Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Style Warriors

It's a source of both frustration and amusement that there are still lots of people around determined to fight the musical style wars of forty or fifty years ago. It's not much of a surprise that you run into such people on Twitter, but it's surprising when I find music-world pros still trying to fight this fight. We saw a prominent example a couple of years ago in San Francisco, when, for reasons that are beyond me, both David Gockley and Nicola Luisotti complained very publicly about that awful dissonant music. I dunno, maybe it was cover for the attempt to persuade us that Marco Tutino's La Ciociara was a really good opera that deserved a place in the repertory. Then there was a program note at SFS; why didn't I ever mail that letter I wrote?

But when I see someone posting the following on Twitter, well, I need a more complete response than "No. Full explanation too long to tweet":

Here's a more complete explanation, which I plan to haul out at every opportunity.

First of all, the tweet assumes that there is no audience for the music of Schoenberg, his students Berg and Webern, and subsequent composers who wrote using atonal or serial techniques. This is simply false. The audience for such music is smaller than the audience for Beethoven, Tchaikowsky, and Puccini, but so? So's the audience for the music of Guillaume de Machaut.

Second, no, it wasn't a dead end. No particular compositional technique can lead to a musical dead end. There's a large repertory of extremely varied music that's atonal or uses serial techniques. There are composers, not all of them old, who are working in such styles and their descendants today.

Third, there are implicit assumptions in this tweet that all Western art music post-Schoenberg was written in an atonal style or using serial technique, and that this state continued until the present day. No, no, no, no, no. NO. Let me name a bunch of composers who were contemporaries of Schoenberg's or younger than he was who (mostly) did not write in the alleged dead-end styles. Why, I'm going to take the list down to the present, even.

Vaughan Williams, Holst, Britten, Bax, Bridge, R. Strauss, Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Copland, Martinu, Kaprálová, I. Fine, Shapero, Bartok, Kodaly, Orff, Schmidt, Zemlinsky, Schreker, Messiaen, Barber, Villa-Lobos, Korngold, Ives, Puccini, Ravel, de Falla, Ruggles, Nancarrow, Cage, Sibelius, Nielsen, Bloch, Leifs, Sallinen, Grainger, Varese, Ibert, Ravel, Honegger, Milhaud, Sorabji, Moore, Ornstein, Piston, Hanson, Hindemith, Thomson, Thompson, Gershwin, Haas, Poulenc, Durufle, Walton, Hartmann, Rautavaara, Pärt, Talma, Saariaho, Salonen, Lindberg, Holmboe, Aaho, Menotti, Hovhaness, Takemitsu, Hermann, Lutoslawski, A. Panufnik, Gal, Diamond, Glass, Reich, Dutilleux, Ginastera, JL Adams, JC Adams, Harrison, Cowell, Partch, Bernstein, Weinberg, Arnold, Simpson, J. Anderson, Higdon, Adamo, Corigliano, Harbison, Feldman, Hyla, Hoiby, Kurtag, Ligeti, Thorvaldsdottir, Davies, Kancheli, Gubaidulina, Susa, Young, Riley, Silver, Lieberson, Del Tredici, Wilson, Bolcom, Rzewski, Crumb, Benjamin, Zwillich, A.R. Thomas, M.T. Thomas, Chin, Adès, Shaw, Wolf...and on and on and on. Yeah, I snuck a few older 20th c. composers in there.

And while you're at it, take a look at who gets played. I've heard almost no Schoenberg and Webern in the concert hall, rather more Berg, at least at orchestra concerts and, of course, at the opera.

So, tell me again about the dead end Schoenberg led Western art music into, because it's amazing how many good and great composers found and continue to find ways through or around this alleged dead end.


Anonymous said...

Sorry to fuss over a detail, but I've been reading Richard Taruskin lately. If you are going to spell Pyotr Ilyich's name in German (with a w instead of a v), then the initial phoneme should be spelled Tsch--. If you want to spell it in English, you could do it correctly like Taruskin and write Chaikovsky. Or you could do what everyone else does and add the initial T to that, so as not to move him to a different section of the index.

Steve Hicken said...

Some of the composers on the list didn't/don't write tonal music, so I'm a bit confused as to the criteria.

Ced said...

The most tonal contemporary I can think of would be Rachmaninoff...

Abe said...

That was my tweet. I admit it: I'm prejudiced against serialism, but I'm open minded enough to sense that the appeal of such music is there and I'm just not seeing in it. A high school friend of mine (we're in our 30s now!) is a devote of such music. No way can I say he's wrong. But I'll be blunt: My favorite bit of music of all time is the 6th (and final) variation in the last movement of the opus 109 sonata by LvB. The feelings I get from those (2 to 3 minutes perhaps?) of music are: awe, excitement, exhilaration. I can pin-point to certain sections in the music of Dvorak, Tchaikovsky, Mozart, Mahler, Rachmaninoff etc that give me similar FEELINGS of wonder and transcendence. Can serialism deliver such experiences?

Steve Hicken said...

Yes, but maybe not to you.

Anonymous said...

I didn't have time when this was posted to write a response to it, still less to do the research necessary for a proper response, so I let it go until, going through my files, I found that I had already written a full reply to these arguments, in the comments here.

In brief, nobody's saying that tonal music didn't exist, and you're fighting a straw man generated by the brevity of argument necessitated by Twitter in pretending that they said it did. What they're saying is that it was deprecated, denounced, and treated as if it might as well not exist by the academics and avant-garde tastemakers, who pretty mcuh terrorized everyone else into going along with it. And I provided ample citations and evidence of this in my response to the earlier post.

Your list of composers is a meaningless compilation, containing as it does large numbers who were one or another of the following:
1) pre-hegemonic avant-garde composers whom the avant-garde honored as its ancestors (e.g. Ives, Bartok);
2) composers whom it wished to shuffle off into the dustbin of history (Sibelius, Hindemith);
3) composers whom it did succeed in rendering forgotten (Korngold)
4) or belittled into silence (Barber)
5) or co-opted or bullied into going along with the program (Copland);
6) ones that they would laugh at anyone who claimed they deserved to be taken seriously (Orff, Arnold, Bernstein);
7) ones whose entire existence they ignored and tried to suppress (Hovhaness, Moore, many others);
8) ones who actually belonged to the hegemony even if they weren't strictly serialists (Ruggles, Nancarrow, Kurtag, Crumb);
9) ones who belonged to the hegemony and then later defected (Pärt, Del Tredici);
10) ones who emerged only as the hegemony began to break up (Glass, Reich, Bolcom, actually most of the names in the last few lines);
11) ones who by date alone are purely post-hegemonaic (Shaw).
I just put in a few names, but almost all of the fall in one of those categories or another.

Even to the extent that some were genuine alternatives (categories 2-4, 6, 7), their existence doesn't prove that the hegemony didn't exist, but only that there did exist what I call the "hidden city," an alternative tradition known only to those who knew where and how to look for it, and which the kind of establishment I cited in my other post tried to claim either did not exist or should be ignored.