Like some others on the 300-million-headed-hydra of hysteria known as Twitter, I was mildly irked on April 26 when the Columbia University linguist and New York Times op-ed writer John McWhorter published an essay titled “Classical Music Doesn’t Have to be Ugly to be Good.” Citing two recent books, McWhorter argues, among other things, that serialist or twelve-tone music offers “nothing of beauty, sequence, or proportion.” He adds that after listening to a work by Luciano Berio, “I felt…forced to at least entertain the possibility that classical music had nowhere to go but ugly after a certain point.”

Follow the debate on contemporary classical music today, and you’d be forgiven for thinking that the most prominent serialists—especially the post-World War II composers Pierre Boulez and Karlheinz Stockhausen—have had a chokehold on our collective musical imagination for centuries. (John Adams, who studied composition in the 1970s and is probably the most performed American classical composer, still styles himself as a brave rebel against the excesses of European-style serialist pretension.) 

In fact, the serialists did dominate the musical scene in the 1950s and early 1960s, with longer tails in musical academia. For the record, I believe this, in the cases of Stockhausen and Boulez, had at least as much to do with their undoubted charisma and deep psychosexual need for veneration and power as it did with their tone-row methodology. In any case, by 1968, Stockhausen had composed his prettily new-age “Stimmung” for six voices in simple overtone proportions, and Boulez was conducting “Parsifal” at Bayreuth. Even if you buy the premise that all serial music is ugly, its reign was neither as long nor as brutal as you’d think from the fact that we’re dissing the genre in 2022. 

More to the point, it’s simply false that serial music has “nothing of beauty, sequence, or proportion” (or that those are the only things that matter, but that’s a whole other can of worms). Of course, many serialist compositions are terrible. But many galant-style compositions are terrible, too. In this playlist, I’ve gathered eight unambiguously gorgeous serialist works.

Arnold Schoenberg: Violin Concerto Op. 36

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When I was 15 or 16, I went to a concert at the very beginning of James Levine’s tenure at the Boston Symphony Orchestra. (Yes, I know.) On the program were Beethoven and Schoenberg’s Violin Concertos, performed by Christian Teztlaff. All I’d really absorbed about Schoenberg at the time was that adults didn’t like him, which obviously endeared him to me. But I was blown away by this piece, which was passionate, virtuosic, gushing, and wore its serialism on its sleeve. I suspect one reason that serialism is so maligned is that the genre rarely gives individual players the chance to shine, meaning that the music lacks charismatic performing advocates. Schoenberg’s Violin Concerto is a vehicle for virtuosity; I’ll take it over the more romantic (and much easier) Bruch Violin Concerto any day. The piece may lack a hummable tune, but its gestural ingenuity and textural creativity is awe-inspiring. 

Anton von Webern, “Sechs Bagatellen” Op. 9, V. Äußert langsam 

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Few sounds summon hazy Romantic mystery quite as quickly as muted strings, the timbre that opens the fifth movement of Webern’s six-movement work for string quartet (lasting barely five minutes in total). This gorgeous, introspective fifth movement is full of allusions to Wagnerian (even Straussian) excess, tempered by extreme reduction and modesty. A melodic major second opens the movement with a swell, as if hoping to unfold into an endless melody; it can’t find the stamina to continue. A few bars later, the cello joins the viola in its high melodic register. The two instruments play a close, dissonant minor second that resolves into a minor third for the briefest of instances. In this game of tension and release, the release is barely palpable—but it’s there. The movement lasts just over a minute in real time, but resonates long after. Maybe that’s one definition of beauty, some elusive ratio between the time spent experiencing a piece of music and the time pondering its absence. 

Alban Berg, “Verwandlungsmusik” from “Lulu,” Act I 

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While Webern makes the faintest of allusions to the high-Romantic repertoire in his “Bagatelles,” Berg (in the vein of Schoenberg) makes masterful use of the orchestration techniques of the post-Wagnerian idiom to smuggle the bracingly radical vision of “Lulu” into the bourgeoise opera house. The “Verwandlungsmusik” from Act I accomplishes something remarkable in its three minutes: It carries you along in its irresistible wake, but because of its twelve-tone idiom, it feels shorn of the fascist-adjacent ickiness that I at least feel listening to late works by Richard Strauss. It’s gripping without pandering; it engulfs you, but doesn’t beat you over the head with a stick. Those flute countermelodies are pure pleasure.

Pierre Boulez, “Le marteau sans maître,” VI. Bourreaux de solitude

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According to the composer Gérard Grisey, both a fervent critic and sly admirer of the serialists, especially Pierre Boulez, twelve-tone music music made the frequent mistake of trying to cram too much sound and contrast into too little time, overloading the brain and making the dramaturgy of the pieces one big, gray mush. That certainly happens in many pieces by Boulez, including the famously difficult (for performer and listener) Piano Sonatas. But other works—especially those with larger, more varied instrumentations—sound like eccentric relatives of Debussy’s music, their elusive forms balanced by hedonistic coloring. The mixture of timbres and the understated elegance of the vocal line in the sixth movement of “Le marteau sans maître,” for contralto and ensemble, makes this some of the most beautiful music in Boulez’s output. You don’t stop listening to it; rather, you emerge from it as from a strange and slightly terrifying jungle, your sweaty skin crawling with mysterious critters.

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Luigi Nono, “Il canto sospeto,” II. 

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Luigi Nono gives himself a nearly-impossible task at the beginning of his cantata “Il canto sospeto” for contralto, tenor, mixed choir and orchestra. The first movement of the work consists entirely of the last letters of anti-fascist resistance fighters condemned to death in World War II, read aloud without accompaniment. With apologies to Adorno, what music can possibly follow? Listen for what comes in at about 1:25 in this recording: string music so delicately beautiful it seems barely there, like a rainbow that you only see if you hold your head just so. Not all the music in this movement is beautiful, but the angelic passage returns at the movement’s close. What matters is the hint of tenderness amid the desolation. 

Hanns Eisler, “Reisesonate” 

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Much of the music I’ve chosen for this Beautiful Serialism playlist so far has been slow music, where the genre generally shows its most luscious side; fast movements are more commonly home to textures that (in terms beloved of critics) are angular, jagged, spiky, prickly, pointillistic… But the first movement of East German composer Hans Eisler’s “Reisesonate” (“Travel Sonata”) for violin and piano, marked “Con spirito,” though composed in a twelve-tone idiom, has something of the classical proportion and pleasant dialogue between instruments of a Beethoven Violin Sonata. As a fervent socialist, Eisler wrote music of a certain—excuse the marketingspeak term—accessibility. His socialist political convictions gave his music energy and verve. That held true in his twelve-tone works. 

Ruth Crawford Seeger, Nine Preludes, VI. Andante mystico

The stereotype puts the serialist composer in a fun-house maze of matrices, square blocks of notes whose given musical material they follow slavishly. Like most clichés, there’s a kernel of truth in this, and the tone-deaf academic implementation of twelve-tone matrices was real and did lead to heaps of forgettable music. But the stereotype hides just how much freedom for musical listening there is within the system. The works of the American composer Ruth Crawford Seeger show what happens when an artist possessed of a formidable ear turns that ear to a supposedly cold mathematical construct. Seeger’s harmonies are opaque and statuesque; her motives are like wispy tendrils of plants wrapping around these statues. Because solo piano music doesn’t offer as drastically changing colors as a large ensemble or an orchestra, many serialist pieces in the genre get old quickly. Not so Seeger’s wonderful Nine Preludes. 

Karlheinz Stockhausen, “Gesang der Jünglinge” 

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Though processed electronic sounds are not typically associated with serialism, the musicologists Pascal Decroupet and Elena Ungeheuer characterize Stockhausen’s “Gesang der Jünglinge” as a “broadening and reassessment of serial thought” to include ideas from acoustics—as opposed to the very different approach Stockhausen took in the later “Stimmung.” There is something elusive in this piece, a quality I associate with the best serial music: a willingness to make the human auditory perceptual system work, to not let you have your cake and hear it too. That intangibility gels wonderfully with the beauty of the processed frankly sensual sounds of boys’ voices. My favorite moment of “Gesange der Jünglinge” is at around 7:20 to 7:40 in this recording. It sounds like music from an alternate-history Venetian Renaissance. Imagine Giovanni Gabrieli with a time machine. ¶

… has been an editor at VAN since 2015. He’s the author of The Life and Music of Gérard Grisey: Delirium and Form (Boydell & Brewer), and his journalism has appeared in The Baffler, the New York...