Twelve-tone beauty–not an oxymoron…

First off, let me apologize for all the references in my posts about my college years, whether at Juilliard in New York or at the College-Conservatory of Music in Cincinnati. I can imagine that they get tedious. Other musicians though, I know, can relate to their collegiate years as being, for them personally, like the blooming of a flower or maybe the process of metamorphosis in butterflies, a time of intense and rapid and exciting and unanticipated growth.

And so it was for me. For me, maybe even more so than other pianists I knew because—whether by nature or choice or the narrow scope of my music education prior to college—I was a musical conservative. As I entered Juilliard, I considered most music of the 20th century to be an aberration—a large and continuous but nevertheless real aberration, a mistake. Bela Bartok, for me—one of the pillars of 20th century music whose works will live on as long as music is performed—was a bridge too far for my consideration. You get the idea.

With my head firmly buried in the sand, I entered into my collegiate years. I would love to say that my “conversion” to openmindedness—and to seriously understand that music has its own evolution—was something that happened spontaneously. But it actually took some time.

By the time I was in my doctoral studies, I was no longer so stuck in this conservatism—no longer exercising that knee-jerk rejection to music that was in some way “different.” While at CCM, one of my required courses was Modern Piano Music—or some such title, I actually forget what the class was called—for all grad student piano majors. It was taught by Jeanne Kirstein, a woman with a lovely personality, a pianist with a national reputation as a modern music champion, and who looked (in my retrospective remembrance) like a less severe version of Jeane Kirkpatrick, Ronald Reagan’s U.N. ambassador.

Although my stance toward the modern had softened somewhat, I let her know that I was hardly a proponent of serialism—the system of music composition devised by Arnold Schonberg in the 1920’s.

Serialism is one of the larger sub-topics in all of 20th century music. In a single post like this, laying out the particulars of serial music is neither necessary or possible, but the foundational fundamentals are important to know with regard to the Dallapiccola, so bear with me.

Serial music, in its initial and purist form, is music composition in which the form of a piece relies on the arbitrary arrangement of the twelve different pitches within the octave, C-C sharp-D and so on up to B, as a basis for a composition. These twelve tones can appear in any order the composer desires, so long as no pitch is repeated. That particular arrangement is then referred to as the “row” for the piece. The intervallic arrangement of the “row” can be then be inverted or the notes of the row can appear in reverse order (“retrograde”), and the composer is free to create chords using combinations of these pitches as the work progresses.

This is the briefest possible explanation of 12-tone music. Some musicians—like pianist and fellow composer Artur Schnabel—hailed 12-tone serialism as the greatest “spiritual breakthrough” in the history of music. Many others lamented it as being the death of art music. As it no longer relied on—indeed, it completely abandoned—harmony as it had been known, it was a totally different kind of music. “Atonal” music—with no harmonic centers, no aural markers or boundaries–seemed—again, not to all, but to many, including myself—to have taken a very wrong path.

The great Leonard Bernstein had written in his Joy of Music book that traditional harmony such as had been in existence for centuries was the NATURAL evolution of music and that he expected it to NEVER go away, regardless how long humanity existed. Serialism—12-tone music—seemed to put a dagger in the heart of that kind of philosophy.

From our perch here in 2019, I think it is correct to say that serialism will ultimately be regarded as a lengthy but temporary phenomenon in art music.


But to return to my Dallapiccola. So, I had let Jeanne Kirstein know about my aversion to twelve tone music. She said she would like for me to learn Luigi Dallapiccola’s Quaderna Musicale di Annalibera, a twelve-tone work, and play it for the class. I begrudgingly accepted the assignment. And I was very glad I did. Kirstein was very encouraging to me, telling me that, in spite of my predisposition against the work, I had given an exemplary performance and that I ought to consider going down that very broad road—which certainly had room for me–of modern piano music.


The Quaderno is a work written by the Italian composer Luigi Dallapiccola in 1952 as an “exercise book” (quaderno) and dedicated to his 8-year old daughter Annalibera. It is a work that, to my ears and I think in the ears of many other musicians, makes serialism not just palatable, but enjoyable.

The work is comprised of eleven brief pieces. I could list their names here, but they are all essentially musical terms that have no bearing on the emotional content of each piece. The work, in total, is dense but includes enough references to traditional harmony—as when, say, three pitches of a recognizable major or minor chord appear simultaneously or in quick succession—to help listeners—like I was, anyway—relate.

I am certain—very certain—that this piece will not appeal to the majority of my readers. But I do think that the Quaderno contains beauties that are there for us to behold if we allow ourselves to step “outside the box”—and that it will definitely make its mark in some listeners’ imaginations.


Ciro Longobardi is one of the most highly revered pianists of 20th and 21st century piano music. He and his Ensemble Dissonanzen perform all over the world. He is professor of piano at the Conservatorio G. Martucci in Salerno, and has also taught at the Manhattan School of Music and the University of Chicago.

Pictures are Dallapiccola, and Dallapiccola with his daughter Annalibera.

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