EDITOR’S NOTE: This essay is reprinted with gracious permission from Standpoint Magazine, where it was originally published in June 2011.
I am not actually a child of the Sixties, although I almost was. Born in July 1959, I had a fairly contented, provincial Scottish boyhood when all the strange social convulsions were going on elsewhere. You needed to be a fully-fledged urban teenager or twenty-something brat in that decade to be fully touched and muddled by all its shenanigans. I reached my own personal brat-hood round about 1976 and I stayed that way till my first child arrived in 1990.
It is interesting to reflect now on what was held up as appropriate thinking and behaviour for an artist during that phase; and I can see the same orthodoxies at work in the “artistic community” even now. The cherished values of generations through our shared history, the deep-rootedness of paradigmatic, civilised structures and human relationships have been under siege from some determined enemies. The traditional family, education, sexual morality, artistic aspirations, religious belief – these are all now sold to us as mere strategies of the powerful and the coercive “reactionary,” designed to enforce conformity and slavish obedience to outmoded fashions. The most eager proponents of this revolutionary radicalism from the Romantics onwards were artists, of course. For the Romantic of the 19th, 20th and now 21st centuries, the attraction of revolution, (and any old revolution would do) has been a constant leitmotif. Revolution, which preferably overturned manners and lifestyles as well as aesthetics and politics, has been the slogan and banner for generations of certain types of creative idealists.
But what have these fashionable revolutions to do with a love of life, or even of a love of the poor or the outsider? They seem more concerned with a love of transgression; a fetish for flouting the traditions, values and morality of established communities and peoples which the hero/rebel/artist wants to be seen rejecting. Their war against their own roots has been bloody and relentless. They seem punch-drunk with their onslaught and clobbering. It is clearly addictive and in the past has led artists as much to the extreme Right as to the far Left. It is not the upholders of tradition that have strategy as claimed. If anyone has a strategy, it is our new cultural elite, and their aim is to attack the institutions and principles of our shared common life. What began as a light-headed teenage rebellion has become a cultural regime which judges artists and their work on the basis of how they contribute to the remodelling, or indeed the overthrow of society’s core institutions and ethics.
In the light of this I can now see, in retrospect, that my first defiant counter-revolutionary activities were marrying Lynne in 1983 (according to the rites of Holy Mother Church, of course) and having three kids with her in the early 1990s. Many artists I know have abstained from the responsibility of lifelong commitment to a significant other, and bringing children into the world, as it would interfere with their vocations as cultural figures, preferring to see their own opus, in music, words or pictures as “their real children” which they set loose on an unsuspecting world. Marriage and fatherhood – it’s not exactly rock’n’roll, is it? And yet, it was the influence of two men, both married fathers, that had a seminal influence on me.
I think I inherited my love of music from my maternal grandfather, George Loy, who was a coalminer in Ayrshire all his life. He had played the euphonium in colliery bands in the 1920s and ’30s, and he was devoted to singing in the church choir for Mass at Saint John the Evangelist, Cumnock. This church, built by the Marquis of Bute in 1882, was originally intended as a place where music would be specially nurtured.
When, as a teenager, I began to show an interest in the fine two-manual Hilsdon organ in Saint John’s, my grandfather was over the moon and bought me a set of new hymn books and various manuals to help me teach myself the basics. I soon began playing for the liturgies there. This, combined with my school studies in choral music from all ages, meant that my interest and love of sacred music took off in a big way, which was to have implications for the rest of my life.
Working-class Ayrshire is a hard-man’s paradise, but could be purgatory for everyone else. The way people like my grandfather survived was to put on a hard skin and hide his true self underneath. He was good at it. He had to be. His own father was an abusive drunk who could make life misery for his family. When his sons reached a certain age, they worked out that if they kicked him in a specific place, they could dislocate his leg and render him harmless on the floor for a few hours, as he raged in his drunken stupor, thus safeguarding mother and children from physical abuse.
On another occasion as a young man, my grandfather was having a drink with friends in a local bar after work. A stranger approached them and announced that my grandfather “had the map of Ireland written all over his face.” A poetic observation perhaps, but in sectarian-infested Ayrshire one did not hang around to explore metaphorical subtleties. Turning the other cheek, they headed for the door to avoid any escalation, except for one, who couldn’t quite contain all that pent-up male rage. At the door, my grandfather turned to see his friend throttling the living daylights out of the mouthy poetic figure, who had chanced his arm with them, an inch too far, apparently. He rushed back in to extricate his fury-infused pal from an increasingly sticky situation before the local “Loyal Defence League” turned up.
It may have been as part of a determined flight from these blood-boiling belligerencies that my grandfather sought solace in music. He may have been dour and authoritarian, but he loved his family and they loved him back. I felt especially nurtured by his encouragement. Just before he died he confided in me a truly remarkable revelation of the power and presence of God which involved a piece of my music. It will remain our secret, but what stunned me most were the words he used. He did not normally waste words. He had a working man’s suspicion of pretension and fancy, and yet here he was, hours from death, trawling deep into his heart and memory to show me that music brings you into the very immanence of a loving God. No learned tome on theology or musicological philosophy has explained this reality to me more clearly since.
George Loy’s eldest daughter, Ellen, my mum, married James MacMillan senior in 1958. In his way too, he can seem strangely out of place. He doesn’t drink (much), and is quiet, thoughtful and sensitive. He prefers the company of his family to that of hard-drinking men. One of my earliest memories of him is observing him on his knees before a statue of Mary, lost in a distant humble introspection. Snatched moments like these showed me more about being a man than any of the other masculine madness surrounding me at the time. My dad’s own work as a carpenter seemed another world away from my chosen path in life. And yet I was always struck, and impressed, at how much care he took in the making of things. There were strict techniques to his craft which had taken a lifetime to learn. Again there was no place for fanciful self-indulgences in the manipulation of wood and lathe. I may use different tools and materials from my dad, but he will never really know just how much of an influence he has had on me.
An influence on making music, and on being a father. It’s only beginning to dawn on me just how iconically counter-cultural people like my dad and grandfather are becoming for present and future generations. Their inevitable route through a Scottish working-class manhood, with their pivotal roles as husbands and fathers, must have struck them as fairly mundane and mainstream in their day. The upheavals and disruptions of recent decades have made many of us look again at their taken-for-granted lives, with a strong sense of wistfulness and loss.
We all know now that working-class life has been hit hard in recent decades. First of all, the traditional communities have been disrupted physically by uprooting and dislocation. More potently and toxically, they have been disrupted socially and spiritually by the breakdown in marriage, family life, and through drug and alcohol abuse.
The rest, they say, is history, except that a lot of people have not only been left behind by that history, but have been wasted and trashed by it. Rediscovering the role of the father seems an urgent task. Not as some emotionally remote, powerful patriarch, but as a patient enabler. The first of his tasks is to give space to the beloved, the mother, to build her nest of love. There has been a historical breach which has made a generation lose sight of how that may be done. It will require hard work in building the ideal vision again.
Can a musician contribute to this much-needed counter-revolution? Can artists be weaned off their toxic hedonism to provide new ways of imagining our human condition and its flourishing in a universal sense of the good life? I have no idea.
Nevertheless, something strange happened to me and my long-time collaborator, the poet Michael Symmons Roberts, when we first became fathers in the 1990s. We were overwhelmed at the new experience. No one warns you that you fall head over heels in love with the new arrivals – these tiny, insignificant little bundles – who can do nothing for themselves, but turn your lives inside out. Maybe mothers know about this, but as usual, fathers, perhaps a bit slow on the uptake, are the last to find out. We noticed that there was not much in our culture which reflected on this, or celebrated parenthood, and fatherhood especially. Neither was there much which rejoiced in the family, or marriage or the fullness of human sexuality, other than the usual stuff from popular culture.
We wondered if we could address this vacuum in our own work in some way. It is not the first time that Michael and I have been accused of muscling into territory recently colonised by militant, exclusivist feminism. But you know what? We couldn’t have cared less! The result was Quickening, a large oratorio co-commissioned by the BBC Proms and the Philadelphia Orchestra.
The first movement, Incarnadine, is basically a love song. The word means blood-red, crimson, raw-flesh colour, the colour of life. The main part of the text is the observation of the lovers, as their loving words and endearments become flesh, literally. In a little postlude to this, written in italics, we hear the words of the coming child, who is now alive and unborn.
This is love’s alchemy, mercurial,
What risk to bring another pair of hands into the world! A tongue alive with sounds
Of long-forgotten gardens, Babel
Songs which none can recognize,
Wildcat psalms in cedar trees, what risk!
Yet this new life is our elixir,
This soft dividing pearl is our great price.
Incarnadine, vermillion, crimson;
That night your words were made flesh I became
A hummingbird trapped in a scarlet room,
whose wings beat so quickly they cannot be seen.
At the first performance of this piece a young couple rushed into their seats in front of me at the Royal Albert Hall with a few seconds to spare before the conductor raised his baton. They were harassed, unsettled and out of breath. They did not know what this piece was that was beginning. As they calmed themselves, and started to read their programme notes I noticed them following the text as the singers sang it. At a certain point I saw them grasp each other in an involuntary spasm of joint recognition. They gripped fast and would not let go. Something in Michael’s text had touched their own situation. It was one of the most magical feelings I have ever experienced as an artist, attempting to communicate something of our shared humanity.
Over the years at subsequent performances I have got used to noticing people on my peripheral vision, hovering, sometimes alone, sometimes in couples, wanting to catch a quick word with me. They share intimate secrets of their love and their parenthood. Sometimes their tales are very sad, and one realises that those snatched moments of shared communion with complete strangers are vitally important, and one has to be ready with words and smiles. Sometimes they have questions for me too.
Other times the questions are not so friendly. Journalists are bright enough to realise that there might be a subterranean dimension to this work, and feel that some aggressive interrogation is called for. In the US especially, beset with its all-encompassing culture wars, some hacks figure out that all is not well with Quickening! “Do you not realise,” they fulminate, “just how offensive and divisive this piece might be?”
“Why offensive? Why divisive?” I inquire, jaw loose in amazement.
“Well, because of all this, um, eh, er…” they bluster, “all this…well, um…all this ‘life’ stuff!”
Hmm. All this “life” stuff, indeed. That would be in contradistinction to all this “death” stuff then? Not that there is anything wrong in artists exploring the mystery of death in their work. I do it all the time too. But when our world can become so anaesthetised, to the point of being a couple of notches out on the moral compass from hailing Harold Shipman-types as heroes of a new compassionate utilitarianism, we should pause for thought.
Or what about this particular elephant in the room? President Barack Obama recently signed a law decreeing that federal statutes must no longer use the term “mental retardation.” The phrase replacing it will be “intellectual disability.” How the opponents of social discrimination rejoiced. No longer would children with Down’s syndrome suffer the indignity of social stigma. The thesaurus comes to their rescue. Well, at least the 10 per cent of them that we allow to exist anyway – the other 90 per cent being discriminated out of existence because we have all been convinced that there is such a thing as “life unworthy of life,” to borrow a term from an earlier eugenical era. And our new elites bridle indignantly at the charge that they preside over a “culture of death.” What other prettified words or phrases from the thesaurus would they prefer?
This is the background context to the 21st century’s fractured landscape, where families snap apart and communities self-implode. And so, is there any place left for an artist’s need for self-definition as a father? Can an artist be inspired and even shaped by his decision to build a family rather than reject the potential? Is this a determined stance for future life?
Who knows, but there is definitely something in the air. Even David Cameron has dared to take on the 50-year orthodoxies of finger-wagging bullies, by declaring that marriage really does work best. Are some of us developing the courage to take on the ruling elites and put family, marriage, fatherhood, motherhood, the fullness of human flourishing, the good life, Christianity even, (for Christ’s sake!), the culture of life, not death, back where it belongs – at the centre of the public square?
Sir Roger Scruton’s essays for FSI are published by the gracious support of Alfred S. Regnery.
I recently acquired a CD of music for piano duo by Jeremy Menuhin, son of Yehudi, the great violinist and cultural icon. The CD, issued by Genuin classics, Leipzig, is entitled The Voice of Rebellion. But the rebellion is not the usual one, against the rules and strictures of an authoritarian past. For the last fifty years or so the posture of rebellion against tradition, authority, hierarchy and knowledge has become an orthodoxy in the media and the academic world, and the anti-establishment hero has become the cliché of a new establishment. There is only one real rebellion now, and that is the rebellion against rebellion, the rebellion on behalf of order, knowledge and tradition – to put it in essential terms, the rebellion against the Self on behalf of the Other. This is the rebellion practised by Jeremy Menuhin in the music on his engaging CD.
Menuhin’s Suite in the Baroque Manner for two pianos (meticulously played by Menuhin and his wife Mookie Lee-Menuhin) combines real knowledge with a lively melodic gift in a suite of which the great Bach himself might have been proud. Critics will decry the result as pastiche, saying, as they always do, that you cannot go back, that forward is the only permissible direction in the world of art, and that all attempts to imitate what has been done end up as replicas, in which the spark of creativity has been snuffed out. But none of that is true of Menuhin’s suite. The listener will, certainly, be surprised to learn that it is the work of a living composer. But creative inspiration is there, not only in the melodies and harmonic sequences, but in the rigorous counterpoint that spurs the music across the bar-lines. Counterpoint, as Menuhin has learned it, is not some mechanical, extraneous structure laid over his melodic ideas like an exoskeleton over soft musical flesh. It is the grammar of the musical argument, the creative source from which everything flows, and the reason for Menuhin’s musical conviction.
Of course, not every composer versed in counterpoint can write in the manner of Bach. Nor should they want to. Nevertheless we must recognize the centrality of counterpoint to our tradition, and its role in bringing order and logic to the polyphonic forms that have made classical music into the symbol of our civilisation and the art-form of which we Europeans should be most proud. This makes it all the more lamentable that so many of our departments of composition teach counterpoint only as an option, or don’t teach it at all. This is one more illustration of the flight from knowledge that has swept through our universities. In music, as in every art-form, there has arisen in recent times the illusion that knowledge is not necessary, that the old forms of discipline are merely obstacles to the true creative process, and that real originality means doing your own thing, free from traditional constraints. That this is nonsense is apparent to all truly creative people, who know that artistic freedom comes only when form has been mastered and internalised. But this truth clashes with the democratic prejudice that self-expression, not discipline, makes the artist, and that no one should be excluded by mere ignorance from the rewards of creative genius.
The accents of Bach’s Art of Fugue and Forty-Eight can be heard throughout our musical tradition. You hear them in the sensuous contours of a Skryabin sonata, in the jagged confrontations of a Bartók quartet, in the overlapping chordal melodies of a Vaughan Williams symphony. They come to the fore, dramatized and glorified, in Wagner’s Die Meistersinger; they slink into the background, to be revealed only at the turning points of the narrative, in Berg’s Violin Concerto. Counterpoint can be blatant, as in the canonical scherzo of Schubert’s First Piano Trio, or secretive, as in Britten’s Turn of the Screw. It is like the shared obedience that unites a team or a platoon, and which is present even in moments of amusement and distraction, when the call to order is for the time being suspended.
Mastery of counterpoint is unevenly distributed among the great composers. It is there in abundance in many who don’t make a show of it, like Brahms and Mahler; it is hardly there at all in some who nevertheless display it as best they can, like Pfitzner and Weil. And there are composers like Debussy who have mastered it (as is shown by the string quartet) and then moved on, into worlds where argument has given way to impressions, and all logical connectives have been dissolved.
Two considerations seem to have influenced the expulsion of counterpoint from the curriculum. One is that counterpoint belongs to an old and ‘dead’ style of composition, which went out of fashion with the Baroque and is now of only theatrical relevance, as in DieMeistersinger or the concluding fugue of Falstaff. The other is that counterpoint makes no real sense outside the grammar of tonal harmony, and can only stand in the way of composers who are trying to express themselves in a modern idiom.
Both those considerations are profoundly mistaken. Counterpoint in music is like rhyme in poetry: it holds disparate things together in a unity, and at the same time it shows that unity is not simple but composed. Only mastery of counterpoint can make a single chord, sounded in root position for three minutes, into one of the most varied events in music – but that is what Wagner does in the Prelude to Das Rheingold. The same contrapuntal genius that produced the last movement of the Jupiter symphony could turn a simple triad into the most melting melody, as in Susanna’s aria in the garden, in which the chord stretches into melody in just the way that chords become melodies in a fugue.
Nor should we think of tonality as the background condition of all effective counterpoint. The opening movement of Bartók’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta is woven from atonal phrases to create a texture that has all the objectivity and logic of a contrapunctus from the Art of Fugue. Removing the constraints of tonal harmony, far from making counterpoint easier, makes it more difficult. Simultaneous tones must now be both dissonant and in keeping with each other; the voices must come together in audible points of rest, while maintaining a precise tension throughout. Studying atonal counterpoint is one way to begin the arduous discipline of voice-led harmony. The same discipline is manifest in polyphonic counterpoint, of the kind that gives Szymanowski’s first Violin Concerto its extraordinary zing. Only a very superficial listener to such a work will fail to understand how much it owes to its contrapuntal architecture.
It should not be the aim of a musical education to produce people like Jeremy Menuhin, at ease in an old tradition and able to project it forward as though it had never suffered a moment of self-doubt. Even if the class on counterpoint never mentions Bach, even if it wanders in the parched landscape of the Stravinsky symphonies or the greenhouse shrubberies of Poulenc, it will be teaching something more than mathematical sequences, mirror motions, inverted canons and the rest. It will be teaching the essence of composition, which is the art of making one note lead by necessity to the next.
ANDREW BALIO: Among America’s music schools, Rice University’s Shepard School of Music is one of the standouts, up there with Curtis, Yale, and Julliard. And both Julliard’s and Yale’s areas of greatest growth are in the sphere of early and sacred music, a remarkable investment in looking back in to our distant past and traditions. It’s interesting how classical music is actually growing in this sense: we’re rediscovering all this repertoire that deserves our reconsideration. Mr. Greenberg, what sort of music do you attend?
ALLAN GREENBERG: I love music. As a teenager, I was fascinated by the different interpretations that two conductors, equally eminent, could bring to the same piece of music. I would collect six or eight versions of the same symphony or concerto or opera and just sit and compare them for hours, trying to understand the nuances, and I’d follow with a pocket score. I went through the usual changes of mind as your comprehension grows, but I always had a special preference for opera. I was taken to see Rigoletto with Tito Gobbi, who came to South Africa with some Italian company. I was nine or ten and I was mesmerized by the spectacle, by the arias and their beauty, by the characters. I just loved that world.
The first time I went to Europe – when I was nineteen – I heard Otto Klemperer conduct all nine Beethoven symphonies. At the time he was my favorite conductor, and I sat through all of them. I heard a number of them by Bruno Walter and the young Italian conductor who used to conduct the Philharmonia in London and I loved the human voice. It became my instrument of focus, particularly the female voice in Mozart. When I was in London I saw a lot of opera, but I thought, of all opera, Mozart was the beginning and in many ways the end. He encompassed the whole world. He could do comedy, he could do tragedy, he could do farce, with profundity. He made opera fun. You laugh even when you don’t understand the Italian. It was said that after the premiere of Don Giovanni the little boys who were delivering milk the next morning were whistling his tunes in Prague. Off and on, my musical interest has been opera.
My tastes have become really quite broad, but it’s still opera that I love. So when I got the job to design this opera house, it was like a dream come true. And the fact that they wanted a 600-seat opera house – the same size as in Mozart’s time – was perfect. I think there is a limit to the size of an opera house, or there should be a limit. I think the Met with 3,200 seats is stupid. The stage is so gigantic, even for Wagner – a lot of parts of The Ring have three people singing on the stage, and they’re lost. I don’t know what the correct size is for an opera house, but I think it’s around 1,500 people.
AB: That’s the optimal size for a concert hall too. That seems to be the sweet spot for acoustics, if you ask an acoustician, someone like Yasuhisa Toyota.
AG: For me, great opera – the work itself – is a miracle because you are taking two elements that are totally incompatible – the libretto (the story which takes time to evolve – drama needs time to evolve), and music – and you marry them. One note, just a change of key, and you’re in a different mood, from sad to happy, happy to sad, somber to elated. So you have this sort of thing that goes on and on. The marriage is accomplished through the genius of the composer, and the medium is the human voice. I don’t think there’s anything harder to write in music than an opera.
I have always felt a kinship with architecture because in architecture you have form, which grows in your brain, and then the function – 250-square-foot kitchen, three bedrooms of 80-square-footage or whatever – and it is very clinical. Relationships between these elements are pretty straightforward, and you can write them all down, but how do you make a great building out of that porridge? It’s like making an opera out of incompatible elements. Form has imagination, functional organization – it’s fairly rational. So, I’m a really happy camper designing this building.
AB: You also did a humanities building for Rice a decade ago, a similar type of commission. They wanted more traditional architecture. Can you talk about that a bit? Usually universities have the idea of the future that they want to be part of, and they consider architecture as a big way of being perceived to be on this cutting edge, as embodying these notions of progress. Interestingly enough, Rice is embracing traditional architecture, overall.
AG: When I did my first building at Rice – I started in about 1997 or ’98, and the building was finished in 2000 – the president was deeply involved in choosing architects and the character of the campus. The president, like the trustees, was very conservative. He loved the old campus and wanted to continue it. His point of view was very straightforward: This is a university. The order projected by its campus is in fact the best reflection of the university’s character. A campus should reflect the character of the institution, and they designed their building on the notion of continuity: that this is an institution that has operated with changes but without any breaks, without any reduced focus on scholarship, on truth and justice, and on all the other verities that are part of the study of a university.
That has changed. The university since then has tried to be more, has shown broader tastes, and has a greater interest in having modern buildings on their campus. I was excused from that because the trustees decided they wanted to have a hand in choosing the architect for this opera house. So they walked around the campus and settled on the two buildings they liked the most and interviewed two architects. I was one of them, and I got the job. But there is a lot of tension on campus about what character new buildings should have. They’ve tried very hard to keep the same materials, control the heights. It’s a very, very pretty campus although there are some not-great buildings on it, but even those are not as bad as they could be, looking around at other campuses.
AB: Before designing this opera house, you’d been attending operas and concerts as a music lover. Had you been designing opera houses in your imagination?
AG: No. Wanting something and not getting it can be really disappointing, so I never allow myself to think about a particular project until I sign a contract. You have to do that, otherwise it can be disappointing.
AB: So you came into this project prima facie. Did you give a proposal for it before being chosen?
AG: They asked me how I would go about designing this building, what did I think were the key aspects of the problem. I talked about the need: the fact that the campus serves as a mirror of the university’s self-image and of the image it wants to project to the public, and I thought continuity is really important in this. I cited Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard – the old campus at Harvard – and Yale, and I think they agreed with that. I also talked about the need to listen to your client: that an architect needs to understand that most clients come to the architect with a dream – a dream of an opera house, a dream of a home, a dream of something new where wonderful things will happen, where family will be more cohesive, where the quality of family life will improve.
This opera house will hopefully be part of a major rebirth of interest in opera in this country. We try very hard to do that because all our work comes by word of mouth. Most architecture magazines won’t publish classical buildings, so word of mouth is really important. We strive to leave a trail of happy clients behind us. I talked about that and about the need to listen because the qualities – the constituent ingredients of dreams – are not easy to formulate and understand. I need my clients to think of what it is they want and whether or not what I’m doing actually does that for them. We’ve done lots of drawings and 3D renderings, and eventually there’ll be models. So hopefully this will work for the client. I try to explain to them the fact that an opera is this miracle: between your daily life and the moment you pull up and park your car and get out and walk to the opera house you are experiencing the same thing Alice in Wonderland experienced when she fell down the rabbit hole, going from one world to another world, from a world of reality to the fantasy world of the Queen of Hearts. Jack did the same thing climbing the beanstalk – from life on earth to this miraculous realm in the sky where he had to defeat the giant. So the building has to serve as an architectural overture to the opera. It has to get your mind prepared for this.
The opera house at Rice has a certain character that both relates it to and separates it from the rest of the campus. At the far end of the campus, the east side, you have an entry gate and the oldest building on the campus, and as you go straight all the way down the main access you eventually end at the opera house. It’s a great position.
As you approach the building you realize that this is not quite the same as the other buildings at Rice, and when you open the doors you’re in this large, barrel-vaulted, top-lit space with coffers and light streaming down. It’s a big space. The university is going to use it for fund-raising dinners, small concerts, different events – someone could lecture in it while people are dining. There are many uses for this foyer. Then you go up a major staircase that splits in half – and you go up different levels through different staircases. Each level changes in character and in height and in color. When you open the first doors into the opera house you’re in a realm of unusually bright and vibrant colors, colors you don’t normally see in the world around you: bright reds, yellows, blues, et cetera. All but one balcony level has a view back into this hallway, this big entry lobby. To get from the entry lobby to the opera house itself you have to go through a sound-and-light box, which prepares you. These transitional spaces are all treated differently on each side, so the outside is always different from the inside. You always know where you are, you always come out and see the pattern – it was this way on one side, now it’s that way on the other side – so you know that’s the way out. These spaces wander a little bit. That was sort of intentional, but I wanted it a little more ordered than it is. We had to cut the budget at some point so we squeezed the spaces. They’re a little higgledy-piggledy, but it’s okay. They’re quite tight, so you go through these things and feel compressed and want to get out and then you get to the end of the sound-and-light box, you open the doors, and you’re in the opera house.
This is modeled on the little opera house in the palace at Versailles, by Ange-Jacques Gabriel, France’s greatest architect. I was interested in it because it’s made of wood, and from the time it opened, everybody who heard opera in it remarked on the quality of the acoustics. It’s a beautiful space because normally the horseshoe-shaped balconies sit one on top of another, sort of a vertical wall of balconies. Here they get bigger as they go out, so the space is expansive and opens out, so the higher you get the more air you have and the better the view of the stage. So it’s really exciting, doing this.
AB: It sounds wonderful. You mentioned that a building can either relate to what’s there or it can stand out. What do you think is the right balance for a cultural institution? Orchestra halls of the last 20 years are generally erring on the side of sticking out; they impose what you might call a spaceship type of construction and plop it down in human settlements. These institutions are hoping such venues will command great attention and generate interest because of a piece of architectural sculpture.
AG: The French philosopher Charles Péguy said Homer is new and fresh every day. Read The Odyssey or The Iliad; it’s never old. What is old is the latest newspaper. The problem of these buildings that draw attention to themselves is that nothing ever happens in them to justify that amount of attention. There’s always a dialogue between the people who use the building and what goes on in the building. There are some buildings that are quite laid back. Think of Rockefeller Center in New York. That’s a commercial building, a complex of offices, yet the space in it has been designated by generations of New Yorkers as the single major civics space in the city. That’s where the big Christmas tree goes and so on. It’s a very laid-back space. So I think it’s better to err on the side of modesty and focus on producing quality activities inside the opera house, rather than creating this strange spaceship and having mediocre performances in it.
AB: They would argue that you don’t have to make a choice between either. You can have superior performances in an outlandish concert hall. As we speak, this very week, the Hamburg Elbe Philharmonie is celebrating its opening. Have you had a chance to look at that hall?
AG: No, but I’m thinking that the one example of a concert hall that stands out and that actually works is in Los Angeles, Frank Gehry’s building. I heard Dudamel, who I think is an interesting conductor, there. The acoustics are wonderful. But downtown Los Angeles is the most barren, empty, unappealing space in the entire city, devoid of any character, until you stumble on this crazy efflorescence of human imagination in the middle of the city. It’s like the largest sculpture ever built. But the inside of the concert hall is quite laid back. It uses vineyard seating, which was invented by a German, Hans Scharoun. I’ve been inside the Elbphilharmonie, heard only a small part of a concert. I can’t say I spent enough time in that hall to form an opinion of it. The outside is a little disappointing. But Gehry’s building is his masterpiece, because it has this dialogue with this dreary city: “Guys! Life has more to offer! Look at me!” But they both are lucky, they’ve got a good orchestra and a good conductor, at least when they have him. I think it all depends on context, but I think ultimately the continuity is more important, and there are very few situations – certainly Rice is not one of them – where the spaceship would be comprehensible, would have a point.
AB: Our organization, Future Symphony Institute, is more concerned with smaller communities. We know that New York and Los Angeles will be fine; they’ll figure it out, regardless. But when you look at these smaller towns that become larger cities and can now sustain an orchestra – an opera company might be a stretch – they plan on spending $150–200 million on a new concert hall. What happens if they look to Los Angeles?
AG: A mistake, yes. I mentioned this at one of my interviews, maybe with the music school. I believe the great opportunities the little opera house offers is to the school system of Houston. I think music should be a major component of high school education because of the mind’s development that listening to music requires and that happens as you listen to music. I think that the imaginative component, the fantasy component in opera, is also desperately needed in this sad world we’re building for ourselves. I think all these little communities are a place for the rebirth of opera. The past and the present in opera can have a rebirth, but I think the key is little concert halls, little opera houses which feed the community. The high school orchestra may not be the New York Philharmonic, but it doesn’t matter.
AB: One of the things we’re most concerned with is the envy or inferiority complex that makes smaller places, when they look at what’s going on in the big cities, think they have to replicate something really large. My hometown of Madison, Wisconsin, for example, has a 2,250-seat hall. Of course, it’s rarely full. It didn’t need to be more than 1,200 seats. That would have been plenty for our town. Then we’d have full houses.
AG: Better small and full and a long queue of people waiting to get in.
AB: Initially planners think more seats, more money, but it never works out that way. The cost of running this huge building is crushing. I’ve always felt that traditional architecture offered the possibility of a more cost-efficient home for a symphony orchestra. Ultimately they’re cheaper to run, they don’t require these giant machines. What happens is that we think people will relate to us more if we build a spaceship than if we build a Boston Symphony Hall, which would be pretty easy to build.
AG: I think you can sacrifice a lot of the electronics for a good basic hall and focus on the musicians and the music teachers and the connection to the community, because you want your audience to come from around the place, not from far away. Opera in New York is too expensive to be a local experience. New York has become a ghetto with a golden key. It does have local people going there but nobody else can afford it. There are no ordinary people left living in New York, just the very wealthy. Young people live like sardines in an expensive apartment in order to pay their rent.
AB: You’re touching on a sore spot for classical music and that is these widening gaps of economic classics. What can the role of architecture, of the concert halls, be? Your hall sounds very inviting, but what can we do in terms of architecture? Generally speaking, the concert hall’s foyer is something we’re very interesting in. What can we do in terms of design that will make people feel much more welcome and comfortable in an environment that’s meant to take them into another world, generally a world of the past?
AG: It can be a much more elementary version of that, a much simpler version. I know most little towns probably want a 500-seat auditorium. I’m a big proponent of music and art as part of a learning curriculum – art, with the imagination, and music with its connections to mathematics, to emotions, and voice. I think that’s really the key.
AB: Putting it back together. We’ve broken off into specializations so early in life. Traditional knowledge was a oneness: an architectural side, a musical side, a linguistic side, a rhetorical side, all in one body of knowledge. That’s certainly fragmented now.
AG: I lived for a while in Paris and Copenhagen, and I don’t know why we impose four years of college on students in the United States. Growing up in South Africa, I graduated at sixteen, going on seventeen, and I went straight into architecture school. When I was twenty-one and a half, I was finished with education. I got a job and earned my own living ever since.
AB: I’ll tell you why: during the Clinton years they pointed out that the outcome for people who’d gone to college was better than for people who didn’t go to college, therefore everyone ought best go to college.
AG: Outcomes in the United States where everybody goes to college, but the outcomes compared to England, Canada, Australia – I don’t know. If you go into medicine, and you specialize, you’re a student until you’re in your thirties. Why should somebody who’s going to play violin in an orchestra go to college for four years, although he or she will be studying violin?
AB: It’s vocational training, and they sweeten the deal by giving you a bachelor’s degree. We musicians criticize conservatories as trade schools, as if having a vocation is a lowlier calling than attending a university. It’s entirely fair to have vocational schools. Vocational training is highly desirable, especially since most everyone seems to want to enter a vocation when they graduate.
AG: Mozart never went to school, he didn’t study composition, had no degree from any institution.
AB: He went into the family business. His father taught him. If his father been a tailor, he’d have taught him to be a tailor.
AG: The same is true of the architects who built the ancient temples in Greece and Rome. Michelangelo was a stonemason; Andrea Palladio was a plasterer. All the greatest architects in the world started life as a tradesperson, or in the nineteenth century working in an architect’s office and learning the trade there through an apprenticeship system. I don’t see what’s wrong with that. The four-year B.A. is just a question of snobbery.
I had an experience with a building project in London, which in the end never happened, but I had an office here and I wanted to open a little office in London. I could send people there and do whatever we had to do and come back, but I didn’t want to be double-taxed. So I went to a big Washington law firm, surrounded by Ivy League lawyers, specialists in international taxation, and I outlined my problem. I never heard from them. Three months later I was in England complaining to an American architect there. He said, “Allan, you’re wasting your time. Go and see this law firm in England,” and wrote down the name and address. I had an appointment the next day. And when I got there, a partner and his assistant listened to me and said, “This is easy. We’ll deliver a letter to your hotel tomorrow morning and that’ll tell you what to do.” So I got this one-page letter pushed under my hotel door at seven thirty in the morning, and it said, “All you have to do is have your people in this office space you’re renting move their desks at least an inch every twenty-nine days so you’re not permanently anywhere. They can swap desks, so they’re in a state of flux.” This worked perfectly. I called the American law firm and said, “What should I do?” and they said, “We’ve been collecting case studies and we’ll send them to you.” I got this pile of paper and I said, “Frances, I’m not a lawyer. It’s your job to read through this crap and tell me what you think and what I should do. I got your bill for $15,000 and I’m not paying it.” I wrote her a letter that said, “See the attached. This is why I’m not paying you,” and I enclosed the English law firm’s letter and the bill for 500 pounds, which was outrageous for half an hour’s work, but it didn’t have the element of craziness, for nothing, just copying. That was the end of it. I never heard from them again. Two lawyers in London, big office, went from high school to law school, and they were much better lawyers than the Americans. They could even think clearer.
AB: They were going straight for a solution rather than a process that they could bill you for.
AG: I’m a big fan of the apprenticeship, going from getting into your professional realm as soon as possible.
AB: That’s the way I did it.
AG: What instrument?
AG: You’ve got lots of rivals in the jazz world.
AB: They’re welcome to it. I love playing symphonic music. I’m playing Beethoven’s Seventh tonight at Strathmore. That’s heaven for me.
AG: There are trumpet concertos.
AB: It all started with the Second Brandenburg Concerto, which is treacherously high. Bach’s Christmas oratorio and the B minor Mass have tremendous trumpet parts. Other composers shortly after Bach were writing these clarino parts, very high. All the harmonics at the top of the register were close together so you could play scales. There were hundreds of these Baroque concerti. They were always up and down the scale, so there were limits, but there were some that were quite beautiful. Haydn wrote a tremendous concerto for the very first chromatic trumpet, a very clumsy keyed bugel. Hummel wrote one right after that. Then we had a long drought through the Romantic era. Composers had us play fantastic parts in the orchestra but nothing in front of the orchestra as a soloist. We only developed because of the cornet playing in bandstands of America. That tradition is tremendously vast but it’s always a very simple theme, with increasingly more complicated variations. The cornetists were among the higher-paid musicians of the nineteenth century. They were like prize fighters. You’d go to see dueling cornetists in the park.
AG: Like black college bands where they have dueling drummers.
AB: Right, it was more of an athletic event. And there was often an athletic aspect to opera where performances were treated more like a sports competition. I like that part of music too: trying to outdo each other. That’s a big part of jazz, but jazz is nearly dead. It’s largely thanks to the efforts of Saint Wynton Marsalis that it’s not. He deserves to be canonized. If it wasn’t for him, I don’t know if the rest of them could have held on. It’s been utterly abandoned by the population that birthed it. The only stable job there is to be had is at Lincoln Center and state-funded European big bands such as Runfunk houses. Jazz at Lincoln Center has that beautiful Rose Auditorium. Musicians do very well there, or well enough, but I don’t know any other place, except France for example, which will pay jazz musicians just to exist. If they have a lean month, they’ll get a stipend.
AG: Honky jazz has never been much. I don’t think jazz is white man’s fodder. African rhythms you get in your mother’s milk. I think of people like Dave Brubeck. But if you listen to white rock ’n’ roll, the beat is like a metronome, whereas black music, the rhythm is never stable. That’s why it’s alive. Its demise is beyond belief.
AB: It speaks of many things. There are tremendous lessons to be mined from such a great art form that was born here and should have kept going but somehow didn’t.
AG: It’s not much different from classical architecture. In the 1930s, when a lot of German refugees came here and brought the idea of a socialist architecture with them, Harvard appointed Walter Gropius as dean of the architecture school. Harvard started propagating modern architecture. It’s odd that this architecture, which was the vehicle of the trade unions in Europe – it was the driving force to create decent housing for workers – was adopted by the millionaire class in the United States, by the Rockefellers at MOMA. The course of architecture was totally changed.
AB: I feel strongly that classical music as a performance culture, when we know that most of what we do is play old music, will be better off playing within the walls of traditional architecture.
AG: Are there any great or really interesting and good classical composers today?
AB: Yes, there are. The problem is that we’re in the midst of a cold war between performers and composers. We don’t trust composers, and audiences definitely don’t trust new music. There are very small audiences for something new. Most experienced concert goers are afraid they’re going to be tortured, on principle. We taught them they would be tortured by torturing them. It’s not that people can’t compose, and the few good composers there are write beautiful music for the sake of itself. Some of them found employment in Hollywood. Great composition lives on in films. That’s where the money is right now. Erich Korngold came from Europe and did great film scores. But many of the others who are writing nice tonal music, which is the analog to traditional architecture, are quite beaten down – beaten with the “originality” or “innovation” stick. They’re told their music is derivative, not innovative or original. It gives them nervous tics because they’re just writing from their hearts. Nobody pays them for it. We don’t have a good royalty system in place.
AG: My son-in-law is a musician. He used to teach at USC in Los Angeles; now he teaches part-time at San Francisco Conservatory. He plays just about any instrument. He makes his living writing music for video games. They don’t pay that well. He works really hard and gets small music jobs for movies. He used to do a fair amount of work for George Lucas, so I know how hard it is to find an outlet for your energy.
AB: That’s where classical music is now. It’s doing very well, but it could do better. I think getting the architecture right would go a long way to build support for our art form. Certainly during that forty-year period after the war they built too many horrible concert halls – even Avery Fisher Hall is a wreck. Los Angeles, before they got their masterpiece, had Dorothy Chandler auditorium, which was awful. The list goes on, and this is a weight that holds down the art form.
AG: I know this business of torture. I was invited by a friend to Lincoln Center to the Chamber Music Society. We went and had a really nice time, but after the intermission, they have to insert some new piece of music that they had just commissioned which was unlistenable. It was really an insult to this audience. However long it was, it was too long. I sat through it and tried to find what this piece of music was supposed to be about. I have a high tolerance for discomfort. I sit listening to public radio in the afternoon to these musicians who repeat the same tone again and again – repetitive – and all of this other music, but this I couldn’t deal with and I never went back. The fact that the musicians or the organizers of this concert felt that they had a moral duty to give new music an audience without asking whether it’s worth finding an audience for this music in the first place I took as a major insult. It’s as if they didn’t think very much of their audience. They didn’t think the audience had the capacity to choose so they chose for them. Mozart wrote a concerto for French horn. I heard a French hornist at Rice University play it. It was astounding. It’s not an easy instrument, not a lovable instrument, but it was beautiful, just extraordinary. But you’ve got to respect your audience, and the Chamber Music Society doesn’t. They think their job is not to provide musical enjoyment for the audiences but to educate them, and that’s guaranteed to lose your audience.
AB: Do you find that’s true in the architecture community?
AG: Yes. They’re always coming out with new buildings, and it’s always the stupidity of the public that is to blame for the fact that nobody loves them.
AB: That’s my point about concert halls, that it’s life or death for orchestras when we go so far out on a limb for a concert hall that’s meant to be the capstone for the career of a particular architect, really just a huge statement. The hall isn’t meant for people. It’s a conceptual work of art meant to be talked about in magazines or garner industry awards.
AG: Same in architecture. I have a question. What is the difference between a good eighteenth-century opera and a musical, like Porgy and Bess or Oklahoma!, which has a story – it’s an opera really. What’s the difference? Quality of music?
AB: It’s the line between beauty and kitsch.
AG: Is Oklahoma! kitsch?
AB: That’s a very good question. For some people it could be kitsch. It gets close to kitsch, it runs along the fence to kitsch, it reaches over the fence. I like Oklahoma! and I certainly don’t begrudge anyone liking Oklahoma! but it’s not Lehar’s Merry Widow, to compare to something light. Merry Widow is arguably superior to it. You’ll discover the difference in the craft, in the orchestra parts, in the quality of melodies, even when plots are comical. It’s the phenomenon of McMansions. They’re using the same language as traditional architecture except the proportions are all off. Crappy renderings, sort of grotesque, most definitely kitsch. It strikes your eye immediately as kitsch. I go bike riding a lot through the Maryland countryside and see beautiful old estates; some are just beautiful, simple farmhouses. These were not highfalutin people, but they built a nice home. Then there’ll be a similar home built ten years ago by a developer, and it just hurts the eyes. Even though I’m an armchair architect, it’ll be so kitschy and abhorrent to me, I have to ask myself, why? It has columns, windows, shutters, a gabled roof. Why doesn’t it work? That’s the same problem with Broadway. It mimics the real thing but it takes so many shortcuts and often pushes things too far in terms of what it’s asking of the listener. It says, you have to feel this now. They tend to overstate their cases. Also, in opera the message is, these feelings really matter. In Broadway musicals, it’s more like none of this matters. It’s sort of nihilistic. We’re laughing at drama itself, pain itself. It’s important to learn to laugh. We can laugh at ourselves and laugh at life, but these things do matter.
AG: I think you make a lot of sense, but I think there’s a place for light opera.
AB: You think of Franz Lehar, or Fledermaus, which is hysterical. The craftsmanship of Fledermaus is incredible. Or look at Richard Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos, which is very funny.
AG: What about Rosenkavalier? That does verge on farce. Is that an operetta or an opera?
AB: Comic opera!
AG: Movies bridge that gap better than music. There’s a series of fabulous comedies, remarriage comedies. Marriage of Figaro is really a remarriage, because the count reconciles with the contessa. I’m thinking of movies like Bringing Up Baby, Monkey Business. There’s a professor of philosophy at Harvard who’s written a book about these movies. If I can remember it I’ll send it to you. I think you’d really like it.
AB: Do you know Roger Scruton? He’s a Senior Fellow for our organization.
AG: Yes. He’s a really smart man.
AG: What do you think of this? My daughter and I are always sending each other pieces of music. (plays Susannah McCorkle singing “The Waters of March”) The lady who’s singing it died quite young. Her name is Susannah McCorkle. The guitarist is Brazilian.
AB: Notice how she’s using her voice. She’s on the edge of talking, then falls into a bit of a song.
AG: The rhythm is a samba. She somehow uses her voice to pick up that rhythm.
AB: It’s wonderful to be able to explore these things, discover all the feelings. That’s the wonderful thing about music. We discover ourselves.
Classical music is surrounded by a thick wall of brain activity: an extensive world of analysis and research; a history still being investigated in the remotest corners; an educational field rife with scholarly publications and manuals; a recording science capable of closely imitating the experience of live concerts; a record industry where millions (still) go round; a performance culture needing an army of impresarios, promoters, agents, and management staff at musical institutions; a music publishing business for old and new repertoire producing individual scores for orchestral and ensemble players; music magazines and their websites; a book publishing business with new literature for both the specialist and the interested layperson being produced every year. Amidst all of this, performers struggle with deadlines, occasional shopping expeditions, management pressures, babysitters, repertoire and its renewal, and travel schemes. When audiences innocently buy a ticket for a live concert, the façade of the art form’s rituals present a smooth, professional, and dignified experience. But behind the polished veneer, a storm of organizational mayhem navigates an emotional landscape shaped by the mountainous peaks of professional threats and the deep abysses of artistic insecurity. Where is the music in this labyrinth?
Before the audience member has taken his seat, an army of professionals has been busy with things that have hardly anything to do with the music itself. The result is that the presentation of a work of music is protected by the security of professionalism, which has made sure that the live event has been carefully prepared and that the thousands of notes on the paper of so many different parts will be produced with as much loyalty to the composer’s intentions as possible. But as soon as the music is played, it evaporates, like a ghost, leaving nothing but an impression upon the soul of the perceptive listener. All the concrete, busy activity leading up to the performance is not the music, but only its production apparatus, and it extends far beyond what happens in the concert hall – a massive undertaking by numerous people leading to an ephemeral acoustical rumbling and disappearing into the clatter of, hopefully, happy applause.
Music thus seems to be entirely dependent upon things that are not musical, i.e. which fall outside the experience of performing and hearing a work of music. It is obvious why this is so: it is an art form which needs many supporting structures – different from the other arts. The painter can make do with a canvas, brushes, and paint; the poet – if he needs to – can get by with just pen and paper (– the computer is merely a luxurious extension of the basic needs). When the painter has finished his canvas, it is there for all to see, always the same artistic object, while the musical score waits until the supporting structure has absorbed it and translated its signs into the reality of music.
What is music? It is neither the score nor the separate parts of the orchestral musicians nor the recording; it is the combination of air vibrations and their coherent perception in the human brain, which sorts out the internal relationships and sends their result deep into the listener’s emotional territory where the energy sources of the soul are pleasantly stirred – in case of a welcome reception – or the feathers of irritation are ruffled if the music crosses lines of expectations which had been drawn in protection of interior sensibilities. Neuroscience has explored the ways in which impulses are transformed into more or less logical patterns, but neither is this music. The brain functions like the letter box which makes reception of the post possible but does not impose its particulars upon the message. Is music a message? And if so, is it a language? Hundreds of books have been written on this subject, without much in the way of a conclusive result – i.e. a result which appears to be as valid for any one form of music as for any other. We can only say that music exists in the experience of hearing it, at the moment it is being played or when it is listened to in the form of a recording, which is the imitation of the real event.
All the activity of the entire supporting structure of music as described above, is conscious: it is conscious brain activity translated into action. And it’s huge. But it is not music, which happens on a level apart from consciousness. We do not “follow” a musical narrative intellectually in the way we read a story: first this happens, then that, and eventually she elopes with the younger man. It is also different from reading poetry: a truly good poem uses words to invoke emotionally-infused images in the mind, which takes us into an imaginary world. A poem which merely describes without the emotional invocations leaves us untouched. The best poets make words do something that is close to how music works: through associations they create emotional vibrations, create an atmosphere full of meaning, without necessarily clearly stating any concrete subject or even being comprehensible, as in this excerpt from Rabindranath Tagore’s “Gitanjali”:
Early in the day it was whispered
that we should sail in a boat,
only thou and I,
and never a soul in the world would know
of this our pilgrimage
to no country and to no end.
In that shoreless ocean,
at thy silently listening smile
my songs would swell in melodies,
free as waves,
free from all bondage of words.
Our emotions are not some blurry, muddy pool of animal instincts, but can be as clear as any conscious awareness, as is sometimes demonstrated in dreams with complex imagery combining clear visuals with intense emotion. There are many traces of intelligence and order in the emotional field, which makes it possible to relate meaningfully to our consciousness. Western culture has made much of the intellect, of scientific development, of technology – all products of consciousness, which take distance from nature, intervene in it, and subject it to our needs, often to both our benefit and our disadvantage. But emotionally, Western civilization is often gravely underdeveloped, which is not difficult to notice. The cultivation of emotional perception lies at the heart of the arts, and it is partly due to this emotional underdevelopment that the establishments of new visual art and new music are so poor in emotional experience and often plainly primitive. Classical music however, written in times when emotional sensitivity was cultivated by artists as a normal part of life, thrives on emotional perceptivity and subtlety, and the erosion of its understanding that we see all around us points to a general erosion of sensibilities in human affairs. But this also means that learning to understand classical music contributes to the development of emotional perceptivity in general. It is in this capacity that classical music has also a social, developmental value important for the well-being of the community.
Understanding classical music. What would that mean? In the first place, it means understanding how to listen to it. There is the passive way of listening, which is sitting relaxed in one’s seat, ignoring the audience and the players, closing one’s eyes and letting the sound wash over one – as if taking an aural bath – without giving much attention to what is happening. Certainly something of the musical meaning will be experienced, but it is like, well, taking a bath – good for you but only touching the exterior layers. To really experience the music as the composer and (hopefully) the performers meant us to experience it, a state of mind has to be prepared which combines the utmost alertness and focused attention with the total absence of intellectual deliberation. How can that be achieved? We have thoughts all the time, until we fall asleep or (if we are young and inexperienced) sink into a drunken stupor. But a form of attention without thinking is perfectly possible. Instead of the consciousness dealing with itself – which is to say, having thoughts – a state of consciousness is possible where all attention is focused upon the thing that is out there – in this case, the musical narrative where all notes are arranged along axes of relationships, moving position all the time and thereby changing the perspective. Music – tonal, classical music, that is – has more than the one dimension of physical sound: it is structured with a background and a foreground. The latter is the acoustical presence, the way it impresses upon our consciousness; the former is the tonal direction, which moves behind this impression, taking our consciousness from one moment to the next. Most classical music also has a middle ground, differentiating between back- and foreground and responsible for the experience of an “inner space” in the music.
Listening in such a way to classical music requires some exercise, whereby the listener has to be aware of his own conscious attitude. We all know the experience of sitting in a concert while our thoughts are dwelling on what happened during the day, on our worries, which will present themselves again, unadorned and full scale, on our way home, or on other thoughts which form a barrier between ourselves and the music which we have especially come to hear, but which we somehow cannot really relate to in the moment. This may be due to the type of music being played, but it is also due to our own mind set. In case of the latter, we deprive ourselves of the true meaning of a musical work if we cannot overcome, for the duration of the concert, our own private lives. After all, that is the reason we came to the concert at all: to engage in a sphere where daily life has been left behind, to refresh our experience of our inner Self and to let the music speak about us – be it in a real sense or in an aspirational sense, i.e. about the Self we could be if we developed a bit further along the line of spiritual evolution, so to speak.
What happens if we listen to (classical) music in the right way? Music is a form of mathematics, which is a field of proportions and relationships based upon the proportions found everywhere in Nature. The human mind, being part of Nature, can grasp these proportions and relationships, not only materially, in real mathematics, but also aurally and emotionally. For instance, we have a built-in perception system which immediately picks up the relationships created by the tonal overtones upon which musical tonality is built. When we hear a dissonance which resolves itself into a consonance, it sounds like a tension being resolved or a “grating” sound gliding into an “even,” harmonious sound. We perceive immediately two different mathematical proportions without intervention of the intellect. The ear picks it up and the brain sorts it out and interprets the proportions, which create an emotional effect. In this way, we can hear “into” the music and “follow” all the different shifts of relationships which create a narrative that appears to take us along an imaginary journey through a non-existing landscape – non-existing in material reality, that is. But it does exist, in a very real way, in our inner realm, when we can open the doors of perception and we don’t let ourselves be distracted by ourselves.
We relate to the emotional elements of the music, its expressive nuances, through the tonal relationships we directly and emotionally perceive. In music these elements are ordered to some logical and structural whole, which may include contrasts, conflicts, or very different colorings, with the result that our own emotional responses are also being ordered by the music. This explains the uplifting effect of good classical music: we feel recognized and vindicated in our deepest, most intimate being – and at the same time, emotional ripples are organized, harmonized, put into the right places and into relationships where they interact positively, adding up to a whole which is more that the sum of its parts. Such music makes us experience how we would feel if we could live up to our potential, on a level deeper than the intellect, more profound than words or descriptions, because it reaches layers of being which existed earlier than the superstrata of consciousness and intellect which were developed from our childhood onwards. In other words, such music is the “language” of the soul before consciousness.
While all of this is a common experience of many concert goers, it is by no means a self-evident, trivial thing. The capacity to “enter” the imaginary landscape of the musical narrative – or to have the musical narrative take possession of our inner space, to say it differently – is what musical perception really means. We can call this “deep listening”: the alert attention which puts, for the duration of the concert, our ego and our intellect on a shelf, to be taken back at the cloakroom where we fortify ourselves again for the Real World, with our deepest identity confirmed and our hopes, however irrational, restored.
What does all of this mean for the people working for music in the practical sense: management staff, concert agencies, promoters, academics, music journalists/critics, music publishers, book/magazine publishers, and the like? For them, it is easy to forget that “music” is not a product, an object to be “sold,” a vehicle for making money or advancing careers, or even a nice trick for marketing performers – it is a “thing in itself” with an intrinsic value. It is the reason that they have a job at all. The heart of their existence is an immaterial experience, which has to be born all the time because it is dying all the time – and to keep it alive, it is necessary to return again and again to the awareness of what it is, what will damage it, and what will force it into slavery and exploitation as a result of the pressures of practicality. Where music is treated as a commodity and the audience’s hunger for spiritual nourishment is exploited for gains which have nothing to do with the art form, music performance sinks to the level of prostitution and its meaning evaporates.
So, all the brain activity which has led up to the musical experience disappears into the inner space of the music the moment all preparations have been fulfilled. And it is this inner space which justifies the common good which is concert life, in spite of the confusions and chaos and misunderstandings of the world around us. Let us try to train ourselves to lose our ego for the experience which will give it back in a way we could not imagine it without music.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This book review is reprinted here with the gracious permission of Modern Age where it first appeared in the Winter/Spring 2004 issue,
and in anticipation of the book’s new and expanded edition.
Surprised by Beauty: A Listener’s Guide to the Recovery of Modern Music, Robert R. Reilly, Washington, DC: Morley Books, 2002.
In his generous and beautifully written book, Robert Reilly leads us through the vast, largely unknown territory of twentieth-century music. The title recalls C. S. Lewis’s Surprised by Joy and the poem of the same name by William Wordsworth. The hero of the book is beauty. We are surprised by beauty – surprised because beauty in all its forms surpasses expectation and provokes wonder, and because the beautiful in music somehow managed not just to exist, but even to thrive in a century marked by brutal political ideologies and perverse intellectualism.
If the book has a hero, it also has its villain. This is serialism or the twelve-tone theory of Arnold Schoenberg (1874–1951), who exerted a tremendous influence over the minds and works of many modern composers. Schoenberg advocated the emancipation of the dissonance. In a defining document from 1941, he wrote: “A style based on this premise treats dissonances like consonances and renounces a tonal center.”1 Instead of using the traditional diatonic order of whole steps and half steps (the source of the ancient Greek and medieval modes, and of the modern major scale), the serial composer takes as his governing principle a row or series comprising all twelve chromatic tones within the octave.
Schoenberg believed that the resources of tonality had been exhausted and that the times demanded a “New Music” – by which he meant “My Music.”2 He also said that he had been “cured of the delusion that the artist’s aim is to create beauty.” How wrong he was about the presumed exhaustion of tonality is overwhelmingly shown in the many and varied tonal composers we meet in Reilly’s book. As for the supposed disease from which Schoenberg had recovered – the pursuit of the beautiful – these same composers show us that beauty in the twentieth century was alive and well, no thanks to the Dr. Kevorkian of music. As the book’s subtitle indicates, Western classical music is enjoying a period of genuine recovery. It is rebounding from the “imposition of a totalitarian atonality.”3
The general reader need not fear that the topics in this book are too technical for him, or that he lacks sufficient musical knowledge, or familiarity with the works under discussion, to follow the author’s lead. Reilly brings his impressive knowledge of music to bear on the most human of our human experiences with a refreshing clarity and personal directness. He speaks from the fullness of his great love of music and infects the reader with the surprise he himself felt in the discovery of modern beauties.
The book has a simple, humane design. Its various chapters can be profitably read in any order. A series of essays in the truest sense of the word, it is a book that begs for browsing. The main part is a series of short chapters devoted to twentieth-century composers, thirty-nine in all, arranged in alphabetical order. It begins with the American John Adams and ends with the Brazilian Heitor Villa-Lobos. Each chapter has a memorable title that aptly sums up the composer. Samuel Barber is part of a chapter entitled “American Beauty”; Edmund Rubbra is “On the Road to Emmaus”; and Ralph Vaughan Williams is an example of “Cheerful Agnosticism.” The alphabetical ordering makes for a wild ride across Europe and the Americas. Or, to use what is perhaps a more fitting image, reading through the chapters is like walking along a beach and picking up one exotic shell after another. We are amazed to discover just how much beautiful music from so many countries washed up on the shore of the last century.
Without making music a mere product of its time, place, and circumstance, Reilly nevertheless also reminds us of the living human soil, the soil of suffering and affirmation, out of which great music grows. He relates deeply moving events in the personal lives of modern composers, events that shaped their compositions. We also get to hear their own often astonishing revelations about music as a response to life. If you have never heard a single work by any of these composers, be assured that you will want to hear them all by the time you finish reading this book.
The chapters have a twofold purpose: they are both contemplative and practical. In his contemplative mode, Reilly puts forth crisp, thought-provoking reflections on the power of music, and on the relation music has to God, nature, and the human spirit. As a practical guide, he offers knowledgeable advice about what to listen to and in what order. Every chapter contains a list of recommended works, including valuable information on recommended performances and recordings. I have followed Reilly’s guidance and have listened to many of the pieces he discusses. As a relative newcomer to modern music, I was grateful for whatever help I could get, and can report that this book, in its practical purpose, works. Readers of all musical backgrounds and tastes will profit from the accuracy of the descriptions and judgments, and the reliability of the musical advice. One does not merely read this book, or even re-read it: one lives with it and shares it with music-loving friends. One reads, then listens, then reads again, and again listens, each time listening with more acuity and pleasure, each time falling under the spell of a beauty that surprises.
In his Preface, Reilly reminds us that more than music is at stake in the debate over Schoenberg’s theories and compositions – much more. The clearest crisis of the twentieth century, we are told, is the loss of faith and spirituality. Schoenberg’s dodecaphony and the rejection of tonal hierarchies were the musical outgrowth of this deeper pathology. The connection between atheism and atonality was summed up by the American composer John Adams, who said, “I learned in college that tonality died somewhere around the time that Nietzsche’s God died, and I believed it.”
The metaphysical implications of atonality are at the center of two concise essays that frame the journey through modern composers: “Is Music Sacred?” and “Recovering the Sacred in Music.” In the first essay, after a pointed discussion of the Pythagorean discovery that linked music with reason and nature, and the resultant idea of a “music of the spheres,” Reilly points to Saint Clement of Alexandria’s view of Christ as the “New Song,” and of the harmonious bond between “this great world” and “the little world of man.” Reilly then describes the falling away from these inspired ideas. He shows us not only what Schoenberg’s theory asserted, or rather denied, but also the cultivation of chaos (in the music of John Cage) that inevitably followed the denial of natural order.
The second essay depicts Schoenberg as a false Moses, who “led his followers into, rather than out of, the desert.” Speaking from the perspective of his deeply held Roman Catholic faith, Reilly offers an interpretation of how Schoenberg’s lack of faith rendered him incapable of finishing his opera, Moses and Aron. We also hear a moving account of three modern composers of demanding sacred music: Górecki, Pärt, and Tavener. Their most urgent message – the antidote to modern noise and restlessness – is Be still. Here Reilly defends the works of these composers against the charge that they wrote nothing more than “feel good mysticism.” The story of Górecki, whose music was a response to what Poland suffered under the Nazi and the Communist regimes, is harrowing and sublime. It shows us that modern man, with eyes wide open to the horrors of his age, need not yield his creative spirit to the mere expression of those horrors.
As a sort of appendix, there is a concluding section called “Talking with the Composers.” Here, Reilly relates fascinating conversations he has had with the writer and conductor Robert Craft (who conducted music by both Stravinsky and Schoenberg), and with the composers David Diamond, Gian Carlo Menotti, Einojuhani Rautavaara, George Rochberg, and Carl Rütti.
Especially revealing is the conversation with Rochberg, “the dean of the twelve-tone school of composition in the United States and the first to turn against it.” Rochberg gives an extraordinary insider’s perspective on the fatal limits of serialism. He complains of the loss of musical punctuation, by which the composer tries to capture meaning and expressivity: “What I finally realized was that there were no cadences, that you couldn’t come to a natural pause, that you couldn’t write a musical comma, colon, semicolon, dash for dramatic, expressive purposes or to enclose a thought.” Even more striking, he notes how the series of twelve-tones, once selected, kills off the possibility for openness and freedom: “Everything is constantly looping back on itself.” This is extremely interesting because, in the classical tradition, circularity was the hallmark of the divine, the sign of perfection and even of freedom.
The very diatonic order that Schoenberg rejected is itself circular or periodic – a fact most obviously present in the major scale. But the major scale has a natural directedness, while the twelve-tone row does not. Diatonic music is only apparently restrictive in its circularity: in fact, it promotes infinite tonal adventure. That is because, as most people can hear, it has a natural sounding flow, a freedom most evident in Gregorian chant. Schoenberg’s circles are, then, the perversion of natural circles. They do not liberate but imprison. They are like the circles of Dante’s Hell – where, we recall, there is no music but only noise. In Rochberg’s exposé, we come to realize the unmitigated tyranny of twelve-tone composition. We see how the creator of musical value is ultimately the slave of his tone-row creations. Serialism thus becomes a parable for modern times, a cautionary tale about the rage for autonomy.
Schoenberg did not just reject tonality: he denied that tonality existed “in Nature.” His desire was “to demote the metaphysical status of Nature.” The rage for autonomy must always be at odds with nature. Nature sets a permanent, insuperable limit to the human will. One cannot change what is. And if, in addition, what is is hierarchical and normative, as the classical tradition asserted, then nature is not just insuperable but authoritative: it is not only the thing you cannot change but also the thing you ought not change, the good. It is Schoenberg’s metaphysical negativity, the denial not of the mere use but of the naturalness of tonality, that makes his ideological transformation of music so devastating and, to the proponents of radical autonomy, so attractive.
As we see from the opening essay, nature is the beautifully ordered whole of all things, what the ancient Greeks called a cosmos.4 Before Nietzsche’s death of God there was the death of cosmos – death in the sense that, with very few exceptions (Kepler and Leibniz), cosmos came to be what C. S. Lewis called a discarded image, an idea that had ceased to govern and inspire the European mind. Many busy hands contributed to this death, and it is important to identify the executioners if we are to appreciate the full force of the recovery of nature in its traditional sense.
The first step was the nominalism of William of Ockham. This reductionist theory effectively paved the way for modern skepticism regarding essences and universals, that is, natures. Then there was the formidable new science of Bacon and Descartes, which rejected final causes and natural placement in favor of mastery and possession: nature was something to be engineered rather than imitated. But it was Pascal who administered the coup de grace in the death of cosmos. With Blaise Pascal, man was no longer “placed” within an ordered whole. Instead, he was trapped between the infinitely little and the infinitely big. Nature was not a cosmos but an infinite universe inspiring fear, not love: “The eternal silence of these infinite spaces fill me with dread.”5 Pascal’s emotive imagery did what Cartesian science could not: make the denial of cosmos seem profound.
One of the biggest surprises in Reilly’s book is the sheer number of modern composers who have devoted themselves to nature in the older, classical sense. Most striking in this respect are the Scandinavian composers. When Sibelius (1865–1957), Nielsen (1865–1931), and Holmboe (1909–1996) respond to nature, they are not filled with terror. Nor do they hear eternal silences. For them the natural world is just as spacious and awesome as it was for Pascal, but it is filled with music rather than silence. The music of Sibelius is “a revelation of nature in all of its solitary majesty and portentousness.” Nielsen defies the moribund expression of angst and ennui with music that “can exactly express the concept of Life from its most elementary form of utterance to the highest spiritual ecstasy.” And Holmboe, the most overtly cosmic of them all, affirms that music enriches us only when it is “a cosmos of coordinated powers, when it speaks to both feeling and thought, when chaos does exist but [is] always overcome.”6
Nature, for Reilly, is not the highest point of our journey, either through music or through life. As we read in the book’s opening essay, “With Christianity the divine region becomes both transcendent and personal because Logos is Christ. The new goal of music is to make the transcendent perceptible.” The transcendent is that which goes beyond nature and human reason. It is the supernatural realm of grace. This higher realm of grace, as Aquinas so beautifully puts it, “does not destroy nature but brings it to perfection.”7 The beautiful in music, far from being cancelled in the move from nature to spirit, now finds its highest vocation. Like Dante’s Beatrice, it is the grace-like shining forth of the transcendent within the natural, the eternal within the temporal. In this transition from beauteous nature to transcendent grace, the reader’s odyssey through modern music becomes a pilgrimage. We hear the most astounding claim about music and transcendence from Welsh composer William Mathias. Defying the usual view that music as the temporal art par excellence is delimited by temporality, Mathias is reported to have said, “Music is the art most completely placed to express the triumph of Christ’s victory over death – since it is concerned in essence with the destruction of time.”
Some of the greatest beauties we discover in our musical journey through the last century are works by Christian composers. Reilly is eager, however, to acknowledge the inspired products of agnostics like Vaughan Williams and Gerald Finzi. Indeed, the agnostic lovers of beauty are interesting precisely because they offer an example of man’s continual hunger for spiritual food. The most memorable entry in the lists of the faithful is Frank Martin. This is the Calvinist composer whose religious works offer a “Guide to the Liturgical Year.” Martin is the exact opposite of Schoenberg. One reason is that this highly sophisticated Swiss composer dared to write simple, even childlike music “that goes directly to the heart.” Another is that he pursued anonymity to an amazing degree: “While listening to his religious music, one never thinks of Martin.” This is a composer you cannot imagine talking about “My Music.”
More than anything else, Surprised by Beauty makes us glad. We rejoice that there are still those for whom music has a spiritual meaning, that a ferocious love of beauty is still alive in the great works of modern composers, and that this love, to quote from the title of Nielsen’s Fourth Symphony, seems to be inextinguishable.
1 “Composition with Twelve Tones,” in Style and Idea, Selected Writings of Arnold Schoenberg, Berkeley, 1975 [Reilly, 217]. Whereas tonal music is hierarchical, twelve-tone music is egalitarian: all the tones in the twelve-tone row must be given equal emphasis, “thus depriving one single tone of the privilege of supremacy.” (Reilly, 246)
2 Schoenberg’s preoccupation with himself is revealed in the titles to some of his writings: “The Young and I” (1923), “My Blind Alley” (1926), “My Public” (1930), “New Music: My Music” (c. 1930).
3 Schoenberg disapproved of the term atonal. He said that calling his music atonal was like calling flying the art of not falling, or swimming the art of not drowning. In the end, however, he resigns himself to the term, saying: “in a short while linguistic conscience will have so dulled to this expression that it will provide a pillow, soft as paradise, on which to rest” (Style and Idea ).
4 An essential feature of cosmos is the differentiation of things according to kind. The diatonic order, as opposed to the twelve-tone bag of elements, preserves the kind-character of the different intervals generated from the order. Experience informs us that the perfect fifth, for example, is different in kind from the major third. Twelve-tone music renders this difference in kind meaningless. It would have us live in a world without character.
5 The thought of Pascal and his eternal silences brings to mind the amazing poem by Baudelaire, Rêve Parisien, in which the poet fantasizes about a purely visual world : Tout pour l’oeil, rien pour les oreilles! It must be noted that for Pascal and Baudelaire, a world without sound or music, while terrifying, is also strangely attractive.
6 Jacques Maritain helps us steer clear of thinking that the composer’s love of nature is a slavish act of imitation. He writes: “Artistic creation does not copy God’s creation, it continues it …. Nature is essentially of concern to the artist only because it is a derivation of the divine art in things, ratio artis divinae indita rebus. The artist, whether he knows it or not, consults God in looking at things” (Art and Scholasticism, New York, 1962 [60–61].
7 Summa Theologica, First Part, Question 1, Article 8.
If we put the last century’s notions of “old” and “new” in a broader historic perspective, it becomes clear how short-sighted these notions were and how wrong it was to give them an aura of absoluteness, since these notions are, by their very nature, relative and flexible, and dependent upon context. When the painter, architect and theorist Giorgio Vasari wrote his Lives of the Great Artists (1568), a collection of biographies of Italian artists, he had to explain when discussing Bramante, Raphael, and Michelangelo what he meant by “modern,” since he knew that his audience would have questions about the “strange” idea that artists explored subjects and aesthetic forms which were a thousand years old and presented them as “new.” The rediscovery of the culture of antiquity as a source of inspiration and as a standard of quality was felt, in Renaissance times, as something new and dynamic. The influence of the culture of antiquity can be traced back to the 12th century when conditions favoured a more refined and sophisticated civilisation. This was not the first wave of Renaissance thinking, for Charlemagne had already stimulated interest in antiquity in the early 9th century, in a spirit of constructive reform, after the worst of the barbarism of the 7th and 8th centuries had subsided. Later on, in the medieval world, Italy’s culture was dominated by northern and eastern influences and for many people at that time, “modern” meant the latest developments of medieval culture imported from the prosperous north, especially Flanders. The concept of a “modernity” based upon ideas from ages ago was still controversial, but for the intelligentsia the works of poetry, science, and the visual arts of the Greco-Roman world were all superior to anything produced by contemporary culture, and the presence of Roman monuments, mostly ruined, reminded the Italians of a glorious past and inspired them to dream of a possibly comparable future.
The Renaissance interest in antiquity as a civilising influence is something fundamentally different from modern thinking. In the 20th century, progress was understood as a confident leap into the future: a projected utopia, only made possible by a drastic break with the past. The Past stood for Reaction, and the Future for Progress. By comparison, the ideas of the artists of the Italian Renaissance gives us an opposite picture. Although the relatively immediate past – the Middle Ages (also known as the Dark Ages) – was felt to be stagnant, the future held the possibility of recreating a distant past from a mythological era, which had already profoundly influenced the European intelligentsia. This potential recreation was considered something much better than the art of the Dark Ages, when the arts and crafts of Antiquity had eroded and their secrets were lost.
Assuming that Vasari’s view upon the developments he describes reflected a broader consensus among the intellectual and artistic elite of his time, it is clear that the driving force behind the changes in the arts and architecture from the beginning of the Renaissance onwards, was an urge to do things better than before, not to be more advanced in the sense of being “more modern” and for that reason “better.” Vasari clearly sees “early” artists like Cimabue, Giotto, and Simone Martini as still rather awkward, trying their best, and achieving the best that was possible in their time, but beginning an upward line through Lorenzo Ghiberti, Filippo Brunelleschi, and Sandro Botticelli to the “perfection” of his own time with brilliant people like Michelangelo, Tiziano, and Raphael. So, in Renaissance time, being modern was the result of being better, while in the 20th century being better was the result of being modern – it may be clear that the latter idea is nonsensical because it rests upon an assumed historical position, while in the Renaissance “being better” was achieved through artistic quality, an attitude which was not incompatible with “looking back” if in earlier times sources of inspiration and great examples could be found. An expression like Arthur Rimbaud’s “Il faut être absolument moderne” would be unthinkable in the 16th century, because of expressing a historicist intention prior to the creation of the work of art.
Was the Italian and, in general, the European Renaissance a reactionary, backward-looking, thus conservative period, with all the associations of dullness and conventionality? As we know, the opposite is true: this incredibly rich period meant the flowering of a spirit of invention and aesthetic sensibility, which lasted until the 19th century when this broad wave of inspiration-by-antiquity found a premature death through its codification in academic institutions, in a society that was changing fast in the industrial revolution and the development of the bourgeoisie as the main territory of cultural action. The rebellion against a petrified academic culture was the cradle of modernism: the creative forces of life had left the territory of “official culture,” which had suffocated innovation, and moved towards the margins of society, where neglected artists struggled to find new and freer ways of expression. The idea of “modern art,” reflecting contemporary life instead of idealized subjects, was born from dissatisfaction with a tradition that was codified, frozen in prescriptions of outward appearances of style and form, and thus had become superficial and untrue.
Thus in the 19th century, the urge of leaving conventional ideas about art behind, got the label “modern.” Since that trend eventually ended-up in the dead-end street of establishment modernism, the word “modern” no longer fits this urge, which, incidentally, also lies behind the motivation of new classical composers: what they feel as “conventional” was called “modern” in the past century. A good example which shows that being “modern” in the period before modernism did not involve the need to destroy the fundamentals of the art form, is the work of Debussy, who created an oeuvre which was shockingly untraditional in its own time, therefore very controversial. Debussy is often described as one of the “forefathers” of modernism, who (together with Schönberg) destroyed the orthodoxies of tradition and created a new and free musical paradigm. Boulez especially tried to show that some of the roots of his own sonic art were to be found in Debussy’s explorations. But Debussy never destroyed the inner workings of tonality and the underlying dynamics of tradition with their varied ways of achieving expression. In The Cambridge Companion to Debussy (Cambridge University Press, 2003), Boyd Pommeroy writes:
In keeping with the progressive spirit of the new century, Debussy succeeded in forging elements from the tonal practice of his predecessors into something radically new. At the same time, his tonal language, even at its least orthodox, never loses sight of the traditional principles that ultimately give it meaning. In Debussy’s music, tonal and formal processes continue to interrelate in ways not so fundamentally different from the tonal masterpieces of the preceding two centuries. To the extent that so vital an engagement with the tonal tradition went hand in hand with the creation of such strange and wonderful new sound-worlds, whose vivid modernity remains undimmed at the turn of another century, his achievement was perhaps unique.
Because Debussy never destroyed the fundamentals of music, his work proved immensely influential for composers who were looking for new paths to explore but wanted to avoid the deadlock of atonalism. As in the work of Stravinsky, it is the superb tonal sense which makes the expressive power of this music possible; it is no coincidence that the later works of Stravinsky, when he was influenced by the modernist trends of the fifties, are considerably less interesting. Like the great artists of the Italian Renaissance, Debussy was inspired by a dream of another world, but in his case it was not the stimulating nostalgia for Antiquity which for him stood for academic, and thus dusty, art forms; he detested everything “classical” in music, painting, and architecture. But nonetheless, his artistic temperament was classical through and through: perfectly balanced proportions, moderation in terms of expression, precise and concise craftsmanship, aristocratic style, and avoidance of everything cheap and vulgar. And, like the Renaissance artists who did not approach the art of Antiquity academically, he never undermined the mimetic basis of the art form. In contrary, he enriched it immensely and showed that freedom from classical forms could still preserve their spirit, as is eloquently shown in pieces like Hommage à Rameau, Mouvement, the symphonic La Mer, and of course the three late Sonates. In various articles and interviews, Debussy often mentioned the necessity of returning to the finesse and clarity of the French baroque which, for the French, is their Grand Siècle of classicism.
Looking backwards can easily go together with highly original creation because the process of interpretation operates on another level than the used style or materials; a really creative talent finds ways of combining elements from these two different levels in ever-changing syntheses. One could raise the question: if this is so, could then the musical modernism from the fifties and sixties from the last century not serve as material for contemporary interpretation? Could the work of Boulez and Stokhausen not play the same role as Antiquity for the Italian Renaissance artists? As we have seen, atonal music is not music but sonic art. And indeed, there are young contemporary sound artists who, within the field of sonic art, focus upon that period, and they call their work “new complexity.” The irony is that last century’s modernism cannot turn into a thing of the past without losing its identity, because it wanted so desperately to embody the future. Like the glass and steel cubes of modernist buildings, it cannot afford to become old, to become the past, because that is totally undermining its raison d’être. When the future becomes the past, the one cancels out the other and the result is emptiness. “New complexity” is an excellent example of contemporary conservatism, since that is the only impetus that is left: the conservation of an idea.
The same landscape may reveal very different aspects, depending upon the position from which it is perceived. Also, the past can take on different meanings, changing with the perspective we choose. Marguerite Yourcenar, author of the celebrated historical novel Memoirs of Hadrian, was well aware of the ambiguities of historical perception. She commented in a late interview:
If we look at history closely, leaving behind the academic and ideological clichés of our time, we conclude that every period, every milieu, had its own way of interpreting life… Although the human emotions are always more or less the same, made up of a certain restricted number of basic elements, they are open to thousands of variations, thousands of possibilities. So, if you like, the immensity of musical expression can be related back to the seven notes of the scale. You see these possibilities not only taking shape from century to century, but from year to year. After all, we don’t think the same as in 1950 any longer, and it is fascinating to find at a precise date in the past, the way in which problems have presented themselves, our problems, or problems parallel to ours. In this way, history is a school of liberation. It liberates us from a number of our prejudices and teaches us to see our own problems and our own routines in a different perspective. The past does not offer us an escape route, but a series of junctions, of different exits along the same way. If it may look as a form of escapism, it is an escape in the form of a leap of faith. The study of texts from antiquity has been such a stimulating leap of faith for Renaissance man, saturated as he was with medieval scholastic thought. The study of the Middle Ages was – up to a certain point – an inspiring “escape” for the romantic generation, bringing it back to the sources of popular poetry, to the original, European phenomenon, after the clarity, but also dryness, of the 18th century.” (From: “Entretiens Radiophoniques avec Marguerite Yourcenar” by Patrick de Rosbo; Mercure de France, Paris 1980.)
In periods of change, a civilization needs to draw on the experience as embodied in its cultural and intellectual inheritance to be able to distinguish between irrelevant surface phenomena and meaningful developments: engagement with the riches of a culture is a learning trajectory, not of formulae but of achievements of the human mind which may teach us what is right, what is good, what is meaningful and why, and in which context. It is a learning process which develops our capacity to make value judgments, without which no meaning can be found. Achievements from past periods have to be preserved and to be kept alive in their function of intellectual and cultural resources so that they can be used, can be learned from, facing the challenges of the present. If the past is well understood, it will throw a light upon the world in which we live, a world which has long roots in the accumulation of life experience of numerous generations. The survival of this experience makes renewal possible, which is: the “injection” of life into inherited forms and concepts; creative innovation is only possible on the foundation of the capacity to make elementary distinctions and value judgments and this is learned by studying the achievements and problems of the past of human civilization.
How concepts of “past” and “progress” are being interpreted is dependent upon context. Artists, working at the beginning of the 21st century, may see a reflection of contemporary life experience in works of art which were made ages ago and if they find ways of artistic thinking in the last century exhausted, they may see this as a good reason for looking elsewhere for inspiration. When established forms of “contemporary art” have become a repetition of conventions and clichés – in short, a reactionary attitude – or worse, a serious decline, it is perfectly natural to inspect the achievements of artists of the past from “before the fall” and to learn from them. Nowadays many serious visual artists and composers look to a glorious past for examples to learn from, hoping to create an art which may help identify who we are, or who we want to be, and in which way we want to express and transcend ourselves. In the reality in which Western civilization finds itself today, the modernist and postmodernist chimeras of the last century are futile, unproductive, and irrelevant because they cannot contribute to solutions of problems which have surfaced quite recently and are so different in nature from the time which gave birth to modernism. As the 20th century wanted to liberate itself from a “compromised” past to create the Brave New World, the 21st century woke up to the sobering suspicion that much of that past could nonetheless be helpful in our present predicament. The fall of the Berlin wall and the end of the Cold War, in combination with the environmental problem and an increasing globalization of trade and information technology, have changed the world in a profound way. Europe faces the challenge of reformulating its identity in relation to the world, which is also a cultural challenge. And as far as new art is concerned, the lesson of the Renaissance could greatly help to find an effective way through the maze of conflicting notions.
Identity refers to an awareness and understanding of the past, both on the collective and individual levels. What defines the character of European civilization is its past cultural achievements and the best of the values they embody, how it deals with them, interprets them, and builds upon them, and how the inner security and conviction can be found which is the basis of all constructive action. In the 21st century, rebuilding culture – in its visual and musical forms – is a contemporary challenge with symbolic implications for the entire West. And to be able to prepare conditions for a cultural Renaissance, modernism and its puerile progeny has to be removed from their establishment position in the cultural field, and their funding channeled towards the new art which carries the creative fire which is needed to give to contemporary art the meaning and value it had before the onslaught of 20th-century barbarism.
It is obvious that the attempts of modernist ideologies in the last century to “cancel the past” is not only silly, but in the present times, dangerous. For instance, to understand and reformulate European cultural identity, knowing and understanding the past is crucial. As said, identity is the result of history. In Aldous Huxley’s celebrated novel Brave New World the authorities of a totalitarian state “cancelled” the past, knowing that an awareness of past experience would undermine the credibility and the power of the regime. Cancelling or rewriting the past, which is in fact the same thing, is the usual means of blotting out independent, and thus subversive, thinking in authoritarian societies like Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, and North Korea. The attack upon the past is an attack upon civilization and therefore upon humanity; the inhuman nature of much modernist “music” (built upon a break with the past) is only the logical result of such an ideology.
The break with the past not only destroyed a living tradition, but also gave form to what now can be called the “museum culture.” The distance between the present and the past seemed to turn artifacts and musical works from past periods into icons which came a long way from an inaccessible world, surrounded by a cult of veneration and commercial exploitation. In this museum culture, works of art (including musical works) are seen and listened to as objects in a glass case – in this way, their direct connection with real life seems to have vanished, their makers felt as aliens from a different planet with powers no longer attainable by modern man. There is a direct link between the exaggerated veneration of the masters of the past and the deeply felt inferiority complex of the artists of modern times. And without the nonsense of concept art and sonic art, the traditional museum collections and the traditional musical repertoire would not shine so brilliantly. The break with the past seemed to make a direct inner connection with an artistic practice impossible; instead of history as a source of accessible and useful examples (as it was in pre-modern times), it became “a different country” and a cult.
Therefore, the attempts of new classical composers to recapture this country as something of our own, is a courageous change of direction with the aim to splinter the glass of the museum culture’s cases, making a direct inner connection possible, and showing that the art of the past can be seen as something also living in the present. New classicism not only brings an old tradition to life again, it also makes a more direct emotional connection with the culture of the past possible – as if it were something not far removed in “another world.” It shows the culture of the “museum” as something which also lives in the present. As there is no reason to consider the “museum culture” as something totally removed from our own time, or to see it as something negative in relation to contemporary art (it is not its own fault that a cult has been created around its products and that so much contemporary art is so bad), new classicism should be welcomed as a reassuring signal that also in the present, meaningful art can be created. The whole idea of a museum culture as isolated from real life is being challenged by the current surge of mimetic art and music.
Meanwhile, there is a very good reason to support and cherish the islands of this so-called “museum culture,” where the accumulation of knowledge and understanding of human life and civilization is expressed not in a purely scientific way but in the form of experiences which involve the entire human being and are thus accessible to anybody who takes the trouble to enter this territory and learn to understand its various artistic “languages.” Fortunately, the reality is that the past still lives in the present, and if we want to maintain Western civilization and restore it according to its best ideas, we should be warned against utopias which cancel the humanistic and spiritual/expressive qualities of art. Purely materialistic and rationalistic philosophies of art inevitably carry in them the seeds of primitivism and barbarism. In these days, a classicism which draws its understanding of civilization from the lessons of the past seems to be the best possible attitude to counter utopianism and its tendency to dehumanize society and the individual.
Is this “conservative?” The answer will be clear: no, it is progressive in the sense that the Italian Renaissance was progressive, progressive in the sense of making things better, trying to achieve a better artistic quality, by following superb examples of a glorious past. This notion of “better” is only possible in a world view where hierarchical thinking in connection with value and quality is taken for granted. However, in an egalitarian society such as our Western one, where democratization has also been understood as applicable in territories like the arts, this is often considered as “elitist,” and thus un- or anti-democratic, an attitude which cannot result otherwise than in an undermining of creative ambition and marginalization of the best of talents. It is a sign of primitivism, of erosion, not of social “progress.” There is a link between the aristocratic, “elitist” attitude towards the arts in Renaissance times (and the ages directly following this glorious period), and the formidable quality of its art production – as there is between the modern democratic world and the deplorable state of its art as exhibited in the official, established public spaces and as supported by the state. The primitivism of “official” contemporary art and contemporary music is a reflection of the primitivism of the society which supports it – how could it be otherwise?
On this point it may be enlightening to mention the anthropologist Daniel Everett’s memoirs of his thirty-year stay with a primitive tribe in the Amazon jungle, the Pirahas (Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes, Profile Books / Pantheon, 2008). This isolated community lives the way their forebears lived for thousands of years and they share a couple of remarkable characteristics: they have a simple language and speak in short sentences; they do not believe in gods, have no idea of spirituality, and do not believe in an afterlife; they are not conscious of the past or the future but live exclusively in the present; they have a strong resistance towards outsiders which they dub “crooked heads;” they don’t use numbers but words for amounts like “a little” or “much,” but nothing for ten, or five, or one hundred; their society is like a commune: an egalitarian, non-hierarchical social system which seems to be quite effective for them; they are not interested in learning agriculture and are happy with their hunter/gatherer existence; they have no interest in producing artwork. The remarkable thing is that they are, or strongly seem to be, a happy people who see nothing wrong or “restricted” in their way of living and thus want to keep things as they have always been. Not surprisingly, they resist modernization. They are traditionalists and conservatives in the reactionary, un-creative sense, clearly forced to remain as they are by the strong limitations their natural environment brings upon them. Do these characteristics not sound familiar? Are there not quite some people living in the modern West with many of these characteristics (sometimes even including the hunter/gatherer mentality)? People for whom the total absence of culture and the territory of the mind and spirit is not experienced as an absence, but as a happy state of unconsciousness? One can find these tribes everywhere in the big cities of the West, where there are no limitations like those of the Amazon jungle environment.
It must be said that, apparently, the Pirahas are perfectly adapted to their difficult life in primitive conditions where their lack of civilizational interests can be excused. But to find these typical primitive characteristics in the midst of a so-called civilized and wealthy world is – to say the least – rather disturbing. It is not the primitive tribes in the jungles who need civilization, but many areas within the civilized societies themselves, who in their educational system often seem to fail to teach the basic tenets of what it means to live in a civilized world.
The artists and composers who dedicate themselves to the task of restoration of cultural traditions, including the civilizational values they embody, feel the need to contribute to the core of what the best of European civilization has been. The need for a restoration of European and Western culture and cultural identity in the broadest sense is felt everywhere and the pioneers of this new classicism are the first artists who have rightly understood the challenge of renewal of the Western world in the 21st century, a renewal which gives the best of the past its due and sees it as a springing board for a more civilized world and more civilized contemporary art. They deserve our attention and our support because they may find the themes and subjects which will symbolize the path taken by society as a whole.
America may be a young country, but it fairly dominated music in the twentieth century. When I say music, I mean classical music, but the statement applies equally to popular music – maybe even with more force. Think of Gershwin, Rodgers, Porter, and the jazz greats, just for starters. It all went wrong in about 1970 – you’re free to pick your own date – but that is another long, sour essay.
In classical music, America’s strength is a little short of astonishing. We are talking about a European art form, which the United States embraced with gusto. When the Declaration of Independence was signed, Mozart was already twenty; America had a lot of mud (and political genius and some other things). By the Civil War, we had little to commend us but Louis Moreau Gottschalk. But by the end of World War II, we were rolling.
Of course, Europe helped us immensely, by persecuting – when not trying to kill – so many of its people. America grew to dominance in classical music partly by default, as it did in other areas. Conductors like Reiner, Szell, and Solti may not have chosen to have American careers, but those were the careers they wound up having. Our musical institutions were built on the talent and drive of European émigrés. And those institutions are healthy now, despite clamorous claiming to the contrary. Will they continue to be healthy – even dominant – as the twenty-first century progresses? Probably so, as long as America remains welcoming, ambitious, and free.
To remark the preeminence of America is not to say that Europe is nothing – not at all. Vienna is still a worthy music capital, and Berlin has much to offer, and so does London, not to mention numerous smaller places, such as Oslo. But the United States is still the place where the action is, where big careers re made, where music-making is most predictably excellent – in the orchestral hall, in the opera house, and elsewhere. An acknowledgement of this should have no odor of chauvinism whatsoever; it is a matter of objectivity. Music is a universal, not a national, enterprise anyway, and people from all over the world come to America to make music, rendering this activity not so much American as human.
The death of classical music is frequently proclaimed, and it has ever been thus. As Charles Rosen once wrote, “The death of classical music is perhaps its oldest tradition.” The arguments in favor of death (if you will) are so tired and weak they are hardly worth confronting anymore. But we are usually drawn in. In my experience, some people actually enjoy predicting or announcing the death of classical music, because, when they do, others are apt to nod sadly and knowingly. To proclaim the death of classical music marks the proclaimer as a defender of civilization, and a foe of the destroyers.
One who doggedly counters the death idea is Gary Graffman, the pianist and (former)director of the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. He was even moved to title a recent speech “Dead Again”! He noted that he kept having to give essentially the same speech, because prophecies of doom would not let up. “Disaster is always just around the corner,” he said. But “one advantage of having reached the age of pontification” – Graffman is in his mid-seventies – “is that I actually lived through experiences identical to those which are now considered unique to our present philistine conditions.” He went on to give multiple examples, some of them amusing. Consider this: in 1961, RCA Victor wanted Horowitz to record an album of popular music. His wife, Wanda – the daughter of Toscanini – shouted to an executive, “Better you should open a whorehouse!” RCA canceled the pianist’s contract. Somehow, he survived.
When Graffman was coming up, the music business was puny compared with today. In the late 1940s, “there were only two major concert managements, with a total of about 40 pianists between them.” In 2001, Musical America – a professional bible – listed 624 pianists. “So maybe we should be worrying more about glut than decline.” Moreover, at mid-century, “New York had only one large concert hall, and – believe me, because I was there – very few performances were anywhere near sold out.” For Horowitz, Rubinstein, and Heifetz? Yes. But for Serkin, Milstein, and Piatigorsky, Carnegie Hall was not even half full. No one thought this condition odd or alarming. Indeed, “a half-empty (or half-full) hall” was “the norm.”
Zarin Mehta is eloquent on the subject of glut, as he is on other subjects. (Mehta was the executive director of the New York Philharmonic, and the brother of the conductor Zubin.) “If people think that classical music was healthier in earlier decades,” he says, “they should investigate how many seats were available then versus now.” The success of classical music in the 1960s and 1970s, when orchestras became full-time instead of part-time, “led to an explosion in every city” – and not just large ones, but simple burbs. Communities wanted their own orchestras. “Many, many more seats became available for classical music.” So “if ticket sales are deemed soft today, perhaps it’s a question of supply.”
I will take a little tour of the American music world, looking in on various facets. But here is a basic point: How you think classical music is doing depends, in large measure, on what your expectations are. If you expect classical music to be as popular as popular music, you will be sorely disappointed. As I frequently have cause to say to people, “That’s why they call it popular music, you know.” There will always be a type that can’t stand that the broad public fails to share his concerns, passions, loves. Many such people have an evangelizing, proselytizing spirit – they can hardly sleep at night knowing that their neighbors prefer musical dross to gold. They will not reconcile themselves to the fact that classical music will always be, as it has always been, a minority taste. But the minority – lucky us – has an abundance before it.
The great mezzo-soprano Marilyn Horne said to me, in an interview, “Classical music is under assault in this country.” This is an understandable – if strikingly dark – point of view, for in some ways we are slipping. For example, music education in grades K through 12 has all but ceased. And the song recital – a major Horne concern – is dismayingly rare. But in other respects, we are going gangbusters: Chamber music has exploded, for instance. You can hardly walk a block without encountering a chamber-music concert, or festival. As Gary Graffman pointed out to me, there used to be only the Budapest String Quartet, and its most prominent member, Alexander (Sasha) Schneider, liked to recall, “Vee vent by bus.” Now there is a comparatively huge number of musicians who make a living in chamber music, and they don’t go by bus.
Even in areas where we seem to be distressed, the news is mixed. The recording industry is currently moribund, but why? Because the record stores are groaning with albums already made. Never has so much music been available to so many, and so cheaply. As Zarin Mehta commented, “I started buying records when I was sixteen or seventeen. I don’t go to record stores anymore, because I have essentially everything I want. Do I need a fifth recording of the Ring cycle?” Furthermore, the Internet is now seen as a great robber of recordings, but it may prove a boon to music in the future. In addition, musicians are making CDs in their own homes or studios, at little expense, and selling them to interested parties.
So the business of music will evolve, as it always has. We may not be able to foresee its forms – but we can count on musical life.
For orchestras, times have changed dramatically since mid-century. Then, you could hardly make a living as an orchestral musician, even in the best orchestras. “The men,” as they were called, had to sell shoes, paint houses, and do other odd jobs in the summer, just to make ends meet. A fifty-two-week contract was only a dream; it is now an entrenched reality. To work in an orchestra is not to take a vow of poverty; pay in one of the big orchestras begins at about $100,000 a year; it soon rises.
Even aside from the top orchestras, there is an embarrassment of riches. Jack McAuliffe, (former) chief operating officer of the American Symphony Orchestra League, reports that there are about 1,800 orchestras in the fifty states. Of these 1,800, about 600 are either youth, conservatory, or collegiate orchestras. They are “important for the development of both orchestras and audiences,” says McAuliffe, “but they aren’t necessarily a factor in discussing the economics of orchestras today.” Of the remaining 1,200 “adult” orchestras, “you have orchestras in which everyone is paid, and, at the other end, orchestras in which no one is paid. Of the 1,200, about 350 fall into the category of professional orchestras, where the majority of members are paid, and participating for professional reasons, not merely for the enjoyment.”
In the past couple of seasons – since September 11 – orchestras have had trouble, as many businesses and other enterprises have. But, as McAuliffe notes, the decade of the 1990s was “probably the best ever for orchestras, with record attendance.” About 32 million seats were filled in the 2000–01 season, up 16 percent from ten years before. “During the late ’90s,” that roaring time, “virtually every orchestra was showing at least a small surplus, with many in the process of building substantial endowments – and the ones that had them already were increasing them.”
Since 9/11, we have, again, been in a “much more challenging time.” Most orchestras are worrying, but they are succeeding – because they are knuckling down. “Of the 350 professional orchestras,” says McAuliffe, “we’re aware of eight that haven’t made it – that have either ceased operations or filed for bankruptcy. That is a failure rate of three-quarters of one percent per year. For most industries, that would be downright enviable.” But, if a couple of orchestras stumble, the media tend to play it in death-of-classical-music tones. To be sure, says McAuliffe, the failure of an orchestra is no fun for that orchestra’s community, but part of economic life is that some institutions fail – and then, perhaps, recover, get reconstituted, as has happened with many orchestras. In the late 1980s and early 1990s – another difficult period – eight orchestras went under (by coincidence, the same number that would succumb a decade later). In time, however, each of those eight communities gained an orchestra of approximately the same size and scope of the one it lost. For example, the Denver Symphony came back as the Colorado Symphony. The orchestra in Birmingham came back as the Alabama Symphony. In most such cases, the same basic group plays under a new name, and under different governance.
Quite recently, Pittsburgh suffered a bankruptcy scare. The orchestra there is superb, bearing a storied past. But through the years, the PSO was not supported much by the community at large – that is, with donations – because a few prominent citizens, most of them named Heinz, took care of it. Pittsburghers in general did not have the sense that they needed to contribute in order to have an orchestra. But the prospect of bankruptcy jolted them awake – and they responded with their contributions, utterly unwilling to see their orchestra expire, or even flag.
McAuliffe sums up: “Orchestras are still a robust part of the artistic life of an awful lot of communities. In fact, they are often centerpieces of that artistic life, forming the basis of opera companies, dance companies, music education in schools” (such as it is). Orchestras will never “just work,” without effort – “it really takes dedication.” But “interest in this art form isn’t dying; it’s just an expensive form of art to support.”
Not only are today’s orchestras robust, they have sturdy homes to live in – in many cases, new ones. Listen to Robert Harth, executive and artistic director of Carnegie Hall: “To those who would sing the swan song of classical music’s death, I would point out the fact that the most talked about building on the planet was built for classical music.”* Harth made that statement in October 2003, and he was speaking of Disney Hall in Los Angeles, designed by Frank Gehry. “It’s a magnificent building, a life-changing building, not just for the L.A. Philharmonic, but for that entire city. And that makes a dramatic and positive statement about classical music.” Jack McAuliffe would point to Newark, too – yes, Newark: “The New Jersey Performing Arts Center was built in the middle of nothing, and it has spawned all sorts of development. It is now a pleasant experience to go to Newark. I guarantee you that wasn’t the case ten years ago.” And “the New Jersey Symphony is thriving.”
Other new halls include the Kimmel Center in Philadelphia, Benaroya Hall in Seattle, the Max M. Fisher Center in Detroit (nicknamed the Max), The Meyerson Center in Dallas, Bass Hall in Fort Worth, Jacoby Hall in Jacksonville, and the Schuster Center in Dayton. Robert Harth adds, “Atlanta is building a new concert hall, and Toronto just redid theirs. Severance Hall in Cleveland has been completely revamped. This is ‘dying’?”
But Marilyn Horne sounds a cautionary note. In Greenville, South Carolina, they built the Peace Center, a fabulous performing-arts complex. (It is named for a philanthropic family named Peace, not for the concept.) The center “has a recital hall, a concert hall, and extraordinary acoustics,” says Horne,
but as the man responsible told me, “It’s easier to raise money than to put a body in a seat.” So what did he have to bring in to put bodies in the seats? Les Miz, Phantom of the Opera, and so on. There’s nothing wrong with bringing those pieces in, but it’s not classical music, and that is worrying.
It is indeed: but in 2003–04, the Peace Center had not only Les Miz – and Seussical, for that matter – but the Emerson String Quartet (part of this chamber boom I mentioned).
A second cautionary note comes from Sedgwick Clark, editor of Musical America. He is concerned about the cost of all this music building. “We must take stock of what we’re spending, and control our costs. I look at Disney Hall, and it’s an extraordinary thing, but it’s going to cost an arm and a leg to maintain.” At Disney, “the cheapest seat will be $35. To sit in the orchestra will be $120. For a concert! Maybe I’ve just gotten old, but the fact of the matter is, $120 for a concert – how many CDs can I guy for that amount? This is a serious problem.” Our new orchestral halls are impressive, Clark notes, but “if they’re not sold out, or close to sold out, the orchestras have a terrible time.” There are those generous salaries to look after, and employee benefits, and pension plans.
Fundraising in music is a special art. Beverly Sills knows quite a bit about it, and about fundraising in general. “I raised $100 million for the March of Dimes,” she informs me,
and hundreds of millions for other charities. Medical causes do better than music. If you have some disease to cure, you’re not going to want to fork over millions for another production of La Bohème. But I say in all my speeches: “Art is the signature of civilization.” We dance for joy, our hearts sing. When we’re little children, we take crayons and know immediately how to scribble. When my husband and I moved into a new apartment, the first thing we did, poor as we were, was paint the walls and hang up Mama’s pictures. In the car, we want the radio on. We don’t want to be in a silent ambiance.
So she tells her audiences that the arts are not a luxury, and they – at least for her, a woman hard to turn down – come through.
Mention of Beverly Sills leads us to the opera. It’s not easy to be gloomy about this slice of music, no matter how hard you try. Marc Scorca, the president of Opera America, supplies the essential facts: In the second half of the twentieth century, opera in the United States grew enormously – it was practically a boom. Opera America now has 115 member companies there are companies in all but a handful of states. Aside from these, “there are many smaller, community-based endeavors, and lots of university and conservatory opera programs that put on performances for paying audiences.” Of the 115, fully three-quarters have been established since 1960.
Understandably, opera is “the most expensive of the traditional performing arts,” as Scorca says. “One of the reasons we see opera-company formation as a relatively recent phenomenon is that the financial and infrastructural requirements of opera are considerable: It takes a long time for a community to have a critical mass of audience members and donors prepared to sustain a company. You can’t put on an opera very spontaneously.” No, you have to have a chorus and an orchestra; you need technicians, stagehands, a costumer, a stage designer – and that’s not even mentioning the soloists. Plus, opera “is traditionally performed in a theater with an orchestra pit, and not every community has one of those. You can put on a play with two characters in a store front. You can have a dance program in a loft, as long as it doesn’t have too many pillars. But opera is a formidable undertaking.
Therefore, the public must want it, for these companies to be born and to succeed. Scorca explains that opera is “a multimedia art form in a multimedia world.” It includes texts, visual images, drama, often dance – “and these components are very much part of our popular culture.” Opera
doesn’t ask you to sit and enjoy a purely auditory experience. It involves you in every way that other contemporary entertainments involve you. As people seek a classical-arts experience that is still based on the multimedia sensory experience they have enjoyed in the popular culture, opera is the classical art form they can respond to.
One boost to opera was the advent of titles – supertitles, seatback titles, those lines of words that help an audience member understand what’s happening onstage. Says Beverly Sills, “I worked very hard to bring titles into the opera. Jimmy said, ‘Over my dead body.’” (That would be James Levine, artistic director of the Metropolitan Opera.) But titles came to the Met, to the satisfaction of almost everybody, and with Levine still breathing in the pit. Marc Scorca confirms that titles made for “a huge improvement in reaching out to new audiences.” Before, there was always a severe language barrier to overcome. Now people do not sit flummoxed (except by plots and other operatic strangeness). Some traditionalists maintain that titles break an important visual connection to the performer – and they are right – but most of us judge it a sacrifice worth making.
The reigning house in America, of course – and in the world – is the Met. It has no real rivals, as its (former)general manager, Joseph Volpe, points out (not boasting); it is a unique institution. There are other companies as renowned – La Scala in Milan, Convent Garden in London, the Staatsoper in Vienna – but no one company that does so much. Volpe notes that La Scala puts on seventy or eighty performances a season: “To be general manager there would be a semi-retirement job”! The Met has a full-time orchestra and a full-time chorus, and “it’s important that they work” – more or less continuously. In Vienna, “they’re known for putting on a production with no rehearsal at all, or just one rehearsal. They’re also known for having one leading cast member,” with the rest plucked from the company. “We are, and have been historically, noted for having top singers.” But, Volpe continues,
as the season expands, this becomes more and more difficult, particularly considering travel. A lot depends on the dollar. Our fees are lower than in the European houses. In Italy, they’ll pay $30,000 for a single performance. They’ll deny it, but it’s true. Our top fee is $15,000. So, what’s going to happen is, some singers will spend more time in Europe than in the United States.
Volpe cites Bryn Terfel, the beloved bass-baritone from Wales:
He has three children, and it’s easy for him to jump on a plane and fly to a city in Europe, sing, and go home. To come to the Met is a larger commitment. You end up here a long period of time. You can’t fly home to be back with the family, as you can in Europe. The days of great singes staying in America are over.
Like everyone else, the Met has taken a financial hit in the post-9/11 environment. Ticket sales and donations are down. But the institution is fundamentally sound. As Volpe observes, a house that survived the Great Depression can survive a lot. You just have to roll with events, and not panic.
A particular concern in recent days has been whether the famous Met radio broadcasts will continue. They began in 1931, and in 1940 came under the sponsorship of Texaco. In 2003, that company – now ChevronTexaco – announced that it would quit sponsoring the broadcasts. This was no small matter to the Met, because, as Volpe points out, radio is responsible for a good deal of its national and international reputation. Three million people listen to the broadcasts in the United States, and seven million listen in forty-one other countries. “That’s very important to the Met’s image.” It takes about $7 million a year to produce these radio broadcasts. At this writing, the Met has not secured permanent sponsorship, but Volpe and Beverly Sills – who is chairman of the Met’s board – are confident that they will. There is little reason to doubt them.
About the prospect of making records again, it’s hard to be as confident. The recording industry is now stagnant, as I have mentioned. Opera CDs coming out today, says Volpe, tend to be produced in Europe, “with orchestras that are paid a very small fee.” Unionized orchestras in the U.S. would have none of that. “What’s been happening in our country is that record companies have been saying for years and years and years. ‘We can’t afford to pay what the musicians demand, and we can’t make any money off of classical music.’ So business has dried up.” And, “frankly, how many Rosenkavaliers do you need?” (Back to the glut problem.) Continues Volpe, “The only way the Met will get back into recording is if we produce recordings live, without paying fees, and then have some kind of revenue sharing with our people.”
The general manager recounts a conversation with Renée Fleming, the celebrated soprano, who opened the 2003–04 Met season as Violetta. “Renée was unhappy because there was no television for her Traviata. I told her that we would broadcast on radio and that maybe, someday, there would be a recording of that.” In truth, “that’s the real McCoy,” the live broadcast, with no touching up, no corrective takes, “and I don’t think it’s so horrible” to present the company that way.
Volpe and the Met are often criticized for producing too few new operas – for being a mere “museum,” if not a “mausoleum.” The GM protests,
If you look at the last ten years, our track record with contemporary works is probably as good as any opera company’s. But understand something: Commissioned works are very, very expensive. We have to fund the commissioning and fund the production. If we can do one every three years, that would be a nice pace. What we can do depends on our financial situation.
Sure, in the good old days, the Met produced one new opera after another. But “do you know what?” asks Volpe. “Composers would come in off the street, shove a manuscript into your hand, and say, ‘Here’s an opera. Wanna put it on?’ They didn’t start with, ‘First give me $350,000, then …’ And remember, we rehearse what we perform: We don’t put things onstage unrehearsed.” Rehearsal, like time – being time – is money.
The Met seems permanent, unbudgeable, like the U.S. Capitol. Will it be forever? “I think it will be forever,” says the GM,
because there are so many people who love this art form. The question is, What does that mean? The Met in the form of today? Maybe not. Does it mean thirty-two weeks of performances a year? Maybe not. So the question is – I hate the word “evolve.” When I first started out, I hated that word. I said, “Don’t tell me about ‘evolve.’ You’ve got to be in charge and decide things, not just let them evolve!”
But Joe Volpe is more comfortable with that concept now, as one is often forced to become.
The attempted suicide of Western classical music has failed. The patient is recovering, no thanks to the efforts of music’s Dr. Kevorkian, Arnold Schoenberg, whose cure, the imposition of a totalitarian atonality, was worse than the disease – the supposed exhaustion of the tonal resources of music. Schoenberg’s vaunted mission to “emancipate dissonance” by denying that tonality exists in Nature led to the successive losses of tonality, melody, harmony, and rhythm.
Music went out of the realm of Nature and into abstract, ideological systems. Thus we were given a secondhand or ersatz reality in music that operated according to its own self-invented and independent rules divorced from the very nature of sound. Not surprisingly, these systems, including Schoenberg’s 12-tone method of mandatory atonality, broke down. The systematic fragmentation of music was the logical working out of the premise that music is not governed by mathematical relationships and laws that inhere in the structure of a hierarchical and ordered universe, but is wholly constructed by man and therefore essentially without limits or definition.
Sound familiar? All the symptoms of the 20th century’s spiritual sickness are present, including the major one diagnosed by Eric Voegelin as a “loss of reality.” By the 1950s Schoeberg’s doctrines were so entrenched in the academy, the concert hall, and the awards system, that any composer who chose to write tonal music was consigned to oblivion by the musical establishment. One such composer, Robert Muczynski, referred to this period as the “long-term tyranny which has brought contemporary music to its current state of constipation and paralysis.”
The tyranny is now gone and tonality is back. But the restoration of reality has not taken place all at once. What began emerging from under the rubble of 12-tone music back in the 1960s was minimalism. In it, tonality returned with a vengeance but was, at first, more like a patient from a trauma ward gradually recovering consciousness. The traumatized patient slowly comes out of a coma, only gradually recovering motor skills, coordination, movement, and coherent speech. The musical movement known as minimalism is the sometimes painfully slow rediscovery of the basic vocabulary of music: rhythm, melody, and harmony. During this convalescence, such minimalists as American composer John Adams have spoken of the crisis through which they passed in explicitly spiritual terms. He said, “I learned in college that tonality died, somewhere around the time that Nietzsche’s God died. And, I believed it.” His recovery involved a shock: “When you make a dogmatic decision like that early in your life, it takes some kind of powerful experience to undo it.” That experience, for Adams and others, has proven to be a spiritual, and sometimes religious, one. In fact, the early excitement over minimalism has been eclipsed by the attention now being paid to the new spirituality in music, sometimes referred to as “mystical minimalism.”
If you have heard of the “new spirituality” in music, it is most likely on account of one of these three somewhat unlikely composers who have met with astonishing success over the past several decades: the late Henryk Górecki from Poland, Arvo Pärt from Estonia, and the late John Tavener from England. Though their styles are very unlike, they do share some striking similarities: they, like John Adams, all once composed under the spell of Schoenberg’s 12-tone method and were considered in the avant-garde; all subsequently renounced it (as Pärt said, “The sterile democracy between the notes has killed in us every lively feeling”); and all are, or were, devout Christians, two of them having converted to the Russian Orthodox faith, the other having adhered to his Catholic faith throughout his life.
Anyone who has tracked the self-destruction of music over the past half century has to be astonished at the outpouring of such explicitly religious music and at its enormously popular reception. Can the recovery of music be, at least partially, a product of faith, in fact of Christian faith? A short time ago, such a question would have produced snickers in the concert hall, howls in the academy, and guffaws among the critics. In fact, it still might. In a New York Times review, a critic condescended to call the works of the three composers nothing but “Feel-Good Mysticism.” However, the possibility gains some plausibility when one looks back at the source of the problem in Schoenberg himself and to a mysterious episode that brought what he thought would be his greatest achievement to a creative halt.
Though one of the greatest compositional talents of the 20th century, Schoenberg fell silent before he could finish the opera Moses und Aron. It is not as if he ran out of time. The first two acts were finished in the early 1930s. Before he died in 1951 at the age of 76, he had close to 20 years to write the third and final act. He tried four different times to no avail. His failure is particularly ironic because Schoenberg saw himself as the musical Moses of the 20th century. Moses und Aron was to be the tablets on which he wrote the new commandments of music. He was saving music with his new system of serialism. But, like the Moses he portrays at the end of the second act, he despaired of ever being able to explain his salvific mission to his people. As Moses falls to the ground, he exclaims: “O word, thou word that I lack.”
Schoenberg wandered in and out of his Jewish faith, with a side trip through Lutheranism. He saw no need to be scripturally faithful in his libretto for the opera, so it is all the more curious that he was stymied by what he called “some almost incomprehensible contradictions in the Bible.” More specifically, he said, “It is difficult to get over the divergence between ‘and thou shalt smite the rock’ and ‘speak ye unto the rock.’ …It does go on haunting me.” Schoenberg was troubled by the question: Why was Moses, when leading the Jews through the Sinai, punished for striking the rock a second time? The first time Moses struck the rock, water poured forth. The second time, God said to Moses, “Speak to the rock.” But Moses impetuously struck it instead. For that, he was banned from ever entering the Promised Land. Why? That unanswered question left Schoenberg with an unfinished opera.
As it turned out, Schoenberg was not the Moses of music. He led his followers into, rather than out of, the desert. However, the silence into which Schoenberg fell before the end of Moses und Aron has now been filled. And the music filling it is written by Christian composers who have found the answer to the question that so tortured him. The answer is in the New Testament. The rock could not be struck a second time because, as St. Paul tells us, “The rock was Christ,” and Christ can be struck down only once, “once and for all,” a sole act sufficient for the salvation of mankind.
Pärt completely believes, and Górecki and Tavener believed, in the salvific act of Christ, centered their lives upon it, and expressed it in their music. They also shared a preliminary disposition necessary for the reception of this belief. During a trip to Washington, DC, in the early 1990s, Górecki was asked to comment on the phenomenal success of his Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, the Nonesuch recording of which sold more than 800,000 copies. Górecki responded, “Let’s be quiet.” Perhaps that is the most urgent message of all three composers, “Be quiet.” Or perhaps more biblically, “Be still.” This stillness is not the empty silence at the end of the second act of Moses und Aron. It is a full, gestational silence that allows one, like Moses, to hear the remaining words: “And know that I am God.”
This profound sense of silence permeates the works of the three composers. Some of their compositions emerge from the very edge of audibility and remain barely above it, conveying the impression that there is something in the silence that is now being revealed before once again slipping out of range. The deep underlying silence slowly surfaces and lets itself be heard. For those precious moments one hears what the silence has to say. When not used in this way, a grammar of silence is nonetheless is employed that punctuates even the more extrovert and vociferous works. Moments of silence stand like sentinels, guarding the inner stillness from the violence of sounds that have not come out of the silence.
Another shared feature of the music of these composers is its sense of stasis. Every critic has noted this feature and some complain about it: “Nothing happens!” Pärt, Górecki, and Tavener do not employ the traditional Western means of musical development. They have found the sonata principle of development that has driven music since the 18th century, and which gives music so much of its sense of forward motion, extraneous for their purpose. Their purpose is contemplation, specifically the contemplation of religious truths. Their music is hieratic. As such, it aims for the intersection of time and timelessness, at which point the transcendent becomes perceptible. As Pärt states, “That is my goal. Time and timelessness are connected.” This sense of stasis is conveyed through the use of silence; consistently slow tempos (that make any temporary quickening particularly dramatic); the use of repetition and through the intensification this repetition implies; and a simplicity of means that includes medieval plainsong and organum. (As Pärt says, “It is enough when a single note is beautifully played.”)
Repetition can be used as an adornment or a means of meditation, as it was in medieval and Renaissance music. Some of the hymns to Mary that endlessly repeat her name are a form of musical caress. They create a musical cradle in which to hold her name. With these composers, repetition of musical phrases, words, or both is also used as a means of recovery. The repeated invocation is all the more insistent when there is a sense of loss and devastation. In his Beatus Vir, Górecki cries out unconsolingly, almost angrily: “Domine!” Where is God in the midst of the horror? The almost grating insistence with which “Domine” is repeated moves from a sense of despair to one of assertion and then finally to consolation and release. The repetition is exorcistic.
Because of the predominance of these characteristics in the work of Górecki, Pärt, and Tavener, and their hearkening back to earlier periods of music, they are accused of being reactionary, if not archaic. However their work is not a form of cultural nostalgia. Their change in technique is not an attempt at a new or an old means of expression. Their technique changed because they have something profound to express. As Thomas Merton once remarked, the perfection of 12th-century Cistercian architecture was reached not because the Cestercians were looking for new techniques, but because they were looking for God. Górecki, Pärt, and Tavener are looking for God, and they have found a musical epiphany in the pursuit.
Aside from these shared traits, Górecki, Pärt, and Tavener are quite unlike in the sounds they create. Curiously, Pärt, the Russian Orthodox Estonian composer, uses Western Latin idioms from the Roman Catholic Church, while Western English composer, Tavener, uses the exotic Russian Orthodox idioms hailing from Byzantium. Górecki, the Pole, stayed right where he was, in the middle, using earlier modes of Western liturgical music but staying fairly mainstream. He sounds the least exotic of the three.
Górecki (1933–2010) was also the toughest of the three composers and the most modern in his musical vocabulary, though he was considered a conservative reactionary by his erstwhile colleagues in the European avant-garde. (He said that leading modernist Pierre Boulez was “unbelievably angry” about his music.) Though at times harsh for expressive purposes, Górecki’s music is never hysterical, like so much modern music that reflects the horror of the 20th century without the perspective of faith. He could look at suffering unblinkingly because Christianity does not reject or deny suffering but subsumes it under the Cross. At the heart of the most grief-stricken moments of his work, there is a confidence that can come only from deep belief. When asked where he got his courage to resist Communist pressure, Górecki said, “God gave me a backbone – it’s twisted now, but still sturdy. …How good a Catholic I am I do not know; God will judge that, and I will find out after I die. But faith for me is everything. If I did not have that kind of support, I could not have passed the obstacles in my life.”
Górecki did not shrink from facing the nightmare through which his country and the 20th century have gone. Poland was trampled by both the destructive ideologies of our time, Nazism and Communism. The moving consolation his works offer comes after real and harrowing grief. (Can someone really refer to this as “Feel-Good Mysticism?”) One can recover from a loss only if one grieves over it, and, yes, expresses anger over it as well. The anger is heard in Beatus Vir, as mentioned above. This piece is dedicated to the late Pope John Paul II, who commissioned it when he was still the cardinal archbishop of Kraków. One of the most extraordinary expressions of grief is Górecki’s Symphony No. 3 for soprano and orchestra: Symphony of Sorrowful Songs. It is a huge, arching, heart-breaking lament, written in 1976. Its three texts are on the theme of grieving motherhood. The first movement, based on Mary’s lament at the Cross, is a slow-moving extended canon for strings that unfolds in a moving, impassioned crescendo over the course of nearly half an hour. The central text is a prayer to Mary inscribed by an eighteen-year-old girl on the wall of her cell in the basement of Gestapo headquarters in Zakopane, Poland, September 1944. It includes the admonition: “No, Mother, do not weep.” Though Górecki drew on Polish folk song, the appeal of this deeply affecting musical requiem can be felt by anyone for whom these themes resonate. This one work gathers up the whole tragedy of Poland in the 20th century and places it before Mary, standing at the Cross.
Another piece written with the same basic architectural structure as the first part of Symphony No. 3 is Miserere. Górecki wrote it as a protest over the bludgeoning of members of Solidarity by the militia in 1981, shortly before the declaration of martial law. But, in this work, unlike in Beatus Vir, one cannot hear the protest. Its text is: “Domine Deus noster, Miserere nobis.” The Lord’s name is at first gently, then with growing strength, and finally expectantly invoked for nearly half an hour. The words “Miserere nobis” are not heard until the final three minutes. Rather than a crescendo, they are presented, to moving effect, diminuendo. Mercy arrives with tender gentleness. Miserere is a beautiful work of affirmation and consolation.
Though writing in a thoroughly accessible idiom, Arvo Pärt (b. 1935) is not an “easy listen.” His work emerges from deep spiritual discipline and experience, and demands (and gives) as much in return. One will not be washed away in sonorous wafts of highly emotional music – there is no effortless epiphany here. Pärt is the most formally austere of the three, but is also the one with the most ontological sense – he presents a note as if it were being heard for the first time. Even more than the other two, his work is steeped in silence. When he abandoned the modernism of his earlier work, he retreated to a Russian Orthodox monastery for several years of silence. When he emerged, he began writing music of extraordinary purity and simplicity, using medieval and Renaissance techniques. Pärt’s music comes out of the fullness of silence. “How can one fill the time with notes worthy of the preceding silence?” he asks. During a rehearsal of his composition The Beatitudes, Pärt told the conductor, “The silence must be longer. This music is about the silence. The sounds are there to surround the silence.” The puzzled conductor asked Pärt, “Exactly how many beats? What do you do during the silence?” Pärt responded, “You don’t do anything. You wait. God does it.”
The closer to the source of silence out of which it comes, the closer his music is to being frightening – or awesome, in the original sense of the word – and heart-breakingly beautiful. Pärt appropriately chose the Gospel of John, the most metaphysical of the Gospels, for the text of his Passio. “In the beginning,” begins St. John. This feel for ontology, for creation close to its source in the Creator, permeates Pärt’s music. It can be heard in instrumental works such as Fratres and Tabula rasa, or in striking choral compositions, such as the exquisite Stabat Mater and the Miserere.
Pärt’s Stabat Mater from 1985 brings us back to the piercing purity of the 13th-century text and to the liturgical roots of the work. Composed for a trio of voices and a trio of violin, viola, and cello, this 24-minute opus, employing medieval and Renaissance techniques, is startlingly simple, intensely concentrated, and devotional. Like all of Pärt’s work, it grows out of a respect for silence – in this case, the silence at the foot of the Cross. What sort of music would one make from the foot of the Cross? His answer is both harrowing and profoundly moving. This is not an exercise in musical archaism, but a living testament to faith. It is music to listen to on your knees. (A sublime performance is available with the Hilliard Ensemble on a CD entitled Arbos, ECM 1325/831959).
More of Pärt’s mesmerizing musical asceticism comes from Harmonia Mundi (HMU 907182) with its release of De Profundis, Magnificat, and a number of other works covering a span of nearly 20 years (1977–1996). If you are living life in the fast lane, listening to Pärt will be like hitting a brick wall. Everything suddenly stops and becomes very simple. Anyone puzzled by the starkness and seeming severity of his work should know that for Pärt the Word is the priceless jewel that his music sets. It is to the jewel he is calling attention, not its setting, and the necessary precondition for hearing the Word is silence.
This is the reason for Pärt’s profound respect for silence and its fullness as the Word emerges from it. Pärt’s is music for meditation; it is the sound of prayer. Some might call this a fetish for archaic; others, a witness to perdurability of true faith. The choral works on this CD may not be the ideal introduction to Pärt (for that go to ECM’s Tabula rasa or Arbos CDs), but those who know his music will want to have these beautiful performances by Paul Hillier and the Theatre of Voices.
There are two common responses to Pärt’s Passio: (1) It is boring, ersatz medieval and Renaissance music; why is someone going back to the triad in this day and age? (2) It is a profoundly moving setting of the Passion according to the Gospel of John. Certainly Passio is very different from Pärt’s Stabat Mater, which it is otherwise most like. In Stabat Mater, the instrumental music, like a chorus, reacts to the words, dramatizes them and provides a purgation. Pärt foregoes this approach in Passio, which is dinstinctly not dramatic and far more austere. The austerity does not translate into barrenness, but into an intense expression of purity. There is very little in the way of specific dramatic response to this most dramatic Latin text as it literally moves to the crux of Christianity. For example, when the mob in the garden answers Christ’s question, “Whom seek ye?” The chorus does not shout his name, but sings it in a most gentle, reverential way. Passio clearly is meant as a meditation on the Passion. As such, the words carry more weight. Indeed, one must read this Passion in order to listen to it. It was fashionable not long ago to write vocal music that treated syllables of words independently, oblivious to their meaning. Now the word has returned – or one should say, the Word. With his music, Pärt intends to direct us through the words to the Word. What sustains a work like this? What impels a man like Pärt to write it? Clearly, the answer is faith, for there is no ego in this work. The temptation to focus on the music alone does not present itself. Indeed, if the words mean nothing to you, so will the music.
However, within the austere means that Pärt has chosen, there are many very moving moments. A simply held note on veritate (truth) can be electrifying within the spare musical context, as can also Christ’s exclamation: Sitio (I thirst). In the ECM recording of Passio that Pärt authorized, he seems to have anticipated response (1) above, and did not provide any indexing for the curious to search for “high points;” you will either give up in the beginning or listen to and experience the full 70 minutes. It’s all or nothing. Sort of like religion. Newcomers to Pärt are advised to begin their explorations with earlier releases of his music: first try Tabula rasa, then move on to Arbos and the Miserere, and finally come to Passio. It is worth the journey.
John Tavener (1944–2013) once wrote in the spirit of Schoenberg “some severely serial pieces.” Later he eschewed such convolutedness and said, “Complexity is the language of evil.” His simplicity, though, has an almost theatrical aspect to it. It is more flamboyant, almost voluptuous compared to Pärt, whom Tavener called “the only composer friend” he had. Because of his embrace of Russian Orthodoxy and its oriental musical idioms, his music sounds the most exotic and unfamiliar of the three. But his purpose is as clear. “In everything I do,” he stated, “I aspire to the sacred. …Music is a form of prayer, a mystery.” He wished to express “the importance of immaterial realism, or transcendent beauty.” His goal was to recover “one simple memory” from which all art derives: “The constant memory of the Paradise from which we have fallen leads to the Paradise which was promised to the repentant thief.” As he said elsewhere, “The gentleness of our sleepy recollections promises something else; that which was once perceived ‘as in a glass, darkly’ we shall see ‘face to face.’”
Tavener’s music also often begins at the very edge of audibility, rising reverentially from the silence out of which it flows. He called his compositions musical icons. Like icons, they are instilled with a sense of sacred mystery, inner stillness, and timelessness. He often employed the unfamiliar cadences of Orthodox chant with its melismatic arabesques, floating above long drones. Though ethereal, his music conveys a sensuousness absent in Górecki and Pärt. His orchestral writing, even when confined to strings only, as in The Protecting Veil, can be very rich. He dramatically portrays visionary moments of epiphany with climaxes that are physical in their impact. The titles of his compositions convey the range of subject matter: The Last Sleep of the Virgin; The Repentant Thief; Ikon of Light; “We Shall See Him as He Is”; Mary of Egypt; Canticle of the Mother of God; Resurrection; and The Protecting Veil, which commemorates the Virgin’s appearance in early 10th-century Constantinople, where, during a Saracen invasion, she drew her protecting veil over the Christians. This latter piece met with enormous success in England.
Devotion shines forth in Tavener’s compositions such as Thunder Entered Her, whose short text by St. Ephrem the Syrian (c. 306–373) begins, “Thunder entered her / And made no sound.” Tavener’s The Lament of the Mother of God is a striking piece. The ritualized grief of this haunting work is expressed by a soprano voice, representing Mary, and an unaccompanied choir. The beautiful soprano voice floats above wordless drone of the chorus and ascends step-wise over the span of an octave with the beginning of each stanza, which each time repeats the opening line: “Woe is me, my child.” The text of the second stanza reads, “I wish to take my son down from the wood and to hold him in my arms, as once I held him when he was a little child. But alas there is none to give him to me.” This is a very affecting work – the Pietà in sound.
Tavener was able to have his Funeral Canticle performed at his father’s funeral. This 24-minute piece appears with four shorter works on a Tavener Harmonia Mundi release, entitled Eternity’s Sunrise, performed by the Choir and Orchestra of the Academy of Ancient Music and various soloists, led by director Paul Goodwin. Tavener had complete confidence in beauty and simplicity. The melismatic vocal lines in Eternity’s Sunrise, a setting of a short poem by William Blake, and Song of the Angel, in which the soprano sings only one word, “Alleluia,” are soaringly beautiful. They are sung seraphically by soprano Patricia Rozari. Eternity’s Sunrise, written to mark the Academy’s 25th anniversary, was Tavener’s first work for period instruments, but it does not have a period sound. Tavener’s Funeral Canticle employs a gently rocking motion in the music that slowly ascends and descends the scale, as if it were cradling one to sleep. It is touching but restrained; it does not call attention to itself. This is ceremonial music, meditative and mesmeric. The text from the Orthodox funeral service conveys the real substance: man’s frailty, the hope for salvation, and God’s surpassing goodness. As in almost all of Tavener’s works, the constant refrain is “Alleluia.”
Tavener’s Akathist of Thanksgiving for chorus and orchestra was composed for the celebration of the millennium of the Russian Orthodox Church in 1988. An akathist is a hymn of thanksgiving or supplication used on special occasions. The text of Tavener’s work was written in the late 1940s by Archpriest Gregory Petrov shortly before his death in a Siberian prison camp. His inspiration came from the dying words of St. John Chrysostom: “Glory to God for everything.” So, shortly before his own death, this priest, surrounded by misery and death, wrote, “I have often seen your glory / Reflected on faces of the dead! / With what unearthly beauty and with what joy they shone, / How spiritual, their features immaterial, / It was a triumph of gladness achieved, of peace; / In silence they called to you. / At the hour of my end illumine my soul also, As it cries: Alleluia, alleluia.”
It is undoubtedly surprising to a modern, secular sensibility that the texts for these consoling, spiritual compositions should come not only from Scripture and liturgy, but from the 20th century’s death camps, both Nazi and Soviet. The late Pope John Paul II was not surprised. In Crossing the Threshold of Hope, he said of the multitude of martyr’s in the 20th century, “They have completed in their death as martyrs the redemptive sufferings of Christ and, at the same time, they have become the foundation of a new world, a new Europe, and a new civilization.” Twentieth-century martyrdom as the foundation of a new civilization? Can this be so, and, if so, how would such a civilization express itself? Part of the answer is in the music of these three composers. Thiers is the music of this new civilization. Like the martyrs from whom they have drawn their inspiration, they have gone against the prevailing grain of the 20th century for the sake of a greater love.
“O word, thou word that I lack,” cried Schoenberg’s Moses before falling to his knees silent. Górecki, Pärt, and Tavener have found the Word that Schoenberg’s Moses lacked, and they have sought new expressive means to communicate it. The new expressive means have turned out to be the old ones, lost for a period of time in the desert, but now rediscovered by these three who know that “the rock was Christ.”
That something like this could emerge from under the rubble of modernity is moving testimony to the human spirit and its enduring thirst for the eternal. Is this too large a claim to make for these three composers? Perhaps. But be still, and listen.
Last but not least, the burning question of repertoire. For classical music as a genre to survive in modern times, renewal of the repertoire is a fundamental requirement: without renewal, the art form petrifies and audiences will stay away because they will have the repertoire of works on CD at home. An obvious way to rejuvenate the repertoire is to explore works of the past which have gone out of fashion or which have been unjustly overlooked – the filter of history is by no means an “honest” one and many unmusical factors have an influence upon the formation of the repertoire that appears to survive the times. There are works by well-known composers which were once popular but then fell out of fashion, as well as works by these composers which were never very popular but are nevertheless definitely worthwhile. Among the examples which come to mind are César Franck’s symphonic poem Le Chasseur Maudit and his Variations Symphoniques for piano and orchestra; Fauré’s Ballade for piano and orchestra; the operas of Cherubini (highly appreciated by Beethoven); symphonic poems by Saint-Saëns; the neoclassical repertoire by Stravinsky and De Falla. Music which has been overshadowed by “the Greats” can also offer surprising works, like Reger’s Romantic Suite (a most remarkable work), or the many engaging works by British composers of the early 20th century (Vaughan Williams, Holst, Delius). The 20th-century tonal tradition, much maligned and pushed to the margins by modernism and academia, offers a veritable treasure trove of interesting music which, fortunately, is currently explored by recording labels and which has been thoroughly mapped by Canadian musicologist Herbert Pauls. There is so much unfamiliar and engaging music already written that it won’t be very hard, with some serious time spent on it, to find additional repertoire which enriches concert life with an injection of adventure and exploration.
And then there is contemporary production, which, on the surface, seems to carry the stronger symbolism of renewal and development for the art form. But this invokes some quite complex questions. If renewal means programming a new, still unknown work, then how do we know beforehand that it is worthwhile, given the immensely wide range of idioms and the fact that a lot of new music is unsuited for classical music’s performance format? How to find your way into that jungle, and with which value framework? How do we know beforehand that announcing the new work won’t reduce ticket sales – since an unknown or contemporary name on the program often invites grave suspicion with prospective audiences that it may be one of those indigestible pieces that are painfully endured rather than a compelling and interesting experience? And then, could a new work which is painful on first hearing not be a great work after all when performed more than once – and if so, how could we know? After all, orchestras, opera companies, and smaller ensembles can function perfectly well without any “unfamiliar” work, the established repertoire being so large and varied. Orchestras and opera companies work under strong pressures to get the planned performances realized in the best possible way. The many letters, proposals, and recordings they receive from composers, their agents, or their publishers every day create mountains of unsolicited mail in corners of their offices and they simply don’t have the capacity to deal with those masses of information which are mostly seen as a mere threat to their working routine. In general, orchestras and opera companies don’t have a specialized staff member dedicated exclusively exploring such material, and the staff dealing with artistic planning can’t afford to lose valuable time assessing material they are not equipped to judge.
Another problem is the sheer amount of new music being produced every minute of every hour nowadays. Because the musical fashions that have arisen since WWII claim total freedom from traditional musical standards and aesthetic norms, composing has become open to anybody – including people with the ambition but without the talents to really write meaningful music. And they are many. What’s more, current computer technology makes putting something together that one could call a “composition” possible for people who in former periods would not have dreamed of becoming a musician, let alone a composer. This has resulted in the current proliferation of “composers” thronging at the doors of orchestras, ensembles, and opera houses, creating a dense fog that is looked upon with suspicion and gloom from the closed windows of artistic leadership. It has thus become very difficult for institutions to find new, valuable works.
What is the role of conductors in introducing unfamiliar works? They compete for restricted opportunities in the field, and career choices are often given priority over interest in content. But fortunately, quite a few conductors – mostly of the younger generation – understand that restricting their repertoire to warhorses will not benefit either their career or the art form itself, and proposals from conductors to the planning staff are a possible route to performance. But conductors who have earned the trust of the orchestral staff, whether of their own orchestra or of other orchestras where they make guest appearances, generally have little time to explore the labyrinth of new music and to react to the flood of proposals coming their way.
Orchestras and opera companies try to give as many performances as possible to exploit the available financial and practical resources to the fullest. Well-known works of the repertoire only need rehearsing for the “how” and not for the “what,” so works from the standard repertoire are cheaper and more practical than unfamiliar or new works. Most of the time, new works are only rehearsed for the “what;” and where the music in itself does not intend to transcend the sound level, where the “how” consists in getting the notes and timbres in the right place and nothing more (which is mostly the case with postwar music), preparations are finished when the structure is more or less correct. But this does not leave listeners with the impression of communication and a deeper musical meaning. The result is that the work is soon forgotten and not repeated because it does not invite more hearings. What happens to the rare works in which, as in “older” music, the level of sound is a mere carrier of musical expression? Extra rehearsal time is needed to create the opportunity of exploring the expressive dimension, and that is only possible when first the “what,” the right notes in the right place, has been realized. Given the cost of rehearsal time, this rarely happens, with the result that works which may offer the unique opportunity to add to the repertoire are put in the same category as the superficial, musically-empty products and share the same fate of oblivion. Postwar modernism and its hip progeny, in combination with the expensive cost of operation for orchestras and opera houses, created barriers which hinder renewal of the repertoire – a self-destructive mix, pushing classical music into the corner as a “museum culture.”
The only possibility for orchestras and opera houses to find new repertoire, with the chance that they hit upon something of real value, is to preserve a practical framework: the one which defines the fundamentals of the art form. This means ignoring the postwar modernist ideologies of progress – because there is no progress in the arts – and requiring of new repertoire that it be suited to the medium as it has developed over time. In other words, new music should be rooted in some sort of tonality, create the possibility of communication and expression, and offer the players (and singers when in opera) the opportunity to create a coherent total musical experience which can be combined with existing repertoire and which avoids disruption of the general format of the art form –which, after all, is merely a means to an end: the compelling musical experience. Only then will the expensive extra rehearsal time needed for a satisfying result be justified. Does this sound “conservative?” Is preserving fundamentals of a precious art form “conservative?” Or is it merely common sense? If we want classical music to survive in modern times, it should be its intrinsic, artistic quality which carries developments, not its deviations from the only format within which the art form can thrive. New music which needs to deconstruct the fundamentals of the art form to make its mark is dealing not with content but with the outer form, which points toward a lack of artistic motivation. Even the most deviating works in the past, like Stravinsky’s Sacre, made use of the basic format of classical music to introduce a highly original treatment of melody, harmony, rhythm, and instrumentation – all of which were rooted in music that existed already at the time. The Sacre was not avant-garde and modernist (which is modernist jargon) but highly idiosyncratic and an extreme version of an existing musical tradition: the one of Russian folklore, being prepared and practiced long before Stravinsky laid his hands on it.
Thus two possibilities readily present themselves regarding the renewal of the repertoire:
Exploring unfamiliar works from the past, of which there are many that deserve a new hearing; and
Looking for contemporary music which conforms to the fundamentals and medium of our performance culture (orchestra, ensemble, opera house).
Either way, it would be best if orchestras and opera houses appointed a special staff member to explore and select new ideas for programming. Someone with both performance experience and an extensive education in music history and aesthetics would be ideal for such undertaking and able to intelligently discuss new ideas with the conductor(s) concerned.
Fortunately, there is already much effort being spent on the survival of classical music by both the established institutions and many ad hoc initiatives. However it is to be hoped that musical institutions will, in the course of time, become still more adept at navigating their routine pressures which, though entirely understandable, in the long run may prevent necessary reform. In spite of all the stories of “a dying art” and the completely unfounded criticism that it is “outdated’ and “incompatible with modern times,” Western classical music as a genre remains one of the greatest human achievements and inspires hope that we will, at some stage, be capable of creating a civilized world in which the benefits of the mind and spirit can flourish.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Sir Roger Scruton was invited to the prestigious Donaueschingen Festival, at the very heart of music’s avant-garde movement, where he delivered this lecture in October 2016. We think it may be of interest to the many people who have been following our sometimes controversial series on the Darmstadt School’s role in undermining contemporary composition and diminishing our audiences. It is printed here with the gracious permission of the author.
Important composers, from Schoenberg and Stravinsky to Ligeti and Stockhausen, have been premiered in this place and before this audience. Along with Darmstadt, Donaueschingen has helped to restore Germany to the central place in European musical culture that it has occupied in the past and will always deserve. Now, in its latest and securest phase as the Musiktage, the Donaueschingen festival has become a symbol of musical modernism, and it is a great honour to be invited to speak from this podium to one of the most educated musical audiences in the world today. But in this short talk I will try to outline why I question the prominence in our musical culture of the experimental avant-garde.
In 1860 Wagner published a now famous pamphlet entitled The Music of the Future – Zukunftmusik. In it he expressed his view that it was not enough for music to be merely contemporary – zeitgenössisch; it had to be ahead of itself, summoning from the future the forms that already lay there in embryo. And of course Wagner was entitled to write in this way, given what he had achieved in Tristan und Isolde, which was finished the year before his essay appeared, and which introduced the chromatic syntax that was to change the course of musical history.
We should not forget, however, the wider context of Wagner’s argument. The obsession with the future comes from Ludwig Feuerbach, and ultimately from Hegel’s philosophy of history, which represents human events as motivated by the always-advancing logic of the dialectic. For Hegel history has a direction, and this direction is revealed in laws, institutions, and sciences, as well as in literature, art, and music. Each period is characterised by its Zeitgeist, shared among all the products of the culture.
In Feuerbach the Zeitgeist idea is allied to the belief in progress, understood in terms of the life and energy of human communities. The future, Feuerbach believed, is not merely a development of the past; it is better than the past. It marks an increase in knowledge and therefore in power over our own destiny and therefore in freedom. It is not easy now, after the communist and fascist experiments, to endorse the belief in progress that they both so vehemently shared. But somehow, in the arts, the belief survives. We spontaneously incline to the view that each artistic form and style must be superseded as soon as it appears, and that the true values of art require constant vigilance against the diseases of nostalgia and pastiche. Each composer faces the challenge: why should I listen to you? And each claims originality, authenticity, the plain fact of being me, as a vindication. Hence each tries to avoid repeating what has been done already or relying on formulae that, by dint of over-use, have become clichés. In everyday life clichés may be useful, since they evoke stock reactions and settled beliefs. In art, however, clichés are inherently meaningless, since they place mechanical reactions where real inspiration should be.
Wagner’s emphasis on the future of music was influenced by the Hegelian theory of history and Feuerbach’s use of it. But it was also rooted in a real sense of tradition and what tradition means. His innovations grew organically from the flow of Western music, and his harmonic discoveries were discoveries only because they also affirmed the basic chord-grammar of diatonic tonality. They were discoveries within the extended tonal language. Wagner was aware of this, and indeed dramatized the predicament of the modern composer in Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, which is his own striking reflection on ‘tradition and the individual talent.’ In that opera the plodding C major tonality of the Mastersingers is brought to life, not by remaking it entirely, but by moving it onwards, through the use of chromatic voice-leading, altered chords and a new kind of melody in which boundaries are fluid and phrases can be repeated and varied at liberty within them. In the course of the opera the chorus brings the new melody and the old harmony into creative relation, and the work ends jubilantly, with the new incorporated and the old renewed. This is nothing like the radical avant-garde departures that have dominated music in more recent times.
Right up until Schoenberg’s experiments with serialism, musical innovation in the realm of ‘classical’ music proceeded in Wagner’s way. New harmonies, scales, and melodic ensembles were imported into the traditional musical grammar, new rhythms and time-signatures were adopted, and with Stravinsky and Bartók organisation was inspired more by dance than by the classical forms. Debussy’s use of the whole tone scale, and Rimsky-Korsakov’s introduction of the octatonic scale led to music in which, while there was melodic and harmonic progression, there was often no clear tonic, or two competing tonics, as in much of the Rite of Spring. Schoenberg wrote of ‘floating tonality,’ others of atonality, meaning the loss of the sense of key, and the use of harmonies which, even if tied to each other by voice-leading, seemed to be unrelated and, by the old standards, ungrammatical.
None of that involved any rejection of the classical tradition: composers like Debussy, Bartók, and Stravinsky were renewing that tradition, and what they wrote was not merely recognizable to the ordinary educated listener, but also interesting and challenging on account of its new harmonic, melodic, and rhythmical devices. Both the continuous development of the romantic symphony in Sibelius, Vaughan Williams, and Shostakovich, and the incorporation of modernist devices into the tonal language, lay within the scope of the existing language: these were developments that issued naturally from the pattern of musical discovery that has characterised Western classical music from the Renaissance.
As things stand now, however, there is absolutely no guarantee that a new work of music will be recognized as such by the educated musical ear, or that it will be possible to hear it as an addition to the great tradition of symphonic sound. A radical break seems to have occurred, with two consequences that the listening public find difficult to absorb: first, modern works of music tend to be self-consciously part of an avant-garde, never content to belong to the tradition but always overtly and ostentatiously defying it; second, these works seem to be melodically impoverished, and even without melody entirely, relying on sound effects and acoustical experiments to fill the void where melody should be. I don’t say the emphasis on acoustics is necessarily a fault from the artistic point of view. I draw your attention to the example we heard yesterday, when Nathan Davies used live filtering to give the effect of resonators, extracting tones from white noise, and turning those tones towards music. The effect was undeniably striking, at times entrancing: as though the tones were being purified so that they can be used as though new. But until those tones are used, and used in melodic and harmonic structures, the result will remain at a distance from the audience, outside the reach of our musical affections. It is only the loved and repeated repertoire that will ensure the survival of music, and to be loved and repeated music requires a dedicated audience. Music exists in the ear of the listener, not on the page of the score, nor in the world of pure sound effects. And listeners, deterred by the avant-garde, are in ever-shorter supply: not in Donaueschingen, of course, but in the wider culture of our cities, where music will survive or die.
I identify four developments that have led to the place where we now are. Thanks to these developments a new kind of music has emerged which is less music than a reflection upon music, or perhaps even a reflection on the lack of music, or on the impossibility of music in the age in which we live.
The first development is, in many ways, the most interesting from the philosophical point of view, and this is the radical attack on tonality by Theodor Adorno and his immediate followers. Although Adorno linked his argument to his advocacy of Schoenberg’s twelve-tone serialism, the force of the argument is largely negative. It concerned what he was against, rather than what he was for. And Adorno’s argument carried weight in the post-war period because he was an ardent critic of the culture of capitalism, one who had attempted to adapt the Marxist critique of bourgeois society to the new social and political realities. Adorno’s critique of tonality was part of a systematic theory of the death of bourgeois culture. Tonality had to die because the bourgeois order had to die. And the desire nevertheless to cling to tonality, in the manner of Sibelius or Copland, even in the manner of the neo-classical Stravinsky, is bound to lead, Adorno thought, to empty clichés or sterile kitsch. Such is the inevitable result of attempting to make use of an idiom that has died.
This argument of Adorno’s, which is an application of the Hegelian Zeitgeist theory, is not easily answered, even if it is easily doubted. All artistic people are aware that styles, idioms and forms are living things that can also die, and that there is a need, integral to the artistic enterprise as such, to ‘make it new.’ This does not mean being iconoclastic or radical in the manner of the modernist avant-garde. It means conveying a message and an inspiration of one’s own. The true work of art says something new, and is never a patchwork of things already said. This is the case even when the work employs an idiom already perfected by others, as when Mozart, in his string quartets, writes in the language of Haydn.
Thomas Mann wrote a great novel about this, Doktor Faustus, meditating on the fate of Germany in the last century. Mann takes the tradition of tonal music as both a significant part of our civilisation, and a symbol of its ultimate meaning. Music is the Faustian art par excellence, the defiant assertion of the human voice in a cosmos of unknowable silence. Mann therefore connects the death of the old musical language with the death of European civilisation. And he re-imagines the invention of twelve-tone serialism as a kind of demonic response to the ensuing sense of loss. Music is to be annihilated, re-made as the negation of itself. The composer Adrian Leverkühn, in the grip of demonic possession, sets out to ‘take back the Ninth Symphony.’ Such is the task that Mann proposes to his devil-possessed composer, and one can be forgiven for thinking that there are composers around today who have made this task their own.
This brings me to the second development that has fed into the obsession with the avant-garde, and that is the invention of serialism. I call this an invention, rather than a discovery, in order to record the wholly a priori nature of the serial system. The new harmonies and chromatic melodies of Tristan were discoveries: musical events that came into being by experiment, and were adopted because they sounded right. In retrospect you can give quasi-mathematical accounts of what Wagner was doing in the first bars of Tristan. But you can be sure that you will not thereby be identifying Wagner’s own creative process, which was one of trying out new combinations and seeing where they lead.
By contrast, serial organisation was an invention – a set of a priori rules laid down by Schoenberg and adapted and varied by his successors. These rules were to provide a non-tonal grammar for music, determining what comes next independently of whether its coming next sounds right or wrong to the normal musical ear. It is not the tone or the scale but the maths that matters. There is no reason, of course, to think that serial organization should not also lead to sequences that do sound right, or come to sound right in time. But their sounding right is quite independent of the serial organisation.
One of the advantages of working with a framework of a priori rules is that you can say just why this note occurs in just this place: the series requires it. But in another sense you lack such an answer, since the series requires the note regardless of the heard relation to its predecessor. Moreover the grammar of serialism is not based on the scale or any other way of grouping tones dynamically, in terms of what leads to what. A series is the basis for permutations, not linear movements. In listening to music, however, we listen out for progression, prolongation, question and answer – all the many ways in which one tone summons another as its natural successor. Serialism asks us to hear in another way, with the brain rather than the ear in charge.
The result of this is that, while we can enjoy and be moved by serial compositions, this is largely because we hear them as organised as tonal music is organized, so that ‘next’ sounds ‘right.’ We may notice the serial structure; but it is the progressive, linear structure that we enjoy. In a great serial composition, such as the Berg Violin Concerto, we hear harmonies, melodies, sequences, and rhythmical regularities, just as in the great works of the tonal tradition, and we do so because we are hearing against the serial order. It is as though the composer, having bound himself in chains, is able nevertheless to dance in them, like a captive bear.
The third development, associated particularly with Boulez, Stockhausen, and Nono, is the move towards total serialisation. Composers decided to serialise time values, unpitched sounds, and timbres, hoping thereby to exert total control over everything. Interestingly enough this development went hand in hand with the emergence of aleatoric scores, in which instrumentalists are handed bundles of notes that they could choose to assemble in any order, or scores which ask for indeterminate sounds. Randomisation had the same effect as serialisation, which was to deprive musical elements of their intrinsic ways of relating to each other. Whether we impose a dictatorial serial order, or present notes in unordered bundles, we undo the demands of melody, harmony and rhythm, which are inherent in the traditional grammar, and replace them with systematic requirements that can be explained intellectually but not, as a rule, heard musically.
In 1970 Stockhausen composed a two-piano piece, Mantra, for this festival. In a subsequent lecture delivered in Britain, which can be seen on YouTube, he sets out the twelve-tone series on which the piece is based. He plays the notes one after another, assigning an equal time-value to each, and tells us that this melody occurred to him at a certain point, and that he decided to work on it, composing flights of new notes around each of its elements, arranging the series in conjunction with its own retrograde, and so on. What was most striking to me about Stockhausen’s description of what he was doing was the word ‘melody,’ used of this sequence that is not a melody at all. Of course there are twelve-tone melodies – for example the beautiful melody that Berg assigns to his destructive heroine Lulu in the opera of that name. But all that makes sequences into melodies is absent from Stockhausen’s theme: it has no beginning, no end, no up-beat, no tension or release, no real contour apart from its pure geometrical outline. It is a musical object, but not a musical subject. And as he explains what is done with it you understand that it is treated as an object too – a piece of dead tissue to be cut up beneath the microscope. We understand the distinction between subject and object because we ourselves exemplify it. The true musical theme is a subject in something like the sense that I am a subject: it has a consciousness of itself, a meaning and a point of view. This is simply not true of the helpless dead sequence that Stockhausen presents us in his lecture.
The effect of such innovations was to replace the experience of music by the concept of music. The typical avant-garde work is designed as the concept of itself, and often given some portentous title by way of illustrating the point, like Stockhausen’s Gruppen: a work for three orchestras in which notes are amalgamated into groups according to their acoustical properties, and tempos are defined logarithmically. Much can be said, and has been said, about this momentous, not to say megalomaniac, composition, and indeed its great success, like that of Boulez’s Le marteau sans maître, is not independent of the fact that there is so much to say about it, some of which Stockhausen himself had anticipated in his article ‘wie die Zeit vergeht..’, published in the third issue of Die Reihe. The score is not a notation of musically organized sounds, but a mathematical proof, from which the sounds can be deduced as theorems.
The eclipse of art by the concept of art occurred at around the same time in the visual arts, and for a while the game was amusing and intriguing. However, this particular bid for originality has dated much more rapidly than any of the harmonic discoveries of the late romantics. Do it once, and you have done it for all time. This is certainly what we have seen in the realm of conceptual art in our museums and galleries. And it is what we have heard in the concert hall too. In conceptual music the creative act is always, from the musical point of view, the same, namely the act of putting an idea about music in the place where music should be.
This leads me to the fourth development, which is in many ways the most interesting, namely the replacement of tones by sounds, and musical by acoustical hearing. Varèse, Pierre Schaeffer and their immediate successors awoke composers and audiences to the many new sounds, some of them produced electronically, that could enter the space of music without destroying its intrinsic order. These experiments are not what I have in mind when referring to the replacement of tones by sounds and musical by acoustical hearing. I am thinking of a more general transition, from Tonkunst to Klangkunst, to use the German expressions – a transition of deep philosophical significance, between two ways of hearing, and two responses to what is heard.
Sounds are objects in the physical world, albeit objects of a special kind whose nature and identity is bound up with the way they are perceived. Tones are what we hear in sounds when we hear the sounds as music. They have features that no sound can possess – such as movement, gravitational attraction, weight, and position in a one-dimensional space. They exemplify a special kind of organisation – an organisation that we hear and which exists only for someone who can hear it. (Someone might be an expert at hearing pitched sounds, and may even be gifted with absolute pitch, but still be ‘tone deaf,’ since unable to hear the musical organisation. Sequences don’t sound right to such a person, because they never sound wrong.)
The object of musical hearing is organised by metaphors of space and movement that correspond to no material realities. Music goes up and down, it leads and follows; it is dense, translucent, heavy, light; it encounters obstacles and crashes through them, and sometimes it comes to an end which is the end of everything. Those metaphors, and the order derived from them, are shared by all musical people. The order that we hear is an order that we – the musical public – hear, when we hear these sounds as music. And although there is, at any moment, an indefinite number of ways in which a melodic line or a chord sequence can continue without sounding wrong, the ideal in our tradition has been of an uninterrupted sense of necessity – each melodic and harmonic step following as though by logic from its predecessor, and yet with complete freedom.
When we hear tones we are also hearing sounds; but we are hearing in those sounds movement, organisation and gravitational forces in a one-dimensional musical space. That is the fundamental musical experience, the experience that causes us to hear one note as moving on from another, answering another, attracted to or repelled by another. It is what enables us to hear tension and release, beginnings and endings, goals and starting points. It is at the root of the art of music as we have known it, since it is what gives music its fundamental nature as an art of motion, which grips us and takes us with it in a space of its own. We are moved by music because music moves.
Of course there are sound effects too: sounds from the real world intrude into music, like the unpitched sounds of the percussion section, or the recorded bird-song that intrudes into Respighi’s Pines of Rome. But when we hear these sounds as part of the music they change character. They are no long noises, no longer events in the ambient soundscape, like the coughs from the audience on a cold winter’s day. They are caught up in the musical movement, becoming one with it, and dependent on the forward propulsion of which they are now a part. Thus a single piece of music, with no repeats, may nevertheless contain multiply repeated sequences of sounds. As objects in the material world sounds are identified and counted in another way from the way in which melodies, which are intentional and not material objects, are counted.
The intrusion of acoustical ways of thinking into the practice and teaching of music is something we owe to Boulez and Stockhausen, and to the educational practises that they established. In Stockhausen sounds from everyday life are accorded exactly the same value as sounds within music – they are, as it were, invited in from the surrounding world, as in the work Momente, in which all kinds of sounds and speech-forms are brought together in a potpourri of fragments. As Stockhausen himself says, this work has no real beginning and no end: like all his works it starts without beginning and finishes without ending. For it lacks those elements of musical grammar that make beginnings and endings perceivable. It starts nowhere and stays at nowhere until ending nowhere. The same is true of Boulez’s Pli selon pli, in which the exotic instrumentation and serial organisation do not conceal the fact that no moment in this work has any intrinsic connection to the moment that comes next. The experience of ‘next,’ and the inevitability of the next, has been chased away. In a concert devoted to music of this kind the audience can know that the piece is ended only because the performers are putting down their instruments.
Music (music of our classical tradition included) has until now consisted of events that grow organically from each other, over a repeated measure and according to recognizable harmonic sequences. The ‘moving forward’ of melodic lines through musical space is the true origin of musical unity and of the dramatic power of traditional music. And it is this ‘moving forward’ that is the first casualty when pitches and tempi are organised serially, and when sounds are invited in from outside the music. Add the acoustical laboratory and the result is all too often heard as arbitrary – something to be deciphered, rather than something to be absorbed and enjoyed in the manner of a conversation.
This is not to say that acoustical processing may not have a part, and an important part, to play in bringing sounds into a musical structure. Joanna Bailie, to take just one example, has used the recorded and digitally processed sounds culled in public spaces as inputs into music for which instrumentalists and singers create the musical frame. The atmospheric effect of this was heard here in Donaueschingen a day ago. However, in the work of such composers we see the reassertion of the musical against the acoustical ear, and perhaps even a path back to the place where music reigns in a space of its own.
All those four developments are of the greatest musicological interest, and I do not deny that they can be used effectively, to produce works of real musical power. But it is also clear to my way of thinking that they are responsible for a growing gap between serious music and the audience on which it depends, not necessarily financially (since after all there is a massive machinery of subsidy that keeps the avant-garde in business), but at least spiritually. If avant-garde music is ever to step down from the world of concepts into the world of tones, then it will be because the audience exists in whose ears this transition can occur. Take away the audience and you take away the concrete reality of music as an art. You turn music into an arcane exercise in the acoustical laboratory, in which groups of patient instrumentalists pump out sounds according to formulae which mean nothing, since meaning lies in the ears that have fled from the scene. Of course, not here in Donaueschingen, where the distinctive physiognomy of the avant-garde ear is very apparent all around us.
It is not enough to say that, of course. Adorno may have been right that the old grammar was exhausted, that post-romantic harmony had taken tonality as far as it could go, and that music must therefore find another way into the future, whether or not led by the avant-garde. The great question that we must still confront is whether rhythm, melody, and harmony are still available to us, in whatever modified forms, as we endeavour to write music that will be not only interesting, as so much avant-garde music undeniably is, but also enjoyable and calling out for repetition. We all know Schoenberg’s remark, that there is plenty of music still to be written in C major. But where is that music? Or rather, where is that way of writing, downstream from C major, that will restore to C major its undeniable authority for all of us, as it was restored by the final chords of Die Meistersinger?
Two aspects of modern culture place obstacles in front of us, as we search for the new idiom that will renew our musical tradition. One is the insistent presence of easy music; the other is the dictatorship exerted on behalf of difficult music. By easy music I mean the ubiquitous products of pop and rock, which influence the ears and the attention-span of young people long before they can be captured by a teacher. The audience for new music must be discovered among young people whose ears have been shaped by the ostinato rhythms and undemanding chord-grammar of pop. To offer serious music to such an audience you must also attract their attention. And this cannot be done without rhythms that connect to their own bodily perceptions. Serious composers must work on the rhythms of everyday life. Bach addressed listeners whose ears had been shaped by allemandes, gigues, and sarabands – dance rhythms that open the way to melodic and harmonic invention. The modern composer has no such luck. The 4/4 ostinato is everywhere around us, and its effect on the soul, body, and ear of post-modern people is both enormous and unpredictable. Modern composers have no choice but to acknowledge this, if they are to address young audiences and capture their attention. And the great question is how it can be done without lapsing into banality, as Adorno told us it must.
Americans tend to accept popular music and the culture around it, as providing the raw material on which the serious composer gets to work. From Gershwin to John Adams it has been normal to take some aspect of the popular music of the day and to show its connection to other and more long-term ways of musical thinking. Just as Gershwin rewrote jazz sequences in the language of counterpoint, so does Adams lift the ostinato four in a bar of the Rock group into an orchestral empyrean, where the flat-footed dance gives way to a gravitationless rhythm that moves and develops with the harmony. Adams uses the tonal language, not to make the kind of profound statement of a Beethoven or a Bruckner, but nevertheless to lift the young ear out of its groove and to make it listen. There is a lesson to be taken from this, which is that music is tested in the ear of the listener and not in the laboratory, and the ear of the listener is plastic, moulded both by the surrounding culture and by the everyday sounds of life as it is now. In a way Stockhausen acknowledged this, with his works that snatch sounds from the surrounding world, and work them into his quasi-mathematical textures. But the textures are feeble, with no musical propulsion, no intrinsic ‘next’ to bind one event to its neighbours. Adams wished to provide that propulsion, into which the sounds of the modern world could be dropped and immediately reshaped as music. But maybe there is something mechanical here too – an ostinato that uses rhythmic pulse to carry us through whatever harmonic and melodic weaknesses we might otherwise hear in the score.
The contrary obstacle also lies before us: the dictatorship of the difficult. Bureaucrats charged with giving support to the arts are, today, frightened of being accused of being reactionary. I suspect that everyone in this room is frightened of being accused of being reactionary. The history of the French salons in the 19th century, and of the early reactions to musical and literary modernism, has made people aware of how easy it is to miss the true creative product, and to exalt the dead and the derivative in its stead. The safest procedure for the anxious bureaucrat is to subsidize music that is difficult, unlikely to be popular, even repugnant to the ordinary musical ear. Then one is sure to be praised for one’s advanced taste and up-to-date understanding. Besides, if a work of music is easy to assimilate and clearly destined to be popular it does not need a subsidy in any case.
It is surely in this way that Boulez rose to such an eminence in France. In a book published in 1995: Requiem pour une avant-garde, Benoît Duteurtre tells the story of the steady takeover by Boulez and his entourage of the channels of musical and cultural communication, and their way of establishing a dictatorship of the difficult at the heart of the subsidy machine. At the same time as vilifying his opponents and anathematising tonal music and its late offshoots in Duruflé and Dutilleux, Boulez achieved a cultural coup d’état, which was the founding of IRCAM. This institution, created by and for him at the request of President Pompidou in 1970 reveals in its name – Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique – that it does not distinguish between sound and tone, between Klangkunst and Tonkunst, and sees both as matters for ‘research.’ Maintained by government funds in the basement of its architectural equivalent, the Centre Pompidou, and absorbing a substantial proportion of a budget that might have been used to sustain the provincial orchestras of France, IRCAM has produced a stream of works without survival value. Despite all Boulez’s efforts, musical people still believe, and rightly, that the test of a work of music is how it sounds, not how it is theorized. But only if it sounds difficult, disturbing, ‘challenging,’ ‘transgressive’ could a bureaucrat dare to provide it with a subsidy.
And this is why it is good that this festival exists. Even if it depends on the support of state institutions, it is also addressed to the musical public: it is an invitation to people to make their feelings known, and to make judgments for themselves – which is what I have been doing. It has played a part in exposing the avant-garde to judgment, and also in giving opportunities to young musicians to wrestle with difficult music and to find what inspired it. This place is testimony to the crucial relation between the work of music and its audience. It is proof that there can be an avant-garde in music only if there is an avant-garde audience to listen to it. Whatever the results, you are that audience and far more practised at stretching your ears in new directions than I am. I only wonder whether you might, from time to time, entertain the thought that one can be modern without being avant-garde, without lapsing into sound effects, and instead thinking in the old musical way, in terms of grammatical sequences, with a beginning, a middle and an end, sequences that linger in the ears and the memory of the listeners, so that even if they never hear the piece again, they sing it to themselves inwardly and find in it a personal meaning. It seems to me that, if there is, now, to be a music of the future it will, in that way, belong with the music of the past.