20th Century Music 101, Part II

What We Talk About When We Talk About Music

In the first part of this Introduction I made reference to the “style wars” that have plagued concert music(1) since the 1970s or so. Since this project, exploring the essence of 20th century concert music through the music itself came from a desire to find a way out of the style wars and open up the space for concert music in our intellectual life, I think it’s a good idea to explore the style wars a bit deeper.

As new music columnist for the American Record Guide from 1996-2001, I reviewed more than 100 discs a year. The magazine’s editor was (and still is, for all I know) an adamant opponent of musical modernism. He published several editorials on the subject over the years, decrying the need for any new music at all, especially of the modernist variety. It became clear to me that a good deal of what passed for “criticism” in the magazine was based almost entirely on the style of the music, not its content or the quality of the piece supposedly under discussion. I wrote the following essay for the magazine’s editorial page. (All quotes are from the American Record Guide.)

It has become a truism that negative political campaign advertising has two effects. The first is that it works — candidates who run negative campaigns tend to win their races. The essential thrust of this kind of campaign is to drive up the opponent’s “negatives.” Research is conducted in order to discover “soft spots” in the public’s perception of the opposition. Once found, these soft spots, whether relevant to the office being sought or even factual, are magnified so that they become the image of the candidate foremost in the public mind. This sort of campaigning does not so much get some people elected as it prevents others from being heard.

This leads to the other effect negative political campaigns have; one that is even more pernicious and probably more long-lasting. According to polling, negative campaigning reduces voter turnout and pushes people away from politics and from participation in their own government. This lack of participation reduces the quality of government and threatens its very legitimacy.

Some observers of the classical music world (including but not limited to Norman Lebrecht) see a crisis in our music that threatens its viability as an art form, if not its very existence. Contemporary music — music being composed today and in the very recent past — is, in pure numeric terms, a very small part of the world of classical, or concert, music. The editor pointed out in the last issue that contemporary music is the second largest category of disc sent to ARG for review. My experience leads me to guess that if you limit the numbers to “major” commercial labels, contemporary music would drop considerably among categories.

Despite the relatively small role contemporary music plays in the concert music world, most of the controversies in music criticism revolve around new music and living composers. The century just past saw composers and their supporters in the critical community divided into warring camps over virtually every music issue imaginable. Style, dissonance level, form and the web of relationships between composer, performer and audience are just some of the lines of demarcation for the style wars that have raged for decades now. Since around 1975, when tonality regained its place as the way most concert music is organized (if this place was ever lost), the style wars have been fought over whether composers use tonality or atonality(2) in the organization of their works. Critics and composers on one side of the tonal divide claim that those on the other have gravely contributed to the “decline” of concert music by driving away audiences while supporters of the other side make accusations of pandering and of causing the art to become creatively stagnant.

Each side of this tonal divide has devoted dozens of writings to driving up the “negatives” of the other. Campaigns in the arts, unlike political campaigns, have no election day and no clear “winner.” However, the other effect of negative campaigns — driving people away from music, in this instance — can be seen, if not definitively measured. Anecdotal evidence like conversation, correspondence and observation indicates that many people are discouraged from entering the world of concert music by these style wars. After all, it is very easy to find writings in prestigious publications that attempt to eviscerate and delegitimize every style of composition there is.

This kind of criticism appears in publications of all types and sizes, including, I’m sorry to say, this one. The following paragraph appeared in the November/December 1998 issue:

A confession: The crop of composers of all ages and nationalities writing music that could have been written 50 or, in some extreme cases, 100 years ago remains something of a mystery to me. The syntax, harmony, and large scale forms used by Stephen Hartke, James Yannatos, Francis Judd Cooke and John Biggs would all have been, with the possible exception of some small details, acceptable and accessible, even familiar, to audiences decades ago. In fact, though Biggs’s Oboe and Violin Concertos were written decades apart (1949 and 1993, respectively), I don’t think anyone could confidently say, upon hearing them, which piece was the earlier of the two. The Oboe Concerto actually sounds fresher and newer — I wonder if that is because its language is more in the present of its time than the Violin Concerto. [p. 335]

This is a model of style wars criticism. Note the (obviously) fake reluctance on the part of the writer to make his confession, and the implication that he really doesn’t want to understand why and how composers use a tonal vocabulary. This review paints all of these composers with the same dismissive broad brush. This kind of thing is very easy for a critic to do. I know. I wrote it.

Critics on the “other side” of the style wars use a similarly sweeping tone to indict groups of composers:

The Piano Concerto was written in 1966, but thank goodness it does not reflect the trends of that period. Still, what music written in 1966 was not sterile? [May/June 2001, p. 104]

Powerful, lasting compositions (in a variety of styles) like Stravinsky’s Requiem Canticles, Shostakovich’s 11th Quartet and Second Cello Concerto, and Britten’s Burning Fiery Furnace stand as rebukes to this facile critical broadside.

Just as the label “bureaucrat” is used as political shorthand to demonize public servants (without the burden of actually having to say anything of substance), style warriors use the term “academic” as shorthand for everything wrong in the world of music:

The Clarinet Quintet of Penderecki is one of the most astonishing pieces I have heard in years. It sports his later “romantic” style, but has a feeling and tragic fatalism that you would find in a piece like the Shostakovich Eighth Quartet. I was riveted over and over, each time feeling that the work had ended far too soon. This piece has real staying power and should find its place in the clarinet repertory. When I was in college, compositions like the St. Luke Passion were all the rage, and we were being forced by goose-stepping academics to imitate this sort of writing. Years later, I am still overwhelmed by the spiritual power of that work, though at the time I felt that there was a little of the charlatan in Penderecki, and I wondered if he was even capable of writing music that had any sort of tonal appeal. [M/J 2001, p.112]

This is a remarkable piece of writing, not less so because the first four sentences (those dealing with the Clarinet Quartet) point to a way out of the style wars. But, instead of telling the reader what the Quartet sounds like and what it has to offer players and listeners, the writer gives us a broadside against teachers introducing him to the techniques used to make a piece whose “spiritual power” he still finds overwhelming. He even invokes the Nazis (“goose-stepping academics”) in reference to those who visited the horrors of the Passion(3) on him as a student. Comparing opponents to the Nazis is considered beyond the pale even in today’s debased political environment, where standards apparently are higher than in music criticism. Finally, the sentence about Penderecki’s “charlatanism” seems totally gratuitous and beside any meaningful point.

If my dismissal of several discs of neo-tonal music is a model of style wars criticism, then the review of a disc of Kaija Saariaho’s vocal music, beginning on page 165 of the May/June 2001 issue, is a compendium of its techniques, including some already seen as well as a few new ones. The reviewer compares Saariaho to two of the bogeymen of the tonalists — Cage and Boulez — not once, but three times. Never mind that these composers really sound very little alike, their names alone are symbols of the decadence of atonality. He also invokes the specter of 12-tone technique, which I don’t believe Saariaho uses in the works for which she is known (though it is possible she did in some of her early pieces). And that brings up the smoking gun of this writer’s dismissive treatment of the disc — the reviewer did not even engage enough with the material to find out that Kaija Saariaho is a woman (“He uses a variety of instruments …”). It would not have taken much digging to find this out, but the reviewer clearly had another agenda in mind.

How do we get out of this situation, assuming we don’t have an interest in seeing it stay this way? Many critics and others clearly have invested a lot of energy in fighting these battles, and those who want the music world to reflect their views and interest will certainly continue the negative campaigning. If we want our art to grow and prosper, however, a new approach is necessary.

For my part, I intend to focus my writing, especially my reviews of concerts and recordings, on the music itself, trying to communicate to the reader what the music sounds like and how it makes its statement. The review of the Penderecki Clarinet Quartet quoted above is, in its first few sentences, a start towards the kind of writing I want to aim for, as the reviewer places the piece in a stylistic and expressive context. Imagine how much more valuable the review would have been had the next few sentences been devoted to some detail about the sound of the piece and the performers’ interpretive responses to it, rather than the material that did follow.

Again, this kind of focused writing on music is not easy, and will take great time and effort to achieve. The result, however, will be well worth the effort.

One cause of the style wars was the view that the different kinds of concert music of the 20th century had virtually nothing in common, that they represented two (or more) completely different ways of conceiving music. As the century itself recedes into the past, we are now able to hear much more clearly the inter-relatedness of kinds of music that seemed, even a very short time ago, to be incompatible.

If concert music is going to remain a vital art form rather than a museum enterprise well into this century, fans of one kind or another of 20th century music are going to have to learn that it’s all interconnected. In a time of shrinking resources, including fewer performance opportunities as well as fewer recordings, it’s important to realize that if we don’t get all of what the century has to offer, we may get none of it.


101 Essential Pieces of 20th Century Concert Music

Adams, John  Violin Concerto
Barber, Samuel  Knoxville: Summer of 1915
Barber, Samuel  Piano Sonata
Bartók, Béla  Concerto for Orchestra
Bartók, Béla  String Quartet 4
Berg, Alban  Violin Concerto
Berg, Alban  Wozzeck
Berio, Luciano  Sinfonia
Bernstein, Leonard  Symphonic Dances from West Side Story
Boulez, Pierre  Répons
Bridge, Frank  Piano Trio 2
Britten, Benjamin  Peter Grimes
Britten, Benjamin  War Requiem
Busoni, Ferrucio  Piano Concerto
Cage, John  4'33"
Cage, John  Sonatas and Interludes
Carter, Elliott  String Quartet 1
Carter, Elliott  Symphonia: Sum Fluxae Pretium Spei
Copland, Aaron  Billy the Kid
Copland, Aaron  Appalachian Spring
Corigliano, John  Violin Sonata
Crawford, Ruth  Quartet
Crumb, George  Black Angels
Debussy, Claude  La Mer
Debussy, Claude  Sonata for flute, viola, and harp
Durufle, Maurice  Requieum
Elgar, Edward  Cello Concerto
de Falla, Manuel  Nights in the Gardens of Spain
Feldman, Morton  Rothko Chapel
Gershwin, George  Porgy and Bess
Gershwin, George  Rhapsody in Blue
Glass, Philip  Einstein on the Beach
Granados, Ernesto  Goyescas
Gubaidulina, Sofia  Offertorium
Harris, Roy  Symphony 3
Henze, Hans Werner  The Bassarids
Hindemith, Paul  Mathis der Maler
Hindemith, Paul  Symphonic Metamophoses on a Theme by Weber
Holst, Gustav  Planets
Honneger, Arthur  Pacific 231
Ives, Charles  The Unanswered Question
Janacek, Leos  Makropulos Case
Janacek, Leos  Quartet 2
Korngold, Erich von  Violin Concerto
Ligeti, György  Etudes
Ligeti, György  Le Grand Macabre
Lutoslawski, Witold  Concerto for Orchestra
Mahler, Gustav  Das Lied von Der Erde
Mahler, Gustav  Symphony 6
Martin, Frank  Concerto for Seven Wind Instruments
Martinu, Bohuslav  Symphony 2
Maw, Nicholas  Odyssey
Menotti, Gian Carlo  The Medium
Messiaen, Olivier  Quatour pour la fin du temps
Messiaen, Olivier  Turangalîla-Symphonie
Milhaud, Darius  La Création du Monde
Nielsen, Carl  Symphony 4
Orff, Carl  Carmina Burana
Pärt, Arvo  Tabula Rasa
Penderecki, Krzysztof  Threnody
Poulenc, Francois  Dialogues du Carmelites
Prokofiev, Sergei  Sonata 7
Prokofiev, Sergei  Violin Concerto 2
Puccini, Giacomo  Madama Butterfly
Puccini, Giacomo  Turandot
Rachmaninoff, Sergei  Piano Concerto 2
Rachmaninoff, Sergei  Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini
Ravel, Maurice  Bolero
Ravel, Maurice  Piano Concerto in G
Reich, Steve  Come Out
Respighi, Ottorino  Pines of Rome
Riley, Terry  In C
Rochberg, George  Quartet 3
Rodrigo, Joaquin  Concierto de Aranjuez
Satie, Erik  Parade
Schnittke, Alfred  Concerto Grosso 1
Schönberg, Arnold  Pierrot Lunaire
Schönberg, Arnold  Five Pieces, Op. 23
Scriabin, Alexander  Poeme d’Ecstases
Scriabin, Alexander  Sonata 9
Shostakovich, Dmitri  String Quartet 8
Shostakovich, Dmitri  Symphony 5
Sibelius, Jean  Symphony 4
Sibelius, Jean  Violin Concerto
Stockhausen, Karlheinz  Gesang der Jünglinge
Strauss, Richard  Ariadne auf Naxos
Strauss, Richard  Four Last Songs
Stravinsky, Igor  Le Sacre du Printemps
Stravinsky, Igor  Symphony of Psalms
Szymanowski, Karol  King Roger
Tavener, John  Thunder Entered Her
Thomson, Virgil  Four Saints in Three Acts
Tippett, Michael  King Priam
Varèse, Edgard  Ionisation
Vaughan Williams, Ralph  Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis
Vaughan Williams, Ralph  London Symphony
Walton, William  Viola Concerto
Webern, Anton  Six Bagatelles, Op. 9
Weill, Kurt  Seven Deadly Sins
Weir, Judith  A Night at the Chinese Opera
Xenakis, Iannis  Pithoprakta