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Anton Heiller‘s individual use of twelve tone technique
Presentation for PhD forum, June 15, 2013 - Peter Planyavsky
Between 1950 and 1960, the use of twelve tone composing in liturgical music was
something which church music composers had to consider very carefully. Twelve tone
music was not perceived simply as just another kind of “modern music”, but as a step into
another world. The first International Church Music Congress in Rome [1950] unanimously
rejected a bid (by Belgium) for an outright ban on twelve tone music in the sacred sphere.
Nevertheless, the issue was at lenght debated in articles and conferences; thus, to come
forward with two new masses which openly announced the new system already in the
titles was a brave movement by Anton Heiller. After Missa super modos duodecimales
(1960) - based on no less than 12 rows, and calling for 4 woodwind players -, Kleine
Messe über Zwölftonmodelle (a capella) is of smaller scope and was found much easier to
perform. The tone row which forms the basis here is very much “tonally centered”, and it
even returns to its opening tonality of e minor with the hint of a cadence. This kind of tone
row even makes it possible to create block chords from it (as in m. 4 and 5 of the Kyrie).
Such rows which incorporate or faciliate the emergence of tonal centres will become
Heiller‘s trade mark; this way, he will shape themes that can be perceived easily by the
listener but also circumvenes unsurmountable difficulties for a singer (motets Lobet, ihr
Knechte and O rex gentium; songs for alto and piano Pater noster and Ave Maria). –
Another very important composition is the Organ Concerto of 1963.
On the oher hand, Heiller sometimes deliberately uses very complex - and less tonicafriendly - rows to correspond with the contents of the work (cantata In pricipio erat
verbum,1965, or Stabat mater, 1968).
Heiller‘s transition to twelve tone technique was a gradual one; more and more extramodal notes were added to themes that were basically made of diatonic or modal
elements until a near-to-twelvetone climate is achieved. As early as 1947, the fugue
subject in the 3rd movement of the 2nd organ sonate is a typical example for this process.
Similarly, in Postludium on Ite Missa est XI, Heiller forms an eight bar melody which is
allowed to develop until all twelve tones within the octave have been heard and with this a
loosely tonal basis is reached. In an earlier analysis, Robert Gant points out: „Although a
key signature is lacking, and a profusion of accidentals seems to negate stable tonality,
brief tonicization is apparent in the structure.“ – Heiller himself has seen his Te Deum
(1954) as the most important stepping stone towards twelve tone technique. A closer look,
however, shows 9-, 10- and 11-tone groups but nowhere a consistant use of complete
rows or their derivates.
The early theorists of twelve tone technique are divided about the question whether a row
should encourage or avoid „tonicization“. Interestingly, it is Hanns Jelinek who used just
this term in his Anleitung zur Zwölftonkomposition (Wien 1952) („Tonikalisierungskern“).
He, as opposed to Schoenberg or Eimert, has „nothing to object when tonal elements
occur in a twelve tone row“.
A composer who has used „friendly“ twelve tone rows many times, Frank Martin, was
indeed one of the very influential composers for Anton Heiller. In the late forties, Heiller
and his wife had played piano and harpsichord in Martin‘s Petite symphonie concertante, a
work that opened new ways for many other young composers as well. Other elements the
two composers have in common are the themes formed of chains of small intervalls sometimes in B-A-C-H-fashion - and the prominent role of the tritone.