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What are the advantages of knowing the theory behind serialist compositions?

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Great Music of the Twentieth Century (2018), by Robert Greenberg B.A. music (magna cum laude) from Princeton, Ph.D. music composition from U.C. Berkeley. Lecture 14 "The World Turned Upside Down". 41 min 30 s.

His transcript sometimes differs from, and this quote doesn't appear in his, Course Guidebook.

As we observed a few moments ago, Babbitt's Three Compositions for Piano [1947] is understood to be the first totally serialized music composition. What that means is that pre-compositional formulas were used to create every aspect of the work. The temptations to analyse such a work by simply describing the formulas Babbitt used to create it, is [are], well almost overwhelming. For example, I could point that in the first movement, all the prime set forms have a dynamic of mezzo-piano; all the notes of the inversion are forte; the retrogrades are mezzo-forte; and the retrograde inversions are piano. But what in heaven's name does such information tell us about Babbitt's music? It tells us nothing; as listeners we don't need to know about the "mechanics", the formulas, despite the fact that on paper, the formulas and the music would seem to be one and the same. But in fact, in Babbitt's music, the formula is not the actual music; the actual music is greater and much more interesting than the formulas used to create it. And that, my friends, is Babbitt's alchemy.

45 min 40 s

Do we need to "know" the mechanics with which Babbitt built the piece? No, we need only listen!

  1. What would a devil's advocate say? What are the benefits of doing the opposite of what Dr Greenberg instructs not to do?

  2. Doesn't this instruction belie music theory? Isn't a point of music theory to probe the structure behind compositions, even if they're not mathematical?

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