Postwar Musical Modernism in East and West


This essay outlines the role of modernist musical techniques in the postwar period and, more specifically, considers their function as a symbol for cultural opposition in communist countries. It defines a particularly influential technique in modernist music, examines several reasons why this technique was appealing to postwar composers, and compares the practice of this music in East and West.

The divide between East and West in the decades after the Second World War was obviously primarily a political one. But music and culture also figured in the divisions of the period and reflected political realities on both sides of the Iron Curtain. That which was allowed in the West but banned in the East could become more than counterculture in communist countries: it could become a symbol for freedom and opposition to authoritarian regimes. Popular music and popular culture have been frequently examined in this context and studied as vehicles for cultural opposition in communist countries. In the words of the Czech filmmaker Miloš Forman, it was “The Beatles [that] brought down the communists.”1 And his words were echoed by many others who lived through the period.2 But classical music also had significance for cultural opposition during the Cold War. As the music historian and Sovietologist Peter Schmelz has argued, although people are more familiar with other artforms, “[classical] music played an equally important […] role within […] culture of the 1950s and 60s.”3 After the decades-long ban on so-called “formalist” music from the West—a ban that began in the 1930s with the formation of the Soviet Union of Composers and the doctrine of Socialist Realism—young composers were eager to master new techniques and “catch up.”4

The first new technique they tried was serialism, and the first to try it in the Soviet Union, Andrey Volkonsky, was the most influential composer of his time. “Volkonsky’s serial music represented the protests of a generation […],” according to Schmelz, “a politically charged symbol of resistance.”5 But what is serial music? And why would serial music be part of unofficial culture in communist countries? This paper addresses these issues by asking and answering three questions: First, what is serial music? Second, why was serial music appealing to postwar composers? And third, how was serial music practiced in East and West?

Let’s begin with the first question: what is serial music?

Put simply, serial music is music that is based on a series of something. The series makes the music “serial.” Most commonly, serial music is based on a series of pitches. Unlike a lot of music we know, serial composition does not begin from a melody or tune: a composer does not hum a melody to herself and then invent a bass line or harmonic accompaniment for it. Rather, a composer begins with a constructed series of pitches and then builds musical structures from that series of pitches, often focusing on interval relationships. In the postwar period some composers combined the series of pitches with additional series of durations (or rhythm), dynamics (or loudness), and timbre (or sound color). The resulting music was highly abstract, or, we might say, “formalist”: it did not have a clear melody or bass line, it did not have conventional phrase structure or formal structure, and you could certainly not sing along or tap your foot to it. But that was precisely what some composers wanted, as we will see: they wanted a music that sounded completely unlike the Romantic music of the past or the Socialist Realism of the present.

Serialism in music was more than a mere technique, however; it represented nothing less than a world-view. In both East and West, this world-view was characterized by the ideals of the period: in the West, a critique of the music and politics of the recent fascist past; in the East, a critique of the music and politics of the communist present; in the West, a desire for rational systems and the objectivity they were thought to guarantee; in the East, a desire to not fall behind modernist developments. Although many different ways of composing music were practiced at the time, serial music had more aesthetic prestige than any other compositional method, at least for a short while. Indeed, it had so much prestige that even old, established masters like Stravinsky and Copland—leading figures with many years of success behind them—felt compelled to change their style to one more in line with the modernist aesthetics of serialism.

This leads us to our second question: why was serial music appealing to postwar composers?

There are many reasons for this, of which five are outlined below.

[1] One reason serial music was appealing is because it was thought to correspond to the new beginning that was wanted after the war. By reducing music to series of what were thought to be its most basic elements—pitch, duration, loudness, and timbre—composers were able to create a new music that seemed unrelated to past music. The past, as we will see, was thought to be tainted.

[2] The second reason serial music was appealing has to do with precisely the tainted nature of older music. Romantic music, for example, was tainted by its association with fascist propaganda from the first half of the twentieth century. Many composers wanted something completely different, something far removed from the onanism and excess of Wagner, for example.

[3] With respect to fascist propaganda and Wagner, it is appropriate to mention also the Nazis: they are a third reason serial music was seen to be appealing after the war. The most influential techniques of serial composition were invented in the 1920s by Arnold Schoenberg, the Viennese composer born in 1874. Schoenberg, as we know, was an ardent modernist, an essential member of Jung-Wien in the early century,6 and a Jew, all of which made him an enemy of Hitler and the Nazis. They burned his music and writings in the book burnings of 1933, and he fled to the United States shortly thereafter to avoid being murdered. In the postwar period, many composers reasoned that if the Nazis thought Schoenberg’s music was bad, it must actually be something good. There was, consequently, great interest in the inventor of serial composition.

[4] A fourth reason for the interest in serial music is most relevant to the political and aesthetic realities in the East: the modernist abstraction that resulted from serial music was the polar opposite of Socialist Realism. This was a music for the highly educated elite, not for uneducated laborers. In countries where Socialist Realism was the official aesthetic doctrine, serial music could only be underground and unofficial, at least initially. As a consequence, in the West serial music came to represent the style of freedom and democracy, and it was lavishly supported with money in the form of commissions, festivals, performances, grants, and career opportunities.

[5] A fifth reason serial music was appealing in the postwar period is that it was seen to correspond with the ideals of science and progress that defined the era. In the United States, for example, science and superior technology—despite the brutal reality of atomic weapons—were thought to have won the war in the Pacific. Robert Oppenheimer and Albert Einstein were seen as heroes.7 Indeed, the influential American serial composer Milton Babbitt went so far as to compare his so-called “advanced” music to advanced physics, and he demanded research centers and resources to further its practice.8

So, given these five reasons behind the appeal of serial music, we are left to consider the third and final question of this paper. The third question is: how was serial music practiced in East and West?

Many of the things that made serial music appealing in the West also made it appealing in the East, of course. But there was a crucial difference between the two sides. Although it is a gross oversimplification, and therefore somewhat inaccurate, we can say that whereas such music was supported and promoted in the West, it was officially disparaged and practiced initially only as underground culture in the East. There are many exceptions to this oversimplification that must be mentioned. History, after all, is messy, and that is why it is interesting. For example: while serial music in the West had tremendous institutional support and aesthetic prestige, there were also many Western composers who did not use this method and were even highly critical of it. But they were, at least for a time, written out of the history books. Similarly, although serial music in the East was initially underground, there were many composers in communist countries who practiced serialism—especially after the death of Stalin—though they were not always supported by the official organs of culture. The composer Volkonsky, from the Soviet Union, has been mentioned already; additional examples can be seen in East Germany and Poland.

Research by Laura Silverberg has shown that some socialists and party members in East Germany supported modernist compositional techniques as early as the 1950s and 60s. Like less progressive party members, they were convinced that music should “contribute to the development of socialist society,” but they believed that modernist serial methods could be a part of this development.9 Frank Schneider, a musicologist trained in East Berlin before 1989, has noted that musical practices were unified in East and West Germany long before the political union of the two states. But he laments the fact that West German composers dismissed the work of their East German colleagues. Their dismissive attitude continued long after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and Schneider records the frustration and disappointment of East German composers who felt that their work was continually delegitimized by the “supposedly historically victorious side.”10 Schneider’s comment stings, but it also happens to be true. Indeed, it highlights a larger truth that is worth stressing: the divisions between East and West are found less in artistic styles and methods, and more in systems of governance, economies, and social norms. And when one considers governance, economies, and social norms, the divide between East and West is still a reality today for most people—even 30 years after the turn to democracy.

In any case, as in East Germany, in Poland the history of classical music challenges the myths and clichés of artistic production under communist regimes. Poland became known for hosting one of the leading festivals of modernist music in the world, the Warsaw Autumn Festival of Contemporary Music, and several Polish composers achieved international fame. These points are examined in detail in a recent case study written by the American musicologist Andrea Bohlman.11 In addition to recounting the history of the Warsaw Autumn Festival, which began in 1956, Bohlman points to archival collections that document the status of modernist music in Poland and provide real flesh for historical research.

Such collections document not only the practice of modernist classical music, but also all other forms of music that gave voice to the messages of opposition. The sound of such opposition was heard also in jazz, in pop and modern folk music, in Rock and other alternative musics such as metal and punk, in the music of religious communities, and in traditional music and folklore.12 This great diversity of music gives a broader picture of the differing ways music figured in the divide between East and West, within which serial music was only one small part. But serial music, like all of the other musical practices mentioned, was—pardon the pun—instrumental to the expression of cultural opposition in socialist countries and should be recognized alongside them.


This paper was supported by grant VEGA 1/0015/19.


1Hans-Joachim Heßler, “Das Politische einer unpolitischen Musik: Wie die Beatles die Sowjetunion zu Fall brachten,” Kultur und Musik nach 1945: Ästhetik im Zeichen des Kalten Krieges (Kongressbericht Hamburger Schloss 11.-12. März 2013), ed. Ulrich J. Blomann, Saarbrücken: Pfau, 2015, 206. Heßler quotes the BBC News story “Beatles ‘brought down communists’,” (accessed 18.11.2018).

2For an overview, with many firsthand quotations, see Heßler, “Das Politische.”

3Peter J. Schmelz, “Andrey Volkonsky and the Beginnings of Unoffical Music in the Soviet Union,” Journal of the American Musicological Society 58/1 (Spring 2005), 139.

4Schmelz, “Beginnings of Unoffical Music,” 141.

5Schmelz, “Beginnings of Unoffical Music,” 140-144.

6For a fascinating study of Schoenberg in the context of Jung-Wien, see Richard Specht, “Jung-Wiener Musiker und Tondichter,” Arnold Schönberg & Jung-Wien, ed. Therese Muxeneder, Vienna: Arnold Schönberg Center, 2018, 15-37. An English version of this essay appears in the same volume, pages 159-181.

7See Richard Taruskin, Oxford History of Western Music, New York: Oxford University Press, 2009, Volume V Music in the Late Twentieth Century, 2.

8See Milton Babbitt, “Who Cares if You Listen,” High Fidelity (February 1958).

9Laura Silverberg, “Between Dissonace and Dissidence: Socialist Modernism in the German Democratic Republic,” Journal of Musicology 26/1 (2009), 44-84.

10Frank Schneider, “Durchlässige Zonen. Über Verbindungen deutscher Komponisten zwischen Ost und West,” in Kultur und Musik nach 1945: Ästhetik im Zeichen des Kalten Krieges (Kongressbericht Hamburger Schloss 11.-12. März 2013), ed. Ulrich J. Blomann, Saarbrücken: Pfau, 2015, 329-338.

11Andrea F. Bohlman, “Classical Music in Poland,” The Handbook of Courage: Cultural Opposition and Its Heritage in Eastern Europe, eds. Balázs Apor, Péter Apor, and Sándor Horváth, Budapest: Research Centre for the Humanities, Hungarian Academy of Sciences, 2018, 293-298.

12A study of several of these genres can be found in Yvetta Kajanová, “Youth Cultures: Escape to Gospel Songs, Rock, and Punk,” The Handbook of Courage: Cultural Opposition and Its Heritage in Eastern Europe, eds. Balázs Apor, Péter Apor, and Sándor Horváth, Budapest: Research Centre for the Humanities, Hungarian Academy of Sciences, 2018, 391-414.