20th Century Classical Music – the “Navel Gazing” Era?

Written by Richard Murison

In the world of Classical Music, the end of the 19th Century brought with it the end of the “Romantic Era”, which had followed on from the “Classical Period” after the death of Beethoven. Although these are somewhat arbitrary distinctions, they do serve to provide a pair of pretty useful designations that conveniently distinguish the majority of the music composed in those periods. They also represent boundaries between periods of reasonably consistent thinking about how composers would set about composing music. Composers – from a 30,000 foot viewpoint – are always making advances in the ideas governing how to conceive and write musical ideas. Usually those advances take place within the overall confines of generally-understood stylistic and structural guidelines. But composers can always be counted on to explore the boundaries of conventions and rules. And if in the breach they begin to establish some kind of acceptance, what you have are the makings of a new paradigm.

But what are these rules? It’s not like baseball, or football, or cricket. There is nothing black-and-white to say that something is verboten, with ten yards penalty and loss of down for a violation. Instead there is just the opprobrium of the community of self-appointed experts, and the disdain – or worse – of the audiences. The rules are basically a set of broadly-accepted conventions that describe how music should be written, supported by a framework of theoretical underpinnings which explain why it should be that way. These conventions address issues like: what sorts of things tend to make a melody acceptable to listen to; what combinations of notes sound harmonic when played together; what sequences (or progressions) of chords work best together; which instruments play best together; and how to assemble a short collection of musical episodes into a larger piece that is more satisfactory as a whole than the individual episodes heard in isolation. Taken together, these concepts form the basis of the theoretical study of musical form or structure.

The history of the underlying theories of musical structure reflects nothing more than listening to the folk tunes that ordinary people sing, and trying to establish what it is about them that renders them appealing. The earliest songs are simply repetitive verses. So the earliest efforts at establishing a theory of music were no more than attempts to codify what works well as a verse, and what doesn’t. These folk songs began to evolve into more sophisticated repetitions of verse–chorus, eventually reaching the verse–chorus–verse–chorus–bridge–verse–chorus structure which became the default framework of the 90-second pop song of the 50’s and 60’s. If you listen carefully, you will find that it still dominates ‘song-type’ popular music today. Just about everything Elton John ever wrote more or less follows this formula. Take this example, a verse–chorus–verse–chorus–bridge–chorus–coda variant:

Pioneers like Bach and Mozart took this basic verse–chorus–verse–chorus–bridge–verse–chorus structure, tore it apart, studied its basic structures, and ended up codifying it into something far more elaborate called Sonata Form. Classical Sonata Form has three parts, an Exposition, a Development section, and a Recapitulation. You can look at the Exposition as being the first verse – chorus – verse – chorus part, the Development section is the bridge, and the Recapitulation is the final verse – chorus. These are very broad brush strokes indeed, but hopefully they serve to get the point across.

The key point is that musical theory sought to explain why it was that good music sounded good. What it did not attempt to offer was a painting-by-numbers solution to the creative process of composition.

The Classical Period represents the full flowering of what you might call the Mozart picture of musical structure – the grand assemblage of Sonatas and other codified structures into suites, concertos, sonatas, symphonies, and more besides. But creative processes never stand still [and those that do quickly find themselves going stale]. In particular, Beethoven came along and started nibbling away at Mozart’s “rules”. He didn’t care if he was caught offside, to use the sporting analogy, as long as he was able to score a beautiful goal. And in music, there’s no referee to blow the whistle. Eventually, if enough people break enough of the rules, then the old rules are no longer relevant, and a set of new rules comes in and takes their place

That’s what happened when Beethoven’s 9th Symphony (1824) arguably closed the book on the Classical Period and ushered in the Romantic Era. Composers like Berlioz came along with revolutionary music, although it is hard to look back today on Symphonie Fantastique of 1830 and see it as in any way revolutionary. But it was. In Classical Music, the “exposition”, “development”, “first” and “second” themes, and other such constructs were all defined in purely musical terms, such as the famous first four notes of Beethoven’s ubiquitous 5th Symphony, and they served as the musical purpose around which the piece in question was built. In Symphonie Fantastique, however, the musical ideas are subservient to human concepts – “Scène aux champs”, “Marche au supplice”, “Un bal”, etc. Beethoven had dabbled with this idea himself in his 6th Symphony, but the music itself still paid due respect to the requirements of classical symphonic structure. Berlioz, however, made the structure subservient to the musical soundscapes he was creating. Symphonie Fantastique was almost operatic in its scope:

As the century progressed, other composers came along and found yet more ways of writing music which departed from what was left of Mozart’s rule book. By the end of the century, Mahler was writing symphonies which were undoubtedly symphonic, and were undoubtedly tours-de-force of compositional technique…but the structures of these symphonies were staggeringly complex and convoluted. To this day, conductors approach some of these symphonies with great trepidation. Yet to the listener they hang together seamlessly from beginning to end.

Musical theorists studied these developments throughout the 19th century, and for the most part managed to continue to analyze the great works of the period in the most painstaking detail. Why bother, you might ask? Well, the main reason is that if you are teaching skills like composition to the next generation of students, you want to be able to teach the underlying frameworks that reference works adhere to. As you develop your own musical language as a composer, it is generally helpful along the way to understand how Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and Mahler composed, and to be able to compose exercise pieces using their styles. The idea is that, only if you understand the styles of the great masters that preceded you will you ever be able to truly develop your own voice.

With the Romantic Era drew to an abrupt and sudden close when the Russian composer Igor Stravinsky foisted his Rite of Spring onto an unsuspecting public. This was a profound shock to the musical establishment. The Rite of Spring is a truly extraordinary composition, and it changed absolutely everything. It is hard to overstate its impact. To the extent that there ever was a “Romantic Era” rulebook, Rite of Spring put it through a shredder. It is almost impossible to extract from the Rite of Spring its underlying musical essence, without ending up merely dissecting it into its component parts. It follows no straightforward structure that you can teach to promising students. Any attempt to ‘learn what it teaches’ results in nothing more than copycat works of limited value. It is what it is. And it has proven to be – without anything else coming close – the single most influential piece of classical music of the 20th Century, and perhaps even ever:

All of this was no comfort to the musical establishment. How do we teach students about the latest music if we don’t even understand it ourselves? Even worse, the classical musical establishment was hopelessly elitist. [It still was in my own youth, some 50+ years later.] It tried to respond by looking down on new music it couldn’t understand, mostly, it must be said, from composers of a much, much younger generation. But these were highly charged times, and across many spheres of the Arts, not just in music, avant-garde movements were making a lot of noise in the corridors of power and influence. Of course, right at that moment, the Great War came along, and in its wake dealt a death blow to many of the old structures of the establishment. When peace returned, the time was ripe for major changes across all aspects of western society.

In the world of classical music, 1920’s Vienna became the hub of avant-garde and modernist thinking, centered around the great and famous Arnold Schoenberg. He, and his students Alban Berg and Anton Webern, established a school of thought that became most strongly associated with the so-called 12-tone movement. This movement espouses musical structures which – and this is a very loose description indeed – make use of sequences of 12 notes, called tone-rows, in which no two notes are the same [there are only 12 unique tones on a musical keyboard before you start repeating one octave above or below], and no two notes have an identical length.

Note that you don’t have to be a fundamentalist when it comes to tone rows. Berg in particular insisted a tone row didn’t have to contain all 12 tones. Here is a tone row you might recognize, and which Alban Berg himself might have been proud to have written!

But let’s not get too tied up with what 12-tone music is or isn’t. The key takeaway here is that Schoenberg pioneered a movement in which musical composition transitioned from being a musically creative enterprise, to one where it ended up being the result of some abstract application of a mostly philosophical set of considerations. Like Jackson Pollock throwing paint across the room at a canvas, music was no longer the designed output of a particular creative process, but became the almost arbitrary consequence of a series of non-musical machinations.

Crazy as this sounds, the so-called Second Viennese School became the most powerful influence on 20th Century Classical Music. The original 12-tone ideas grew and evolved into what is more broadly categorized as Serial Music. I don’t really want to attempt to justify it, but frankly, Serialism has more in common with mathematical Set Theory than it does with Sonata Form. And it more or less infected the entirety of the Classical Music establishment during the decades following the Second World War. A whole generation – and more – of musicians were taught that modern composition was a theoretical exercise in artistic abstractions with little concern given to what the result might actually sound like, and more emphasis on grand nonsense such as the ‘totality of the listening experience’. Sure, that kind of thinking has a place…but that place ought to have been more like the three-man music department of an arts college in Grimsby, rather than the entirety of Western musical intelligentsia. I have to look back on it and ask: “What did it all really accomplish?”. I have to wonder who, other than academic musicians indoctrinated into that way of thinking, really listens to the music of Stockhausen, Boulez or Webern, other than out of idle curiosity?

The thing is, I’m not denying that 12-tone, serialism, whatever, can produce interesting music. It can. It did. What I’m denying is the artistic validity of its creative process – and, more specifically, questioning the artistic validity of a school of thought that was so deeply entrenched into the establishment, for such a long period of time. To the extent great music was created, it was created despite the process, and not because of it. For example, when the aforementioned Jackson Pollock drips paint on a canvas while in a drunken stupor, the result may or may not be magnificent. He might produce a dozen of these, and, for whatever reason, one of them just floats your boat. To my mind the technique itself is only of passing relevance, but for others it is revered as the essence and genius of his art. Sorry, but I’m not buying that. Are we really suggesting that inebriation and paint dripping can be celebrated as creative attributes? </Rant>

Arguably the most famous 12-tone work of all is Alban Berg’s magnum opus Lulu, an opera in 3 acts, unfinished on his death in 1935. A lot of it sounds like an orchestra that is still warming up. But even so, Lulu is actually a tour-de-force of technical composition. It contains deeply layered Wagnerian leitmotifs – in 12-tone – and far more complex related musical devices. The plot itself is very complex and nuanced in a way that is notably uncommon in other major operas. And then, there is the fact that both plot-wise and musically, Lulu is one great big palindrome. For example, at a simple level, for every character who appears in the first half there is a corresponding character who disappears in the second half. The overall rise-and-fall arc of the plot line is totally palindromic. I could go on, but I won’t.

At the very center of the opera is the famous “filmmusik”. According to Berg’s directions, this music is played by the orchestra while the audience watches a black-and-white film of Lulu first being put in prison, and then escaping. This piece of “filmmusik” is itself a total and complete palindrome in every detail. Each and every note is precisely mirrored about the center point. Here it is, if you would like to listen to it: [See if you can spot the center of symmetry. It’s not easy!]

Even today, Lulu ranks among the weirdest of weird operas. I once saw a British TV documentary following Sir Colin Davis directing a production of Lulu that was being prepared for a season at Covent Garden. At the end of what is a very difficult show, both to watch and to listen to, Davis is interviewed by the presenter. He is asked whether, having got to the point where he knows the work well enough to be able to conduct it, he actually enjoys it. Davis thinks about this before answering: “Enjoy it? No, I suppose not.” Then he brightens up: “But I’m getting there!”. A lot of people are apparently getting there. It is unlikely you will encounter a production of Lulu which is not totally sold out. I’d probably try and go myself – purely out of curiosity. But there’s no way my wife would come!

Finally, as we approach the approximate 100th anniversary of Schoenberg’s Second Viennese School, I am glad to say that virtually every last vestige of the dreaded school of Serialism has pretty much had its day. I look back and I think that a whole century’s worth of musical progress – or at least 50 years’ worth of it – was essentially wasted. On the other hand, who can say what else could have taken its place?

There is no doubt that the classical music world is alive and well today, and that there is no obvious shortage of newly-composed works. But no longer do these works have to be discordant or atonal for the sake of it, nor must they pay homage to somebody’s avant-garde design principles. They are by and large considered pieces, written from the heart, and executed with great skill. We are still producing some wonderfully talented composers.

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