Twelve-tone technique and the failed revolution

Last updated May 4, 2019 | Published on Jun 15, 2014

Winner of a fellowship at the Bayreuther Festspiele, Mr. Griglio’s conducting has been praised for his “energy” and “fine details”. Mr. Griglio took part in the first world recording of music by composer Irwin Bazelon and conducted several world premieres like "The song of Eddie", by Harold Farberman, a candidate for the Pulitzer Prize. Principal Conductor of International Opera Theater Philadelphia for four years, Mr.Griglio is also active as a composer. His first opera, Camille Claudel, debuted in 2013 to a great success of audience and critics. Mr. Griglio is presently working on an opera on Caravaggio and Music Director of Opera Odyssey.

Many of our preconceptions about music are a legacy of the late eighteenth century: a period in which music, both in the courts and in the large urban centers, assumed a very specific aesthetic, a formal connotation more defined than ever. This is the period known as the classical period in music history, to which belong such composers as Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven, the absolute pillars of our musical DNA. In this era, fertile for culture and science, a growing interest was developed in history, architecture, philosophy and literature, the greek-roman culture in general, culture that is associated with the Enlightenment, an age inextricably linked to the use of reason, empiricism, to shape the thinking in a conscious and rational way.

All of this was naturally reflected in music: the musical aesthetics of this era finds a perfect synthesis, for example, in the sonata form, with its total formal balance. The rules of composition, it was believed, were evident and objective, and therefore absolute and unbreakable.

Naturally, romanticism put a stop to this prevailing rationalism. The idea of music based only on objective and unassailable rules met increasing skepticism. A skepticism derived partially from the nationalist movements that used art to serve their politics. A path that, starting from Beethoven’s Prometheus and passing through Wagner’s Meistersinger, led to the formation of a new concept, the hero. Walther, in Meistersinger, is in fact the highest point of this attitude of freedom and subjectivity and makes music truly meaningful to his contemporaries with the breaking of every rule.

At the end of the nineteenth century, the national aesthetics, which also had favored the blooming of musical jewels such as Dvorak’s Slavonic Dances and Brahms’ Hungarian Dances, had completely replaced the universal Enlightenment aesthetics.

However, as we all know, the bite of historical courses and recourses never misses an appointment. Therefore, it began to dawn on the idea that music was becoming too popular in the negative sense of the term, having a lightness that turned away audiences from social and political life. The great upheavals of the twentieth century, World War I, the Depression, the rise of Nazism and World War II, the fear of the atomic bomb and the Cold War, had the merit of raising awareness of artists. How could the art be so far from the world it lived in? Moreover, how was it possible to reconcile composition with a growing social and political consciousness and use music to raise the same awareness in the masses?

Looking at it from the opposite point of view, we can understand how the music then in vogue, too light and popular, could actually have the effect of inadvertently align itself with the regimes of Mussolini, Hitler and Stalin.

It became prevalent to find a new way of composing. Situation that ended in 1920 when Arnold Schoenberg invented the twelve-tone music: “a method of composition with twelve notes unrelated to one another”.

Twelve-tone technique introduced a very strict set of rules, testifying in some way a rejection of the lack of regulation of late romanticism and a return to the rationalism of the classical age.

Twelve-tone technique, by its very nature innovative and different, immediately became the battle cry of anti-fascists. Musical radicalism became synonymous with resistance to oppression. Of course, this form of opposition to the regime was discovered and opposed by the regimes themselves: the music of Webern, one of the greatest followers of Schoenberg, was regarded as degenerate and banned during the Nazi occupation of Austria in 1934. In Germany was banned the music of Alban Berg, another member of the twelve-tone technique, also a pupil of Schoenberg. Luigi Dallapiccola, who did not suffer reprisals, became in the thirties one of the most open and fierce opponents of the regime and the issue of freedom was a constant in his music, as evidenced by the “Canti di prigionia” (1938-1941), the opera “Il Prigioniero” (1949) and “Canti di Liberazione” (1955).

Naturally, twelve-tone technique as a set of rules of composition underwent its own evolution. However, the radicalism and the social and political consciousness of which it was soaked remained in composers like Luigi Nono, that starting from a twelve-tone language in “Epitaphs” (1952-1953) developed a very personal language, though still tied to the politics of his time, with works like “Il canto sospeso” (1955) written on fragments of letters of prisoners sentenced to death in the period of resistance, or “Non consumiamo Marx” (1969), or “Quando stanno morendo, Diario Polacco n.2” (1982).

Certainly that kind of music so hard to listen to and somewhat uncomfortable, to some extent has had the opposite effect to its original one: today it is hard to find a program that will include only music by Dallapiccola and Nono. Music as art has been undermined by the music as a business. In addition, since the objective of the business is not the political awakening or the education of the audience, the acceptance of more complex models and perhaps not as catchy as Mozart, but simply the profit, much not so popular music is thrown out of the concert halls, becoming something of a niche. The race to the immediate success of the 80s has invested music as well, “educating” the audiences to an ever-lower level of conformist performances, so much that it has become frequent to attend to very artistically poor concerts.

In this cultural impoverishment which we have become accustomed to a new twelve-tone revolution, which had the objective to fight against that type of approval that makes us all less likely to think and reason with our brains – and thus easier to control – would be at least desirable.

Where totalitarian regimes failed, today so-called modern democracies succeed, in a more insidious way: they restrict personal freedom and manage to address the masses in the direction they want to, without them even noticing. Moreover, they do so by spreading a subculture that pleases everyone and no one at the same time.

A new twelve-tone revolution would be very desirable.

Today more than ever.


Cover image by Lucas Craig from Pexels

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Gianmaria Griglio is an intelligent, exceptional musician. There is no question about his conducting abilities: he has exceptionally clear baton technique that allows him to articulate whatever decisions he has made about the music.

Harold Farberman

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