Ed's talk: Jun 28, 2008

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Whither art music in the 21st century?

In the twentieth century, the field of serious music was divided among several groups: most obviously there were those who felt that tonality (music written in or around specific key relationships.) had gone as far as it could go and they are the ones who created atonal music .

In that style, there is no hierarchical relationship of one tone to another but there are often artificial systems (that is, not based on the overtone series) in use such as the "tone row" in the 12-tone or dodecaphonic system more or less invented by Arnold Schoenberg and carried on by his pupils Alban Berg and Anton von Webern.

At first, the structure of this music was fairly conventional especially in Schoenberg and Berg but after a time the mathematical basis of the 12-tone system came to the fore and, to my mind lost its reason for being. At the beginning of the 21st Century, we are left with Pierre Boulez and Milton Babbitt as the primary exponents of this technique as well as Elliott Carter. (The latter is also a representative of a parallel technique which is based on complex rhythmic permutations even if the music is not always atonal.) These three men are all really quite old and it is not clear whether there will be others of equal renown to replace them. (Carter is near the century mark and Babbitt is well into his 90s. Boulez is the "baby" being only in his early 80s.)

Despite the longevity of serial music and of its current leading practitioners (I maintain that it has been artificially kept alive, partly by the academic world and partly by the critics.) I have not known audiences to leave those concerts humming the latest tone row! :-) And except for a very small number of these works, largely by Schoenberg and Berg, they seem to have no posterity.

But, alongside this group, there was always those who didn't go nearly so far. Among these were those whose roots were in the 19th Century but who continued well into the 20th. Many continued writing in the standard old forms such as the symphony (Elgar, Vaughan Williams, Sibelius, Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Ives and others.), the concerto (most notably Rachmaninoff but again Prokofiev, Britten, Barber, Bartók.) as well as the tone poem. (Richard Strauss and others.)

It is interesting that Grove's Dictionary of Music and Musicians, 5th Edition, did a major hatchet job on Rachmaninoff. It is even more interesting that they later issued an abject apology for doing so.

Rachmaninoff and others from the second group remain firmly in the standard repertoire but there are few remaining examples from the first group of which it might be said the same.

In the 21st Century, much of the academic world remains firmly committed to serial music but this is beginning to change. It is obvious that, in an attempt to avoid the clichés of tonal music, these have merely been replaced by the clichés of atonality (widely-spaces intervals which are pretty much unsingable and unmemorable and the replacing of musical values by sound effects.). And more and more of the younger generation of composers are returning to tonality of one sort or another and which are more or less based on earlier styles.

A full disclosure: I am a member of the Delian Society group of mostly tonal composers which was founded in 2004 by Joseph Dillon Ford and who, yes, is the other author on this blog. The group is highly diverse with some of us even writing atonal music on occasion!

I am quite sure Joe will have something to say about this article.