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.


  1. A very important and sensitive point touched here. The last sentence: “And the great question is how it can be done without lapsing into banality, as Adorno told us it must” throws-up difficult questions. Reich and Glass use their rhythmic structures bordering on pop, and the closer they get, the more trivial, and the more intricate, the less accessible or interesting. John Adams’ later work is complex and impressive, but still has a cool and mechanical character which can be beautiful but most of the time lacks any expressive quality, and where he is more expressive it always sounds like film music.

    Adorno should not be trusted, I believe. There seems to have been something wrong with his mind. And one does not need to be an Adornian to be aware of the penetrating banality of so much pop music.

    Should a contemporary composer, in an effort to reach contemporary audiences, including the young, touch the mechanical and empty elements with which young audiences are supposed to be hard-wired? Isn’t that a sacrifice too great to protect musical value? Would it then not be better to restrict classical music audiences to people, including the young, who are not challenged in that way? There must be some. But that would shrink audience size, and the percentage of new music on orchestral concert programs is only a part of the bigger problem of how to ensure the future of orchestral culture ‘an sich’. Media attention is one of the instruments which can surely help, and the internet offers great compensation for the shrinking of music journalism in the established newspapers and magazines. But people running an orchestra or opera company do not have enough time to explore territories they don’t know already about, and therefore choose the routine solutions whenever they bump into a problem of programming or commisioning new music. In the splintered music scene of today, that routine forms an island of traditional value which is guarded passionately lest it will be swamped by the sea of triviality that surrounds it. Opening-up that fort of tradition in such a way that its values are preserved but its doors are better accessible to the shy and the ignorati, is the great challenge of music culture today. It seems doubtful to me that incorporating pop tropes in new music, as far as new music is programmed, will be a big draw for young people; maybe the wine should remain the same but only the bottle and the labels changed. How to do this? That is the question.

  2. Ernst Krenek’s music reminds us of Disney’s essay movies like Fantasia, not very well appreciated.
    As it is nowadays, I still avoyd theater, those post-modern exhibitions that try to happen around and not in front of, demanding the audience to give the actors what they people were looking for as they entered the theater.
    Somewhat anguishing, as not only Sartre, but also Kafka and many others would like to make an audience feel. Anguish that would hide a somehow incomplete art piece.
    I don’t think new generations will appreciate such kind of art that is not new and that is poor and suffers of intellectualism.
    In fact, young generations see things around, but things happen in a way that can be put in front of us, though happening 4D, sound image action. That’s exactly what other arts would like to have, but they don’t.

    1. If young people, ignorant of classical music – especially orchestral music – would understand what they could experience in the concert hall, they would like it, I’m sure. The barriers are not in the music or in the medium, but in the perception and lack of information, and especially in a false imago of classical music being boring, outdated, stiff etc. etc. and the hobby of elitist grandfathers. Quasi-leftish politics which associated classical music to an instrument of a bourgeois class to distinguish itself from the proletariat, have done great damage: politicizing a suggested inaccessibility as social progress was nothing more than populism. One of the challenges of musical culture is to separate the art form from politics and class warfare.

  3. This was a very interesting read, thank you. It is the preoccupation with these dilemmas that drives me to write my Digitiphonies (Electro Orchestral Symphonies). For me, after writing six of these (I am on number 7), they still seem to be a way through the musical wasteland that the extremes of the 20th century left us with, for all the reasons mentioned here – composers need to write in a way that is relevant to the life led by the people around them, those people who own the ears that will perceive their work. However that is not all. If it was, then ‘pop’ and ‘folk’ and ‘jazz’ would be all the human psyche needs. Music must have integrity, depth, and staying power as well. The depth to withstand many listenings and to hold more meaning with each one. the integrity to comfort in times of sorrow and rejoice in times of ecstasy in equal measure, and the staying power to mean as much to someone listening in three hundred years time as to someone listening today. In my opinion the atonal movement had to exist for Contemporary Concert Music just as punk had to exist for Rock and Pop music – to act as a refreshing, palate-cleansing sorbet between the courses of the historical feast that is music. There is no black without white, no consonance without dissonance. Duality must exist in music, as everywhere else.

    1. Agreed. But listening to some of the Digitiphonies that you mention, which is well-done, and is musical and sympathetic, one becomes aware of the problem of psychological identification and of taste: it is not enough to make use of the sounds, voice leading, chords, tonal logic etc. etc. of the music we can hear in the concert hall which has integrity, depth, and staying power….. composers must also develop as a person in such a way that they transcend the regular, ‘normal’ musical sounds we counter everywhere in the mdoern world and especially in the form of film music (Sir Roger Scruton has written about film music elsewhere on this site). Contemporary audiences want to hear the ‘old’ repertoire for its integrity, depth and staying power: in short, its expressive qualities, but those qualities were written in very different times with very different environments. Performers are capable of identifying with those qualities, in spite of the historic distance. But for composers, it seems very hard to pick-up these qualities, and it seems likely that this is due to the character of modern society with its aesthetically rudimentary presentations. Where composers like Tchaikovsky, Mahler etc. could reach the ears and hearts of their audiences quite directly, both parties occupying the same cultural territory as it were, nowadays audiences reach-out over a great distance of time to an expressiveness of a bygone age. If today composers want to connect on that level, they have to travel the same distance that audiences and performers travel, but then in terms of creation which is much harder (in a psychological sense), given the aural climate being filled with pop, film music, music accompanying commercials, jazz, world music etc. etc.

      But if it were true that the much sought-after qualities of yore are not locked-up in history but represent universal experiences, then all this historicist reflecting is pointless and unnecessary, and the field of authentic expression is actually very close and accessible. But that requires a completely un-historic approach by composers which goes against educational and cultural ‘grand récits’, and established consensus as something conditional for contemporary music.

      Maybe if composers would treat music as audiences and performers do: not as historic categories but as aesthetic categories, they could more easily reach the sources of integrity, depth etc. I think composers like Nicolas Bacri and Karol Beffa in France, David Matthews and James Francis Brown in England, and Peter Lieberson in the USA, are examples of such attempts which are successful.




      1. Great links, cheers John. Here is one to a David Mathews Symphony too –

        I was lucky enough to know the erudite (and sadly under appreciated) British composer James Stevens for the last few years of his life. We had many long conversations about music and he repeated over and again how he felt music should be a dialogue to have full effect. Since he died I have come to see that this is true on two levels – music needs to be a dialogue within itself so as not to stagnate, as well being as a meaningful dialogue between composer, arranger, conductor and audience. It takes all those elements to make the ‘conversation’ work in a valid way, and like any dialogue it needs to use at least some vocabulary that has meaning for all parties, or there is no comprehension, except perhaps the enjoyment of the prosody of the discourse (which though it has merit, probably cannot lead alone to the ‘depth’ we both mention above). On the other hand, if all the words and sentences are simply platitudes repeated from old worn out phrases and ideas then the conversation also has no validity, it is simply repetition, and in this age of ‘too much information’ who needs that ? So, a real dilemma. Who would be a composer now ?

        I should also have mentioned that what I call ‘The Pragmatism of Muse’ must also be acknowledged in the music of past masters. My own foundation of musical inspiration and purpose, if I had to pick only one, is JS Bach and he had to live an extremely pragmatic life to make a living. No lying around on a couch waiting for the muse to strike for him, he had to keep coming up with the goods every week for church services and patrons, and quickly too. Yet we still listen to his music, in reverence and awe, 300 years later.

        James Stevens also believed that time is quite possibly a constant, not a linear, phenomenon. If that is true then your comment about the completely un-historic approach required for todays composers becomes doubly true. Perhaps all music is unfolding at the same moment and it is just our perception that gives it the ‘logical’ sheen of the linear. In which case, as you say, there is no need to worry and the answers we seek are closer and more accessible that we might think.

        As for my own Digitiphonies, I see them as very much a work in progress, a quest, which like all true quests should command the very renunciation of life, if required, of the questors. To that end I hope to be able to write 10 of them in my lifetime. Even if I don’t find what I am seeking in that time I will at least have given my all in the trying.

  4. Modern “music”. One cannot really call it music.

    The compositions are served as elitist “intellectually superior” creations, but in reality they just drip with pretentious egocentric self-sacrifice… of self-deluded musicians who bow down and waste their lives bringing to life pseudo-random bullshit…
    The music of masochistic pathetic soulless humans, who whither away … leaving what?
    The sound of modern man digging his own grave.

    Or in the snobbish elitist-speak “soundscapes are countering intensities, that mesh and overlap, in ways that uniquely enhance the fragile sensation escaping to some place where rules of a different kind govern over … bla bla bla”

  5. Personally I dislike Brian Ferneyhough’s (and many other’s) pretentious unfounded alien-styled inhumane chaotic pseudo-random material, which exists only for it’s own sake and creates sensory responses that are not of the composer’s intention, but just happen to occur.
    Make no mistake: Ferneyhough is no real composer; and the fact that this has never been accordingly stated or criticized shows the times in which we live: Feed the people any rubbish, with just a hint of added intellectual superiority and they’ll believe it and worship your ‘message’.

    … Ferneyhough… the charlatan king of pretentious wishful implication

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