Atonality and Emotional Expression: Steven Gerber’s Musical Place in the Twentieth Century

The twentieth century was a period of rapid changes in classical music tradition. In the early part of the century, Arnold Schoenberg began to abandon the Romantic-era, tonal techniques of writing in favor of increasingly expressive works, eventually creating the 12-tone method (or serialism), in which each of the twelve pitches is given equal harmonic weight. An influential teacher, Schoenberg led a burgeoning generation of composers who incorporated this new atonality in their own styles with more or less rigidity. Over the course of the mid-twentieth century, atonality became less of a separate school and more of an additional expressive tool, a thread to be woven through music to increase its emotional possibilities. Born in 1948 and graduating from Haverford College in 1969, composer Steven Gerber came of age directly in the middle of that new musical opportunity.

As with all artists, Gerber’s work is reflective of the artistic atmosphere he inherited. His first piece, premiered (not coincidentally) at Haverford, was atonal. The reception of this piece is what led him to pursue composing as a career, but it might not have happened this way fifty years earlier. Not only would such a piece perhaps have been met with the type of infamous rioting that took place at the Paris premiere of Stravinsky’s provocative “Rite of Spring” (caused in part by the surprising atonality of the piece), but Gerber could not have produced an atonal fugue for piano had he not been inspired by the environment of mixed tonality created in the decades just before he was born.

While atonal beginnings are traced back to Schoenberg, serialism is just one type of atonal composition and it is not universally accepted as the best or most important method of writing. Steven Gerber was not terribly fond of serialism and he was not alone in this sentiment. Aaron Copland, whose music is among the scores collected by Gerber, originally rejected serialism but began experimenting with twelve-tone technique in the 1950s, calling it “a stimulus that enlivens musical thinking.” Many of his works, such as the song cycle of Emily Dickinson poems, are examples of mixed tonal ideas, sometimes called “non-tonality.” In a 2002 interview for 21st Century Music, Gerber said of his teenage attitude towards strict serialism, “I basically didn’t think the 12-tone theory made much sense.” This opinion is corroborated by a typewritten essay found among his papers, labeled “Schoenberg by Steven Gerber” in pencil at the top. 

In this paper Gerber addresses the rigidity of the technique in a manner reminiscent of the opinions mentioned in the interview. After describing the various problems of structure and organization posed by abandoning tonality and Schoenberg’s approach to solving them, Gerber writes about Schoenberg in a way that permits his distaste to come through. “Only recently,” he writes of the inventor of tone-row technique, “has it become possible to see Schoenberg’s music in perspective and to realize that he was in no way a radical innovator.” He goes on to call the twelve-tone works “tedious,” criticize Schoenberg’s orchestration, and inform readers that the late works are “banal.” All that aside, Gerber concludes the essay with an admission of admiration, a plainly transparent look into Gerber’s own compositional priorities through the lens of Schoenberg. In Schoenberg’s “best pieces” (the famed opuses sixteen, nineteen, and others), Gerber identifies “imaginative counterpoint,” “convincing harmonic and melodic writing,” and perhaps most significantly, “serious emotional expression.” He is least interested and least impressed with the theoretical elements of Schoenberg and most compelled by their ability to expand emotional capabilities (much in the way Copland felt elements of serialism can “enliven” music).

This essay is undated and unpublished, but it speaks to Gerber’s consistent interest in the expressive possibilities of mixed tonality. In the same 2002 interview, he and Michael Dellaira discuss Gerber’s own relationship to tonality, which Gerber identifies as having unintentionally progressed towards greater diatonicism beginning in the 1980s, but notes that atonal and tonal styles were themes he vacillated between for some years. “Do you actually think in these terms when you’re sitting down to write a new piece? I mean, is tonality a question for you, or is it already a question that’s answered?” asks Dellaira, likely imagining the rigorous planning process required when one is ordering the twelve pitches into the “tone rows” that are arranged and rearranged harmonically to comprise twelve-tone music.

“I use the word in a very loose way, like I think a lot of people use it, meaning just the presence of some kind of pitch center…I don’t really mean anything more specific than that,” says Gerber, going on to explain that he does not “theorize” about his music before he writes it. In this manner, Gerber indicates that his disinterest in theory carries into his own work, favoring over the details of formula the emotional impact and meaning he can communicate through music. “A friend of mine, Joel Suben, was looking at a score of mine recently said every page of it exuded restraint. And I guess that’s almost become an aesthetic with me even though I like music that is very expressive, very out front emotionally, and I hope that mine is, and yet technically I think it is extremely restrained.” Atonal composition can come across as “restrained” because the dissonance of serialism requires such precise choice of pitches and orchestration. However, Gerber’s description of his priorities indicates that he was not aiming for the restraint, rather that this style is a byproduct of his effort to portray meaning through music. (The full interview for 21st Century Music can be found here.)

While eschewing strict serialism and its formulaic nature, Gerber does experiment with some systematic methods of compositions outside the regular conventions of tonality. Bach is famous for embedding his name into his works using the word-spelling notation of pitches, called  “musical cryptograms.” While guided by tonality in the case of Bach, the music created by this technique can create interesting melodies because of the fact of the words it’s spelling. This style was later imitated by many composers, including Arvo Pärt, Luigi Dallapiccola, Alfred Schnittke, and Dmitri Shostakovich, who were also part of twentieth-century mixed tonality and whose works are present in Gerber’s score collection. Gerber wrote “Elegy on the Name ‘Dmitri Shostakovich'” (1991) after Shostakovich’s own version, employing the same cryptogram method. In “Fanfare for the Voice of A-M-E-R-I-C-A” (2002) Gerber uses the pitches that correspond to the letters in “America” to create a melody. The score insert explaining this spelling is featured below.

In the Dellaira interview, Gerber mentions that he wrote a movement directly influenced by the works of Arvo Pärt, himself a master of systematic methods of composition (including musical cryptograms). Gerber explains his favorite Pärt works are “Tabula Rasa” and “Fratres,” the latter of which can be found among Gerber’s collected scores. Gerber’s collection includes the version of “Fratres” for four cellos, which seems to lend some importance to that piece/arrangement in particular. After listening, I can see how Gerber may have been inspired. Although I was not ultimately able to locate a solution to the puzzle, I see parallels between Gerber’s “Triple Overture,” an orchestral piece that was recorded by The Bekova Sisters for Chandos in 2000, and Pärt’s famed “Fratres.”

“Fratres” is a piece built on multiple numerical principles, including a sequence of entrances that build a scale. According to Wolfgang Sandner (translated from German by Anne Cattaneo), these principles make the piece a “semitransparent screen” that “does not begin to give itself away,” which I take to mean that the piece is quite listenable despite and before its mathematics. The idea of covert musical calculation is prevalent in twentieth-century music (see musical cryptograms above). For example, one quality of the tone rows is that they can be transformed, inverted, and otherwise moved around in a mathematical and visual way to create a new tune, but the music itself may not always be easily identifiable as a transformation of a previous idea. Studying the score allows us to see the precision of it. “Fratres” contains a sequence of time-signature changes (6/4 to 7/4 to 9/4 to 11/4) that permit the melodic line to grow and expand with the lengthening bars. While the initial percussive cello pizzicato is what immediately strikes the ear, the repetition of the melodic line is the most memorable part of the piece. While the line is simple, triadic, and chromatic, the inconsistency of the bars makes it harder to follow. It is emotional–haunting, even–and while it does have a pitch center, it does not come across as tonal in a traditional sense.

I find this same melodic idea echoed in Steven Gerber’s “Triple Overture.” The piece was published in 1998, after what might be considered the Gerber atonal period (for an example from that period, listen to Gerber’s 1976 “Voices” for piano and compare to Schoenberg’s Opus 19), but it shares some of the striking details that I see in “Fratres.” “Triple Overture” is an orchestral score, but it has a string trio that carries the melody, meaning the listener is faced with a sonic wall of strings as powerful as the cellos in “Fratres.” The “Triple Overture” melody is an intensely emotionally-charged, chromatic theme that does not recall any particular key. Like in “Fratres” for four cellos, Gerber’s melody here seems to be written prioritizing scale and emotion. “Triple Overture” is also dependent on an oscillation across a triad. The issue of triads is an important point: “Fratres” also relies heavily on arpeggios (although that quality is more obvious in other versions of the piece, like this painfully beautiful one for violin and piano) due to his creation of “tintinnabuli” style, which relies on triads accompanied by another voice of chromaticism. This balance seems to be the crux of the similarities between the two pieces and what makes them both so remarkable. By mixing the basic building blocks of tonal harmony (triads) and subverting them with the tools of serialism (surprising chromatic configurations), there is new possibility for poignancy.

Gerber and Pärt are not alone in composing with a harmonic language that includes both tonal and atonal elements. From where Stravinsky began with the “Rite of Spring” in the early parts of the twentieth century, classical music evolved into atonality with Schoenberg’s influence, but many composers incorporated both ideas as the twentieth century progressed. In the works of the aforementioned Aaron Copland along with others like Samuel Barber, Michael Tippett, and Gerber’s friend Robert Parris, atonality was not just a strict method of composition but an expansion of their “musical toolboxes,” a resource for emotional effect and to achieve various moods. For Gerber too, serial composition could not encompass the ideas his music was addressing. Both atonal and tonal music require formulas: the conventions of common practice tonality and its associated forms (sonata, trio, theme and variations) are just as systematic as the tone rows and their rules in twelve-tone works. Composition that draws from both sides, creating a mixed tonal style, is not formulaic in either subversive atonal or familiar diatonic patterns. It is composition guided not by theoretical principles, but by emotional ones. Ultimately, both camps of compositional writing rely on structures and formulas, just different types. It is when the two are mixed to form a myriad of combinations that musical composition can reach the expressive peak developed throughout the twentieth century.

Works  Cited

“BACH Motif.” Wikipedia, July 2, 2018. 

Dellaira, Michael. “Food for Thought with Steven Gerber.” 21st Century Music 9, No 3. 2002.

Djossa, Christina Ayele. “With Musical Cryptography, Composers Can Hide Messages in Their Melodies.” Atlas Obscura, March 26, 2018. 

Gerber, Steven. Fanfare for the Voice of A-M-E-R-I-C-A. Lauren Keiser Music, 2002.

Gerber, Steven. “Schoenberg.”

Pärt, Arvo. Tabula Rasa. ECM New Series. Wien : Universal Edition, 2010, 1984.

Pollack, Howard. Aaron Copland: The Life and Work of an Uncommon Man. 1st ed. Henry Holt, 1999.

Kelly, Thomas. “Igor Stravinsky’s ‘Rite of Spring’”. NPR’s Performance Today: Milestones of the Millennium. National Public Radio. 1999.

“Long Biography.” Arvo Pärt Centre online.