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Seattle Modern Orchestra presents “Delirious Serialists”

Seattle Modern Orchestra presents “Delirious Serialists”

: Photo by Amy Bowen.

“More and more,” the composer Pierre Boulez wrote a half century ago, “I find that in order to create effectively one has to consider delirium and, yes, organize it.”

By Paul Schiavo

Organized delirium might seem a curious self-contradiction, but this vividly describes Boulez’s 1953 masterpiece Le Marteau sans maitre (The Hammer With No Master), which will be performed in concert by the Seattle Modern Orchestra at Cornish College of the Arts’ PONCHO Concert Hall on Friday, February 8. Also on the program are two works nearly contemporary with Le Marteau sans maitre, Bruno Maderna’s Serenata No. 2 and Luigi Nono’s Polifonica-Monodica-Ritmica.

All three compositions exemplify one of the most important and radical developments of twentieth-century music: the strict “serialist” composition practiced by some of the most creative musical thinkers from the late-1940s through the mid-1960s. First formulated in the 1920s by the Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg, serialism was a method for using sequences of all twelve musical pitches consistently within a composition to impart an underlying order while maintaining “atonality,” the sense of harmonic abstraction that Schoenberg and other members of the pioneering generation of modernist composers so prized. Taken up by Boulez, Maderna, Nono and other composers who came of age in the wake of World War II, serialism offered a path to an entirely novel music.

This was crucially important for a post-War generation eager to explore new musical possibilities. “We cannot spend our whole lives in the shadow of the huge tree of the past,” Boulez declared. “No generation that fails to question the achievements of the past has a hope of achieving its own potential or exploiting its vital energies to the full.” Serialism, with its complete freedom from traditional harmony and other compositional elements, opened the door to a brave new musical world.

The music produced by serialist composers in the 1950s constituted the leading edge of musical thinking at the time, and it remains in many respects the high-water mark of compositional modernity. Challenging to both listeners and performers, it has received relatively few performances and never gained a wide audience. After the 1960s composers turned from serialism to new minimalist procedures, to neo-Romanticism and other more “accessible” idioms. February’s concert by Seattle Modern Orchestra brings to light once again the audacious achievement of the mid-century avant garde.

Written between 1954 and 1956, Maderna’s Serenata No. 2 moves between delicate, almost pointillist textures and sustained outbursts. Polifonica-Monodica-Ritmica, by Maderna’s Italian compatriot Luigi Nono, extends serial principles beyond the arrangement of notes to rhythm and a variety of percussion sounds.

Le Marteau sans maitre is the most famous piece on the concert and one of Boulez’s most celebrated works. A setting of three surrealist poems by the French writer René Char, it conveys a dream-like atmosphere, the haunted visions Char’s verses being sensitively echoed in Boulez’s music. At every turn, the marriage of advanced music to highly expressive poetry in Le Marteau sans maitre refutes the notion of serial composition as “dry” or “inexpressive.” 


Paul Schiavo is program annotator for the Seattle Symphony and writes frequently about classical music for a number of publications.

PICTURE: Seattle Modern Orchestra; photo by Amy Bowen.

The Seattle Modern Orchestra performs Delirious Serialism at Cornish College of the Arts’ PONCHO Concert Hall on Friday, February 8th at 8:00 pm. Tickets: $20 general; $15 seniors; $10 students and Cornish alumni.


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