Twelve-tone Music — How Could I Understand the Music?

Twelve-tone music is undoubtedly one of the most difficult genres to analyze and appreciate. I, as a music student, have listened a few of them recently, but still be confused how to react, appreciate, or analyze. I’m sure it would be same with a lot of audiences. However, sometimes the composer also doesn’t know his intention on his own composition. I found an interesting quotation from the program note from New York Philharmonic Digital Archive. Schoenberg wrote a letter to René Leibowitz and said, “I do not know where in the Piano Concerto a tonality is expressed.”

New York Philharmonic Digital Archive Program Note for Arnold Schoenberg Piano Concerto Op. 42 written by Edward Downes, 1971 February 18th–22nd.

Wait, what? If the composer doesn’t know where the tonality is in the piece, who else can talk about the tonality? Why did they want to compose that kind of music? Would it be even worth to analyze 20th century pieces?

For my personal solution as a listener, I would pull back a little bit. Instead of looking closely and trying to analyze the harmonies and tonality, it would be sometimes easier to focus on the overall structure, the main theme and its fragments, resonance, sound effect, character, rhythmic emphasis and so on. If you listen to the music several times with only the simple musical ideas, you would be able to slowly recognize the patterns. Similarly, Edward Downes also provided only the brief concept of the Piano Concerto in his program note. I think the piece and the program note are a good example of twelve-tone music for the contemporary music beginners.

New York Philharmonic Digital Archive Program Note for Arnold Schoenberg Piano Concerto Op. 42 written by Edward Downes, 1971 February 18th–22nd.

As you can see from the end of the first paragraph, Downes described the piece with the main melody and its backwards and upside-down rather than finding the key or tonal center. Of course these are not all about the piece, but it would be good place to start to get to know the complex work! If you would like to read more, please click the link and read rest of the program. (https://archives.nyphil.org/index.php/artifact/05c495d1-91b7-4458-8a94-9a8217c65d4f-0.1/fullview#page/6/mode/2up)

Collaborative Pianist