FARTEIN VALEN and Serialism
A Brief Sketch
Dr David Wright.
The Norwegian composer Fartein Valen deserves to be
heard. He lived from 1887 to 1952 and was a pupil of Max Bruch.
Valen was born in Stavanger but spent his early years
in Madagascar. He studied at the Oslo Conservatory between 1906 and
1909 before going to Berlin for the next four years where he studied
composition with Max Bruch.. For twelve years from 1927 he was the Music
Librarian for Oslo University.
He became what might be described as an independent,
a composer who cannot be pigeon-holed into a type. It is a very
great pity that people must classify composers into categories. A great
deal of injustice has resulted in this damaging and puerile quest.
From the 1920s Valen developed a serial technique of
his own. The serial technique cannot be described simply but, basically,
the composer takes all 12 notes of the chromatic scale and for each
new work or movement of a work, arranges them in an order of his choice
to make a 12 note row which, oversimplified, could be called the melody.
Each of the twelve notes are used once on each appearance. They can
be played backwards to make a second theme if you like and this is called
the retrograde version. The basic row and the retrograde can be played
upside down thus making inversions. The harmony is based on the row.
As a simple example if you have three consecutive three note chords
the first will be notes 1 to 3, the second 4 to 6 and so on.
People object to this, dismissing it as mere method
or formulae and therefore lacking in inspiration. But the fugue and
the canon were also methods and formulae and these baroque forms called
for a lot of repetition. And so it is unfair to criticise serialism,
or dodecaphonic music to give it its proper name, and ignore the same
comments for old-fashioned devices in earlier music.
Music that is not written in a key, whether or not
a key signature is used, and where all 12 notes are equal and there
is no tonality is called atonal but not all atonal music can be called
serial music. Not all serial music is strict to the accepted pattern.
Alban Berg used a 12-note series in his Violin Concerto and yet it still
has a tonal feel about it. Humphrey Searle in his magnificent Symphony
no. 1 used a four note series based on the musical notes for BACH and
then repeated it twice at different pitches to make a 12 note series.
That takes a lot of work and dedication.
The question is often asked why did composers turn
to serialism? The answer is obvious.
The diatonic scale is really only seven notes. For
example, if you take the scale of D this comprises D, E, F sharp, G,
A, B, C sharp. Making a melody out of seven notes is restricted to how
many ways you can arrange those seven notes differently and this is
limited even when you use accidentals, that is to say notes not in the
scale. If you consider the vast outputs of Haydn and Mozart one could
reasonably say that these used up all the permutations of the diatonic
scales in their thousands, if not millions, of melodies. It could be
argued therefore that diatonic melody is all used up.
This is further evidenced by the fact that has not
escaped any serious music lover that themes, diatonic melodies, sound
very similar between works even those of differing composers. This is
why we can say with truth that some works sound very much the same as
others. Valen made this discovery around 1913 and independently. It
was common sense. He made his own investigations and was drawn to the
genius of Schoenberg.
Independent composers are usually the most original,
there simply is no point composers writing the same sort of music that
has been composed time and time again. In my article What Makes a
Great Composer? (available
on this website) I argue that originality is an essential requirement
for a great composer.
I could relate many examples of composers who have
had first performances and then be told that a passage in their work
sounds like so and so and, as a result, the composer has revised his
score to take out the offending passage.
Valen developed a serial technique of his very own.
Sometimes he would introduce mere fragments of his basic row and as
originally written, without transposition. There were times when he
did not use serial chords as I have explained earlier.
It must not be taken that serial or atonal composers
avoid all classical devices. Valen had a rich contrapuntal skill. For
Valen the serial method was an architectural starting point. Valen wrote
in lines and so one can call him a linear composer. Valen often uses
his serial elements as thematic material. Nowhere is this more evident
than in his superb and very powerful Violin Concerto.
The opening is very beautiful with long thematic lines
with the violin often soaring sweetly. The mood is largely one of resignation
or introspection yet the music is never dull. It may at times resemble
the Berg yet the Valen retains one style and is therefore more satisfying.
The orchestration is first class, magical and warmly mellow. There is
no pomposity or grand empty gestures. It is natural music in a glorious
rich atonality. Ten minutes or, so into the concerto, comes a strange
sort of spirituality which is profound and deeply moving.
The Piano Concerto is different. Technically it is
not a concerto in the true sense of the word and it is very brief making
it doubly unattractive for a pianist in a concert hall, I would think.
The Variations for piano op. 23 has a classical manner and a twelve-note
theme followed by its retrograde but the harmonies are not based on
The Symphony no. 4 is a warm and intense piece but
not brain crushing. The glowing string writing is a joy and I do like
the way the composer makes his statements and then shuts up. He does
hang around and give long-winded endings but the endings are as natural
as direct conversation as exemplified by the master Webern. A fifth
symphony was left unfinished at the time of his death in Valevaag.
Valen is a composer worth our attention; one who used
classical forms (there is a fugue in the String Quartet no. 2) and whose
work should be carefully studied, particularly his orchestral piece,
Sonnets of Michelangelo. He was a composer who was independent and did
not kow-tow to the acceptable norm. Indeed, he is the first truly original
Norwegian composer of note.
Copyright Dr David
C.F. Wright 2001.
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