Dictatorship? In Music? Man The Barricades!

Mike Silverton

[April 2000. Originally appeared in La Folia 2:4.]

The incentive behind these remarks arrived with a recent CD of Nino Rota’s two piano concertos. I’ve never liked the film composer’s art music and nothing in the present release dislodges that opinion. Attention turns rather to comments by the annotator, Andrea Zaccaria, with regard to Rota’s “old fashioned” esthetic:

“The mistake Rota made was in living at the wrong time: as is well known, the years between 1950 and 1980 (central to his output) coincided with a particularly difficult moment in the musical history of Italy and Europe. These were the years when musical composition, trailing behind a model which was taken up as an absolute benchmark (the so-called New Viennese School), conformed to it as if it were the only possible and acceptable way of doing things. They were the years of downright dictatorship, implicated in which were musical agents, musicologists, critics and performers (but, unsurprisingly, not the public), who endorsed works of value (few) and outrages (many) in the name of whatever fell into the categories of experimentation, novelty or commitment. Rota, accused of being ’old fashioned,’ always stayed nobly above these arguments, carrying on with his activities as composer, writer of film-music, better still, just as ’musician,’ in the certainty of his own métier, his own kind of music.”

Because I’m fascinated by the art music of this “particularly difficult moment,” I see a need to respond. The issue Zaccaria raises even today remains significant. Unless she is rôle playing to suit the assignment, we begin with the understanding that the writer’s tastes are conservative, aggressively so. We glimpse disdain even in the construction the “so-called New Viennese School.” One seldom sees “so-called” as other than a sidewise dig. Her claim that works of value are few in the decades she mentions is both true in this particular and in general. One recalls the Baroque revival the long-playing record sparked. Certain labels seemed determined to liberate from dusty shelves every scrap known extant. The bulk of it proved a bore. Most of Beethoven’s composer-contemporaries are of interest now primarily to scholars; their music plays thin.

If we hearken back to where the young Beethoven began making a name for himself in Vienna around 1795, we recognize the period without much difficulty by its musical conventions, by its Classical “sound” if you like, irrespective of composer — indeed, whether or not we know who the composer is. Muzio Clementi (coincidentally Beethoven’s major English publisher) could never be accused of writing keyboard music one is likely to confuse with Liszt’s or Debussy’s. Yet we do not speak of an obvious hegemony in terms of dictatorship. Of Zeitgeist rather. It was, after all, a small world and so remains. Easy enough for the Spirit of its Time to haunt.

Was there ever a clearly defined musical dictatorship in the 20th century — the Second Vienna School, Darmstadt, Donaueschingen, Boulez, IRCAM, Radio Free Europe, the CIA — issuing decrees, orders of banishment, or had authentic art music simply evolved itself into a condition of audience-repellency? For the writer makes an undeniable point: the audience has been indifferent. (Connoisseurs are another matter.) Is this a sorry pass imposed upon the defenseless by arrogant, high-handed elitists, or did it develop along recognizable lines into controversy much as genetic engineering has? I don’t mean to tax a parallel to science, yet in broad strokes it works. Nobody seriously questions that science and technology move from one place to the next by way of developments. This is how they happen, quite by definition. Who today designs cottage-size computers stuffed with vacuum tubes?*

Bring this around to music. It has proved remarkably difficult to compose “old fashioned” art music, to return, in other words, to earlier idioms, either directly or gesturally. All such reversions and nostalgic visitations must forever sound derivative, dilute, effete, ersatz. Conversely, it has been possible to depart from serialism’s strictures via other modernist routes, vide a fellow Italian, the mystical count, Giacinto Scelsi (whose audience repellency I should judge about on a par with, for example, Luigi Nono, one of Italy’s principal and most austere modernists).

Yet, in terms of a high culture’s coherence, it’s a little disingenuous for me to have suggested a direct comparison of the Enlightenment’s Classical period to post-war Europe, where a divergence of art-music styles relative to that earlier time had long since taken hold. It is well to remember that the arch-Romantic Rachmaninoff composed well into the 20th century, irrespective of the fact that his music looks back without irony or apology to Russia’s lush nineteenth. By the time of Rachmaninoff’s death in 1943, Schoenberg, Berg and Webern had blazed their antipodal trails, as had Stravinsky in yet another direction, Varèse another, Cage another, Stockhausen another, and so on and on. More significantly, if we are willing to concede that Austria and Germany have been central to the continent’s art music, we must likewise concede that where the Second Viennese School points amounts to magnetic north for a number of important composers. In terms again of validity, I submit that what they’ve accomplished under the influence, baleful or otherwise, carries rather more weight than the sum of retrograde, head-in-the-sand denials.

Whether Western art music’s leading edge has by now sliced beyond Second Vienna’s latter-day iterations seems the obvious question, yet, given the surprises the creative imagination forever concocts, it’s one that any sensible commentator should be reluctant to touch, lest his words wind up down the road in an anthology of howlers.

* A return to tube-powered computers is not without interest. The modern computer’s soulless routines could certainly profit from the warmth of inner detail only vacuum tubes provide. Ask any audiophile.


 * * *

Walt Mundkowsky

We’ve heard this sad story before: how the awful hegemony of serialist music deprived less radical composers of an audience. The notion appeals to conspiracy buffs and reactionaries, and is usually pitched with more delicacy and detail than this blurb writer commands. Unfortunately, history won’t support it. Neither Stravinsky nor Shostakovich nor Frank Martin nor Britten (nor a dozen others) lacked prominence and influence. Nor did Ligeti and Elliott Carter — authors of supremely complex works outside the serialist orbit.

A point or two can be conceded. In the process of attracting a crowd (and vying for leadership), Boulez and Stockhausen talked a fair amount of my-way-or-the-highway trash. (From the vantage point of the Soviet Union, these “unavoidable proofs of masculinity in serial self-denial” amused Alfred Schnittke.) The true heyday of hardcore serialism was brief — say, 1948-52. By then, the urge to serialize all musical parameters (not just pitch, as in Schoenberg) had proved a dead end. Boulez designated Polyphonie X and Structures, Book I (for two pianos) as “documents,” not suitable for performance. At the end of the ’50s, the major figures of the movement were taking divergent paths. Our Italian blurb writer is using “the so-called New Viennese School” (she means the Second Vienna School) as a blanket to cover postwar music that doesn’t sound “nice.” Such people have always existed. Friedrich Schiller (1759-1805) decried “the bitter anger of small minds against true energetic beauty? They reckon on finding therein a congenial recreation, and regret to discover that a display of strength is required to which they are unequal.”

But what about Nino Rota (1911-79)? Famous for his Fellini scores (and The Godfather cycle), his concert music hasn’t lacked visibility at home. Now more of it is reaching CD. What I’ve heard (mostly the chamber music) never rises above the mildly diverting. A competing version of these two piano concertos was reviewed in Fanfare a year ago. Martin Anderson (no slavish avant-gardist) found them “soggy with reminiscences of other composers,” and he wondered what manner of sweetheart deal convinced Chandos “to bring something so weak onto the market.” Anyone seeking a film-music veteran who also created a distinctive sound world should investigate Toru Takemitsu (1930-96).

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