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Reviewed by:
  • Twelve-Tone Music in America
  • Peter J. Schmelz
Twelve-Tone Music in America. By Joseph Straus. (Music in the Twentieth Century.) Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009. [xxiv, 301 p. ISBN 9780521899550. $99.] Music examples, illustrations, bibliography, index.

In his landmark essay "Dodecaphony and the Problems of Contemporary Compositional Technique" (1969), young Soviet composer Edison Denisov took aim at the official criticism of twelve-tone technique in the USSR, beginning with the accusation that its popularity "in many countries of Europe and in America is a result of the comparative ease of mastering" it. Or is it, he wondered, "a blind submission to socalled 'fashion'? Does dodecaphony really 'exhaust talent' and turn creativity into a 'series of brain-wracking computations'? Perhaps, in fact, it is not necessary to be a composer in order to compose twelve-tone music?" "To answer all these questions is not so simple," Denisov concluded, "and a thorough study of music from around the turn of the twentieth century is necessary in order to understand why twelve-tone techniques emerged and why they did not die with Schoenberg and Webern" (cited in Peter J. Schmelz, "Listening, Memory, and the Thaw" [Ph.D. diss., University of California, Berkeley, 2002], 252–53).

It might seem odd to begin a review of a book on twelve-tone music in America with the polemic of a Soviet composer, but the example highlights both the benefits and perils of Joseph Straus' book. Like Denisov, Straus is a passionate, informed proponent of serial composition in all of its variations. Straus embarks upon a "thorough study" of American twelve-tone music in an attempt to refute many of the same "myths" that Denisov disputed forty years ago: the unnaturalness of the system, its lack of expressivity, and its constraints on composers' creativity. Yet like Denisov's, Straus's argument is ultimately undermined by his overly strong identification with the music he defends.

Paradoxically, Straus also severely undersells the music he is advocating, despite his reiterated claims about American twelvetone music's "range and richness" (p. xxiii; also p. 238), its "astonishing variety" (p. 176 and p. 192) and "astonishing diversity" (p. 184), and his casting of it as a "vigorous and unbroken tradition" (p. xviii). Yet he is finally content to posit twelve-tone serial composition (his term, pp. xviii–xix) as one stream among many. He extends Leonard Meyer's familiar description of music in the late 1960s to encompass "American music since 1925 as a 'dynamic steady-state' within which twelve-tone serialism has long been, and still remains, a persistent presence" (p. 195). Nonetheless, as Denisov's example suggests, the compulsion young Soviet composers felt to master dodecaphony as part of their unofficial schooling in the 1960s demonstrates the high prestige, and the ideological baggage, the technique then carried worldwide. While not a "tyranny," dodecaphony definitely set the bar of legitimacy, amounting to a perceived orthodoxy (pp. 198–202). It was not merely one among many techniques that these composers used—it was the first that they explored. Their irresistible attraction to twelve-tone techniques forms a useful counterpoint and a necessary counterweight to Straus's historiographical conclusions.

Straus's book proposes a revisionist appraisal of twelve-tone music in the United States. Although his contention that twelve-tone [End Page 320] serial music represents a "flexible, loosely knit cultural practice" might seem to promise a historical survey, the book is primarily analytical and theoretical (p. xx). What history there is comes in the introductions to the thirty-seven brief, loosely chronological analytical portraits that comprise the first half of the book, aptly titled "Thirty-Seven Ways to Write a Twelve-Tone piece." This first section delivers quick overviews of representative compositions by representative American composers, construed broadly enough to include a Panamanian composer, Roque Cordero, and a Canadian, Barbara Pentland. The rest includes both the indispensably familiar (Schoenberg, Babbitt, Carter, Wuorinen, Copland, Sessions, Barber) and the lesser known (Adolf Weiss, Hale Smith, and Leonard Rosenman). This section, the most useful component of the book, provides a window onto the creative applications that composers in (North) America have made of twelve-tone techniques in the past eighty-five years...


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