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Elements of Serialism in the Music of Thomas Adès

As the baton drops at the beginning of Thomas Adès’s Totentanz, we hear the passage shown in Example
1(a). [PLAY] This music is repeated and expanded over the remainder of the short introduction, and its
serial intervallic characteristics are germinal for the work as a whole. In it, the entire orchestra plays a
segment of the interval series diagrammed at (b). This “expanding interval series,” or EIS for short, is
common in much of Adès’s music. Like other familiar serial objects, like twelve-tone rows, for instance,
this pattern is defined by an ordering of things: each new interval increases in size by a single semitone.
You’ll notice that unlike more familiar serial constructions, such as twelve-tone rows, the EIS produces
pitch duplications; and in fact, the expanding interval series’s pitch content is locally quite diatonic. Its
first six pitch classes sound somewhat like a B-Major/Minor 7th chord and are tritone related to the
series’s concluding FMajor-Major-Minor 7th. While Adès often uses the entire series, the introductory
passage at (a) presents two smaller segments that move in contrary motion from an initiating A4.(1:22)

Elements of serial compositional thought are evident throughout Totentanz, as they are in much of Adès
recent music. In my time today, I will describe two general characteristics of Adès serial logic that we have
already seen in the EIS:
• First, Adès’s serial tendencies are rooted in patterns and cycles. Though conventional serial objects, like
twelve-tone rows, occasionally appear, one of my goals is to emphasize that serial thinking is already
endemic in the patterns and cycles that pervade his music.
• Second, Adès’s serial pitch collections are often globally chromatic while locally diatonic. So we often
hear wonderfully bizarre juxtapositions of familiar tonal objects.

Immediately following the introduction in Example 1(a), the “Preacher,” sung by a baritone, sings the
passage shown in Example 2. Recalling Franz Liszt’s Totentanz, the Preacher sings a warped version of the
“Dies irae” that is shown at the top of the example. Adès’s disfigures the “Dies irae” using the same
expanding interval pattern that we heard in introduction. At the bottom of the example, I have shown
how each new pitch of the Preacher’s music grows the serial EIS: first, the baritone descends from D4 to
E3, articulating something like an E dominant seventh, and after a leap up to F4 to begin the phrase’s
second half, we hear another EIS that produces an F dominant seventh whose decisive cadence on D3
gives a D-like centricity to the passage. [PLAY]

Next, the character of Death begins to sing, in an attempt to lure the “Pope” to dance. Example 3 shows
the conclusion of this music, which projects two twelve-tone series that emerge from the same patterned
logic shown in Examples 1 and 2. As Death morbidly mocks the Pope’s “high hat” by reminding him that
it will become much narrower in his new, below-ground home, he sings two iterations of the series boxed
on the score excerpt and diagramed at (b). The series is formed as a compound melody: two whole-tone
lines move through an ic2 cycle in opposite directions, like the passage in Example 1. The contrary motion
produces two contractions followed by two expansions that melodically mirror Death’s mocking of the
Pope’s shrinking hat. Example 3(b) also indicates the same interest in local diatonicism that we saw in
Example 2. While the passage as a whole is fully chromatic, the series are partitioned into complementary
diatonic collections. (4:30) [PLAY]
Patterns, like those we have seen in Example 1, 2, and 3, are at the root of much of Adès writing, and they
do not always involve pitch. My sense is that Adès’s patterns align his music with a strain of automatism
that we find in much surrealist art. These patterns are like the textures that artists like Max Ernst used to
create their frottage works. In Figure 4 I have shown the twelve-tone violin duet that begins Adès’s recent
quartet. While the series at (a) is not cyclically generated, its rhythmic presentation is. At (b) I have
illustrated the durational patterning of each violin, where 1 is equal to a triplet eighth note. Thus, while
the second violin repeats a rhythmic pattern sustaining 4 triplet eighths, which you can see on the bottom
staff at (c), the first violin plays a durational pattern that alternates 3 and 1 triplet eights, which you can
see on the top staff at (c). Annotations below that short score illustrate how the combined durational
patterns articulate the twelve-tone row in such a way as to foreground local diatonicism, and boxes
indicate how the odd fit between the durational patterns and the twelve-tone series shift the twelve-tone
groups metrically. [PLAY]

My favorite example of serial writing in Adès’s recent music is found in the final movement of his recent
set of Mazurkas, which is shown on the back of your handout. Example 5 shows the ostinato that begins
the third movement. It projects a repeating ostinato, notated on the bottom two staves, that provides the
setting for a zagging melody that begins in m. 8. Notice that on each downbeat, the ostinato produces a
harmonic perfect fifth and while the left hand sustains its note, the right hand alternates perfect fifths and
fourths. Example 6 reproduces the ostinato melody. Like each of the passages I have shown you today, the
ostinato is globally chromatic but locally quite diatonic. For example: the ostinato melody’s first twelve
notes are imbued with fifths, bu the occur within the context of a twelve-tone series I have labeled there as
T. This odd combination of chromatic and diatonic is produced by a patterned interval succesion: the
downbeats, which I have marked with bold circles, move twice through a retrograde symmetrical pattern
of <7,3,11,11,3,7>. Furthermore, these downbeats themselves articulate a twelve-tone row, that I call S in
the example. In the ostinato’s presentation, the twelve-tone series T is followed by its retrograde halfway
through the ostinato. S is also complemented by its retrograde, which correspond to the upbeats of the
ostinato melody.

In Example 7 I have shown how the global chromaticism of the ostinato is partitioned into
complementary diatonic collections. On the left, you’ll find the familiar circle of fifths and to its right, the
two series S and T. Like the circle of fifths, whose two halves comprise a 0-sharp and 7-sharp diatonic
collection, both S and T present iterations of those collections as well, though in disfigured ways.
Returning briefly to Example 5, notice how the 7-sharp diatonic implications of the opening measures,
which sound almost like C# major, swerve abruptly to the 0-flat, C major-like, collection in mm. 5–8.
When the mazurka’s melody enters at m. 8 it continues in the fashion of this strange serial patterning, as
each triad is strangely joined to a tritone. As I play this passage to end my talk, revel in the oddly beautiful
way that diatonicism is reinvigorated in a new, totally chromatic manner. [PLAY]