuerza y luz for soprano, piano, orchestra, and tape (1971-72). Boulez had also made an early contribution to this transition between fixed and live electronics with his Poésie pour pouvoir for three orchestral groups and five-track tape (1958). His dissatisfaction with the inflexibility of fixed media in live performance, however, caused him to not only withdraw this composition but also encouraged him to partner with the French government to open the Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique (IRCAM) in 1977 where new sound technologies would be developed.

Luciano Berio (1925-2003)

VI. FRAGMENTATION AND THE FIRST SIGNS OF POST-MODERNISM. By the early 1970s, the Modernist agenda had begun to falter. The optimism and common purpose that had existed at Darmstadt in the 1950s had dwindled, and meanwhile the endless quest for novelty, now for many composers, no longer seemed viable or even necessary. Suddenly, the best way to do something new was to reinterpret something old, an apparent contradiction for many post-serial Modernists whose shared aesthetic had so prized novelty. Referentiality and eclecticism became for a few years an answer to the overwhelming aesthetic crisis as we hear in the works of this final section. They include Berio’s Sinfonia for eight voices and orchestra (1968-69) and Kagel’s chamber works Exotica (1972) and 1898 (1972-73). After 1975, some composers would remain proponents of post-serialism while many of their former colleagues would instead join those who had begun the transition to Post-Modernism. This section, however, is but a short preview of Post-Modernism, an exploration which will continue later with composers like Alfred Schnittke, Peter Maxwell Davies, and Bernd Alois Zimmermann, each of whom found ways to develop a holistic aesthetic through eclectic means.

JSH 17.12.16

About Jackson. Jackson Harmeyer is a music scholar, composer, and advocate of music. Jackson graduated summa cum laude from the Louisiana Scholars’ College located in Natchitoches, Louisiana in May 2013 after completing his undergraduate thesis “Learning from the Past: The Influence of Johann Sebastian Bach upon the Soviet Composers.” As series director of the successful Abendmusik Alexandria chamber music series from May 2014 to April 2016, Jackson played a vital role in the renewal of interest in chamber music across central Louisiana. This interest has encouraged the creation of the annual Sugarmill Music Festival and the new series Nachtmusik von BrainSurge, both of which Jackson remains active in as concert annotator and creative consultant. He also blogs at MusicCentral where he shares concert experiences, gives listening recommendations, posts interviews with contemporary composers, and offers insights into his own compositions. As a composer, Jackson has worked to integrate the vocabulary and grammar of modern music into pieces which are not only innovative but also engaging to the general listener. In fall 2016, Jackson began graduate studies in musicology at the University of Louisville where he has recently been awarded the Gerhard Herz Scholarship in recognition of his accomplishments. His current research interests include French spectral music and the compositions of Kaija Saariaho. He also sings with the University of Louisville Chorus and participates in the School of Music Composition Seminar. Learn more about Jackson Harmeyer, his scholarship, and his compositions at


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