20th Century Modernism: Some Thoughts

  • Posted on 30 January 2013 at 12:09pm
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In my recently-released book and TV series, The Story of Music, I made some comments about the avant-garde in classical music in the 20th century which have sparked debate and – in some quarters – some confusion and misrepresentation of my observations which it might be good to address, briefly.

I am not a missionary, nor critic, but a chronicler. This means that I feel it is my job to communicate to the public at large as clearly as I can the chain of events that occurred in western music at any one time. I am not trying to convert anyone to a particular style or genre of music nor on the whole do I seek to make quality judgements, as a critic or an evangelist for one style of music or another might. Listeners can make up their own minds. We do not expect Simon Schama, in his TV history of Britain, for example, to come down on one side or other when describing the English Civil War nor to opine that the world would have been a better place if the 1917 Russian Revolution had not been won by the Bolsheviks. That would be bad history.

Many composers in the 20th century experimented with the sound of music, pushing boundaries and expectations, sometimes to extremes, as was the case in all art forms. It is a matter of historical fact that the combined effect of these experiments was to give the impression to the wider public that ‘modern’ music was becoming hard or even painful to listen to. Gradually, between the 1920s and the 1980s, the reception of new pieces of music became more hostile and confused amongst the public, even if such premières also, as with any niche taste, had its devotees, small in number, passionate in their support. In the 19th century it had been commonplace for live concert performances to be programmed with new music; this is what audiences expected. By the mid-20th century this situation had evolved into a mirror image of this expectation: audiences were fearful of new works and orchestras, concert halls, promoters sought to fill concert programmes with old works instead, often burying new works between more familiar ones for safety.

This is not my view, it is a description of events. What I do propose in my book and series is that one particular form of experiment was more responsible than others for this stand-off between audiences and new music, known by several names, the principal one of which is serialism. In its basic form it was devised by the Austrian composer Arnold Schönberg at the beginning of the 20th century, though in a significant number of his own works, like the beautiful Verklärte Nacht, he does not always follow his own set of serialist rules. As the century progressed, more and more contemporary composers followed Schönberg’s lead and adopted elements of the serialist package, some increasing its scope and rigidity considerably. Some composers tried the technique for a while then dropped it again. Some composers enjoyed its mathematical challenge but only applied its strictures in some or part of some works.

Serialism has been around for 100 years. In that time there have been many, many contemporary works by a range of modernist composers that have – at first – alarmed audiences but eventually found acceptance and popularity, as new works have tended to do throughout history. Virtually everything Stravinsky wrote before 1950 falls into this category, as do Shostakovich’s symphonies, everything by Prokofiev, Britten’s early operas, much of Schnittke’s, Ligeti’s, Messiaen’s works, and so on and so forth. It is an uncomfortable reality, though, that new works which were written by strictly following the serialist method, from any of the decades of the 20th century, still resist widespread public approval or comprehension. It is as if serialist techniques created music of so alien a sound that even regular listening would not break down its unfamiliarity and difficulty. Given that Schönberg’s idea was to dismantle the system of musical organisation that had been in place for hundreds of years, perhaps we should not be surprised at this. There are adherents of serialism today who believe that the rest of us (who find it near-impossible to warm to) are simply misled, old-fashioned, wrong-headed, and that we will eventually come to our senses. It is not true to say that we struggle with it because of lack of exposure. When I was growing up, my childhood musical education was hugely enhanced by listening to the BBC’s Radio 3, on which during the 60s and 70s it was commonplace to hear experimental, modernist and serialist music. The French government built serialist standard-bearer Pierre Boulez an entire building in the Pompidou Centre in which he could lecture his students from all around the world in the iniquities of the old ‘tonal’ system and the wonders of the possibilities of serialist techniques. West Germany’s taxpayers, like those in the UK, France, Italy and other liberal democracies, funded radio stations, public bodies, orchestras, opera houses etc to commission and perform serialist music. In the 60s and 70s, if you were into modern music, it was everywhere. And yet it did not replace the older system of ‘tonality’ and the majority of contemporary classical composers nowadays have abandoned any thought of returning to what increasingly seems like a blind alley, the compositional technique of serialism.

That is what has happened, for better or worse. Personally, I am all in favour of experiments in music, of pushing boundaries, of embracing new ideas and ways of thinking, since such boldness has produced some of my favourite music of the last 100 years. But what I like or do not like is not the issue here. Why serialism came and went without leaving behind lasting landmarks in our repertoire is the issue. It is unusual in music history for this reason. Perhaps it will return in another hundred years and make more aural sense to us, or perhaps they will wonder what a huge price classical music paid, in terms of public appeal, for its temporary adoration of an academic concept dreamed up by Arnold Schönberg.