The Post-Modern Ear

In Gurrelieder, Verklärte Nacht, and Pelléas et Mélisande Schoenberg showed total mastery of tonality and of late romantic harmony, and these great works entered the repertoire. But by the time of the Piano Pieces op. 11 Schoenberg was writing music which to many people no longer made sense, with melodic lines that began and ended nowhere, and harmonies that seemed to bear no relation to the principal voice. At the same time it was clear that Schoenberg’s atonal pieces were meticulously composed, according to schemes that involved the intricate relation of phrases and thematic ideas, and this was another reason for taking them seriously.

In due course meticulousness took over, leading to an obsession with structure and the quasi-mathematical idiom of twelve-tone serialism, in which the linear relations of tonal music were replaced by arcane permutations. The result, in Schoenberg’s hands, was always intriguing, and often (as in the unfinished opera Moses und Aron, and A Survivor from Warsaw) genuinely moving. Schoenberg’s pupils Alban Berg and Anton Webern developed the idiom, the one in a romantic and quasi-tonal direction, the other towards a refined pointillist style that is uniquely evocative. For a while it looked as though a genuine school of twelve-tone serialism would emerge, and displace the old tonal grammar from its central place in the concert hall. Figures like Ernst Krenek in Austria, Luigi Dallapiccola in Italy and Milton Babbitt and Roger Sessions in America were actively advocating twelve-tone composition, and also practising it. But somehow it never took off. A few works – Berg’s Violin Concerto, Dallapiccola’s opera Il Prigionero, Krenek’s moving setting of the Lamentations of Jeremiah – have entered the repertoire. But twelve-tone works remain, for the most part, more items of curiosity than objects of love, and audiences have begun to turn their backs on them.

It should be remembered that those experiments were begun at a time when Mahler was composing tonal symphonies, with great arched melodies in the high romantic tradition, and using modernist harmonies only as rhetorical gestures within a strongly diatonic frame. In England Vaughan Williams and Holst were working in a similar way, treating dissonances as by-ways within an all-inclusive tonal logic, while in America inputs from film music and jazz were beginning to inspire eclectic masterpieces like Roy Harris’s Third Symphony and Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. A concert-goer in the early 1930s would therefore have been faced with two completely different repertoires – one (Vaughan Williams, Holst, Sibelius, Walton, Strauss, Busoni, Gershwin) remaining within the bounds of the tonal language, the other (Schoenberg and his school) consciously departing from the old language, and often striking a deliberately defiant posture that made it hard to build their works into a concert program. Somewhere in between those two repertoires hovered the great eclectic geniuses, Stravinsky, Bartók and Prokoviev.

The contest between tonality and atonality continued throughout the 20th century. The first was popular, the second, on the whole, popular only with the elites. But it was the elites who controlled things, and who directed the state subsidies to the music that they preferred – or at least, that they pretended to prefer. From the time (1959) when the modernist critic Sir William Glock took over the musical direction of BBC’s Third Programme, only the second kind of contemporary music was broadcast over the airwaves in Britain. Composers like Vaughan Williams were marginalised, and experimental voices given an airing in proportion to their cacophony. During the 1950s there also grew up in Darmstadt a wholly new pedagogy of music, under the aegis of Karlheinz Stockhausen. Composition, as taught by Stockhausen, consisted in random outbursts that could be described, without too much strain, as groans wrapped in mathematics. The result makes little or no sense to the ear, but often fascinates the eye with its nests of black spiders, as in the scores for Stockhausen’s Gruppen or the 6th String Quartet by Brian Ferneyhough.

The trick was successful. Stockhausen’s works received and still receive extensive, usually state-subsidised performances all across the world. His older Austrian contemporary, Gottfried von Einem, who was at the time writing powerful operas in a tonal idiom influenced by Stravinsky and Prokoviev, was in comparison ignored, not because his music is trivial, but because he was perceived to be out of touch with the new musical culture and exhibiting dangerous vestiges of the romantic worldview.

Those days are past. It is now permissible to like Sibelius and Vaughan Williams, and to believe that they are superior – which they clearly are ­– to Stockhausen and Boulez. It is permissible to reject the notion that tonality was made irrelevant by the atonal school, and to recognise that some of the greatest works in the tonal tradition were composed in the middle of the 20th century: Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, for example, Strauss’s Four Last Songs, Britten’s Peter Grimes, major symphonies by Shostakovitch and Vaughan Williams, Aaron Copland’s Clarinet Concerto and Appalachian Spring. Some of these – the Rachmaninoff and the Strauss – could be seen as extracting unexploited remainders from the tonal tradition. Others – Britten  and Copland – were more actively engaged in renewing the tonal tradition, drawing out new kinds of melodic line and novel harmonic sequences.

In The Philosophy of Modern Music (1958) Theodor Adorno argued that tonality was nothing but the exhausted remainder of a dead tradition. But by the time he wrote it was atonality and not tonality that was exhausted. The radical modernist idiom was kept going by Darmstadt, by the system of official patronage and by the fact that real musical education, which used to be a household requirement, had been effectively destroyed by the invention of broadcasting and recording, so that few people felt confident in questioning the radical avant-garde. But the real experiments – those that drew freely on the tonal tradition and on the eclectic spirit of Western civilisation, like the Turangalila Symphony of Messiaen, the remarkable Star-Child oratorio by George Crumb, and the triple concerto of Michael Tippett – entered the repertoire without any need for the critical hype and institutional support enjoyed by Stockhausen and Boulez.

There is another reason for the brief ascendancy in those days of the avant-garde, and one that bears heavily on the future of Western music. During the course of the 20th century a wholly new kind of popular music emerged. Nobody can say, in retrospect, that the waltzes and polkas of Strauss or the operettas of Léhar and Offenbach belong to another language and another culture than the symphonies of Brahms or the music dramas of Wagner. Strauss (father and son), Léhar, Offenbach are now counted in the “classical” repertoire, just as much as Wagner, Brahms and the other Strauss. And the distinction between popular entertainment and high art is internal to their repertoire: the Overture to Die Fledermaus and the Hungarian Dances of Brahms surely stand side by side. They reach back across a century and a half to the dance suites of Bach and the ballets of Rameau – serious celebrations of joyful and light-hearted ways of being.

Only in the 20th century did popular and serious music finally divide, and the principal reason for this was jazz. The origin of this remarkable idiom is veiled in obscurity, though it is evident that it absorbed, along the way, both the syncopated rhythms of African drum music, the blues notes that come from attempting to unite the pentatonic and the diatonic scales, and the chord grammar of the Negro spirituals. The jazz idiom showed a remarkable ability to develop, so that an entirely new harmonic language grew from it, and soon became the foundation of a new kind of popular song and dance. It was this quintessentially American idiom that most got up the nose of Adorno during his time as an exile in Hollywood, and which served as his proof that tonality was destined to degenerate into short-breathed melodies and repetitious sequences.

It is true that improvisation around a “jazz standard” is a very different thing from the far-ranging musical thinking that we find in the concert-hall. A work that returns constantly to the same source for refreshment, and goes on “forever” precisely because it goes on only for a moment is a very different thing from the symphony that develops thematic material into a continuous musical narrative. But Ravel, Gershwin and Stravinsky showed how to incorporate jazz rhythm and melody and even jazz harmonic sequences into symphonic works that had some of the long-distance complexity of the classical tradition. Meanwhile there emerged a new form of popular music, on the edge of jazz, but reaching into the world of folk melody and light opera. This was the idiom of the Broadway Musical and the American Song Book. Brilliant musicians like Cole Porter, Hoagy Carmichael, and Richard Rodgers became household names, with songs that our parents knew by heart, and which defined a new kind of taste. This was music to be sung around the house, which normalised the emotions of ordinary people as they endeavoured to cope with the new world of machines, gadgets, social mobility, fast romance, and easy divorce. Thus began the great fracture in the world of music between “pop” and “classical”, in which it became ever more important for the critics to side with the classical tradition, and to find something that distinguished modern composers in that tradition from the “easy listening” and “light music” that filled the suburban bathroom.

For a while, therefore, there was an added motive for composers to take the path of radical modernism, and so to give proof that they belonged to the great tradition of serious musical thinking. A composer like Boulez, ensconced in the madhouse of IRCAM in Paris, could be, as Hamlet put it, “bounded in a nutshell and count himself king of infinite space”. Insulated from the vulgar world of musical enjoyment, sending out musical spells into the electronic ether, the composer began to live in a world of his own. That it should be Boulez who received the accolades and not Maurice Duruflé or Henri Dutilleux is explained by the enormous publicity value of difficulty, when difficulty is subsidised by the state. The radical modernists had succeeded in persuading the official bodies that they were keeping alive the flame of high art in the face of an increasingly degenerate pop culture. And for a while, following the transformation of rhythm and blues into a universal idiom of song and dance by Chuck Berry, The Beatles, and The Rolling Stones, it seemed as though they were right. What did this new popular music have to do even with the comparatively refined language and domestic charm of the Broadway musical, still less with the symphonic and operatic traditions?

But then the whole thing collapsed. Impassable divides have an ability to survive in the old hierarchical culture of Europe; but they don’t last for long in America. Composers like Steve Reich and Philip Glass had no desire to separate from their hippy friends, or to lose the most important benefit that makes the life of a composer worthwhile, namely money, and the audience that provides it. There emerged the new idiom of minimalism, in which the harmonic complexities of the modernists and those of the great jazz musicians like Monk, Tatum, and Peterson were both rejected in favour of simple tonal triads, often repeated ad nauseam on mesmeric instruments like marimbas. The result, to my ear utterly empty and the best argument for Boulez that I have yet encountered, succeeded in entering the repertoire and gaining a young and enthusiastic audience. This music is written for the concert hall, but uses the devices of pop: mechanical rhythm, unceasing repetition, fragmented and constantly repeated melodic lines, and a small repertoire of chords constantly returning to the starting point. It has joined the world of “easy listening”.

Whether Reich and Glass entitle us to talk of a new and “postmodern” idiom in the world of serious music I doubt. For this is not serious music, but a kind of musical void. Listening to Glass’s opera Ekhnaton, for instance, you will be tempted to agree with Adorno, that the musical idiom (let’s not speak of the drama) is utterly exhausted. But then along came John Adams, whose mastery of orchestration and knowledge of real tonal harmony began to redeem the minimalist idiom, and to bring it properly into the concert hall. And other American composers followed suit – Torke, Del Tredici, Corigliano, Daugherty – writing “tonal music with attitude”, inserting advanced harmonic episodes into structures that make thematic and rhythmical sense. In Britain a new wave of tonal composers has also emerged, some of them – like James Macmillan, Oliver Knussen, and David Matthews beginning as radical modernists – but all moving along the path mapped out by the great Benjamin Britten, out of the modernist desert into an oasis where the birds still sing. Such composers learned the lesson taught (however clumsily) by Reich and Glass, which is that music is nothing without an audience, and that the audience 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 sarabandes – 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.


Tonal Affinities and Their Denial, Part I

EDITOR’S NOTE: This essay is the first part of a two-part series. You can read the second part here.

Nearly a century after Arnold Schoenberg averred it to be the future of Western art music, dodecaphony remains the single most startling turn in the history of music – any music. Its advent in 1923 was, as the late composer George Rochberg once pointed out, the only occasion in the history of any known culture that tonality – in the general sense of pitch hierarchy, not the specific signification of the major/minor system – had been denied. It is my two-fold purpose to show that 1) The denial failed, because it is an acoustic impossibility, and, more importantly, 2) The attempt at denial, and the belief system built around that attempt, corrupted the vitality and creativity of Western art music, leading to its present marginalization. Along the way, it will be necessary to expose the philosophical roots of what musicologist William Thomson has called “Schoenberg’s Error,”1 and to suggest some alternatives to that thinking.

What I have called dodecaphony is often referenced as “twelve-tone” (in the UK, “twelve-note”) music and is frequently used in tandem with the related but altogether different word, “serialism.” Schoenberg’s innovation arrived in these two different parts: Dodecaphony was the idea that all dozen tones of the chromatic scale should be employed by a composer before any were repeated, while serialism was a mode of compositional procedure in which the twelve tones were laid out in a row or series, and then manipulated formally via ages-old techniques of inverting, reversing and transposing the rows. Serial composition, in other words, was a most efficient way of ensuring that the essential aesthetic of dodecaphony – the lack of tonal implications in the relationships among pitches – was adhered to.

Here is Schoenberg, recalling in his essay, “Composition with Twelve Tones,” how he came up with his inventions:

After many unsuccessful attempts during a period of approximately twelve years, I laid the foundations for a new procedure in musical construction which seemed fitted to replace those structural differentiations provided formerly by tonal harmonies. I called this procedure ‘Method of Composing with Twelve Tones Which are Related Only with One Another.’ This method consists primarily of the constant and exclusive use of a set of twelve different tones. This means, of course, that no tone is repeated within the series and that it uses all twelve tones of the chromatic scale, though in a different order. It is in no way identical with the chromatic scale…..[The method involves ordering the twelve tones of the chromatic scale into a row, known as the Basic Set, and using that row and its properties exclusively throughout the composition in question.]2

(Emphases Schoenberg’s.)

The bold statement “twelve tones which are related only with one another” is the crux of the watershed that was Schoenberg’s aesthetic. By “related only with one another,” Schoenberg meant related solely by virtue of being placed in positive relation to each other; as John Cage would later explain it, tones in Schoenberg’s method (and in Cage’s) are “related” in the sense that one piece of furniture in a room is “related” to the other pieces of furniture in that room – they are all in proximity to each other. “Related” in the old tonal sense had meant related to each other hierarchically, as parts of some larger tonal scheme, precisely the thing Schoenberg was seeking to dissolve. This might better be called a “non-relationship” than a relationship; and of course, it is possible to posit non-relationships, at least in the abstract. It is possible to toy with the idea, for example, that each color exists independently of all other colors, that green and purple and orange are not part of a spectrum, but isolated phenomena, and to create a color theory based on that idea. If that were done, however, it can be assumed with relative certainty that the theory would not be taken as anything other than a fanciful “as-if.” Put forth as a universal concept, it would be denied vigorously as clearly and incontrovertibly false. Dodecaphony, by contrast, was hailed as a step forward in an inevitable progression toward a new music.

Why? How was such an aesthetic, asserted without any intellectual or empirical support, accepted as orthodoxy for decades? And why have the acoustic premises of dodecaphony, which are, as is easy to demonstrate, utterly false, never been flushed from music history? Why, in other words, are dodecaphony and the developments that followed from it considered a legitimate part of music history, instead of an aberration in need of correction? There must be some core idea at work that lends the air of being true to abstract assertions like Schoenberg’s, whatever their status in the world of empirical experience. Prior to that, though, there must exist misunderstanding, at a most fundamental level, of what is meant by some of the vocabulary attached to this discussion. Take for example, the word “chromatic.” A typical music critic’s description of dodecaphony generally assumes “chromatic” to apply. Of course, it does not. “Chromatic” has meaning only in contrast to “diatonic,” and both rely for context on the major/minor system of key centers. Music is diatonic when deployed in a particular key of seven tones – major, minor or modal – and becomes chromatic when it slides between those seven, “borrowing” pitches from other keys. When all possible pitches, diatonic and chromatic, are assembled, we have the “chromatic” scale, though in truth it is a diatonic scale (any diatonic scale, depending on where the set of twelve stops and starts) with chromatic embellishments added. What Schoenberg did was to treat the chromatic scale as independent of its origins in the diatonic scale, to employ the twelve tones merely “as a collection of materials,” as Thomson explains it. Dodecaphony is not chromatic any more than it is diatonic. It is, strictly speaking, neutral.

The roots of dodecaphony are generally traced back to Wagner, and especially to Tristan und Isolde, which might with good reason be called the rough musical equivalent of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. As Critique of Pure Reason was a turning point in Western philosophy, Wagner’s score was a turning point in Western music, and for a similar reason. Kant’s text famously placed a limit on what we might know; the synthetic a priori meant that experience is shaped by the categories that populate our consciousness, and therefore we cannot know “the thing-in-itself.” Centuries of assumptions to the contrary were overturned, even made to look naive, by Kant’s observations. Likewise, the harmonic ambiguities of Wagner’s music revealed the foundation of the tonal system developed in Europe after the Renaissance to have been built on sand. From the late Renaissance to the middle of the 19th century, the system of major and minor keys had held the place of an absolute. Systematic tonality defined music-making with its hierarchies of pitch classes. But in the early pages of Tristan rose a chord that would become infamous as the machine of that system’s overthrow. In Harvard’s Charles Eliot Norton lectures for 1973, Leonard Bernstein dramatized the seeming anarchy created by the Tristan chord:

What key are we in? Or no key at all? Did that cadence on the dominant seventh indicate A minor? But the dominant never resolves to the A minor tonic. Instead, there is a long pause, and the phrase is repeated, higher, more intense, with the rising minor sixth now stretched, transformed to a major sixth, again ending on a dominant, but in a different key.3

Bernstein continues, astonished at every turn by Wagner’s ability to suggest multiple possible keys – or no key at all – at once. One needn’t understand the technical harmonic terms to catch the thrust of what Bernstein is saying: From the moment of Wagner’s Tristan (1868), harmonic stability can no longer be taken for granted. After Kant, there was no way to know “the thing-in-itself.” One might say that, after Wagner, there was no way to know “the key in itself.”

The reason for Wagner’s manipulation of tonal ambiguities cannot go unmentioned. Shortly after writing the libretti to the four music dramas of his Ring of the Nibelung and commencing the scoring of the first of them, Wagner read Schopenhauer’s The World as Will and Idea. Never before had a composer been so directly influenced by a philosopher. Previously a committed revolutionary, Wagner now saw the world as illusory, a chimera of pain followed by extinguishment, the only conceivable moral path being that of Buddhist-like renunciation.

And so, the music for the last three of Wagner’s four Ring installments, and especially the music for his next serious music drama, Tristan und Isolde, pushed tonality in the direction of its seeming dissolution, analogue to the Schopenhaueresque theme of renunciation. What could be musically more illustrative of the illusion of material reality than the unraveling of the music itself? What could be dramatically more effective than a libretto in which the characters attempt to maintain the lie of creating a new world through political and ethical reform, while the music denies this possibility in its very nature, seeming to dissolve the world of sound through sound itself? Of course, the actual unravelling of music would not be possible. To do that literally, to eliminate music, would be, perhaps, to tell the singers and musicians to go their own way and sing and play whatever they wish (a notion to keep in mind when we trace the lineage of Wagner’s influence). No, the depiction of disillusion, the musical portrayal of abjuration, could not consist literally in the removal of music, but rather the employment of music to the end of suggesting that the real world is illusory.

There is a doubling-back here that is fascinating. In order for Wagner to sketch this portrayal of a world of illusion, it was necessary for him to employ musical skills, which were in turn assumed to be non-illusory. In other words, systematic tonal music (the only music at the time) was based on the deployment of notes in perfect hierarchical relation. By manipulating this relation so as to undermine the sense of hierarchy, by employing the sort of harmonic ambiguity related above by Bernstein, Wagner was able to suggest that the relation did not exist – that tonality, and by extension, the world of the senses, was indeed a world of illusion. But this suggestion of illusion rests in turn for its effect on tonality’s non-illusory validity! The point cannot be overemphasized: Wagner did not deny tonality in the Ring and his later operas; rather, he masterfully exploited its potential for ambiguity via extreme chromaticism, painting in music a world in which every sensible thing – including tonality, the very thing doing the painting – does not “really” exist. Little wonder that Claude Debussy called Wagner “the poisonous old magician,” and that W.H. Auden, saying the same thing with an opposite normative twist, dubbed him “the greatest genius who ever lived.”

Schoenberg was the most devoted advocate of Wagnerian extreme chromaticism. Yet he also took great exception to the formal ramifications of that innovation.4 His objection lay along the same lines as his admiration, because the very ambiguity that forged a new harmonic language had also dissolved the traditional structures of Western art music. For example, in a fugue, a subject or subjects are submitted to contrapuntal development over a series of overlapping statements in different keys. Sonata-allegro form presents an expository section that explores themes in contrasting keys, followed by a development that at length returns the themes to the main key of the piece, etc. Without stable key centers, these forms and others were rendered inchoate. Schoenberg, then, sought to impose structural norms on the new language of harmonic ambiguity. He viewed increasing harmonic ambiguity as historically determined and therefore inevitable, but the accompanying dissolution of structure could not stand for long.5 From the late 1890s through the first two decades of the 20th century, Schoenberg pushed Wagnerian harmonic ambiguities to their limit, eventually composing what is sometimes called “atonal” music, but which Schoenberg dubbed, with greater accuracy, pantonal music. Pantonality consists in the avoidance of single-tonic tonal implications altogether, as opposed to the ambiguity of Wagnerian chromaticism. The razor-thin line dividing one from another is difficult to define. It is better illustrated, ideally, by listening to Schoenberg’s major scores, from the clearly Wagnerian Verklarte Nacht (1899) to the doubtlessly pantonal Gurrelieder (1913).

Eventually, however, the ambition of avoiding single tonalities, and the mentally draining task of note-to-note decision-making that such avoidance entailed, overwhelmed Schoenberg. His solution: “He opted for Wagnerian chromaticism, but then he relentlessly adapted it to creations of Brahmsian autonomy.”6 In the final number of the four piano pieces making up his Op. 23 (1923), Schoenberg deployed the system that Theodor Adorno would call “a comprehensive principle of construction…transformed into an a priori form,”7 and that American composer George Rochberg, after first embracing and then vehemently rejecting it, would term “the pathology of the 20th century.” Borrowing from his hero Brahms the intense manipulation of short melodic motifs instead of long-lined melodies, Schoenberg struck on the idea of treating each pitch sui generis, without reference to any wider concept of “tonality.” Treated thusly, the composer could manipulate cells of notes in an abstract manner, shaping form, not from harmony, but from “objective” patterning.

This was the “Wagner” half of the undertaking. The “Brahms” half consisted of creating a structure to house this new chromatic vocabulary: the variation of the rows by transposition, inversion, and retrograde procedures; in other words, serial composition. In this way, a single row could generate 48 different twelve-tone statements for the composer to manipulate. The result was no longer simple pantonality, but anti-tonality: a sonic struggle to reverse how tones had related to each other throughout centuries of Western art music. To review how this had worked, we can conceive of each of the twelve tones in the collection of chromatic scale as capable of receiving what Thomson calls “pitch focus” to become a tonic. Therefore, each note is a tonic, or a dominant, or a subdominant, etc., depending on which note among the twelve receives pitch focus. Focus on a B-flat as tonic, and F is the dominant. Focus on the F as tonic, and B-flat becomes sub-dominant. On and on this relational interchange goes, and as the focus shifts, the same B-flat that was tonic to itself and subdominant to F becomes dominant to E-flat, a major third to G-flat, a second (the supertonic) to A-flat, etc. It is a kaleidoscope of shifting pitch relations that eventually produces twelve major and twelve minor scales. Such is the syntax of the major-minor system: the deployment of pitches in relation to each other as multiple, interlocking hierarchies. The hierarchy is fluid (giving it the inherent potential for ambiguity so brilliantly exploited by Wagner) because any of the twelve notes can “take turns” being the home pitch, or tonic; in other words, a piece may be in any one of twelve different keys (twenty-four allowing for major and minor deployments), and may change key from passage to passage, or even measure to measure.

This is how each of the twelve tones functions in tonal music – taking turns in a game of sonic hierarchy, playing roles from royalty (tonics and dominants) to peasants (neighboring chromatic tones, perhaps), complete with the possibility of revolution in the form of key changes. Taken as a whole, however, the twelve tones of the chromatic scale are just a vocabulary lacking a syntax, a syntax added only when a single note receives pitch focus and is “made party to hierarchical relationships” by this focus, as Thomson puts it. “As a construct, the chromatic scale is nothing more than a useful representation of pitch resources, a listing of ingredients,”8 lacking the tension of hierarchy that underlies the phenomenon of tonality. This is demonstrable by the fact that the chromatic scale can start on any note and the resulting scale will have the same note-to-note relationship as if one started on any other note. This is not true of the major and minor scales, for which note-to-note relationships must change as the tonic moves from one pitch to the next. Even the whole-note scale, developed to intensity by Debussy, has two possible, mutually exclusive iterations (CDEF#G#A# or C#D#FGAB). But the chromatic scale has only one.

This was exactly what Schoenberg sought to exploit in the idea of dodecaphony: a flat assemblage of notes without hierarchy. No more concern about which key(s) might be present, because the 12-tone row banishes all keys. No more worry about note-to-note procedure, because by avoiding all possible tonal connections in the very form of a piece, one’s path to atonality is smoothed. Manipulate the 48 possible permutations of your original twelve-tone row, and you have composed without fear of having made connections between notes, save in the positive sense that the notes are gathered in proximity to each other (“twelve tones which are related only to one another”).

But there’s an obvious problem. The same flatness of relationship that made the chromatic scale fodder for “equal” treatment of tones divorced it from syntax; indeed, the two statements – “lacking hierarchy” and “lacking syntax” – are restatements of each other. The chromatic scale, played sequentially or arranged as a row, is inherently non-syntactical, and music – all music of all cultures at all times in history to which we have access – had, until this moment in Western history, always exhibited a syntax deriving in some manner from the inherent hierarchic implications of the overtone series. This derivation was not theoretical, but practical. As Thomson writes, it came from “people opening their mouths” and singing.9 Vocal practices were later transferred to instrumental ones. To take a representative example from outside the Western tradition, the drone of the Indian sitar results from the direct observation of the acoustic fact of hierarchical pitch-relations. Six or seven of that instrument’s 17 to 20 strings are fretted, and the player plucks these to produce tones. But the remainder are free-floating strings intended to vibrate along with the pitches produced by the player. They ring in sympathy in accordance with the pitch played; in other words, when a fretted note is played, the amount of resonance exhibited by any certain string will depend on its place in the overtone hierarchy of the plucked note. If the note played is, for example, a “D” (in Western nomenclature), then any string tuned to “A” will resonate boldly, as that is the first pitch in the overtone series of “D” after other “Ds.” A string tuned to “B” will resonate less boldly, and one tuned to “E” still less so, etc. As the player moves from note to note, each individual, sympathetic string resonates at varying levels of intensity, depending on its place in the pitch hierarchy of the note played. This makes the color of the sound shift constantly as the overtone series glides from note to note, altering the hierarchy of its pattern with each change of the fundamental tone.

We must stop here to consider the difference between the two different, but related meanings of “tonality.” As we have noted, all musical cultures, prior to the advent of dodecaphony, have in some manner involved relating notes to one another in a hierarchy. Europe’s major/minor scales and India’s ragas are but two examples. Native America’s cedar flute tradition employs a minor pentatonic scale; traditional Chinese string instruments are played according to the ratios of 1/2, 1/3, 2/3, etc., ratios exactly correspondent to the overtone series. There are no exceptions. It is in this broad sense that all music (except dodecaphony, apparently) is tonal (first meaning): its practice relates in some manner to the inherent hierarchy of the overtone series. But Western musicians often use the word “tonality” to refer to the major/minor scale system that was modern Europe’s particular response to the overtone series (second meaning). This was how Schoenberg meant “tonality,” when, for example, he contrasted it to Europe’s earlier modal system of organization, which involved fewer notes and a less definite sense of the tonic pitch. (This is why medieval chant, which is modal, sounds “floating.”) Modality was tonal in the first sense, like all other music. But it was not tonal in the second sense of exhibiting major-minor scale relationships. Thomson points out that Schoenberg declared modality to be “pre-tonal” (implying the first meaning) because it lacked the diamond-hard relationship of dominant to tonic that characterizes tonality (second meaning). This conflation of tonality/first meaning with tonality/second meaning is all the more confusing because, in its first meaning, tonality allows no “pre-tonal” state; it is an always-already reality of pitched sound.

So, by abandoning tonality in the second sense of the Western major/minor system, and substituting for it a system that expressly undermined any other possible tonal connections in the first sense, Schoenberg made in essence the claim that Western tonality was the only system of tonality-in-the-first-sense that mattered. Tonality-second-sense was the only possible ultimate expression of tonality-first-sense; therefore, Schoenberg reasoned, the time had come to abandon tonality in both its meanings. The advent of serialism, far from being the liberating act its champions professed it to be, was actually a bold example of Eurocentric hubris. Schoenberg conceived of “tonality” narrowly, only in the sense of the European major/minor system, and his (seeming) innovation of dodecaphony was announced from within this system alone. A pall of cultural hegemony hangs over dodecaphony, confirmed by Schoenberg’s most infamous statement regarding his invention of it, from a letter to a friend in 1923: “I have made a discovery which will ensure the supremacy of German music for the next hundred years.”10 Boastfully nationalistic, the statement is also made tragically poignant by the fact of Schoenberg’s Jewish heritage, in light of the coming Holocaust.


1 William Thomson, Schoenberg’s Error.

2 Arnold Schoenberg, “Composition with Twelve-Tones” (1941), Style and Idea: Selected Writings of Arnold Schoenberg, Leonard Stein, ed., trans. by Leo Black, Faber and Faber, 1975, p. 218.

3 Leonard Bernstein, The Unanswered Question: Six Talks at Harvard, Harvard, 1976, p. 231.

4 William Thomson, Schoenberg’s Error, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991, passim.

5 Note, as this description progresses, a dialectical triad expressed. Tonality (thesis) contains its own self-contradiction as ambiguity (atonality as antithesis), resulting in the synthesis of Schoenberg’s dodecaphony.

6 Ibid., p. 175.

7 Quoted in Stefan Muller-Doohm, Adorno: A Biography, Polity Press, 2005, p. 118.

8 Ibid., p. 88.

9 Ibid., p. 142.

10 Arnold Schoenberg, quoted in Stuckenschmidt, Hans Heinz. 1977Schoenberg: His Life, World and Work, trans. by Humphrey Searle. Schirmer Books, p.277.


The Blind Spots of Pierre Boulez

EDITOR’S NOTE: This essay is reprinted here with the gracious permission of both the author and Slipped Disc, the publication for which it was originally written.
We encourage our readers
to see the lively discussion that follows the essay on Slipped Disc.

I first played under the baton of Pierre Boulez more than a quarter of a century ago, shortly after I joined the Chicago Symphony. I always admired him as a human being. He was kind, brilliant, generous, and by all accounts a great and loyal friend. On more than one occasion he rescued the Chicago Symphony on short notice after other conductors had to cancel on us. Indeed, he and Bernard Haitink stepped in to steer the orchestra’s artistic fortunes following Daniel Barenboim’s abrupt departure in 2006. All of us in the orchestra are very much in his debt.

But in addressing his legacy, I feel that another aspect of his life must be acknowledged. As a polemicist, he had a profound effect on how we thought about music for much of the 20th century and beyond. On the whole, I think this effect was far from beneficial.

In an essay that dates from 1980, the composer Ned Rorem describes a lecture that Boulez gave on the subject of Debussy’s Etudes. Boulez, according to Rorem, characterized an E-natural in the eighth bar of the Etude-in-Fourths as “a veering from the key center”. Rorem pointedly disagrees, hearing it as “a ‘blue’ note”. Indeed, Rorem hears “the whole lush piece as a jazz improvisation.” Boulez’s premise, Rorem tells us, is that “all roads lead to dodecaphonism” (i.e. to twelve-tone atonal music).

Debussy was one of Boulez’s heroes and so, in Boulez’s view, his music must be heard as a harbinger of the glorious atonal world to come. Rorem’s essay reminds me of something I read back in my college days, Herbert Butterfield’s The Whig Interpretation of History. Butterfield brilliantly takes the conventional wisdom of the historians of his time to task in this brief book from the 1930s. He feels that they regarded history as a teleological phenomenon; mankind was “progressing” towards a world-view that, coincidentally, was the world-view held by these historians. All previous modes of thought, then, were judged as enlightened or reactionary according to how closely they resembled the views of the Whig Historians.

Unfortunately, a teleological narrative is extremely problematic in regard to artistic achievement. Einstein could supersede Newton and antibiotics clearly work better than leeches. But can we truly “progress” beyond Bach or Mozart? Ironically in a man who was famed for his “modernism” Boulez’s faith in man’s eternal journey ever closer to perfection seems a quaint 19th century mindset. It is a way of looking at the world that was, for most of us, discredited by the nightmare of the 20th century’s totalitarian conceptions. We learned the hard way that the rational mind of man was not inexorably advancing toward a utopian future.

Like any good Whig, Boulez picked good guys and bad guys from the pantheon of composers. He favored those whom he could fit into his own narrative, that the entire history of western music was a long struggle to throw off traditional tonal practice. Not many composers before Debussy earned his approval. The only composer born before 1860 I can remember him conducting more than once in the 25 years I played under his baton is Berlioz. Even in the 20th century, there was no shortage of composers who did not conform to Boulez’s March of Progress, and were thus unworthy of his consideration.

In an interview with the Chicago journalist Dennis Polkow on the occasion of his 85th birthday, Boulez went to some length in trashing Dmitri Shostakovich:

I heard [the First Cello Concerto] twice over the years, and I am not saying that it made me physically sick or anything like that, but Tchaikovsky was more radical than Shostakovich. I heard the Fifth Symphony a few years back here in Chicago; it is so conventional. And Symphony Fifteen, this business of long quotes from Rossini, what a poor excuse for some imagination. If we are to play Shostakovich, why not Hindemith?…

You know, in the history of music, there are composers without whom the face of music would be completely different, and composers whom if they had never existed, it would have made no difference whatsoever.

This is as eloquent a manifesto as one could want for the world-view and unstated assumptions of the Whig Historian. Composers, Boulez implies, are to be judged by whether or not they change “the face of music”, and it is clear what manner of changes were required to earn his approval. Whether or not music is beautiful or enables the audience to experience something that it finds meaningful and valuable is apparently beside the point.

In addition, it is dismaying to see Boulez, who was ordinarily so kind and gracious, condemning Shostakovich’s Fifth for being “conventional”. Shostakovich was nearly destroyed for writing music that displeased his Soviet taskmasters. He wrote the Fifth Symphony in the style he did because his career and perhaps even his life depended upon it. To condemn this music for being “conventional” is rather like telling a political prisoner, “You know, you really should get out more!”

And yet, can’t the argument be made that Shostakovich was, in his way, more progressive than Boulez? The “business of long quotations” that Boulez ridicules in the 15th Symphony always struck me as an inspired use of “found objects”, which, in a work that dates from 1971, presages such contemporary visual artists as Alan Rankle and Tracy Emin, not to mention the samplings of preexisting recordings that are often used in rap and hip hop. There is nothing comparable in the music of Boulez. Indeed, I find that his angular melodic shapes and the thoroughgoing dissonance of his harmonies never entirely left the sound world of the Second Viennese School, notwithstanding the superior sophistication and flexibility of his serial techniques, the often daunting rhythmic complexity, and the greater variety in timbre achieved through electronic technology and the subtlety and complexity of his instrumentation.

There were other blind spots in Boulez’s aesthetics that affected his view of Shostakovich. An element of Shostakovich that Boulez could not even acknowledge, so foreign was it to his own viewpoint, was the Russian’s use of popular elements in his music, of folk materials, military marches, and dance rhythms. In this, Shostakovich (and Mahler and others before him), foresaw the melding of high and low art that is so much a part of our present artistic landscape.

I always felt that this limited Boulez when he conducted composers such as Bartok and Mahler, whose styles were deeply affected by popular elements and folk materials. One work I performed with him countless times was Mahler’s Seventh Symphony. In the third movement, which to me is the best music in the symphony, the climax is a crushingly vulgar fortissimo waltz theme grotesquely orchestrated with an appallingly banal accompaniment. Mahler marks the music “Wild”, and it should be horrifying. I always imagine Mahler as a neurotic child encountering drunken, brawling soldiers at his father’s tavern near their barracks in rural Bavaria. It would be hard to conjure a more harrowing depiction of Hannah Arendt’s “banality of evil”.  But in the hands of Boulez it always came across as bizarrely elegant – not too fast, not too loud, very accurate. It would have been hard to miss more completely the point of the music.

Inexplicably, more than a few critics accepted his view reducing Mahler to a mere way station on the road to Schoenberg (and Boulez). In a review from October 7, 2010 of a Boulez performance of Mahler 7 with the Chicago Symphony, John Von Rhein, of the Chicago Tribune wrote: “It took the alert ear of Boulez to recognize the distant footfalls of the Second Vienna School in Mahler’s weird harmonic clashes.”

Indeed, critics almost universally praised Boulez’s Mahler interpretations, even of this berserk symphony, for their Apollonian vision. The logic escapes me. Would we praise a diva for a similarly cerebral depiction of the Mad Scene in Lucia? “By not letting herself get overwrought, and calmly singing as if she were at a Presbyterian Church service, the soprano let us really see the melodic lines and harmonies as Donizetti wrote them…”

Would we praise an actor doing Lear for his emotional detachment, and marvel at how he seems so unaffected by his daughters’ betrayal of him that for once we really see Shakespeare’s words as they appear on the page? In passages such as this excerpt from the Seventh, vulgarity is at the very heart of the music; it wallows in the popular culture of Mahler’s time. It never seemed to occur to Boulez that this music must be tied to the world that inspired it outside of the notes on the page.

This is another way in which the world left Boulez the “modernist” behind. His aesthetics were almost obsessed with stylistic consistency. He derided composers past and present for using preexisting structures and tonal schemes with which to organize their material, rather than reinventing the structural wheel with each new work according to the nature of the material therein. In his essay Debussy and the Dawn of Modernism he lauds his hero: “What was overthrown was…the very concept of form itself, here freed from the impersonal constraints of the schema…demanding a technique of perfect instantaneous adequacy.” I’m not sure what “perfect instantaneous adequacy” is. Maybe it works better in the original French.

Later, this essay is even more opaque, at least in translation: “Motion, the instant, irrupt into his music, not merely an impression of the instant, of the fugitive to which it has been reduced, but really a relative and irreversible conception of musical time, and more generally, of the musical universe.”

In any case, we get the idea. Each piece of music must create its own form according to the material being manipulated; it must owe nothing to anything that exists outside its own microcosm. This unfortunately leaves out a lot of the way the world actually exists in our time. If I walk a mile or so north from the Chicago Symphony’s hall, I see a joyous cacophony of architectural styles, promiscuously borrowing from millennia of human history – neo-gothic structures like the Tribune Tower, Frank Gehry’s post-modernist conception at Millenium Park, a few Modernist rectangles, Renzo Piano’s lighter-than-air confection for the modern wing of the Art Institute, and so on.

Many composers since the mid-20th century have reflected this aspect of our world in their music. The Soviet master Alfred Schnittke even coined a term for it: Polystylism. The Chicago Symphony currently has two brilliant young composers-in-residence, Mason Bates and Anna Clyne, who write music that is a glorious mash-up of, among other things, club music dance beats, electronic wizardry, and classical techniques both contemporary and anachronistic. It seems to me that this is the future, and Boulez’s paeans to Debussy’s structural integrity are very much the past. Yet still, it is almost impossible to find anything written about Boulez that doesn’t pay homage to his cutting-edge modernism.

The image of the creative artist as misunderstood genius who is appreciated only by posterity is a cliché. Like many clichés, it has some elements of truth to it. Mahler, Schubert, Bruckner, and Berlioz are certainly appreciated more today than they were in their lifetimes. With Boulez, though, we have a new phenomenon. Here is a composer that started as an enfant terrible urging us to blow up opera houses and ended up a stalwart Establishment institution – and yet never had to write any music that mainstream classical music audiences actually wanted to hear to achieve his climb to eminence.

Indeed, it became somehow bad form to point out that his music is not very successful with the public. In January 2010, the Chicago Symphony sponsored a chamber concert featuring many of his works in honor of his 85th birthday. I was told that the Chicago Architecture Foundation, which has the good luck to be located next to Symphony Center, was overrun with literally hundreds of patrons fleeing the concert at intermission, still clutching their programs. I was told this by one of the refugees. Naturally, this mass exodus was not deemed worthy of mention in any of the press accounts of the event, just as there is a polite silence in the local press about the banks of empty seats at the Chicago Symphony that still result from any program in which the music of Boulez is prominent.

How could Boulez come to such prominence while composing music of such limited appeal? I believe that it was his Whig sensibility, and his success in getting the rest of the world to buy into it, that enabled him to achieve this. The powers that be in classical music decided that Boulez was right. Atonality was the only true path, the goal that we had been unwittingly striving toward ever since the first Gregorian chant. If you were writing tonal music by the middle of the 20th century, you were irrelevant, or, as Boulez put it in his notorious 1952 essay “Eventuellement…”, “useless”. So it didn’t matter whether audiences actually liked it – that was the new music they got. History and Progress had allowed us no alternative.

For a couple of generations after World War Two, composers who employed elements of traditional tonality became endangered species at the music schools of our great universities.

Of course it is simplistic to say that Boulez by himself caused this. But there was no denying his power as a polemicist – and the power of his considerable personal charm. His Whig narrative became accepted wisdom. Tonality, and music that communicated to the traditional classical audience, were consigned history’s ash heap.

This was a tragedy for American music. Whenever I perform Copland, or Bernstein, or Barber, I think of how the 1940s must have looked to American musicians at the time. Copland was an established talent, basking in the great success of his Third Symphony and the ballets. Bernstein had arrived on the scene in a big way, composing the Clarinet Sonata and On The Town in that decade. Barber was hitting his stride, and there was a phalanx of highly skilled composers of the second rank on hand, such as Walter Piston and William Schuman. Our nation was poised like Bohemia at the time of Smetana and Dvorak, or Russia in the heyday of the Mighty Five, to tell our story in classical music, to create an indigenous national school. It was not to be. Barber’s lyricism got him laughed off the stage. Copland was cowed into writing twelve-tone music in the 1950s. And Bernstein had his greatest successes on Broadway and on the podium.

One of Boulez’s staunchest allies was my old Music Director, Daniel Barenboim. It was under Barenboim’s auspices that Boulez was named Principal Guest Conductor of the Chicago Symphony, and Barenboim frequently programmed the music of Boulez and his acolytes. He never deigned to conduct the 20th century composers Boulez would have described as “useless”, unless he was compelled to accompany something along the lines of a Prokofiev concerto. He was pretty open about his disdain for the more tonal currents of our time. But one time, he did condescend to conduct Samuel Barber. It was our first concert in Chicago after 9/11, and he selected Barber’s Adagio for Strings to commemorate the tragedy.

I always wanted to ask him why, when it came time to bring people together in a shared emotion (Wasn’t this a prime motivation for why humanity has always turned to music in the first place?), his esteemed Schoenberg and Boulez suddenly weren’t up to the job and he had to resort to the benighted modal harmonies of Samuel Barber. Doesn’t this tell us something profound about the limitations of the “progress” that Pierre Boulez always insisted we had made?


The Clothes Have No Emperor

De mortuis nil nisi bonum: of the dead, nothing unless good. But you can take it too far, re-inventing someone who was a power-hungry manipulator, by allowing no one to speak for him save his partisans, many of whom owe their careers to promoting him. As the French say, on a ras le bol with Pierre Boulez, whose death in January has called forth such a spate of idolatrous prose that the sceptics among us have begun to wonder whether French culture is not after all as dead as its critics say it is, if this minor composer and intellectual impresario can be lauded as its greatest recent product. Yet no one in the official channels of cultural appraisal has sown a seed of doubt.

Boulez has three achievements to his name. First, his compositions, presented to the world as next in line to the serialism of Webern, and the “place we have got to” in our musical evolution; secondly, his presence in French culture, diverting government subsidies away from anything that might seem to endorse ordinary musical taste towards the acoustic laboratory of the avant-garde; thirdly, his work as a conductor, for whom clarity and precision took precedence over sentiment. His dominating presence in French musical life is proof that, once the critics have been silenced, the self-appointed leader will be accepted at his own valuation. Condemning all competitors as “useless”, and hinting at a revelation, a “system”, that authorised his doings as the musical Zeitgeist, Boulez was able to subdue whatever timid protests might greet his relentless self-promotion. His disciples and acolytes have spoken abundantly of his charm, and it is clear that, once the period of initial belligerence was over, and his opponents had been despatched to the dust-heap of history, Boulez was a smiling and benevolent occupant of his self-made throne. But did he rule from that throne over fertile territory, or was this sovereignty an expensive illusion?

Boulez’s manipulation of the French subsidy machine has been explored and exposed by Benoît Duteurtre, in a book published in 1995: Requiem pour une avant-garde. Duteurtre tells the story of the steady takeover by Boulez and his entourage of the channels of musical and cultural communication, the new power networks installed in the wake of May 1968, the vilification of opponents, the anathematising of tonal music and its late offshoots in Messiaen, Duruflé, and Dutilleux, and the cultural coup d’état which was the founding of IRCAM. This institution, created by and for Pierre Boulez 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 music, and sees both as matters for “research”. Maintained by government funds in the basement of its architectural equivalent, the Centre Pompidou, IRCAM has been devoted to “sound effects” created by the avant-garde elect, whose products are largely, to coin a phrase, “plink selon plonk”. 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.

Boulez did, from time to time, produce music that passed that test. He had a fine ear, and no one can doubt that every note in every score was intensely thought about – but thought about, and thought about as sound. Boulez’s was an acoustical, rather than a musical art, with meticulous effects and sonorities produced in unusual ways, according to arcane theories that are inscribed on the hidden side of notes held close to the chest. He burst into the concert hall as a young man in order to heckle the last attempts at tonal composition, dismissing all who were not serialists, and presenting his seminal Le marteau sans maître in 1955 as showing the direction in which serialism must go.

The instrumentation of that work – alto voice, flute, guitar, vibraphone, viola and percussion – reflects the composer’s obsession with timbre and sonority, used here to prevent simultaneities from coalescing as chords. With time signatures changing almost every bar – a 2:4 here, a 5:16 there and so on – and grace notes dropped into every staff, the score resembles a palimpsest from an alchemist’s recipe-book, and the composer’s refusal to describe the serial organisation, insisting that it is obvious and apparent to the ear, has led to a quantity of learned literature. The writers of this literature largely assume that Le marteau is a masterpiece and the turning point of post-war music, because Boulez himself has said so – not in so many words, for he was far too modest for that, but because he pointed speechlessly to its evident perfection.

In a hard-hitting article the American composer and musicologist Fred Lerdahl has told us what the fuss is all about.* The inability of the critics to discern the organisation, serial or otherwise, of Le marteau, Lerdahl argues, is the direct result of the fact that the listening ear is organized by another grammar than the one here used (ostensibly, at least) by the composer. Here is what Wikipedia has to say about this episode:

Despite having been published in 1954 and 1957, analysts were unable to explain Boulez’s compositional methods until Lev Koblyakov in 1977. This is partially due to the fact that Boulez believes in strict control tempered with “local indiscipline,” or rather, the freedom to choose small, individual elements while still adhering to an overall structure compatible with serialist principles. Boulez opts to change individual notes based on sound or harmony, choosing to abandon adherence to the structure dictated by strict serialism, making the detailed serial organization of the piece difficult for the listener to discern.

The Wikipedia article chooses there to close the discussion, with a reference to Lerdahl’s article. But it misses the real point. As Lerdahl argues, serialism construes music as an array of permutations. The musical ear looks for prolongations, sequences, and variations, not permutations, which are inherently hard to grasp. Hence music (music of our classical tradition included) presents 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 serious music. And it is this “moving forward” that is the first casualty when permutations take over. Add the “plink selon plonk” of the acoustical laboratory and the result is heard as arbitrary – something to be deciphered, rather than something to be absorbed and enjoyed in the manner of a conversation.

You can test this quite easily by comparing one of the many modernist masterpieces that Boulez condemned with a rival composition by the great man himself. From the beginning, in Le marteau, to the interminable instrumental twiddles of Pli selon pli, Boulez gives us music that has little or no propulsion from one moment to the next. The fundamental musical experience – fundamental not just to our classical tradition but to all music that has been sung, played, and danced from the beginning of time – is that of virtual causality, whereby one moment seems to produce the next out of its own inner dynamic. This is the primary experience on which all rhythmic, melodic, and harmonic invention depends, and it is absent – deliberately absent – from Boulez.

To say this is not to display an attachment, whether or not “bourgeois” or “reactionary”, to the old forms of tonality. It is to make an ontological observation: to say what music essentially is. So take a piece every bit as adventurous in its sonorities as Boulez, in which traditional tonality is marginalised, but which nevertheless adheres to the principle of virtual causality in musical space – say the violin concerto of Dutilleux, or the powerful chaconne movement from the same composer’s first symphony. At once we are in another world, a world that we know, moving with the sounds we hear, and hearing them not merely as sounds, but as movements in a space mapped out in our own emotions. I have to use metaphors in order to describe this experience – for reasons that I make clear in The Aesthetics of Music. But they are metaphors that we all instinctively understand, since they invoke the phenomenon of music itself.

There is a reason for referring to Dutilleux, apart from the fact that it is the 100th anniversary of his birth. For he was, in his own way, every bit as adventurous as Boulez, with the same desire to take music forward into the modern world, to build on past achievements, and to take inspiration from the great achievements of French music, painting, and poetry at the beginning of the modern period. In the 1960s and 70s he was dismissed by Boulez and his entourage as a “bourgeois” composer, smeared as a “Nazi collaborator” (in fact he was active in the resistance), and excluded from the privileges of the true avant-garde. But his music, unlike Boulez’s, has a regular place in concert programs, and speaks to the ordinary musical listener in accents that are both new and (with a certain justified effort) comprehensible.

If we look back at Boulez’s presence in French culture, during the years around 1968 when he was the Gauleiter of the avant-garde, we must surely understand him as the instigator of a false conception of music – not only of the place of music in high culture, and in the civilisation that is our greatest spiritual possession, but of the nature of music itself. He deliberately, and in my view uncomprehendingly, undid the distinction between musical tone and acoustical sound; he mathematized and scientized a practice that is meaningful only if it is seen as a creative art, and he justified every kind of intellectual pretension, just so long as it was intellectual, and just so long as it could be seen as the latest attempt to épater le bourgeois.

Of course he was a true musician too. Faced with real music he had an instinctive grasp of how it might be performed so as to reveal all the currents of thought contained in it. As a conductor he set an example that many have wished to follow, and with reason. Still, even there, his personality showed itself. His meticulous version of Wagner’s Ring cycle shows a conductor who appreciates in thought what can be understood only in emotion. And this version will always be appreciated as a monument to our times, a kind of revenge on Wagner, which is also, when taken together with Chéreau’s marxisant production, a revenge on Germany. Seeing Boulez in that way, I think, we reduce him to his real size, and can begin to appreciate his true historical significance, as a by-product of a disastrous war.

* “Cognitive Constraints in Compositional Systems”, in John A. Sloboda, ed., Generative Processes in Music, Oxford 1988.


Le Violon d’Ingres: Some Reflections on Music, Painting and Architecture

EDITOR’S NOTE: This essay is reprinted with gracious permission from the Newington-Cropsey Cultural Studies Center, who originally published it in American Arts Quarterly, Spring 2006, Volume 23, Number 2.

Sitting in his studio at the French Academy in Rome, the painter Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres picks up his violin and begins to play. His interest in the violin is both musical and visual. The instrument he plays is a composition of molding profiles drawn from classical architecture – torus, scotia, bead and cyma recta – culminating in a spiral resembling the volute of an Ionic capital. The proportion of neck to body of the violin is that known as the Golden Section, a ratio thought to underlie many natural forms as well as the proportions of Greek temples. The anthropomorphism of the instrument is surely not lost on the painter, as his eyes move between its sinuous curves and those of the odalisque taking shape on the canvas next to him. He draws the bow across the strings and produces consonant intervals that correspond to the simple whole-number ratios first demonstrated by Pythagoras in the fifth century B.C. The violin traces out an arc of melody that seems a sonic analogue to the linearity of the artist’s drawing. The music is all beauty of line, and so is the painting. At this moment, the musical and the visual experiences fuse into one.

Violin by Johann Christoph Leidolff, Vienna, <small srcset=
1749. Image credit: Harald Fritz.” width=”336″ height=”417″> Violin by Johann Christoph Leidolff, Vienna, 1749. Image credit: Harald Fritz.

So familiar is the story of the great painter and his nearly equal dedication to music that the French phrase le violon d’Ingres has come to refer to an avocation at which one excels. At least in the case of the visual and musical arts, it seems that the “vocation” and “avocation” are not simply two independent pursuits – there seems to be a profound connection between them, and that is how they are often experienced by those who are blessed with such multiple gifts. But, while few would deny a strong relationship between musical and visual forms, the character of that relationship is hard to describe.

For example, many musicians and composers have observed that the key signatures are associated with different colors. Alexander Scriabin contrived a “color organ” – an early precursor of a 1960s psychedelic light show – to accompany performances of his music by projecting the colors corresponding to the score’s harmonies. A few decades later, Olivier Messiaen based his music in part on “chordal colors,” such as “golden yellow, blue of Chartres, violet purple, green and red, orange tint, violet amethyst, mauve and pearl gray.”1 Even less exalted musicians find that they recognize the key in which a piece of music is being played by its “color” as much as by the absolute pitches they hear. The problem is that composers and musicians cannot agree on which colors go with which chords – it seems to be different for each individual – and yet they all attest to this coincidence of harmony and color.

In more extreme cases, some people experience an intense cross-over between their senses known as synesthesia, in which sounds are “seen” and objects – including shapes, buildings or pictures – are “heard.” This is now recognized clinically as an involuntary neurological phenomenon affecting a small number of people, including, famously, the composer Scriabin (and possibly Messiaen), the painter Wassily Kandinsky and the novelist Vladimir Nabokov. Distinct from this clinical designation is the use of synesthesia as an idea or metaphor to explain the visual correlatives to heard music reported by musicians, and musical correlatives to visual and spatial form reported by artists and architects. Some researchers suggest that we are all synesthetes, but only some of us are consciously aware of “the holistic nature of perception.”2 Using this synesthetic metaphor as a starting point, I want to explore some ways a musical interest might affect the work of a visual artist, especially an architect, since that is my own discipline. As we shall see, painting and architecture have parallel – albeit somewhat different – relationships with music.

Ingres was not, of course, the first or last painter with a serious involvement in music. Vasari, in his Lives of the Artists, tells us that Leonardo da Vinci performed for the Duke of Milan on a lyre “that he had made himself, mostly of silver, in the shape of a horse’s head, so that the sound would be more sonorous and resonant.”3 There are tantalizing passages in Leonardo’s Treatise on Painting, in which he calls music “the sister of painting,” and continues: “You will say that music is composed of proportion, and in answer to that I say that in that respect it imitates and follows the example of painting.” Unfortunately, we know little about Leonardo’s musical life, his Treatise on Music is lost, and only a few scraps of musical score in his hand have survived, although contemporary accounts tell of his great skill as both composer and performer. Not surprisingly, given his technological and scientific approach to whatever interested him, his musical activity extended to suggesting technical improvements to numerous musical instruments and even inventing new ones.4

A scientific bent also characterized Thomas Jefferson, who, like his younger contemporary Ingres, was an “above-average amateur violinist,” but who, like Leonardo, also had a technical interest in the design and construction of musical instruments. His music library included scores by Corelli, Vivaldi, Handel, Boccherini, Haydn and Mozart.5 Jefferson did not record his thoughts about the relationship between music and architecture, but his superb design for the University of Virginia always brings to my mind the counterpoint, cadences or tempi of those graceful colonnades and arcades, and the ascent up the Lawn to the Rotunda seems a perfect crescendo. Although it is unlikely that Jefferson knew of it, his endlessly subtle and beautiful Lawn has always seemed to me a built correlative of its near-contemporary, Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony.

Frank Lloyd Wright was an able pianist who admitted that his architectural language was shaped by his musical understanding. Wright was particularly devoted to Beethoven, whom he called a great architect, referring to the Eroica as a “great edifice of sound.”6 There is indeed something of Beethoven’s familiar building-up of complex textures from simple motives that pervades Wright’s work almost throughout his career, from the early Prairie Houses and Unity Temple to the late Marin County government center. Another important modernist, Louis Kahn, often spoke poetically, if cryptically, about music and its relation to architecture. Former students recall his not infrequent habit of humming a theme from Mozart to make a point in an architectural design jury. In his most celebrated works, such as the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, the library at Exeter Academy or the Salk Institute in La Jolla, California, Kahn shares with Wright an interest in the expressive power of abstract form – space, mass, line and detail – in a way that seems profoundly musical.

Among architects who have sought to revive the Classical tradition in their work, Léon Krier, a leading crusader against the modernism of both Wright and Kahn, nonetheless shares their musical interests. Another accomplished pianist, Krier has a particular devotion to Chopin, which might seem surprising in relation to his design work. At first glance, his robust and enigmatic designs – including his own house at Seaside, the Town Hall at Windsor or the newly completed building for the School of Architecture at the University of Miami – have little of the exquisiteness we associate with the Polish master of the piano. And yet Chopin also evokes a Michelangelesque terribilità in some of the Preludes and Ballades, and close study of Krier’s designs reveal a sense of fantasía and melancholy often overlooked by critics.

Admittedly, these examples are anecdotal and superficial, bordering perhaps on cliché. But, like many clichés, they point to an underlying truth, namely that we often find it natural to speak of the architecture of music or the musicality of architecture. What is the source of this connection? Goethe’s famous definition of architecture as “frozen music” is suggestive, but not very specific. My sense is that there are three fundamental points of intersection between music and the visual arts: the first is the analogy between tonality and perspective, the second is their common interest in proportion, and the third is their non-representational, nonverbal expressiveness.

Renaissance theories of pictorial perspective construct an apparent three-dimensional space in a two-dimensional medium by defining the location and orientation of each object in the visual field with respect to an independent geometrical system. In Western music since the mid-seventeenth century, tonality similarly establishes a metaphorical space within which each tone has a location, orientation and sense of movement. Leonardo da Vinci, who developed techniques for perspective drawing still cited today, noted in his treatise that music’s harmonies “are composed of the simultaneous conjunction of its proportional parts, which are destined to be born and then die in one or several harmonic spaces.”7 Music may be fleeting in time, he is saying, but lingers in a remembered space of the hearer’s own making.

This space is not simply an abstract diagram in our minds, but is experienced as an analogue to our daily physical space, whose three dimensions are mirrored in the musical dimensions of harmony, melody and rhythm. A sound becomes a tone when it assumes a character within a harmonic, melodic or rhythmic context and a hierarchical position with respect to other tones. Philosopher Roger Scruton points out that “a tone has implications in these three dimensions, which correspond to three kinds of expectation that are aroused or thwarted in musical experience. A tone arouses ‘vertical’ and ‘horizontal’ expectations – the first being harmonic, the second melodic and rhythmic.” Through what Scruton calls “metaphorical transference,” these musical dimensions conjure a “space” through which we can imaginatively walk, finding in it such spatial attributes as intimacy or grandeur, a soaring upward or cascading down, a sense of compression or release. Scruton describes our musical understanding as revealing “a first-person perspective on a world that we know is not ours. Neither is it anyone else’s. It is a creation of the imagination, and retains the impersonality of the imaginative act.” We hear music when “sounds are transfigured into movements, harmonies, rhythms—metaphorical gestures in a metaphorical space.”8

In an architectural analogue to musical space, commuters entering Grand Central Terminal in New York from 42nd Street pass through a low vestibule into the generously proportioned Vanderbilt Hall, continue through a Piranesian passage where ramps lead to the lower levels, and finally emerge into the great concourse, a crescendo worthy of Beethoven. It is not only the spaces themselves that impress us, but the way the elements enclosing them are organized compositionally. We see walls, floors and ceilings punctuated by openings and organized proportionally by the classical orders – the exact opposite of randomness. In the same way, a musical space has a hierarchical structure – “the essence of which is groups combined within groups” – parts forming wholes which are themselves parts of larger wholes, extending from the microcosm to the macrocosm.9 Just as pictorial-spatial perspective orders the structural hierarchy of an architectural work, so the sonic perspective afforded by tonality orders the individual tones into coherent music.

Music and architecture, then, are constructed with respect to both perceptual and metaphorical space and time, but as mirror images of one another. In music, tonality uses a temporal sequence of tones to construct a metaphorical space in which time seems suspended; architectural perspective uses a spatial sequence of fixed rooms to suggest a journey unfolding in time. In each case, it is the interweaving of space and time that is essential, one being given to the senses and the other being provided by the imagination. Perhaps it is this synchronization of sense and imagination that makes the experience of both perspective and tonality so satisfying.

Testing the analogy between architecture and music, Hersey translated the proportional ratios of Bernini's Baldacchino into musical intervals and these into a melody. The musical quality of the resulting tune is debatable, but it is notable that the melody is tonal and consonant (Architecture and Geometry in the Age of the Baroque, University of Chicago Press, 2000).
Testing the analogy between architecture and music, Hersey translated the proportional ratios of Bernini’s Baldacchino into musical intervals and these into a melody. The musical quality of the resulting tune is debatable, but it is notable that the melody is tonal and consonant (Architecture and Geometry in the Age of the Baroque, University of Chicago Press, 2000).

Music and architecture are linked by a second kind of geometry, that which orders figural shape and proportion rather than space. Since ancient times, we have understood that a common set of numerical ratios may be used to describe a series of pleasingly shaped rectangles, based on the relations of adjacent sides, and consonant musical intervals, based on the lengths of the strings that emit those tones when plucked. In other words, sounds have shapes and shapes have sounds, a kind of naturally occurring synesthesia. A common terminology was developed to describe these ratios; for example, the ratio 2:3, or sequialtera (Latin for “more by half” – or two plus half of two), denotes both a rectangle with sides in this proportion as well as the musical interval of a fifth.10 Recognition of common geometric and musical proportions retained a central role in the Western artistic imagination from Vitruvius to well into the nineteenth century.

John Hersey’s recent book Architecture and Geometry in the Age of the Baroque shows how the coincidence of musical and geometrical consonance may be reflected quite literally in the designs of such artists as Vignola and Bernini. As an example, Hersey develops “intervals, chords, and melodies out of the geometric envelope of Bernini’s baldacchino” by translating its constituent rectangles into musical intervals. I must say that I am not overly impressed by the musical value of the tune Hersey derives from Bernini’s composition, but the demonstration is nonetheless illuminating.11 Looking at the matter from the other direction, years ago I attended a performance by the harpsichordist Davitt Moroney at which he analyzed the counterpoint in one of J. S. Bach’s fugues by relating its composition of subjects and countersubjects to the arcaded wall treatment of the classical room in which he was playing, using the moldings and elements of the room to clarify the fugue’s musical structure. While the room, of course, did not explicitly manifest specific patterns derived from the piece, the analogy between the musical and spatial architectures was effectively illustrated.

While both musical and architectural proportions are rooted in geometry, I believe there is not necessarily a one-to-one correspondence between them. Attempts by composers to write music according to a predetermined architectural pattern of beats or intervals have, in my hearing at any rate, not been particularly effective; and architectural designs rigidly composed according to prescribed musical ratios, to my eye, lack the liveliness we ascribe to an architectural design when we say that it sings. One reason for this non-correspondence is perceptual: an architectural composition, more often than a musical one, must compromise with contingent reality; hence we have the optical corrections of the Greek temples that adjust the ideal configuration of columns and entablatures to compensate for the distorting effects of human vision.

In truth, music and architecture each have their own proper proportional procedures that keep recurring, whether consciously applied or not, and the actual patterns so recurring are not necessarily mutually transferable between the two art forms. I believe the analogy between them goes deeper than ratios regulating intervals or dimensions. Musical and architectural structures both arise from their relation to a common measure.12 In classical music this is usually a reference tone – the tonic or tonal center; in classical architecture, a module or ratio – such as a recurring rectangle, column diameter or the Golden Section. The consistency with which this common measure is applied in each respective art is the key to its expressive structure, allowing for the establishment of a norm built into the individual work, violations of which then become significant.13

Our recognition of proportional consonance in both music and architecture leads to another, even deeper truth: we are drawn to things that are made in the same way we ourselves are made. A harmonious chord and a well-proportioned structure mirror back to us the constructive harmonies of our own bodies, and by extension, of the cosmos itself. Such was the point of the classical doctrine of the “music of the spheres,” which was taken quite literally from ancient times until the birth of modern astronomy in the seventeenth century. Modern cosmology debunked this ancient picture of the cosmos as mysticism, a view paralleled in Schoenberg’s dismissal of tonality as an arbitrary convention and the modernist architects’ dismissal of the classical orders as relics of an exhausted past.14

In recent decades, however, there has been growing scientific interest in the formative power of naturally occurring patterns as a far more complex cosmology slowly emerges. Scientists are interested in pattern and proportion once again. Neuroscience is beginning to reveal ways in which pattern-recognition is built into the complex and subtle mechanisms of the brain. From this viewpoint, classical music and architecture are analogous, not just because they reflect one another, but because they reflect us and the way our minds work. It should come as no surprise, then, that both music and architecture today are engaged in retrieving their respective traditional languages: melody, tonality, proportion, ornament, the classical orders – the whole lot.

These reflections lead to a final relationship uniting music and architecture: their non-representational mode of expression, that is, their abstraction. This is a property that is not necessarily shared by painting to the extent that it is representational, which music and architecture cannot be. The painter’s depiction of his subject – that is, content outside of the painting itself – potentially communicates thoughts about the subject that might be put into words. Whatever music Ingres played on his violin, it did not express definite thoughts about a non-musical subject that could be restated in words. Architecture, too, may be intensely expressive, communicating strong feelings purely by manipulation of “space, mass, line, and coherence” (to borrow Geoffrey Scott’s terms),15 but it cannot say anything definite about a non-architectural subject.16 This is why architecture needs decorative painting and sculpture to introduce narrative content, and why music relies on sung or spoken words for the same purpose. So while Ingres’s appreciation of the affinities between music and painting may have led him to reflect on their differences in this regard, an architect like Wright or Kahn might reflect on the similarities between music and architecture for the same reason. I think this is why an architect who is also a musician might think about architecture differently than one who is also a painter.

Their common wordless expressiveness is perhaps what most links music and architecture in my own experience. Why can I be reduced to tears on hearing Bach’s “O Mensch, bewein die Sünde Gross” or upon stepping into Michelangelo’s vestibule to the library of San Lorenzo? Paradoxically, the first is music in a major key (which we tend to associate with “happy” content in contrast to the “sad” minor keys), and the second is simply an arrangement of columns and niches around an oddly configured stairway, seemingly without explicit emotional associations. And yet, the response in both cases was immediate and profound. The emotional effects of music and architecture are simply ineffable, but it is also now clear that the modernist abandonment of traditional tonality and perspective rendered both arts capable of communicating only anxiety and disorientation. Only in a system in which consonance and dissonance can be distinguished, and in which consonance is the norm, can we find and express a fuller range of human emotion.

Like many people, from an early age I found that music provided a doorway into my own feelings, without which those feelings may have been much less accessible. As childhood passed into adolescence, architecture joined music in this role, and both of them now occupy central places in my life, in which feeling and reasoning seem to work together productively. Perhaps had I been blessed with talent in painting and poetry instead, I would say the same thing; but something about the wordlessness of music and architecture bring them into an intimacy and immediacy of enjoyment that I cannot help thinking is unique to them.

I don’t know if Ingres ever had any thoughts like these, but he might have mused to himself along similar lines as he drew the portrait of his friend and fellow Academician, the composer Charles Gounod, or later, when Gounod sat at the piano and accompanied the painter-violinist in some new music the composer had brought with him. To me, the lovely phrase le violon d’Ingres connotes much more than a glorified hobby. It expresses recognition that all the arts and all our human faculties – despite their individual characters, distinctive requirements and separate domains – are fundamentally one.


1 Olivier Messiaen, The Technique of My Musical Language (Paris: A. Leduc, 1956). The quotation about “chordal colors” is taken from the composer’s liner notes for the recording of his “Méditations sur la Mystère de la Sainte Trinité,” released by the Musical Heritage Society, MHS 1797/98.
2 Richard Cytowic, “Synesthesia: Phenomenology and Neuropsychology: A Review of Current Knowledge,” PSYCHE, 2 (10), (July 1995).
3 Giorgio Vasari, Lives of the Artists (Penguin Classics, 1965). p. 261.
4 Carlos Velilla , “Leonardo da Vinci and Music,” Jacqueline Minett, trans., Goldberg (online music magazine:
5 Helen Cripe, Thomas Jefferson and Music (Charlotteville: University Press of Virginia, 1974).
6 “Frank Lloyd Wright on Record” (audio recording of interview in New York, June 5, 1956), Caedmon Records, TC1064.
7 Quoted in Velilla, op. cit.
8 Roger Scruton, “Understanding Music,” The Aesthetic Understanding (New York. Methuen, 1983), pp. 77–100.
9 Molly Guston, Tonality (New York: Philosophical Library, 1969), p. 85.
10 John Hersey, Architecture and Geometry in the Age of the Baroque (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2000), pp. 9–10.
11 Hersey, op. cit., pp. 46–51.
12 Guston, op. cit., p. 83.
13 Guston, op. cit., pp. 88–89.
14 Robert R.Reilly, “The Music of the Spheres, or the Metaphysics of Music,” The Intercollegiate Review (Fall 2001), p. 12.
15 Geoffrey Scott, The Architecture of Humanism: A Study in the History of Taste (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1999).
16 Roger Scruton, “Representation in Music,” The Aesthetic Understanding (New York: Methuen, 1983), pp. 62–76.


Admit It, You Really Hate Modern Art

EDITOR’S NOTE: This piece is reprinted here with gracious permission of the Asia Times, where it first appeared.

There are aesthetes who appreciate the cross-eyed cartoons of Pablo Picasso, the random dribbles of Jackson Pollock, and even the pickled pigs of Damien Hirst. Some of my best friends are modern artists. You, however, hate and detest the 20th century’s entire output in the plastic arts, as do I. “I don’t know much about art,” you aver, “but I know what I like.” Actually you don’t. You have been browbeaten into feigning interest in so-called art that actually makes your skin crawl, and you are afraid to admit it for fear of seeming dull. This has gone on for so long that you have forgotten your own mind. Do not fear: in a few minutes I can break the spell and liberate you from this unseemly condition.

First of all, understand that you are not alone. Museums are bulging with visitors who come to view works they secretly abhor, and prices paid for modern art keep rising. One of Jackson Pollock’s (19121956) drip paintings sold recently for $140 million, a striking result for a drunk who never learned to draw and who splattered paint at random on the canvas. Somewhat more modest are the prices paid for the work of the grandfather of abstract art, Wassily Kandinsky (18661944), whose top sale price was above $40 million. An undistinguished early Kandinsky such as Weilheim-Marienplatz (43 by 33 centimeters) will sell for $4 million or so by Sotheby’s estimate. Kandinsky is a benchmark for your unrehearsed response to abstract art for two reasons. First, he helped invent it, and second, he understood that non-figurative art was one facet of an aesthetic movement that also included atonal music.

Kandinsky was the friend and collaborator of the grandfather of abstract music, the composer Arnold Schoenberg (18741951), who also painted. Schoenberg, like Kandinsky, is universally recognized as one of the founders of modernism. Kandinsky attended a performance of Schoenberg’s music in 1911, and afterward wrote to him:

Please excuse me for simply writing to you without having the pleasure of knowing you personally. I have just heard your concert here and it has given me real pleasure. You do not know me, of course – that is, my works – since I do not exhibit much in general, and have exhibited in Vienna only briefly once and that was years ago (at the Secession). However, what we are striving for and our whole manner of thought and feeling have so much in common that I feel completely justified in expressing my empathy. In your works, you have realized what I, albeit in uncertain form, have so greatly longed for in music.

The critical consensus supports Kandinsky’s judgment. An enormous literature now exists on the relationship between abstract painting and atonal music, and the extensive Kandinsky-Schoenberg correspondence can be found on the Internet. Clement Greenberg, the critic who made Jackson Pollock’s reputation in the Partisan Review, noted a parallel between abstract painting and Schoenberg’s atonality: “The resemblance in aesthetic method between this new category of easel painting and Schoenberg’s principles of composition is striking…. Just as Schoenberg makes every element, every voice and note in the composition of equal importance – different but equivalent (Mondrian’s term) – so these painters render every part of the canvas equivalent.” That is correct as far as it goes, although it might be added that things of no particular importance have no importance at all. The hierarchy of importance is the source of meaning. The tonic, or the starting point of the scale and chord of the home key, is the most important note in a musical composition, for all tonal music undertakes a journey towards the tonic. Just as home is the most important location on a traveler’s map, the home key is the reference point for other keys, just as the central figure in a traditional painting subordinates the rest of the composition.

Recent research by neuroscientists confirms what impresarios have known for more than a century: Audiences hate atonal music. In his book The Music Instinct (2010), Philip Ball draws on recent research to conclude

The brain is a pattern seeking organ, so it looks for patterns in music to make sense of what we hear. The music of Bach, for example, embodies a lot of the pattern forming process. Some of the things that were done by those composers such as Schoenberg undermined this cognitive aid for making music easier to understand and follow. Schoenberg’s music became fragmented which makes it harder for the brain to find structure.

The most striking difference between Schoenberg and Kandinsky, the two founding fathers of modernism is pecuniary: The price of Kandinsky’s smallest work probably exceeds the aggregate royalties paid for the performances of Schoenberg’s music. Out of a sense of obligation, musicians perform Schoenberg from time to time, but always in the middle and never at either end of a program, for audiences would come late or leave early. Schoenberg died a poor man in 1951 – and his widow and three children barely survived on the copyright royalties from his music. His family remains poor, while the heirs of famous artists have become fabulously wealthy.

Modern art is ideological, as its proponents are the first to admit. It was the ideologues, namely the critics, who made the reputation of the abstract impressionists, the most famous example being Clement Greenberg’s sponsorship of Pollock. It is deliberately not supposed to “please” the senses on first glance, after the manner of a Raphael or an Ingres, but to challenge the viewer to think and consider. Why is it that the audience for modern art is quite happy to take in the ideological message of modernism while strolling through an art gallery, but loath to hear the same message in the concert hall? It is rather like communism, which once was fashionable among Western intellectuals. They were happy to admire communism from a distance, but very few chose to live under communism. When you view an abstract expressionist canvas, time is in your control. You may spend as much or as little time as you like, click your tongue, attempt to say something sensible and, if you are sufficiently pretentious, quote something from the Wikipedia entry on the artist that you consulted before arriving at the gallery. But when you listen to atonal music, you are stuck in your seat for as long as the composer wishes to keep you. It feels like many hours in a dentist’s chair from which you cannot escape. You do not admire the abstraction from a distance. You are actually living inside it. You are in the position of the fashionably left-wing intellectual of the 1930s who made the mistake of actually moving to Moscow rather than admiring it at a safe distance.

That is why at least some modern artists come into very serious money, but not a single one of the abstract composers can earn a living from his music. Non-abstract composers, to be sure, can become quite wealthy – for example, Baron Andrew Lloyd Webber and a number of film composers. The American Aaron Copland (190090), who wrote mainly cheerful works filled with local color (e.g., the ballets Billy the Kid and Appalachian Spring), earned enough to endow scholarships for music students. The Viennese atonal composer Alban Berg (18851935) had a European hit in his 1925 opera Wozzeck, something of a compromise between Schoenberg’s abstract style and conventional Romanticism. His biographers report that the opera gave him a “comfortable living.”

After decades of philanthropic support for abstract (that is, atonal) music, symphony orchestras have to a great extent given up inflicting it on reluctant audiences and instead are commissioning works from composers who write in a more accessible style. According to a recent report in the Wall Street Journal, the shift back to tonal music “comes as large orchestras face declining attendance and an elderly base of subscribers. Nationwide symphony attendance fell 13% to 27.7 million in the 200304 season from 19992000,” according to the American Symphony Orchestra League. The ideological message is the same, yet the galleries are full, while the concert halls are empty. That is because you can keep it at a safe distance when it hangs on the wall, but you can’t escape it when it crawls into your ears. In other words, your spontaneous, visceral hatred of atonal music reflects your true, healthy, normal reaction to abstract art. It is simply the case that you are able to suppress this reaction at the picture gallery.

There are, of course, people who truly appreciate abstract art. You aren’t one of them; you are a decent, sensible sort of person without a chip on your shoulder against the world. The famous collector Charles Saatchi, the proprietor of an advertising firm, is an example of the few genuine admirers of this movement. When Damien Hirst arranged his first student exhibition at the London Docklands, reports Wikipedia, “Saatchi arrived at the second show in a green Rolls-Royce and stood open-mouthed with astonishment in front of (and then bought) Hirst’s first major ‘animal’ installation, A Thousand Years, consisting of a large glass case containing maggots and flies feeding off a rotting cow’s head.”

The Lord of the Flies is an appropriate benchmark for the movement. Thomas Mann in his novel Doktor Faustus tells the story of a composer, based mainly on Arnold Schoenberg, whom resentment drives to make a pact with the Devil. Mann’s protagonist cannot create anything new, so out of rancor sets out to “take back” Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony by writing an atonal cantata (“The Lament of Dr. Faustus”). The point of the lampoon is to destroy the listener’s ability to hear the original. The critical consensus considers Picasso’s painting originally named Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (“The Bordello at Avignon”) to be the single most influential statement in modern art. Picasso lampooned El Greco’s great work The Vision of St John, which portrays the opening of the Fifth Seal in the Book of Revelation, the resurrection of the martyrs. El Greco’s naked, resurrected martyrs become a gaggle of whores, and the arms upraised in ecstasy in the earlier painting become a blend of seduction and threat. Picasso is trying to “take back” El Greco by corrupting our capacity to see the original. By inflicting sufficient ugliness on us, the modern artists believe they will wear down our capacity to see beauty. That, I think, is the point of putting dead animals into glass cases or tanks of formaldehyde. But I am open-minded; there might be some value to this artistic technique after all. If Damien Hirst were to undertake a self-portrait in formaldehyde, I would be the first to subscribe to a commission.

Yet, especially among the educated elites there are many who will go to their graves proclaiming their love for modern art, and I owe them an explanation of sorts. At the risk of alienating most of my few remaining friends, I will provide it. You pretend to like modern art because you want to be creative. At least, you want to reserve the possibility of being creative, or of knowing someone who is creative. The trouble is that you are not creative, not in the least. In all of human history we know of only a few hundred truly creative men and women. It saddens me to break the news, but you aren’t one of them. By insisting that you are not creative, you think I am saying that you are not important. I do not mean that, but we will have to return to that topic later.

You have your heart set on being creative because you want to worship yourself, your children, or some pretentious impostor rather than the god of the Bible. Absence of faith has not made you more rational. On the contrary, it has made you ridiculous in your adoration of clownish little deities, of whom the silliest is yourself. You have stopped believing in God, and as a result you do not believe nothing, but you will believe in anything (to paraphrase Chesterton). For quite some time, conservative critics have attacked the conceit that every nursery-school child should be expected to be creative. Allan Bloom observed more than twenty years ago in The Closing of the American Mind that creativity until quite recently referred to an attribute of God, not of humans. To demand the attribute of creativity for every human being is the same as saying that everyone should be a little god.

But what should we mean by creativity? In science and mathematics, it should refer to discoveries that truly are singular, which could not possibly be derived from any preceding knowledge. We might ask: In the whole history of the arts and sciences, how many contributors truly are indispensable, such that history could not have been the same without their contribution? There is room for argument, but it is hard to come up with more than a few dozen names. Europe had not progressed much beyond Archimedes of Syracuse in mathematics until Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibniz invented calculus. Throw in Euler and the Bernoulli family and we have the eighteenth century covered; Gauss, Riemann, Weierstrass, Frege, Cantor, and Klein give us most of the nineteenth. Until Nicolaus Copernicus and Johannes Kepler, Europe relied on the first-century work of Ptolemy for cosmology. After Kepler only Newton, and after Newton only Albert Einstein fundamentally changed our views on planetary motion. Scholars still argue over whether someone else would have discovered special relativity if Einstein had not, but they seem to agree that general relativity had no clear precedent. How many composers, for that matter, created Western classical music? If only twenty names are known to future generations, they still will know what is fundamental to this art form.

We can argue about the origin of scientific or artistic genius, but we must agree that it is extremely rare. Of the hundreds of composers employed as court or ecclesiastical musicians during Johann Sebastian Bach’s lifetime, we hear the work of only a handful today. Eighteenth-century musicians strove not for genius but for solid craftsmanship; how it came to be that a Bach would emerge from this milieu has no consensus explanation. As for the rest, we can say with certainty that, if a Georg Phillip Telemann (a more successful contemporary of Bach) had not lived, someone else could have done his job without great loss to the art form. If we use the term creative to mean more or less the same thing as irreplaceable, then the number of truly creative individuals appears very small indeed. It is very unlikely that you are one of them. If you work hard at your discipline, you are very fortunate to be able to follow what the best people in the field are doing. And if you are extremely good, you might have the privilege of elaborating on points made by greater minds. Beneficial as such efforts might be, it is very unlikely that, if you did not do this, no one else would have done it. On the contrary, if you are on the cutting edge of research in any field, you take every possible measure to publish your work as soon as possible, so that you may get credit for it before someone else comes up with precisely the same thing. Even the very best minds in a field live in terror that they will be made dispensable by others who circulate their conclusions first. Many are the stories of simultaneous discovery for this very reason, as the famous one about Alexander Graham Bell and Elisha Gray filing with the patent office the very same day to register inventions that would become the telephone.

Bach inscribed each of his works with the motto “Glory belongs only to God” and insisted (wrongly) that anyone who worked as hard as he did could have achieved results just as good. He was content to be a diligent craftsman in the service of God and did not seek to be a genius; he simply was one. That is the starting point of the man of faith. One does not set out to be a genius but rather to be of service; extraordinary gifts are responsibility to be borne with humility. The search for genius began when the service of God no longer interested the artists and scientists. Mozart was one of the first artists to be publicly hailed a genius. A little after this time, Friedrich Nietzsche announced the death of God and the arrival of the artist as hero, taking as his model Richard Wagner, about whose artistic merits we can argue on a different occasion. Whether Wagner was a genius is debatable, but it is beyond doubt that the devotees of Nietzsche were no Wagners, let alone Bachs. To be free of convention was to create one’s own artistic world, in Nietzsche’s vision, but very few artists are capable of creating their own artistic world. That puts everyone else in an unpleasant position.

To accommodate the ambitions of the artists, the twentieth century turned the invention of artistic worlds into a mass-manufacturing business. In the place of the humble craftsmanship of Bach’s world, the artistic world split into movements. To be taken seriously during the twentieth century, artists had to invent their own style and their own language. Critics heaped contempt on artists who simply reproduced the sort of products that had characterized the past, and they praised the founders of schools: Impressionism, Cubism, Primitivism, Abstract Expressionism, and so forth.

Without drawing on the patronage of the wealthy, modern art could not have succeeded. Very rich people like to flatter themselves that they are geniuses and that their skill or luck at marketing music or computer code qualifies them as arbiters of taste. So, each day we read of new record prices for twentieth-century paintings – for example, the estimated $140 million paid to the media mogul David Geffen for a Jackson Pollock. Successful businesspeople typically are extremely clever, but they tend to be idiot savants, with sharp insight into some detail of industry that produces great wealth, but lacking any concept whatever of issues outside their immediate field of expertise. As George Gilder once wrote, an entrepreneur is the sort of person who stays up all night studying garbage routes. Entrepreneurs, Gilder explained, immersed themselves in the annoying details of implementation that well-adjusted people rightly ignore. There is limited overlap between the sort of thought process that makes one rich and the kind of thinking that produces fine art. Because the world conspires to flatter the wealthy, rich people are more prone to think of themselves as universal geniuses than are ordinary people, and far more susceptible to the cult of creativity in art. In Doktor Faustus, Mann portrayed this as the work of the devil. The new Faust makes a pact with Satan: He sells his soul in return for a system of composing music. A new class of critics served as midwives at the birth of these monsters. I marveled over the fact that museumgoers gush over Pollock’s random dribbles but never would willingly listen to Arnold Schoenberg’s twelve-tone compositions at a concert hall. The conductor Sir Thomas Beecham famously said that people don’t like music; they only like the way it sounds. In the case of Pollock, people like neither his work nor the way it looks; what they like is the idea that the artist in his arrogance can redefine the world on his own terms. To be an important person in this perverse scheme means to shake one’s fist at God and define one’s own little world, however dull, tawdry, and pathetic it might be. To lack creativity is to despair. Hence the attraction of the myriad ideological movements in art that gives the despairing artists the illusion of creativity.

If God is the Creator, then imitation of God is emulation of creation. But that is not quite true, for the Judeo-Christian god is more than a creator; God is a creator who loves his creatures. In the world of faith there is quite a different way to be indispensable, and that is through acts of kindness and service. A mother is indispensable to her child, as husbands and wives and friends are to each other. If one dispenses with the ambition to remake the world according to one’s whim and accepts rather that the world is God’s creation, then imitatio Dei consists of acts of kindness. In their urge toward self-worship, the artists of the twentieth century descended to extreme levels of artlessness to persuade themselves that they were in fact creative. In their compulsion to worship themselves in the absence of God, they produced ideas far more ridiculous, and certainly a great deal uglier, than revealed religion in all its weaknesses ever contrived. The modern cult of individual self-expression is a poor substitute for the religion it strove to replace, and the delusion of personal creativity is an even worse substitute for redemption.


Tonality Now: Finding a Groove

Published with special thanks to Hilary B. and Kate Miller who made it possible.

The ear is a biological phenomenon; but the human ear is also a cultural product. It has a history, a perspective and an interest of its own. The ear of the modern concertgoer is unlike the ear of a medieval chorister, and both are distinct from the ear of the pop fan who never takes his speakers from his ears. Until we understand this fact we will not be able to address the question that is of such importance to classical music today, which is that of the renewal of tonality.

Some people listen to music; others merely hear it. The assumption on which our musical culture has been built is that people will listen to musical sounds, and listen to them for their own sake, treating them as intrinsically significant. All music lovers listen in that sense, regardless of their taste. This does not mean that listening is a single phenomenon, or that it cannot be changed through education. Just as you can educate the eye to look for the meanings that painters endeavour to put on the canvas, so you can educate the ear to listen for, and to hear, the effects that composers intend.

Animals too listen: they prick up their ears and stand still, attending to the ambient sounds. But they are doing something different from what we do, when we listen to music. They are seeking information. It is not the sounds that interest them, but the things that cause the sounds. Like us, they use their ears to gain knowledge of the world, and the sounds that they make are signals of other things – their emotions, desires and responses. Even bird-song is to be understood in that way. Birds neither sing nor listen for the sake of the music: they are expressing their territorial instinct, and taking note of others doing the same.

When we listen to music it is also true that we are interested in information – who is making the sound, where it is coming from, why it is sounding now, and so on. But those interests are extraneous to the musical experience. A completely unmusical person could be interested in music for those reasons, as could an animal. When we listen to music as music, we are focusing on the sounds themselves, hearing in them a particular kind of life and movement. And this is a far more mysterious thing than at first it seems. Often, if you focus too closely on the causes of the sounds, you lose track of the music. Brahms’s 2nd piano concerto opens with a phrase on the horn, followed by a rising arpeggio on the piano that breaks into an answering phrase. To hear the musical line you have to think away the physical location of the sounds, to forget the man blowing in one corner of the orchestra and the woman striking keys in the other. You must hear the horn summoning that arpeggio, which rises up in the same space as the horn’s melody, but from somewhere below it, presenting its answering phrase in the space vacated by the horn. Where is this space? Nowhere in the physical world. And when we listen to these sounds as music we are focusing on a movement that does not occur in the place where we are.

Only because we human beings are capable of certain special acts of attention do we encounter music in the sounds that we hear. Maybe the tone deaf hear only sounds, and cannot perceive the order that reveals itself to the musical ear. But musical people are listening in another way from the unmusical. They don’t hear through the sounds to some mysterious cause that eludes those with less acute hearing. What they hear lies in the sounds themselves. It is not a hidden cause or a faraway commotion. It is as present in the sounds as a face is present in a portrait. But it is not identical with the sounds, any more than the face in the picture is identical with a collection of pigments. The order we hear in music is an imagined order, and it is only because we attend to the music in a certain way that it is revealed to us.

Listening is not the whole of musical appreciation. There is also playing, singing along, dancing. But in all those activities we find some equivalent of the mysterious process that occurs in the soul of the musical listener: the process that fills a sequence of sounds with movement, life and order. It is in these terms that we should understand our tonal tradition, and also the interest that we bring to it in the concert hall. When playing an instrument you might be the sole audience. Nevertheless, it is your nature as a listener that governs how you play, and even if your body responds to the rhythm so that the movement of the music takes place also in you, this happens because you are a listener, someone who can hold sounds together in his imagination and who can hear the order that binds each sound to its successor.

Undeniably, listening has a history, and a pre-history too. Just how the habit of making and listening to music arose is a deep question, and evolutionary psychologists have offered various not very plausible theories in response to it. In its first occurrence, it is natural to assume, music must have been a social phenomenon – a form of ‘joining in’ through which the tribe experienced in heightened form the solidarity on which it depended for survival. When people sing and dance together they have an experience of ‘belonging’ which depends on no family ties or prior affections, and which therefore can be used to incorporate strangers into the community, to prepare otherwise mutually suspicious people for combat or hunting, and to mark the rites of passage in which the community as a whole has a stake. Not surprisingly, therefore, singing and dancing are universal features of tribal societies, and occur at just the places and times where the need for solidarity surfaces.

This does not, however, tell us very much about listening. The very fact that listening can occur in private, without the experience of ‘joining in’, might lead us to think that it is a late arrival on the human scene, a mark of the separation of the individual from the community, and of the growing ability of humans to put observation in the place of participation. Even if the performer and the dancer must listen to their music, the art of listening without joining is, it might be suggested, a later development, something that did not have to occur, and which supposes a new and more sophisticated attitude to the collective life of the tribe.

Whatever its pre-history, however, listening in silence brought with it not only a new attitude to music, but also a new kind of music. Music began to be written down and worked over; it became established as an art whose products could be repeated and admired in other places and at other times. The movement heard in sounds was now isolated for study, and understood in terms of its inner logic. New complexities arose as people began to distinguish separate but harmonising voices, and in due course there emerged the instrumental, choral and vocal music of our classical tradition, which demands acts of attention that can occur only if the audience maintains a posture of collective silence, and only if the urge to dance or to sing along is suppressed.

It is from those developments that the symphony and the concert arose. And it is not too fanciful, I think, to compare the rise of silent listening to the advent of silent worship in church, temple and synagogue. What must originally have been a collective dance or song in honour of the god became in time a largely silent ritual, in which the presiding priest conducted the ceremony, performed the sacred actions or recited the holy words, whether or not with the aid of a choir. The congregation could join in from time to time, but only in ways specified by the rite. For long moments the ordinary worshippers remained motionless in silence, their eyes and thoughts fixed on the ritual at the altar. The priest mediated between two worlds, the everyday world, and the world beyond, the spirit-world, to which the thoughts and hopes of the congregation were directed. And in due course the question arose whether such mediation was necessary, and whether people could not put themselves immediately in the presence of God, and receive his blessings through pronouncing prayers of their own.

Not surprisingly, therefore, the history of instrumental music and that of the cult of listening are interwoven with the history of the Church and the priesthood. You entered both the church and the concert hall from the world of business, laying aside your everyday concerns and preparing to be addressed by the silence. You came in an attitude of readiness, not to do something, but to receive something. In both places you were confronted with a mystery, something that happened without a real explanation, and which must be contemplated for the thing that it is. The silence is received as a preparation, a lustration, in which the audience prepares itself for an act of spiritual refreshment. This is perhaps one of the most important differences between the concert-hall experience and the Rock concert, in which the audience falls silent, if at all, only because it cannot compete with the noise from the stage. Like a football match, a Rock concert takes place in an atmosphere of excitement. Even if the result is a kind of listening, it is one in which participation, rather than contemplation, is the background sentiment.

In our attempts to understand the place of the symphony hall in our society today we should be aware of that great difference between the symphony and the Rock concert. The first is more akin to a religious service, in which a mystery is repeated in silence, while the second is more like a collective celebration, in which everyone joins in and there is no mystery at all – only life, expressed and accepted for what it is. The music of the concert hall tends to start from small beginnings and work to a climax. It is a kind of reasoned extrapolation of a primal thought, in which the listeners are invited to move and develop with the music, much as they are invited to move and develop with a religious service. Your feelings at the end of a great classical symphony have been won from you by a process which involves your deepest being. In the usual Rock concert, the excitement, and the message, are contained in the very first bar. Rhythm, tonality and the main spurt of melody are thrust immediately into the ears of the listener. There is a ‘let’s go!’ feeling to the music, and an invitation to leave aside all those long-winded and difficult emotions that have hesitation as their initiating mark.

But there are also significant similarities between the two events. In both there is a centre of attention – the people who are making music for the sake of the audience. And in both there is, or has been, a shared legacy of rhythmic, melodic and harmonic devices. While the symphony is more akin to a religious mystery, and the Rock concert to a tribal dance – although a dance that is constrained by the space and by the focus on the stage – both depend on musical movement, melodic progression, rhythmic beat and harmonic closure. The chords that occur in the Rock concert could also occur in a tonal symphony, and while, by the standards of the concert hall, the melodies of Rock music are for the most part truncated and ephemeral, they work in the same way – by bringing the listener into their movement. They work towards closure, and usually the melodic closure is a harmonic closure too, a coming to rest on the tonic of the key.

I don’t say that all Rock music is like that. But such is the paradigm case, from which the many experiments depart. And it is built around the same basic grammar as the great classical symphonies – the ‘common practice’, which extracts repeatable and recognizable harmonies from the diatonic scale. That is the thread by which young people today can be brought to enter, with experimental footsteps, the sacred place of the symphony hall. But first they must take off their ear-phones. And how do we make that happen?

It is not a question of replacing one musical taste with another – something that often happens through education and an expanded acquaintance with the repertoire. It is a question of replacing addiction with discrimination. If you look back at the critiques of tonality articulated by Schoenberg, and subsequently by Adorno, Bloch and others, you will find a repeated emphasis on the ‘banality’ of the common practice. This banality clings not only to melodies and rhythms, but also to individual chords. The diminished seventh, Schoenberg tells us in the Harmonielehre, has ‘become banal’. You just can’t use it any more: its once thrilling effect has gone from it; the chord has lost its aura through too much and too predictable use. (Though people went on using it nevertheless – there are three diminished sevenths in a row in Berg’s great Lyric Suite for string quartet.) It is as though a groove has been worn in musical space, and if you slip into it you are trapped by it, sliding along with no escape. All the effects of the common practice, Adorno argued, have become like that.

The same kind of groove is chiselled in the human psyche by addictions. When rewards are too quickly and too easily obtained, the path to them becomes entrenched and closed against divergence. The addict slips into the groove unresisting, and is carried to the goal without the possibility of escape from it. This happens with substance abuse, with pornography, with the anger-addiction of the Islamists, who slip into the God groove at the first hint of an excuse. And it surely happens with music too. When rhythms, harmonies and melodic lines are taken from a predictable repertoire and offer no resistance to the person who nods along with them, and when the experience is available at the push of a button, a groove is chiselled in the listening part of the brain, and the entrance to that groove lies always open. How to close that entrance? And if we cannot close it, what then?

The first step in the cure of addiction is well known: the addict must confess to his condition and express a desire to be released from it. The various ‘12 step’ programs that have been proposed, in the wake of the pioneering work of Alcoholics Anonymous, all depend upon this first step. And it is this first step that is the hardest to achieve. The pop addict must first be brought to listen to something other than his addiction. And how can that be achieved without removing the earphones? Only if he can be brought into a shared space, and encouraged to listen, with others beside him, to another kind of sound than the one that lies along that open groove, will the process of recovery begin. For this reason, it seems to me, music education must begin in school. It should be one task of a symphony to organize school-day concerts, to show children that there is another and more grow-up way of listening to another and more long-range kind of music.

It is for the same reason that we should refuse to go along with those who disparage the common practice, who say, with Adorno, that tonality is a dead language, which should be learned only as Latin is learned, in order to appreciate the beauties of a world that has gone. We must be prepared to show young people that the coal face from which their addictive songs have been chipped contains other, more beautiful and more interesting seams of meaning, and that behind the glittering surface lie treasures that are worth far more than the superficial dross.

American composers have made their own distinctive contribution to this enterprise. 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.

If those thoughts have any merit, then they suggest a program of musical education that is still available to us, and in which the American symphony, and the American tradition of democratic openness, can play a vital part. But they also suggest that we should not let ourselves be bullied by the avant-garde into filling the concert hall with original noises and inexplicable sound effects. New music is of course necessary if the symphony is to live. But it should be music in which each note is joined to its neighbour, so that life can move between them and we the listeners move in sympathy too. It is that experience of moving in sympathy, yet without really moving, that is the ‘real presence’ in the consecrated space of the symphony hall. And to lead young people towards it is not only our duty, but also their salvation.


Renewing and Rejecting

It has been widely accepted for a hundred years, and in any case since Oswald Spengler’s Decline of the West, that ‘the West’ denotes a comprehensive form of human life, that this form was once flourishing and expanding, and that it is now declining into sterility and self-doubt. The sense of living at the end of things is so widespread that those who seek to renew our cultural inheritance, to affirm their faith, or to draw upon the legacy of self-confidence that was handed down with the Enlightenment, tend to be regarded either as weird eccentrics or as dangerous reactionaries. This is especially the case in the universities and cultural institutions, where a kind of morose antipathy to the Western inheritance accompanies a deep suspicion of all those who wish to teach it and to build on it.

It is not just that we, in the West, have developed a critical response to our own traditions. Self-criticism is a virtue, and part of what distinguishes Western civilisation from its more evident rivals, such as Islam. The great turning points and refreshments of the Western spirit have come about through questioning things – at the Renaissance, for example, when our artistic practices were measured against those of the ancient world and found wanting, at the Reformation, when our religious institutions were mocked, satirised, and eventually reformed in response to radical scepticism, at the Enlightenment, when everything was turned upside down in the name of Reason. Through all such upheavals our forebears maintained a distinctive continuity of interest and inspiration, which can be seen in all the institutions that survived into modern times, and of course in the extraordinary artistic traditions that are the glory of our civilisation.

At a certain stage, however, and for no apparent reason, self-criticism gave way to repudiation. Instead of subjecting our inheritance to a critical evaluation, seeking what is good in it and trying to understand and endorse the ties that binds us to it, a great many of those appointed as cultural stewards – professors of humanities, curators, producers, critics, cultural advisers and commissars – chose rather to turn their backs on it. The prevailing idea seemed to be ‘this is all dead and gone. We can pretend to be part of it, but the result will be pastiche or kitsch.’ And this repudiation of the tradition has been accompanied by vigorous denunciations of the social order and mores of those who formerly enjoyed or created it, whose sexist, racist, hierarchical, etc. attitudes apparently distance them incurably from us living now. I think everybody who has attended a humanities department in one of our universities will be familiar with this attitude, and with the ‘culture of repudiation’ that has arisen around it.

Two examples of this culture of repudiation are of particular interest to me, since they illustrate the enormous damage that it is inflicting on our society. The first is architecture, the second classical music, both practices integral to the health and happiness of a modern city, and both betrayed for no good reason by the ‘experts’ into whose hands they have been placed.

Architecture and music are worth comparing for one very important reason, which is that, while the second is a fine art, and one that entirely draws on its own resources for its own spiritual ends, the first is a skill, which is measured partly in terms of its utility, and which cannot in the nature of things demand genius or originality from its ordinary practitioner. This distinction has been acknowledged at least since the birth of philosophical aesthetics in the eighteenth century, and it is of increasing importance to us, in an age when critics and impresarios count ‘originality’, ‘creativity’, ‘transgression’ and ‘challenge’ as the primary aesthetic values, and dismiss the love of beauty as a lingering form of nostalgia.

When it comes to building a city, an enterprise undertaken by many hands over many years, and in which the principal goal is to create an enduring community united by the sense of settlement, it is rarely possible to call on a single architect to create the final result. To see a city as an act of originality, creativity, or self-expression is precisely to wrest it free from the world of human uses and to place it in its own museum – like the unliveable city created by Le Corbusier at Chandigarh. The great and successful cities of Western civilisation – Paris, Florence, Barcelona, Edinburgh, the German cities so tragically destroyed in the Second World War – have not been conceived as works of art, and certainly not built with the idea of originality in mind. They are evolved solutions to the problem of settlement. They achieve order and unity by the devices that are natural to us, when we strive to fit in with others in an enterprise that we did not begin. They use patterns, materials, and details that naturally fit together; their buildings are aligned along streets; they exhibit the feel for proportion and scale which people understand without knowing how to explain it. And they are organised according to a kind of ‘generative grammar’, which is like a language in that anybody can learn it and make his own remarks by means of it, but which is normally spoken in straight and unoriginal prose.

This grammar has been much studied, and has undergone periods of renewal and revision, notably at the Renaissance, and during the emergence of the Georgian pattern-book and the Victorian neo-Gothic. But it existed right up to modern times, and can be witnessed in the cast-iron columns and tin cornices of Lower Manhattan as much as in the Gothic arches of an English country church or the rhythmical fenestration of a Georgian terrace. Anybody can learn it, and anybody can also learn to adapt it to new uses and new materials. Quite suddenly, however, in the wake of the modernist movement, the architectural schools turned their backs on this grammar and the tradition that it represented – a tradition as old as Western civilisation. It was not that they had simply absorbed the critical spirit of the modernists, or were looking for ways to use the new materials and new engineering skills in ways that would harmonize with the on-going tradition of city-building and city-dwelling. They were in a state of out-and-out repudiation. The past was the past and no longer available. We were not to belong to it. We were to begin again, with something entirely new. Building was to start a priori from wholly new assumptions, and any attempt to fit in to the old idea of the street, or the old vocabulary of detail and the old genial syntax with which people had built side by side in harmony, was a kind of betrayal, a lapse into ‘pastiche’, ‘nostalgia’, and ‘fake’.

What exactly do those terms mean? And if they mean something, is it a bad thing that they mean? And if it is a bad thing, is the only way to avoid it through some act of total repudiation? Those surely, are the questions that we ought to be addressing, but which are almost nowhere discussed in schools of architecture. And we should set this fact beside another, which is that, whatever we think about the old ways of building, it is to these old ways of building that people gravitate, not only as tourists (though how many tourists clock in to downtown Tampa, or the concrete suburbs of Paris?), but as residents too. Indeed, if you explore the private residences of modernist architects you will find that they often lie discreetly behind elegant façades in unspoiled countryside or (in the case of Richard Rogers) in a Portuguese fishing village composed of the old materials in the old vernacular idiom and inaccessible by road. People flee the new structures, which are imposed on them by planners and impresarios who seek to claim credit for their advanced taste, but who would not dream of living in the result. Why, in the light of this, was it not possible to go on in the old way – not repeating what had been done, but nevertheless adapting it to our changing uses? What indeed was it that caused the radical break, the act of repudiation? Why should we think that adaptation, on which all communities, all species, all individuals depend, is somehow no longer available?

This same question haunts the world of classical music. As I suggested, the two cases are distinct, in that most surviving architecture is the product of ordinary and uninspired people, guided (at best) by good manners and considerateness, whereas most surviving music is the product of artistic inspiration. But this difference makes the comparison all the more instructive. The classical tradition in music has evolved through a continuous dialogue between creative composers and a self-sustaining community of performers, listeners and concertgoers. Unlike architecture, which is imposed on all of us regardless of whether we like it, music can only be imposed on those who want to listen to it or perform it, and therefore survives only through its appeal. When a style becomes tired, when a musical vocabulary declines into repetition and cliché, it loses its audience, or retains their interest only in an uninvolved way, like background music in a restaurant. The tradition then depends on renewal – on the artist who, like Beethoven, discovers a new application and a new territory into which the old devices can be extended. This situation is beautifully dramatized in Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, where Wagner epitomizes the dialogue between the musician and the audience. The new melodic language of Walther adapts to the musical tradition of Nuremberg, which in turn adapts to Walther’s melody. The drama shows the audience evolving in response to the music, and the music shaping itself in response to an existing tradition, so as to become part of it by also changing it.

Just such an evolution was in Schoenberg’s mind, when he began his experiments in atonality. He became increasingly aware that experimental music means nothing if it cannot create an audience adapted to it – an audience that takes pleasure in hearing it, and which responds to it in something like the way that it responds to the existing repertoire. Whatever we think of the result (and in my view it is best described as ‘patchy’) the intention was to renew a tradition, and not to turn one’s back on it. By the time of Darmstadt, however, the culture of repudiation had taken over. With Stockhausen and Boulez it was no longer a question of adapting music to the audience, and the audience to the music. It was a question of starting again, from a new conception of the art of sound. And if the audience didn’t like the result, that was only further proof of its reality as a ‘challenge’ and a ‘transgression’. Besides, in the new state-controlled culture of post-war Europe an audience was no longer necessary. The arts could be entirely funded by the state and the state, as a socialist institution, could be entirely controlled by the modernists – by those believers in progress and the future for whom the past had finally refuted itself. That, essentially, was the cultural bequest of post-war Germany, and it proved infectious even here in America. Every attempt by composers to establish some kind of continuity with the existing repertoire, and to appeal to a community of listeners whose ears had been shaped by the tonal language, has been regarded with suspicion by the avant-garde, and as a rule dismissed as pastiche or cliché.

Interesting here is the case of George Rochberg, the American composer who joined the post-war cult of serialism and made his own highly competent contributions to the genre, before admitting to himself, following the tragic death of his teenage son, that serialism is empty of expressive content, and could not be a vehicle for his grief. It took courage for Rochberg then to do what his artistic conscience told him to do, and to return to the classical tradition. “There is no greater provincialism,” he wrote in 1969, “than that special form of sophistication and arrogance which denies the past.” Thereafter Rochberg allowed his music to be guided by his ear, not by fashionable theories, and produced three or four of the most beautiful string quartets of the 20th century. The third quartet was dismissed by Andrew Porter as ‘almost irrelevant’ and became the target of relentless abuse and scorn from the academic critics, the more so in that it was openly popular. And in due course it had a real influence on such composers as David Del Tredici and John Corigliano. Despite being dismissed as pastiche, Rochberg’s quartets are, it seems to me, genuinely original – and their originality consists in their studious respect for the principles of voice leading and romantic harmony, even while expressing the composers very real desolation at his loss.

Most people now live in cities – or rather they congregate around cities, while increasingly avoiding the heart of them, fleeing for protection to the suburbs. But if we ask what draws them, nevertheless, into the city centre two things above all seem important: first traditional architecture, which creates the vision of a community of free beings at peace; second the symphony hall, which invites the listener into another, inward vision of the same free community. And just as a city renews itself through adapting to new uses, while maintaining continuity with its past, so does the classical tradition in music renew itself, by incorporating new feelings and new forms of social life into the live tradition of polyphonic sound. This kind of renewal is never achieved by repudiation. Only by adapting what has worked for us, can we embrace and give form to what is new.

Our model for the future should therefore not be the sterile works of Stockhausen and Boulez but the patient attempts to adapt the old to the new, and to find notes that touch the hearts of listeners because they express the heart of their composer. George Rochberg’s music points us in this direction. But it raises the question that surely troubles all serious music-lovers now, which is whether we can find our way to a musical syntax which is as expressive as the tonal language of Rochberg, but which is not shut off from the surrounding world of popular culture. This is the theme to which I shall address myself in my next post.


Music and the Transcendental

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is an edited transcription of the keynote address delivered by Sir Roger Scruton at our inaugural The Future of the Symphony Conference in September 2014. You can also watch the video of the address.

I’m greatly encouraged by this initiative to actually bring into public awareness just what matters about the symphony and what its place in modern cities should be, what its place in the surrounding way of life and the culture generally should be, and how we can support and give meaning to it. What I shall talk about today are some philosophical ideas about music itself, in particular about classical music, and why we think it is such an important thing. And it’s a difficult area for many reasons.

People who love music often find it extremely difficult to talk about it, to say what it is that they love in it; and people who dislike it nevertheless think that they have very good reasons to do so. And there seems to be no forum of debate in which people can try to come to some agreement as to why music has the importance that it has in our society. I’m going to say a few things about that and also about the theme that I have put in the title.

I think we have to begin from this idea that we’ve inherited a listening culture. Listening is not an easy thing itself to define. There is such a thing as hearing. We hear music all the time around us, but most of us don’t pay attention to it – partly because most of it is not worth paying attention to. But there’s also overhearing and that is a very common experience. Wherever we are – in restaurants or in the Metro or wherever – we are overhearing music coming at us from all angles, and we are learning how to ignore it. Music wasn’t originally designed to be ignored. But we live in a society where, if we don’t learn to ignore it, we can’t also learn to listen to it. This puts an enormous strain on us and it’s one reason, of course, for the existence of these special places like symphony halls where one can insulate oneself from the surrounding world.

I totally endorse everything that Léon Krier said to us about modern architecture and the way in which it has created alienating spaces where it should create spaces where we’re at home. And I think of all spaces where we should be at home, the symphony hall is the most important. Many of us have this sense that musical experience is of supreme value and that musical experience of the kind I’m going to be talking about – the kind that involves listening – has been extremely important in our civilization.

Western civilization is in many ways a musical civilization. Music has had a place in our civilization which it has never achieved elsewhere. Of course, all people everywhere sing and dance. Dance in particular has a profound social meaning, and without it most societies in the past could not have really held together. But dancing is a very different thing from just sitting and listening, and we have this long – perhaps a thousand-year-long – experience of just sitting and listening for long moments, and doing so in company. We detach music from collective singing and dancing and make of it what you might call a spectacle or auricle, an occasion for simply sitting together and listening. Though detached from those natural social forms of musical order like singing and dancing, it is still a social experience. It is something shared. Even when you’re listening on your own, there is an implicit sharing going on you. You don’t think of yourself as “me, alone, listening to that.” You are, as it were, representing your ideal group of fellow listeners for whom this is a communal experience. You’re being returned in some way to a deep social experience within you.

There are many threats, however, to this listening culture. In particular, there is growing around us a habit of merely hearing music, or merely overhearing music, and of having to fight music off so that you can listen. The music that you hear in most restaurants today is not music that you could listen to without going mad. Or if you if you did start listening to it then of course the whole purpose of the restaurant would be defeated, too. It is there simply to fill in the silence that would otherwise, people fear, be engendered between the people sitting at the tables by the fact that they’ve forgotten how to speak. That is only one place in which music intrudes, but it intrudes in so many other ways and so many other places that we do have to learn the habit of ignoring it. And that gives us a real sense that learning to listen is not something that can be achieved simply by doing it. We need to rehabilitate ourselves to a particular culture.

I want to say something in connection with this about the idea of the sacred. We all have this conception within us that certain moments, certain events, certain ceremonies, and certain social occasions stand outside the ordinary run of events. They are not simply day-to-day events, but somehow they are places, times, or occasions, which take us outside ourselves and point us to another world – a world which, whether or not we even think it exists, is nevertheless there in our imaginations and beckoning to us. And this of course is something that we experience in collective worship – those of us who are believers or are attached to a particular faith. And we recognize it as contained within liturgical words and the habit of chanting. I think it’s worth thinking about this experience, even if it may not be an experience we repeat each week in church, or mosque, or synagogue, or wherever. Nevertheless, for all of us there is deep in the unconscious memory this sense of the ceremonial presence of the divine and our collective attention to it. In this moment, our attention is turned towards the altar, and the altar is a kind of ‘no place.’ It’s a place within our world which is also nowhere because there’s nothing at it. The thing that is there is in some deep sense elsewhere. It lies outside our world. It’s not of this world.

This idea that we collectively turn our attention to something that is, as it were, absent but also for that very reason present – this paradoxical sense – is something that I think we inherited from the primary religious experience of humanity. And when this occurs in the normal ceremony of worship, the words and the music seem to fill the void that is there. It’s a very important feature of our civilization that religious worship has almost always been a matter of music as well as words. The words are formalized. Often they are words in a foreign language, words that have been inherited from a dead language. They’re not there specifically so that you should understand every nuance of them. They are there because they are correct, they sound right, they’ve always been said. But it’s the music for many of us that fills the void, that turns our attention to the altar, which is the ‘no place’ that is also a place. And through this singing we summon the real presence of the god, but we do this only because we have precise words and precise songs – the right words and songs. And that is what we have inherited.

Chant: “Salve, Regina”

This experience that we have of the sacred moment in which we are addressing this ‘no place’ at the altar with music and ritualized words is, I think, always in the back of our experience when we enter the concert hall. This is, as it were, the original experience from which we are downstream. And this experience of the real presence of the sacred, the sacramental, the consecrated, is a shared experience – even if you encounter it alone. When you walk into a church in a quiet, rural place and you’re alone in that church, you are for that very reason not alone. You are being addressed from nowhere, but as a member of something. So you adopt precise steps, precise tones – you speak in hushed tones and you look around yourself always for the precise words and precise gestures that would make your presence there into something acceptable. But I think music captures something of this ‘no place’ experience – the ‘no place’ where it all takes place. And that’s because it moves in a space of it’s own. In listening, we stand at the threshold of this space, and this is a philosophical point which is sometimes quite difficult to put across. Let me just give you a few thoughts.

When we listen to music – and perhaps not when we’re playing it or even singing it, but just listening – we experience a sense of things moving. The theme moves up and down in a one-dimensional space that is represented in the bar lines of the score. And it moves from one place to another. The opening theme of Beethoven’s third piano concerto, for instance, moves from C to E-flat to G and it comes down again. So between those notes there is a movement that you hear, but it’s an imaginary movement. The notes themselves are simply sounds if you think of them in real, physical terms. There’s a sequence of sounds but we hear in that sequence a movement up and then down. It has a certain force to it. It has a certain speed, and the sounds themselves have weight. As it goes down that C-minor scale to the tonic, you feel the weight increasing: you think, “It’s got to go further, it’s got to go further.” And then Beethoven stops it. With a couple of dominant-to-tonic commas, he stops the music in midstream.

Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 3

And musical sounds have all kinds of spatial features like opacity and transparency. The chords in a Debussy prelude might sound to you totally transparent, as though you could hear what is coming from behind them. There’s also a gravitational force in music: things seem to be, as it were, attracted to each other. They seem to drag things behind each other; they coalesce. Think of the beginning of Brahms’s second piano concerto where the horn announces the first phrase of the opening theme and seems to drag the piano behind it, after which, then, the piano takes over from the horn and completes the phrase. The piano is in one part of the concert hall, the horn in another part. There is no physical interaction between them, but in the notes that you hear, in the musical line, you hear a gravitational force which is making those two things cohere and move together.

Brahms: Piano Concerto No. 2

This is all by way of suggesting that music in the listening culture to which I’m referring is organized spatially even though it isn’t in a real space. There is no actual space comparable to the physical space in which you and I live that contains the music. The music itself is creating that space and it’s creating it in your imagination. So the musical experience has some of this character of being nowhere. It’s creating a space of it’s own, which is not part of physical space and of which we are privileged witnesses through our ears, so to speak – but into which we ourselves cannot enter, either. It is something like the way that we sense a real presence around us in the sacred moment, but one that’s addressing us from ‘no place’ where we are.

This raises the question of how we find meaning in music. What kind of meaning do we find and how important is it to us? Does this help explain the incredible weight that has been given to the musical experience in our culture? Obviously, music can occur in conjunction with words. Music is used to set words and many people think that that is the primary way in which music acquires meaning – through word setting. You have a poem on the one hand, you have the musical setting on the other hand, and somehow they come together in the experience of these things. We hear the music perhaps as an illustration of the words or expressing the same thing that the words express. Those of you who are familiar with Lieder, especially the Schubert songs, will recognize that there is something consummate in what the music can provide to a very simple poem by way of translating it from a naïve expression of something into a kind of perfected drama. But what exactly is going on here? I want to say that it’s not just an identity of expression, but much more to do with the fact that the music provides appropriate gestures because it’s moving in this imaginary space that we ourselves are imagining in hearing, that we are surrounding the words with the gestures which in some way complete them. It is as though the music is observing the words with a sympathetic gaze. It is standing next to them and moving with them.

And I think for this reason, contrasting words can be set to the same music. In many of the Bach cantatas you will find that the composer uses again and again some of the themes and structures which appeal to him because they fit into the musical context. And they seem absolutely appropriate even though perhaps the emotions suggested by the words are completely different on each occasion. Many people think this a proof that music really doesn’t express emotion at all – that it can be used in these completely contrasting ways suggests that really, after all, it’s an illusion on our part and that we attribute emotional meaning to the music. But I think that’s not right. If we see the music as observing the words, sympathetically responding to them with the gestures that are appropriate to them, then of course it could be making the same movements in response to contrasting emotions in the words. What it is doing is providing those words with a context which enables us to identify with them.

In the supreme examples, however, we want to say that the music is in some way picking up the words and taking them to another place – the ‘no place’ that is also a sacred place. Here I would play for you Bach’s famous aria from the St. Matthew Passion, “Erbarme dich, mein Gott,” which perhaps many of you know. It opens with a violin obligato, one of the longest melodies that have ever been composed, simply introducing, before any words have been uttered, the state of mind that Bach wishes you to understand. And it’s a very complex state of mind. That moment in the St. Matthew Passion occurs just after Peter has a heard the cock crow, and has remembered the words of Jesus who had told him that before the cock crows he would betray him thrice. And he goes out and weeps bitterly. It’s a beautiful recitative setting of those words followed by this extraordinary violin melody in 12/8 time. And you don’t know yet what is going to be said next. But what is said by the words is something very strange: it’s not a direct comment on Peter’s emotion, but a general plea for mercy from God. “Have mercy on me, my God.” In other words, “Recognize that I live in a state of sin and that I will always fall short of what is required of me.”

Bach: “Erbarme dich, mein Gott”

Because music can have such an extraordinary emotional power of its own, independently of words even if it can be put to the use of words, there arose at a certain stage in the history of our civilization the idea that the real meaning of music would be best identified if we could separate it from words altogether. A certain distinction was made in the late eighteenth or early nineteenth century between music that is applied and absolute music. Absolute music was thought to be the true music – the music which is not put to use in setting words or in accompanying a dance or in managing the conduct of a drama or any of the normal uses to which music might be put. Absolute music is just there for its own sake and in its own right. And that, surely, is the music of the concert hall: music which is simply played, which we attend to in reverent silence.

The word absolute was very appealing to the German romantic philosophers and poets who first put it forward – partly because it is a philosophical word. It seems to denote something which has purified itself of all pollution from the surrounding day-to-day reality. It’s as though this kind of music is lifted out of all its applications so as to reveal what it is in itself, in its essence. It reveals its intrinsic meaning. Now, whether you can make full sense of that is one of the great questions of musical aesthetics. And I’ll just say one or two things about it because I think, again, this is part of trying to understand why music has had the enormous significance that it has had for us.

The first point to make is that music is not a representational art. I think this is not often seen quite as clearly as it should be seen. Painting, as you know, is a representational art in its highest forms. It is an attempt to depict reality. It shows the world in a certain light, but the world that it shows is independent of the painting. You look at the painting and you see through the painting to another world – not always, of course: with modern abstract art you don’t have that experience. But that’s one reason for thinking that modern abstract art is a kind of degenerate case. In the central case, painting is there to represent something other than itself. And the same is true of literature and poetry. But in the case of music, this is not so. Although music can be used to set words, although it can be used to accompany a dance or to present a drama, in the case that really interests us – where we think that we are concentrating on the music itself – it doesn’t represent things, or if it does represent something it’s only itself. It is just there, as an object of attention. There are cases, of course, where music imitates sounds other than musical sounds. In Debussy’s La Mer you have attempts to imitate the movement of the sea in various conditions. But suppose somebody said to you that, although he loves Debussy’s La Mer, he can’t see any analogy with the movement of the sea. You wouldn’t say for that reason that he had misunderstood it. There are many forms of imitation that you don’t have to latch onto in order to understand the movement in the music. If music were a representational art you’d have to understand the subject matter in order to understand the music. And I think it’s very, very rare that that is required – that you, as it were, understand the music in terms of something else.

And again, music isn’t a language, either. It’s like a language in certain respects, but you couldn’t use music in order to conduct a conversation. When you hear in many of the Haydn and Beethoven quartets that kind of conversation-like music, as though the instrumentalists were responding to each other in the way that people do when having a friendly conversation, it’s not an actual conversation that you’re hearing. There is nothing other than the music that they are saying to each other. There is no exchange of information. It’s just something that’s very like a conversation going on. Even so, of course, music does have a kind of syntax – that is to say, there are rules that seem to have emerged over time to which we get habituated. And every note in music builds up certain expectations as to what will follow it. This is particularly true of tonal music. One of the things that worries us about atonal music is that we don’t have expectations as to what will follow any particular note in a melodic line or any particular harmony in the accompanying chords. But with tonal music, precisely because of the tonal syntax, we do have those expectations. So there is a background syntax that we seem to be able to grasp and it carries us forward through the music. It seems to be intimately connected with the meaning of the music. And in that sense, music is like a language.

But this syntax is not conventional: it’s the effect of use and not the cause of it. In language, syntax is entirely arbitrary. You can make your own rules – and there are many artificial languages of which this is true. Each language has different rules for constructing a syntactically correct sentence out of the parts of it. But in music, syntax is not conventional. There is something natural about the syntax that has emerged over the centuries in tonal music. It wasn’t somebody’s choice to create the relation between the dominant seventh and the tonic which makes the tonic such a natural successor to the dominant seventh. That’s something that we’ve learned to hear, and if you try to remake the code so that that particular convention – that syntactical rule – is denied, you’ll find that your audience won’t follow you. So it’s like the syntax of language in a way, but not conventional.

Bach: Cello Suite No. 1

There is nevertheless a form that emerges from the use of this syntax, and musical form is one of the most important features that interests us in this so-called absolute music – music which is there for its own sake and is not applied to anything else. And as in architecture, the parts of music answer to each other. Léon Krier in his lecture showed us some very wonderful examples – in his inimitable draftsman’s style – of architectural elements in which the parts enter into relation with each other, and how by altering the dimensions the relation is in some way distorted. Another meaning entirely begins to attach itself to the architectural form. But without the meaningful parts, the architectural form would have no meaning at all. It’s because there are moldings that you can divide a wall into meaningful areas and see whether they correspond to each other proportionately. It’s because a column has a capital, a base, and all the moldings around them that you can understand the relations between its parts and obtain a sense of harmony between them. And I think that one of the great errors ­– to add to what Léon said – of modernism is to think that you can understand the architectural form without the meaningful parts from which the building is constructed. On the contrary, you end up with buildings which, because you have no meaningful parts, have no shadows with which to measure them. I think something similar is true of music: musical form isn’t just an overall, liquid assembly. It’s generated, bit-by-bit, from meaningful details. It is only there because we have this syntax which enables us to understand the parts.

But there is a mystery, as well, to musical form. It’s not just a matter of following certain rules. The traditional forms of music were constructed according to rules. There’s a rule for constructing the perfect sonata form movement. There are rules for constructing fugues, and so on. But it doesn’t follow from the fact that you obey these rules that the resulting piece of music will have real musical form. Clementi’s sonatas and sonatinas, which all of you learn when you begin learning to play the piano, are full of perfect sonata form movements which are deeply formless. There’s nothing that happens in them. There is no real tension built up at the beginning which takes them through to the end. But they’re charming and very useful to piano teachers. In Scarlatti, you have these defiant violations of the traditional forms. Those little sonatas of his which seem from the technical point of view entirely formless are nevertheless perfect little miniatures – perfectly formed in the sense that everything given at the beginning takes you inexorably through to the end, and there isn’t a redundant element in them. This is true, too, of the great formal masterpieces like the sonata movements of Bruckner’ symphonies. But there could be formal perfection, also, without conventional form when there is no reference to any particular system of rules for generating a musical movement – as in the three movements of Debussy’s La Mer, each of which is formally absolutely perfect in the sense that I’m intending, but has no real reference to the traditions of musical structure. This is similarly true of Beethoven’s late C-sharp minor quartet.

So why should we be interested in form in this case? This is a deep question, which is extremely relevant to the whole idea of a listening culture. When you go to a concert to listen to something, you go not just because it’s live music and otherwise you only get it on your iPad or whatever. You’re going partly because the form seems so much clearer when you can engage with your eyes and with your sense of space with the individual components, the individual musical lines, that go to compose it. I think this is one of the most important aspects of the listening experience – when you’re in the presence of the players – that in some way you see and hear and are surrounded by this coming-together of separate currents of energy into a comprehensive form. And this interest is not simply the result of taking an aesthetic attitude – in other words, of attending to the thing – it goes deeper.

We have a deep interest in form. We require the parts in a work of music to answer to each other. And, as I said, part of the disaster of modernist architecture lies here. It reminds us that we are at home with form but we are at sea with the formless. If you look at the city with which you are familiar, you have a very good example of this: Baltimore is one of the few American cities that hasn’t been yet entirely destroyed. It’s got another five or six years of life. You’ve got whole sections of the street where you see buildings that were made in very different sizes and of very different materials, but all attempting to produce form out of matching parts or out of parts that respond to each other. Then they’re interrupted by utterly formless blocks which have bulk but no detail. And we’re not at home with those other things.

Form seems to be a fundamental need of the human psyche. Why is this? I’ll offer just a very rough suggestion, which is that our lives are incomplete and we are constantly embarking on things – adventures or just a walk around the block or a conversation with a friend or something bigger like a love affair or whatever. We embark on these things and it quickly dissipates in chaos or incompletion. Something interrupts it. Nothing comes properly to an end, and then a sense invades us of the futility of things. “I should have done that properly. I didn’t bring it to a conclusion. It is simply the ragged ends of something that I began but couldn’t actually bring to any effective conclusion.” In everything we do we are aiming to get somewhere, but we never seem to arrive there.

Perhaps one of the things that art can do us is to provide us with a destination. When we enter a work of music, so to speak, we’re taken up by it and it’s moving us towards a destination of its own. Because in some deep sense we’re identifying with the movement in the music, we hear it as bringing to completion the gestures that originated in us. We follow these gestures and episodes to their completion. And there’s a sense that, after all, these ragged ends of human life don’t have to be just ragged. They could, in some ideal world, find a conclusion of their own; and we are, similarly, beings who do have it within us to arrive at our destination. You can think of your own examples of that, but to me, a very effectively example is the first movement of Brahms’s fourth symphony, which starts off with a very obvious gesture: a descending third followed by a rising sixth. And growing out of that gesture is another one of the same kind, and then you gradually realize that this gesture has penetrated the whole orchestra and has taken on a life of its own and moves through successive blocks of thematic material until finally it reaches its inevitable fulfillment ten minutes later.

As well as our desire for form, we also have a hunger for meaning. Music, as I said earlier, is not sound. It inhabits sound in the same way that a face inhabits a picture. It’s there in the sound; we hear the movement in the sound through entering that imagined space. What we’re hearing, judged as a physical object, is just sound. But the music is not that sound. It is the thing that we hear in it. So we’re always listening for something that speaks to us through the music – a kind of disembodied voice in an imagined space. And that voice is in the world but not of it, to use the religious language. It is speaking to us, but not from any space in which we ourselves stand.

Nevertheless, we judge it. If we’re listening, we want to know if it’s saying something serious. And if it’s serious, from what psychic region does it come? We have the impression often that truly serious music has, as it were, put its ear to the ground and heard the far-off murmur of the infinite. And that’s the kind of experience you have obviously from things like the openings of Bruckner’s symphonies and the famous opening of Beethoven’s ninth symphony in which the music is saying, “Look, something is speaking through me from far, far away – and you must put your ear to the ground just as I am doing.”

This connects in my view with our experience of each other. To understand an experience, of course, is not necessarily to justify it. But we still have to understand this experience that we get from music. And one way of understanding it is to see its relation to our everyday experience of each other. What I want to say is that the reaching for the transcendental is actually an everyday event for human beings. It isn’t something unusual because it’s what we are doing all the time with each other.

When I encounter another person, as I encounter you or as you encounter each other, whether in conversation or just simply standing and looking at you, I have a sense that there is a kind of barrier between me and you. There you are looking at me, speaking to me, but the thing that you really are – the ‘I’ behind that barrier – is not something that can ever be made visible or tangible to me. And yet I’m constantly reaching out to try and take possession of it, to try to be in full contact with you. And I, too, stand behind such a barrier. I know that you’re looking at my face and you’re listening to my words, but I also know that in some deep sense you can’t actually enter that space from which I address you.

We have to reach across this barrier. Otherwise, what is the point of human life? Everything that we do and hope for depends upon crossing that barrier to the other and being at one with him or her. So we do reach across it, and when we’re doing things together of the right kind, we can forget that barrier. We have a sense in communal activities that the barrier has dissolved and that the various ‘I’s have melted into a ‘we.’ And I think this dissolving of the barrier between us occurs especially in our shared attention to the ‘no place,’ as in the religious experience when we’re all attending to the altar, that ‘no place’ which is a place nevertheless.

I suspect that something similar is going on also in the concert hall. The music is, as it were, speaking for us in our communal assault on the silence that is being created in the concert hall, and we are with it in trying to get through to what it is that’s speaking through that silence. I think the sense that we find in music a transcendental voice that we can engage with and enter into communication with is something that has its origins in our everyday need for each other. And that’s part of its significance for us.

Now, I think I’ll say a little bit more. I think I have more material than I can possible present to you, but I shall carry on for a bit more. We’re all familiar with the facts of human sympathy: that we can be at one with another person in his joy or grief, and likewise we can feel sympathy for animals, for nature itself – we can be at one with the natural world in the sense that we feel a harmony between our emotions and our will, our desires, and the context that surrounds us and inspires those things in us. And when I feel sympathy with another person, I enter into his state of mind. “I know what it’s like to feel as you do.” We don’t necessarily know how to put it into words, but often in extreme moments of sympathy, especially those which are of real value to us, we have this sense of knowing from inside what the other person is feeling. And there is a kind of vindication of our own life in that. The fact that that is possible brings home to us the other dimension of our being, where we are at one with others.

Music can also shows what it is like to be in a condition for which we have no words. In Fidelio, when Leonore and Florestan are finally aware of each other’s presence they sing that famous duet O namenlose Freude! (O Nameless Joy!). And the music really does express a joy of the kind no words could possibly capture – and indeed probably of a kind that only somebody as solitary as Beethoven could think really exists. Nevertheless, the music, as it were, gives us that first person perspective on this otherwise unknowable thing.

In a similar way, much music reaches towards the transcendental – reaches beyond the limits of this world to the kind of archetypes from which we think our own feelings and states of mind have descended. And perhaps this shared moment of reaching towards the transcendental is what we ultimately wanted from music. That is one of the real questions: Is it so?

Well, I’ll conclude with a philosophical thought about ‘about.’ My feelings are directed from the ‘I’ towards the ‘you.’ This is what philosophers call an intentional relation, not a material relation. I feel maybe fear, love, shame, or whatever towards you. And it may be that I feel this even though you don’t exist. It’s unknown to me that you’ve been killed, but still my feeling is there. The feeling is a going out towards the other which doesn’t necessarily depend upon the other’s existence or anything that’s going on in the other.

And this feature of our states of mind – their intentionality – is something that philosophers regard as, in many ways, marking out the human condition from everything else in the universe. Here we have these extraordinary conditions that we undergo which are in some way incomplete. They’re reaching out from us; they are unsaturated. They’re looking for the object that will fulfill them and complete them. We have this sense all the time with each other – that we’re reaching out in that way – and I think we have this in music, too. When we’re listening properly, surrounded by others who are doing likewise, and imagining that space in which the music moves under impulses of its own, we hear the music, not just moving as a physical object might move, but having intentions of its own, reasons of its own. It’s got a reason for moving from C to E-flat, just as we might have. It is a kind of master of its imagined space.

Important works of music exhibit in that way a kind of freedom and completeness to which we aspire in our own lives, but which we don’t obtain. For this reason, I think we think of music as having an ‘aboutness’ of its own. It’s not just there, the movement of sounds in imaginary space. It is itself responding to something that we can’t directly perceive or know – in just the way that we can’t directly perceive or know each other. It is, if you like, a source of feelings which belong to it. It’s as though it is about something even though it’s not something that we could ever ourselves engage with or know directly.

And I think it’s this feature of music – this capacity it has to lift up our hearts, to take us into a world where we, too, can imagine being complete in our emotions, to take all our emotions to their conclusion, and to rejoice in them as they are – that is perhaps the most important experience of the concert hall, and one which is threatened wherever the listening experience is threatened by invasion from the noise that surrounds us.

So I would give these as my philosophical reasons for thinking that music not only gives us a sense of the transcendental, but is a part of our lives that fulfills us and depends upon the whole symphonic concert hall tradition in order to be the thing that it is. I’ll stop there. Thank you.


Music and Culture

Editor’s note: This address was written for and delivered to an English audience,
though it remains entirely relevant to our own predicament.

Why does today’s Western art music strive so conspicuously for cultural relevance? Why are many of our university music faculties more concerned with cultural theory than with applied music? Why have we lost confidence in historical and applied models of musicology, and moreover in the tonal tradition that forms the basis of the greatest musical heritage known to mankind? In this talk, I will trace the roots of this malaise over the past century. I will explore the ways in which an explicitly Marxist agenda has caused Western art music to abnegate its past, and in doing so, to render itself marginalized in comparison to popular music of chiefly African-American origin. I will also show how political influence has played a large part in the contemporary perception of the Western musical heritage as elitist and thereby culturally taboo.

What makes for good music? Until the First World War there was a general consensus that Western societies valued music that was written with cogency, formal command and structure, and that communicates the higher values of those societies – in which respect we might refer to such words as nobility, beauty and complexity, by which latter term I mean the capacity to reveal hidden levels of meaning upon greater exploration. A major work of Western art music does not merely reflect the human condition, but inspires us beyond our own limitations towards the best of which we are capable.

The experience of good music lifts the spirits, challenges the mind and opens us to the riches of Western civilization. Even works of Western art music which may be considered of lesser stature have the capacity to accord enjoyment from their craft, proportion and charm of execution, in the same way that we may derive pleasure from an Agatha Christie novel despite being aware of its formulaic nature. In the best composers we discover a capacity to surprise and constantly renew their chosen forms with a distinctive individual voice. This renewal leads to organic development and also to experimentation, sometimes with dramatic and effective results.

Although an appreciation of music is probably innate to mankind, it would be a mistake to believe that Western art music will yield up its secrets without an appreciation of its context and techniques. Certainly we can appreciate music that is strongly rhythmic, or that relies on simple repetition for its effects, without much in the way of specialist knowledge. But when encountering a Bach fugue for the first time, many of the uninitiated will be put off by what appears arcane, impenetrable, and difficult to follow. To traverse the unknown region, a roadmap is necessary.

The roadmap comes in the form of understanding both the circumstances in which that piece came to be written – the details of the composer’s biography and the way in which the work in question fits into his output and the overall genre in question – and the means by which the piece makes its effect. The first consideration belongs to the realms of history and musical appreciation. The second belongs to the realm of musical techniques.

If our aim is merely to appreciate music at the level of the amateur, so that we can enrich our lives as a result, we need to go down both of these routes on the roadmap. If our aim is either to write music that is worthy of comparison with that of the masters, or to perform it in some way that does it justice, we need to travel further and explore more widely.

In doing so, we will discover that much of what we consider characteristic of Western thought as regards the melodic and harmonic components of music is in fact the product of observed phenomena of long standing. Writing in Dimensions of Paradise, John Michell says “Long before Pythagoras made his famous experiments with lengths of string and pipe, the relationship between number and sound had been noted, and ancient rulers specified certain lawful scales that had to be followed in all musical compositions. The reason for this was that they recognized music as the most influential of all arts, appealing directly to the human temper, and thus a potential source of disturbance in their carefully-ordered canonical societies.”

The Pythagorean method of tuning is, just like modern equal temperament, a form of syntonic temperament, in which each tuning is the product of powers of the ratio 3:2, giving us the cycle of fifths that is familiar within tonal harmony. Another fundamental of tonal harmony, the chromatic scale, originates in an equalized version of the harmonic series, and this equalization in turn owes its impetus to the just intonation established by Ptolemy of Alexandria. As was established by nineteenth-century theorists Riemann and Hauptmann there is nothing accidental or random about the basis of Western music, or indeed of what we have come to regard as hierarchical tonality. It originates in the observation of mathematical and acoustic phenomena and it is likewise a mathematical sense that illuminates our concepts of musical form, proportion and structure. Sir Thomas Browne had it correct when he said, “For there is a music wherever there is a harmony, order or proportion; and thus far we may maintain the music of the spheres.”

As may therefore be expected, the Western musical tradition places a high emphasis upon codification through a notated score and pre-composition. Indeed, the principal difference between Western and non-Western music lies in the West’s relative disdain for improvisation. Whereas Indian art music, for example, places improvisation at its heart, Western art music relegates improvisation to specific and relatively minor roles – chiefly instrumental cadenzas and melodic embellishments. Because of its codification, Western art music is concerned with music not merely as an act of the moment, to be experienced simply by those present, but as an act of legacy, whereby once a composition has been born, it can enjoy a future that is open to posterity, since its score can be interpreted and reinterpreted by successive generations. This codification is akin to the progression from the collective oral tradition of storytelling at the dawn of mankind to the individual authorship of literary work after writing was discovered. It follows that the interpretation of Western art music is therefore also a complex matter embracing distinct schools of thought and specific techniques with much scope for individual input.

We can see, then, that Western music places a clear divide between its art tradition of codified music and its vernacular tradition of uncodified or improvised folk music. We should not deny the appeal and importance of that vernacular tradition. Indeed, the interchange that occurred between national folk traditions and Western art music in the nineteenth-century brought about a renewal that was far-reaching in its influence. Composers such as Vaughan Williams, for example, not only employ actual English folk music as a basis for art music composition, but also write melodies that are inspired by the contours of folk melody, so that they sound as English as the models that inspired them. This, however, is a conscious transmutation. The use of a folk melody in Western art music is the act of the cultural observer and recorder from the world of codified music, not the act of an authentic folk music exponent for whom notation is incidental to the living improvisatory tradition of that music. Nevertheless, there is a justified claim to superiority for Western art music over that of the improvisatory tradition, in that its premeditation leads to greater melodic, harmonic and structural complexity and thereby to more profound possibilities of expression through an extended form such as the symphony.

The secure foundation established by Western art music has contributed to a flourishing of musical performance as well as high standards of music teaching and of musical literacy in the general public. Even as the growth of radio and television during the twentieth-century made concert-going less popular, the following for Western art music among all sectors of society remained strong, as witnessed by the continuation of the private music clubs (which were a leading employer of young musicians and those with a local, rather than a national, reputation), brass bands, music appreciation societies and amateur choirs and orchestras. Significantly, this was a participatory tradition. Western society viewed engagement with music, even at a modest level, as culturally enriching and as a hallmark of the educated man or woman. Further, music’s strong association with the Church was such as to mark music out as morally improving, for after all were the angels not depicted with harps?

One of the main aspects that characterizes the pre-1914 tradition of Western art music is its confidence. The majority of musicians and music educators were not generally beset by existential angst as to the justification for their art. Tonality was expanded, experimented with and challenged by such composers as Wagner and Debussy, but it would only be a small number of composers who, led by Schoenberg, would deliberately break with tonality. What has been described as the late nineteenth-century crisis of tonality is in fact an organic process that would find its logical conclusion not in Second Viennese School serialism, but instead in what might be described as tonal freedom, whereby composers such as Scriabin or Hindemith would retain a background context of tonally-derived melody and harmony while seeking to enrich that context through the extension of tonality into less familiar territory. In other words, musical renewal rested ultimately not with those extremists who sought to cast away tonality’s naturally-derived basis and replace this with an artificial construct, but with those who saw the horizons of tonality widening rather than narrowing. The music of Sibelius offers us many examples of this new approach to tonality, particularly in his Seventh Symphony. Other examples of such organic development would be the progressive tonality of Nielsen and the highly distinctive harmonic world of Robert Simpson which is firmly rooted in classicism and often based on the opposition of particular intervals or keys.

The theme of the replacement of an organic order with one that is artificial and man-made is not a new one in modern ideas. The idea of cultural struggle, in which an established order is subverted by direct opposition, is likewise familiar. These are Marxist concepts and should be seen as such. Let us be clear; the nineteenth-century crisis of tonality was manipulated for propagandistic purposes as part of a much wider cultural crisis in which Western civilization and culture and their established order came under direct attack from Marxism. The revolution that brought about atonality and serialism was the same ideological revolution that deposed Europe’s crowns and that, at its point of greatest early fulfilment, led to the Communist ascendancy in Russia. As one of its architects, Georg Lukacs, would write, “Who will save us from Western civilization?”

What Lukacs and his fellows abhorred above all was the unique and sacred nature of the individual within the Christian worldview. Lukacs was determined to reduce the individual to a common destiny in a world which, in his words, “had been abandoned by God.” Another leading thinker of this ilk, Walter Benjamin, tells us that “religious illumination,” must be shown to “reside in a profane illumination, a materialistic, anthropological inspiration, to which hashish, opium, or whatever else can give an introductory lesson.” He goes on, “Do not build on the good old days, but on the bad new ones.” If man were to lose his connection to the divine, his only remaining creative option would be political revolt, which, according to Benjamin and his colleagues, would bring about a Marxist revolution.

Of course these developments were not without reaction and resistance. However, what was to be remarkable was the way in which Marxist intellectuals of the Frankfurt School succeeded in the post-1945 period in discrediting conservative reaction by identifying it explicitly with the Third Reich. For the Frankfurt School, creativity was impossible, anyone who adhered to universal truth was an authoritarian and even reason was subject to the shifting sands of critical theory. Culture was to be abolished; a “new barbarism” was to be created through new cultural structures that would increase the alienation of the people. Before long, from the ashes of a war-torn Europe, a surprisingly broad intellectual coalition had formed that supported and funded the Frankfurt School and its front organization, the Institute for Social Research. This gave the Frankfurt School the means to set in place its intellectual undermining of Western civilization.

The major works in which this is done include Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment of 1944, which gives us the concept of a manipulative culture industry, and The Authoritarian Personality of 1950 by Adorno and others. This latter work was sponsored by the American Jewish Committee and sought to connect the Freud-derived concept of the authoritarian personality to conservative and fascist ideology, and to anti-semitism. It should not be thought that Adorno and Horkheimer were writing with the intention of protecting Jews from prejudice. Rather, they, along with Marx, were opposed to all religions, including Judaism. They wanted to destroy the principles of both Jewish and Christian civilization and force the “scientifically planned reeducation” of Americans and Europeans. While the overtly politicized conclusions of The Authoritarian Personality have since been comprehensively disproven, they were not disproven quickly enough to prevent their cultural influence becoming widespread in the post-war years and even today. Indeed, they remain foundations for many of the ideas that are dominant in today’s academy.

We should look particularly carefully at the legacy of Adorno. Adorno as a pupil of Schoenberg and Berg believed that composers should relate to the past as a canon of taboos rather than a canon of models for emulation. His concept of art was also structured on that of Marxist Kulturkampf, in that he saw the duty of art to be “corrosively unacceptable” to the sensibilities of the middle class, and therefore to be a succession of shocking, difficult and obscure events.

The Adornoist concept has the advantage of wrapping music up in an impenetrable web of self-meanings. It means that music structured on these lines is likely to be theoretically extremely complex, divorced from significant cultural reference, emotionally arid and exceptionally difficult both to play and to listen to. Of the thousands of works written during the post-war years in this style, not a single one has attained genuine public popularity. They speak only to an elite, and that elite is specifically ideologically driven. As far as many executant musicians are concerned, they are indeed tolerated but not loved. Indeed, many would say that one might just as well love industrial noise as the work of Stockhausen and the post-war Darmstadt School, for all its undoubted intellectual accomplishment. What is created is effectively non-music, non-art, because of its rejection of the musical values that I outlined at the beginning of this talk. It preserves something of the colour, the instrumentation, the dynamic variety of Western art music, but it ignores what David Hellewell has called “music’s unique language; the dialectic of notes.” Even Adorno admitted that atonalism was sick, but as he said, “the sickness, dialectically, is at the same time the cure…The extraordinarily violent reaction protest which such music confronts in the present society…appears nonetheless to suggest that the dialectical function of this music can already be felt…negatively, as ‘destruction.’”

Moreover, Adornoism gives itself a license to view the past through its own distorting Freudian prism; for example, Adorno believed that the chord structure of late Beethoven was striving to be atonal, but Beethoven could not bring himself consciously to break with the structured world of Congress of Vienna Europe. For Adorno, an individual such as Beethoven was not autonomous and acting with free will, but was instead the prisoner of unconscious historical forces. Such arguments are merely Trojan horses for Marxism, since they can rewrite history according to an unlimited degree of political interpretation.

The effect of this movement on Western art music has been disastrous. Because Adornoist music cannot exist without significant public subsidy and is explicitly Marxist in its aesthetic, the general tendency of governments to become more controlling with regard to the arts in the post-war period has had a field-day. Without the government supporting the Adornoists, they would have failed in a blink of an eye when subjected to the popular market. When William Glock became director of the BBC Third Programme in 1959 he presided over a decade in which the Adornoist avant-garde was given public support while dissenters were consciously suppressed. Yet this support achieved nothing in terms of producing a wider popularity outside the limited circle of initiates. Rather, it furthered the fragmentation of our musical culture and an alienation of the West from its cultural heritage.

A combination of centralising tendencies and Marxist ideology with a decline in support for composers who do not fit the Adornoist and government image of what they should be, has left multiple generations without access to new music in the classical tradition which has the prospect of speaking directly to them. I can assure you that this tradition has been there – in the music of such post-war figures as Howells, Ferguson, Arnold, Lloyd and Arthur Butterworth – all of which have written vital and much underrated music – but even though all but the last are dead, their music remains largely sidelined by the mainstream today. They have become a narrowly specialist taste, and one that is nowadays increasingly dismissed as socially elitist and thus contrary to the egalitarian zeitgeist.

The concept of an official line on what composition should be – so very Soviet in its way – has led also to a situation where it is axiomatic that musicians be if not actively Marxist, then at least tolerant of working within that ideological framework. This gives us “luvvies for Labour”; it also means that those who doubt the left-wing consensus are afraid to speak out for fear of losing their livelihoods. The constraining ideological framework is not always obvious; it is often a superstructure far above the head of the individual musician, but it is there nonetheless. Orchestras, for example, are highly unionized organizations; the Musicians’ Union negotiates standard fees and terms of employment for orchestral musicians, and it in turn affiliates to the TUC and the Labour Party.

As soon as the Frankfurt School saw the burgeoning of mass entertainment and popular music they seized upon it as a means of Marxist dialectic. One of the most interesting aspects of pop music is that it is concerned largely with a group aesthetic and with the reproduction of the same experiences – musical stereotypes – that are already established as commercially successful. For Adorno, this stereotyping meant that exposure to pop music disengaged the mind, making the experience of music less sacred and increasing alienation, a process which he called “demythologizing”. In addition, pop music was largely non-Western in its origins, consisting of commercialized versions of African, Afro-American and Afro-Caribbean folk music. Adorno says, “contemporary listening…has regressed, arrested at the infantile stage. Not only do the listening subjects lose, along with the freedom of choice and responsibility, the capacity for the conscious perception of music…[t]hey fluctuate between comprehensive forgetting and sudden dives into recognition. They listen atomistically and dissociate what they hear, but precisely in this dissociation they develop certain capacities which accord less with the traditional concepts of aesthetics than with those of football or motoring. They are not childlike…but they are childish; their primitivism is not that of the undeveloped, but that of the forcibly retarded.”

It is significant that every time mainstream pop music has tried to move beyond stereotype – as is the natural tendency of human creativity – there have been powerful forces dragging it back. Time and again during the 1960s and 1970s, jazz and pop music moved forward because of engagement with aspects of the Western art music tradition. The work of George Martin, Gil Evans, Charles Stepney, Claus Ogerman and those working in progressive rock drew directly on Western art music to create art music from the roots of pop music. In addition, an entire genre of music grew up – labelled “easy listening” – that presented jazz and pop music in arrangements that were considered more acceptable to those whose ears were attuned to art music. All of this resulted in a brutal record industry reaction in the late 1970s in which the nihilism and Leftism of punk and electronic music was vaunted and primitivism embraced once more. In the past two decades a further development has taken place, in which we are for the first time confronted by the phenomenon of all but the elderly having grown up in the post-1945 era and thus having been targeted since youth as consumers of pop music. This has allowed pop music finally to displace Western art music within the media and within our education system, as pop is now held by the decision-makers concerned to be culturally equal if not superior to its art music counterpart.

Those who perform Western art music have inevitably seen the landscape of their profession altered totally by this cultural shift. The former confidence in the cultural value of what they do has been replaced by an insecurity of purpose; a questioning of their very reason for existence. The contemporary focus on the physical appearance of classical artists and on short, memorable pieces as the vehicle for their success belongs to the world of pop. What it is not is the popularisation of classical music. Rather, it is the dumbing down of the Western art music tradition by presenting it with the same commercial values as pop music, with attendant assumptions of limited shelf-life and quick profits rather than long-term viability. What more can we expect when the Chairman of Universal Music Group considers that classical music is “rather unwelcoming” and “a bit like an elitist club”.

Artistic quality is now judged more on the basis of record company and media hyperbole than by an educated public, because that public has been systematically disempowered from the ability to exercise meaningful artistic judgement. The loss of the live concert experience as part of our culture has been more visible in Britain than on the Continent, but it is perhaps most obvious in the loss of community and amateur music-making dedicated to the Western art music tradition and even home listening in the form of the radio and recordings. Increasingly, that tradition is losing its hold as its exponents and enthusiasts become older and die off, being supplanted or even replaced altogether by pop music. One has only to listen to Desert Island Discs to become painfully aware that for many men and women who occupy leading roles in our society, who are otherwise educated and sensitive human beings, Western art music is something as remote to them as the planet Jupiter. Indeed, the Culture Secretary tells us that he never listens to Radio 3, and prefers Classic fM, which he finds “accessible and informal” – and this despite the fact that today’s Radio 3 falls over itself to dumb down, fetishize youth, and employ announcers whose gauche chumminess must be making Cormac Rigby and Patricia Hughes turn in their graves.

Shortly after the election of the New Labour government in 1997, those responsible for British music education were essentially told that they would be compelled to embrace the Government’s educational priorities. Those priorities were towards Leftist multiculturalism and political correctness, and to the replacement of education with vocational training in pursuit of a social engineering agenda. Institutions would no longer be permitted to be determinedly exclusive in their admissions policies; the focus on excellence was seen as “disenfranchising people”.

Interestingly, this development presaged the cult of the amateur and the disparaging of expert status that has since become such a prevalent feature of the Internet. It owes its roots, of course, to the prevalence of postmodernism, itself an ideology owing much to Marx. Once the idea that there are central concepts of value or meaning that run through all good music can be thrown aside, or that critical rationalism is a basis for assessing the worth of a statement that lies outside of the realm of pure opinion, the ground is clear for all sorts of phony replacements.

Above all, what is promoted is a closed, totalitarian arts system. It is a system where government funding creates an expensive elite based on ideology, not ability. It remains dedicated to the Adornoist means whereby Western art music is to be subverted: firstly by the promotion of art music whose ideology is that of alienation, which is by definition anti-populist, and where complexity and obscurity of method are valued highly. Secondly, pop music is endorsed by the arts establishment and with it the concept that anyone, regardless of ability, can become a pop star instantly simply through winning a television talent contest and receiving media promotion. Music education now gives less emphasis to the history and techniques of Western art music and more to free expression and improvisation. Indeed, there are in our schools, according to Sir Peter Maxwell Davies (Master of the Queen’s Music), “music teachers who thought that even to teach standard western musical notation was to indulge in extreme elitism, claiming that it would inhibit the children’s creativity, and was alien to the “working class values of ordinary people.”

Increasingly, cultural relativism is a third means of attacking the West; non-Western music is given equality if not priority with Western art music both in our education system and increasingly in arts funding. Concepts such as “diversity” and multiculturalism in general are part of this trend. In his excellent book, “Cultural Revolution, Culture War”, Sean Gabb reminds us that, “In October 2003, the Association of British Orchestras organised a symposium on Cultural Diversity and the Classical Music Industry, and effectively required attendance from every classical music organisation in England larger than a string quartet. Among those addressing the symposium was Professor Lola Young, Head of Culture at the Greater London Authority. She said: ‘We must change the look of the classical music industry.’ She was supported by Roger Wright, head of BBC Radio 3, who confessed that everyone at the BBC now underwent ‘diversity training.’” Practitioners of Western art music have a new-found obsession with “relevance” – they must make the case for their existence in a society that once considered them a vital element of their culture.

In a climate of austerity and cultural hostility, the vital structures that support and nurture Western art music have been placed under unprecedented stress. Local councils have discontinued elements of their music services and, driven by opposition to elitism, ended their support of assisted places at the junior departments of the conservatoires. Western art music classes and activities in publically-funded adult further education have been cut drastically. Meanwhile, the Church, once responsible for the development of young musicians through its choral tradition, has also increasingly replaced Western art music with pop. Our present Archbishop of Canterbury, who had African drummers and Punjabi music at his installation ceremony, has declined the customary office of vice-patron of the Royal College of Organists that his predecessors have held since the foundation of the College in 1864.

Let us move on to consider what is taught in our university music departments that concern themselves with Western art music – that is to say, those which have not closed under the recent funding pressures. Presaging New Labour by a couple of years came the movement entitled the “new musicology,” also called cultural or critical musicology, a jackdaw hybrid of gender and queer studies, cultural theory, post-structuralism, postcolonial studies and the theorising of Adorno and Benjamin.

What is notable in the “new musicology” is how little of originality it contains. It is as if someone were to gather up the most leftist elements of university teaching and then unite them in a single Marxist behemoth. There is psychology, of course, and pointless theorising as to whether one can tell whether Schubert was gay or not from his use of the German sixth. There is cultural theory a-plenty, the return of extended prose written in numbered paragraphs, and the meaningless, self-referential cant of structuralism and post-structuralism. Indeed, Professor Lawrence Kramer has said that in order to survive, musicology must embrace a network of “postmodernist strategies of understanding.” To appease the multiculturalists, ethnomusicology has now taken much of the space and funding formerly allocated to dead white males, meaning that the folk songs of obscure Third World tribes are now accorded the importance that the powers-that-be feel they deserve. Feminism of a particularly assertive kind has been allowed free rein, determining among other things that sonata form is sexist and misogynist. Here, we are no longer talking about music as music, but instead music, in the words of Professor Susan McClary, “as a medium that participates in social formation.”

What the new musicologists have done is effectively set up a straw man in order to justify their ideological lurch. That straw man is the idea that music has no meaning and no political or social significance. As Charles Rosen points out, with the exception of nineteenth-century critic Hanslick, it is doubtful whether anyone has ever actually believed this. Rather, there has always been what we might refer to as a divine fusion in the performance of music between what is deemed to be the composer’s meaning and significance and that overlaid or recreated by the performer, and then a third overlay of meaning and significance by the listener. Not only are those perceptions likely to differ between individuals, they may well differ among the same individuals on different occasions, depending on emotional state. Even the eminent may legitimately see different and contradictory things in a musical work.

The authoritarianism inherent in Adorno’s vision is equally prevalent in the new musicology. New musicologists usually seem to be telling us what to think and what to feel when we listen to music. By imposing meaning they present their opinion as dogma. By refusing to acknowledge the essential subjectivity that is at the heart of musical meaning they deny the individual the right to experience music in his or her own way and – heaven forbid – to use cultural references that are not chosen from the fashionable Left. The result is an edifice built on sand; once one does not accept the authority of the critic to dictate significance and meaning, much of what remains is merely ideological cant. Does the recapitulation of the first movement of Beethoven’s Ninth represent “the throttling murderous rage of a rapist incapable of attaining release”? Susan McClary published just that analysis, which to my mind is an excellent illustration of the way that this mode of discourse has a tendency to lapse into self-indulgent fantasy.

The aim of all this is, of course, to offer a further justification for the Adornoist position. By connecting music with other disciplines, links are created that are harder to break and that make music harder to isolate within the academy. By borrowing highly obscure modes of language and reference from those disciplines, and talking about music in terms of cultural or critical theory, new musicologists make it more difficult to discuss their work in anything other than its own terms, unless the critic stands wholly outside their viewpoint. They also fulfil Marxism’s inherent self-hatred by focussing on the effort expended in method and execution rather than the value or intelligibility of the results. And by ensuring that those disciplines chosen support the broadly Adornoist view – in other words that they support the concept of paternalistic, nanny-knows-best culture ruled by experts who tell the underclass what to like and what to think, they create a perfect ideological fit with academia’s Leftist zeitgeist and with the culture industry as defined by New Labour and left unchallenged by our present government.

What we are witnessing is effectively the continuation of the process that drove Western tonal music underground under the weight of post-war ideology. Traditional musicologists and music historians are no longer welcome in British academia unless they are willing to accept the new musicology. Indeed, Lawrence Kramer has said, “The theories that ground [postmodernist] strategies are radically anti-foundationalist, anti-essentialist, and anti-totalizing. They emphasize the constructedness, both linguistic and ideological, of all human identities and institutions. They insist on the relativity of all knowledge to the disciplines–not just the conceptual presuppositions but the material, discursive, and social practices–that produce and circulate knowledge. While often disagreeing with each other, poststructuralists, neopragmatists, feminists, psychoanalytic theorists, critical social theorists, multiculturalists and others have been changing the very framework within which disagreement can meaningfully occur.” Once you can control disagreement, there’s not much else that isn’t within your power.

I conclude, then, with an exhortation. To listen to and to play or sing Western art music is now a counter-cultural act. It is an act of profound rebellion against our politically correct Cultural Marxist zeitgeist as well as being a source of pleasure, moral and spiritual improvement, and enhanced appreciation of the connection between the human and the divine. Let us not be afraid to relegate pop music to its proper place, to embrace our Western art music heritage and to resolve to make it a central part of our lives as educated men and women. Whether in our local community or nationally, let us support those who perform and teach this heritage, and let us give particular attention to the riches that are to be found in the music of our own island and culture; supporting organizations such as the English Music Festival which celebrate it, and independent record companies such as Chandos and Hyperion who have devoted much time and expense to producing first-rate recordings of it. And let us never forget these words of Bulwer-Lytton: “Music, once admitted to the soul, becomes a sort of spirit, and never dies.” If we care for our souls as we should, let us nourish them with good music, and let us then become better people for doing so.


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