Most of us reactionaries, I trust, think that modern classical music, like modern art in general, is (to paraphrase Proph) nothing but one long hideous auditory abortion. And while this is not entirely untrue, many of you may not know that several composers have in recent years tried to revive the tonal traditions of old. Near the end of his book The Aesthetics of Music, Roger Scruton writes that while many of these attempts have been valiant, and have often resulted in beautiful music, none have succeeded completely. What we need, he thinks, is a musical equivalent of Eliot’s Four Quartets: Something that rejects modernist decadence while at the same time acknowledging and reflecting the changed circumstances under which we live.
I agree with Scruton, and I want to do what I can in advancing the counterrevolution, in art as well as in culture, religion, and politics. This is why, in the coming months, I’ll highlight one reactionary 20th- or 21st-century composer each week or so, along with one or two representative pieces. Note that with a few possible exceptions, which I’ll point out as they appear, these composers are stylistic rather than political reactionaries.
First, though, it may be useful to summarize, as briefly as possible, why and how we ended up with musical modernism in the first place.
Over the course of the Romantic period, which in music is usually said to have started with Beethoven and ended, depending on whom you ask, with the Impressionism of Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel or with the Expressionism of Arnold Schoenberg (of which more later), composers increasingly began to bend and sometimes break the rules codified by Medieval and Renaissance music and expanded and solidified in the Baroque (about 1600-1750) and Classical (about 1750-1820) eras. They experimented ever more freely with chromaticism—that is, the use of notes foreign to the key one is currently in—and frequent and unexpected changes of key. The Romantics also experimented with form and rhythm. Sonata form, which provided the template for most large-scale pieces of instrumental music in the Classical and early Romantic eras, was often jettisoned in favor of short, free-form tone paintings (such as Chopin’s piano music) and “program music” which sought to depict some non-musical thing—a novel, a folk tale, a painting, etc.—in music, and which usually used the form of that non-musical thing as the sole template for the form for piece of music itself. Beethoven’s experiments with rhythm, subverting the listener’s expectations about where beats should fall, were carried on by Brahms and others. (One example of this rhythmic experimentation is the second movement of Beethoven’s 32nd and final Piano Sonata, parts of which can only be described as early 19th Century boogie-woogie.) These experiments became ever more daring, resulting, by the late 19th and early 20th Century, in many compositions in which any notion of key, form, or a clear beat were almost but not quite done away with altogether. The best examples of this are the previously mentioned French Impressionists, along with Austro-German post-Romantics like Gustav Mahler and Richard Strauss, and, before them, Richard Wagner and Franz Liszt. As an example, here is the first movement of Gustav Mahler’s Ninth Symphony from 1910:
In the early 1900s, a young Austrian composer named Arnold Schoenberg, who had previously hewed close to the highly chromatic but still basically tonal style of Strauss and Mahler, decided that the logical next step in the evolution of music was to do away altogether with the concepts and rules that his predecessors had bent and subverted. This resulted in a series of atonal works, where Schoenberg consciously set out, not just to bend those rules, but to abandon them completely. To illustrate, here is a movement (complete with ugly stage design!) from Schoenberg’s 1912 song cycle Pierrot Lunaire:
Note the lack of an identifiable key or beat (as opposed to the Mahler, which has both, albeit frequently subverted.) Note also that this is intentionally ugly, jarring, and unpleasant (again unlike the Mahler, which I find quite beautiful), as exemplified by the use of Sprechstimme, a combination of speech and song.
There’s a perhaps not insignificant similarity between Schoenberg’s view of music history and the Marxist view of history: The previous order has inevitably succumbed to its own internal contradictions, and must now be replaced, by a revolutionary vanguard, with something radically new. (Lest Kevin MacDonald fans jump down my throat for not doing so, I should mention in passing that Schoenberg, like many other Austro-German cultural radicals of the time, was Jewish.)
Although many dismissed Schoenberg as a madman, he also had his supporters, most notably his students Alban Berg and Anton Webern, who also started to compose atonal music under his (by all accounts stern) influence and tutelage. While Berg was generally less experimental than Schoenberg (listen, for example, to his beautiful Violin Concerto, which occupies a sort of no man’s land between tonality and atonality), Webern was generally more so. After a while, Schoenberg, worried by his atonal style’s lack of rules and structure, came up with the so-called twelve-tone system–or to use Schoenberg’s own catchy moniker, the “Method of Composing with Twelve Tones Which are Related Only with One Another,”–which (to simplify a bit) requires the composer to use all the twelve tones of the chromatic scale before he can use any one of them again. Since tonality is based on the privileging of certain tones over others, the twelve-tone method by its nature completely obliterates any sense of key.
Meanwhile in Russia, another hitherto Romantic young composer, Igor Stravinsky, composed the music for three ballets—The Firebird, Petrushka, and The Rite of Spring. Unlike Schoenberg, Stravinsky did not scrupulously avoid tonal centers, though he did do away with any formal division between consonance and dissonance, and used the orchestra in a new, percussive way. Also important for future developments was Stravinsky’s use of rhythm, which, taking its lead from the asymmetric accents of Russian folksong and the Russian language, grouped beats into irregular, odd-numbered groups rather than the threes and twos of conventional classical music. Here is the Dance of the Adolescents from The Rite of Spring, a famous example of Stravinsky’s irregular rhythms, percussive use of the orchestra, and liberal approach to dissonance:
Like with Schoenberg, opinion was sharply divided on Stravinsky. Some rejected him violently and completely (famously, a riot ensued at the premiere of The Rite of Spring), while others were intrigued by his innovations. His combination of nationalism and modernism, emphasizing the primitive, unconventional, and uncivilized aspects of the folk songs and folk tales he borrowed from, was particularly influential, and several others followed his example in this regard, notably Béla Bartók in Hungary and Geirr Tveitt in Norway.
In the years after the Second World War, modernism became the dominant style among European and American composers. The reasons for this were at least partly political. As Alex Ross describes in The Rest is Noise, tonality itself was considered “fascist” by many European (and especially German) composers of the post-WWII era. Like the rest of traditional European culture, the music of Beethoven, Bruckner, and Wagner, which had been hijacked by the Nazi propaganda machine, was considered an inevitable precursor to the Holocaust, and as such had to go. European composers, following the radical example of Schoenberg’s pupil Webern, turned toward an atonal style called “serialism,” carrying on the spirit of twelve-tone music by applying strict (if arguably arbitrary) rules, not only to melody and harmony, but also to rhythm, tone color, and every other aspect of music. Serialism took root not only in Europe, but in the United States as well, probably owing to the fact that many of the leading European modernists, including Schoenberg and Stravinsky, escaped to America around the outbreak of the Second World War. The result is an extremely complex, hyper-intellectual, meticulously constructed music which nevertheless sounds like random, ugly nonsense to any but the most sympathetic listener. Here, for example, is the first movement of the Second Piano Sonata of Pierre Boulez, a leading European serialist:
Beginning in the late 1950s and culminating in the 1970s, many young composers, especially in the United States, revolted against serialism, returning to tonality in various ways and to various degrees. This new anti-modernism remains the dominant tendency in American contemporary classically music today (in Europe, modernism is still not quite out of fashion), and can be broadly classified into three schools, with the usual warnings about oversimplification:
Minimalism came from the U.S., and for the most part stayed there. Owing as much to pop and Asian music as to the European classical tradition, minimalism reacted against the complexity and atonality of serialist music by focusing on the repetition of simple, tonal motives. Notable minimalists include the Americans Philip Glass, Steve Reich, and Terry Riley. While I find most early minimalist music dull and (sometimes literally) monotonous, I do enjoy some of the original minimalists’ more recent works. In the 70s and 80s, many began to consider minimalism a stylistic dead end, and moved on to
Postminimalism, a style that combines minimalism with new elements and greater variety. Postminimalism generally owes more to pre-modernist and proto-modernist European music than minimalism, though it is not averse to eclecticism. Like minimalism, it is mostly an American phenomenon. The most notable postminimalist is the American John Coolidge Adams.
Neoromanticism. A later development than postminimalism, neoromanticism combines the expressive palette of Romantic-era music with the extended tonality of early 20th-century composers like Stravinsky and Ravel, sometimes interspersed with lashings of more overt modernism. The character of neoromantic music varies from area to area. American neoromanticism, represented by such composers as David del Tredici, Richard Danielpour, Christopher Rouse, and—before them—Samuel Barber, is generally the most tonal of the bunch. Neoromantics in Britain, among them Nicholas Maw, Robin Holloway, James MacMillan, and (to a lesser extent) Oliver Knussen, generally owe more to the Second Viennese School’s expressionism (though they reject serialism), but also show a greater concern for form and thematic development. Neoromanticism on the European continent—which is particularly prominent in Germany, where it is represented by the likes of Wolfgang Rihm—usually toes the modernist line to a much greater extent; I admit to having very little liking for it.
It should be pointed out that the hegemony of modernism was never absolute. There were always a few stylistic reactionaries, usually scorned by modernist critics, who continued to compose music more or less free of ugliness. They were, among many others, the Englishmen Benjamin Britten, Ralph Vaughan Williams, and William Walton; the Russians Dmitri Shostakovich and Sergei Prokofiev; the Italian Ottorino Respighi; the Americans Aaron Copland, Samuel Barber, Leonard Bernstein, and Virgil Thomson; and the Hungarian Béla Bartók. There were also a few long-lived Romantics who survived into the age of modernism but kept composing in the old style. Three names are particularly worth mentioning here: Jean Sibelius from Finland (1865-1957), Sergei Rachmaninov from Russia (1873-1943), and Richard Strauss from Germany (1864-1949). I hope to cover all of these camps, from minimalists and neoromantics to old Romantics and neoclassicists, in the coming months.
With that said, let’s jump in. Today’s reactionary composer is the American David del Tredici (b. 1937), a neoromantic who has several Lewis Carroll-based compositions to his name, including the 1976 “concert opera” Final Alice. Here’s that work’s final movement, a setting of the acrostic poem at the end of Through the Looking-Glass, performed by soprano Hila Plitmann and the Detroit Symphony Orchestra under conductor Leonard Slatkin. (Be warned that there’s a noisy ad at the very beginning):