11. IS MUSIC STILL A GREAT ART?
I have tried to draw a picture of music today: of the intellectual,
expressionless, unemotional serious music and the wild, ranting popular variety.
Nobody would be so frivolous as to attribute the one to a mere whim and the
other to reprehensible speculation. In both there is the same compulsion
which has made the visual arts what they are today, and no disapproval can
alter it. Even if a symphony in pure C major could be written today the public,
indifferent to all types of new music, would reject it. I share the optimism
of the young that our new music is the best music that can be produced in
our time. There is no double-meaning or sarcasm in this statement. It is
my honest belief
We are all more or less convinced that mankind in general is steadily becoming
more and more efficient, if not necessarily better. Particularly since the
Second World War efficiency has made great strides, and even in the Far East
the age-old stagnation has been broken once and for all. The thinking man
may be tormented by the suspicion that too much knowledge inhibits wisdom.
But knowledge grows and accumulates inexorably, and never with greater fervour
than in our time.
Not so the arts, which long ago grew up to maturity and ever since then have
changed but not developed. It may be said that maturity in the arts is purely
external-mastery of the means, better chisels to work the stone, better colours
to paint with, a wider vocabulary and better syntax to express thoughts more
clearly and in greater detail. Once all this is achieved there are no more
worlds for the arts to conquer. Biology binds the present to the past, history
strives to cancel the past. It would be idle to compare Henry Moore with
Praxiteles, whose artistic experience is as unwelcome today as any artistic
experience of our time will be to future generations. In extreme periods
the arts behave as if they had no traditions at all.
Just as there is no process of development but only a process of change,
so there is no steady rate of advance either. Our comforts have increased
enormously in this twentieth century. Innumerable things, both large and
small, in our daily life are better, in the true sense of the word, than
they ever were before. But the brain which understands quantum mechanics
is in no way better than the brain which conceived the Metaphysics. Both
progress in our material life and change in the arts need inspiration; and
inspiration, which is derived from a variety of circumstances, is not always
the same, not always equally strong, not always aimed at the same objects
or at the same manner of expression. And as the arts, more than any other
human manifestation, are the work of pure inspiration, their quality and
standards vary from age to age. I have hinted at one reason for rising or
falling artistic standards: the balance between inspiration and skill. There
are others, too.
In the other arts those fluctuations in standard are instantly recognizable.
One has only to think of Elizabethan England and Philip's Spain, of France
under Louis XIV, of German literature in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth
centuries, and compare them with other periods, to find that it is not the
fortuitous appearance of one single genius which decides the level of an
art. At certain times a collective flowering of talent and ingenuity produces
a general climate wherein the arts thrive. At other times talent seems diffuse,
so that even the best cannot scale the highest peaks. This is no regular
or predictable rhythm. Beneath the surface of easy explanations, there are
deep and unexplored causes which raise the fateful question: how and when
does genius arise? Is it eternal and omnipresent, waiting for the propitious
moment to summon it forth, or is it created by favourable circumstances and
destroyed by adverse conditions?
The example of the other arts cannot easily be applied to music. I must again
revert to the strange phenomenon that for thousands of years we know little
more about it than that it did exist and enjoyed great respect and affection.
But we do not know the works of antiquity, or if we think we know them we
cannot appreciate them. What kind of music was taught in that music school
which is so minutely depicted on an Attic phial of the fourth century BC?
There can be no reasonable doubt that music, despite its divine origin and
the reverence which credited it with supernatural powers, did not produce
works which could compete in intention or achievement with the apparently
immortal works of poetry and the visual arts.
European man already had a rich artistic heritage when music first began
to emerge from that anonymity which is invariably a sure sign of imperfection.
Not until the twelfth and thirteenth centuries did the first uncertain outlines
of individual personalities become recognizable: the School of Notre Dame
in Paris, Leoninus and Perotinus the Great. From then on there developed
a craftsmanship which tends to make all music uniform.
In spite of the prestige which the music of the fifteenth and early sixteenth
centuries has acquired in our historically minded time, it was a craft, the
special craft of Lowlanders, not so very far removed from the special craft
of making swords and daggers in Damascus or Toledo. This music, consisting
of short, uniform, cleverly composed pieces, was a small art but a great
skill. It is worth remembering that the famous Binchois and still more famous
Dufay were contemporaries of Brunellesco and Donatello; and that Josquin
lived at the same time as Leonardo and Raphael. This shows the difference
in size and scope between the two arts. No historian can persuade us that
any work of these greatest composers of their time compares with the cupola
of Santa Maria del Fiore or Gattamelata's equestrian statue. Jacob Burckhardt
has called the figures in Leonardo's 'Last Supper' the first-born sons of
perfect art. Who could pay such a tribute to any of the music sung in Santa
Maria delle Grazie while Leonardo was painting his mural next door? At that
period-a time of widespread spiritual and artistic excitement-music was a
favourite pastime, one of the sophisticated amenities of the day. Vasari
recounts how Leonardo himself began to study music, and then took to the
lute, to the accompaniment of which he could improvise beautiful songs; or
how Giorgione enjoyed the pleasures of music, singing and playing so beautifully
that men of substance invited him to take part in their music festivals.
This is not the way of immortality.
Not until the middle of the sixteenth century was the first faint breath
of change felt in the art of music. Was it Arcadelt's 'Ave Maria', which,
three hundred years later, Liszt heard in Rome with such emotion? It is a
simple piece, indeed one of the simplest of the time, which in its thirty-three
bars (in modern notation) repeats five times a melodic phrase that has already
something of the purely melodic invention of later times. Or was Palestrina
the Beato Angelico of music, drawing the sweet face of a melody into the
rigid folds of counterpoint? At the end of the century there began the greatest
evolution in the history of music of which we have knowledge. We can read
how, in the seventeenth century, all the old artificiality was abandoned
piece by piece, how individuality superseded stereotyped convention, the
soloist emerged from the chorus, and instrumental music freed itself from
texts and words. This is no longer the music of craftsmen from the Lowlands.
It becomes Italian, it begins in that same Florence where, two hundred and
fifty years earlier, the brightest light of the Christian era had risen.
This may be mere coincidence but one would hesitate to call it chance that
it happened in Italy. For the spirit which created this new music was
mysteriously akin to the spirit of Italian Renaissance.
This great spectacle of a newly blossoming art has such striking similarities
with the development of the visual arts and poetry and learning that a comparison
reveals what we may call the 'mechanics' of the rise and fall of a spiritual
In the thirteenth century there is hardly any indication of a widespread
genius for the visual arts in any of the Italian cities and provinces. The
most accomplished works of Romanesque art, the Cathedral and Baptistry in
Pisa, are probably the work of northern artists, Gulielmus of Innsbruck and
Rainaldus Bonannus, artist-craftsmen of whom little more is known than their
unItalian names. Gothic art, a century later, also came from the north too,
mostly from France, but one of the few Italian artists, Arnolfo di Cambio,
gave it its first Italian flavour. With him, for no discernible reason, native
talent begins to stir. Cimabue is still in the shadows, but beneath the rigid
surface of his great Madonna in the Uffizi Gallery there are the first stirrings
of a new and mysterious life. She no longer gazes into space as her Byzantine
or Gothic predecessors did, but looks at you as if she wanted to say something
to you but could not find the words. Giotto stands on the very threshold
of this new life: here a figure lifts an arm, there it turns its head; here
is an expression of amazement, there a gesture of dismay. Did it happen because
the old authors were being read again? Because the Commedia Divina was being
passed from hand to hand? One would like to believe that the old tomes in
the Laurenziana, with their now illegible marginal notes, which were once
the treasured property of Cosimo the Elder, are the source of that flash
of lightning which split the darkness of conventional thinking. Yet the change
It remains as unexplained as the change in music nearly three hundred years
later, when Monteverdi discovered the individual human soul and stepped out
of the uniformity of mannered craftsmanship into nature and naturalness.
Conditions of life were not altogether favourable to either movement. In
the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries the visual arts-and poetry and
learning-grew up in the midst of wars and revolutions, acts of violence and
tyranny. General physical insecurity surrounded the greatest upsurge of the
European creative mind. But nothing, not even the recurrent outbreaks of
the Black Death, could halt it. The arts in general, and none more so than
painting, sculpture and architecture, are often accused of paying lip service
to money. Poverty, it is true, has no inclination for embellishing life with
unnecessary things, and architecture in particular needs munificent customers.
In fact there was money everywhere where the arts flourished.
Sometimes this connection between art and money is quite obvious: in Pisa,
for instance, the arts kept strict pace with the political and economic fortunes
of the republic, and the defeat of Meloria marks the end of Pisan art proper.
In Venice this was not so. When the arts there reached their peak the glory
of the city and the fortunes of its great merchants were on the wane. After
all, there were other countries and other places where there were money and
good living: Paris, Vienna, Madrid or Augsburg, but these stimulants did
not awaken the arts. What became a truly popular movement in Italy remained
the private parish of a few artists and patrons north of the Alps. Perhaps
the same urge which kindled enthusiasm for the arts in Italy produced the
religious reformation in the North. Money may therefore be the necessary
catalyst which brings enthusiasm and the arts together. The otherwise faintly
disreputable soldiers of fortune in Italy, the signori and condottieri, the
merchants and bankers, were not only ruthless and rapacious but also intent
on surrounding themselves with artists and poets and scholars, so that between
wars and business they might discuss with them the latest trends in art and
learning, have palaces and churches built in the latest style, cover the
walls with murals and pictures and fill their halls and gardens with sculptures.
Today, when such private enthusiasts have vanished and the public treasury
is plagued with hundreds of more practical and more important demands, it
all sounds like a fairy-tale. But it created an atmosphere which reached
into even the humblest dwellings.
On the other hand the genius for music was awakened in the conditions which
are traditionally held responsible for the decline of the visual arts in
Italy: the loss of national independence, the Spanish occupation, the
counter-reformation. Everything which is said to have killed the one brought
the other to life. This alone must point to a fundamental difference between
music and the other arts. Whatever this difference may be, music is more
self-sufficient and less demanding than the visual arts. But there must have
been something that encouraged it-something that fired musical ingenuity.
For the first time it achieved equality with the other arts.
This did not happen overnight, just as the Renaissance in Italy did not develop
in one single generation. Both rose from a hesitant beginning to become a
veritable flood of enthusiasm and achievement. In the visual arts there were
at first a few masters tilling virgin soil. From generation to generation
their numbers grew until they became an army, dozens of men of genius and
hundreds of men of great talent, scattering the immeasurable treasure of
their works all over the Western world. So deep into the constitution of
men does this unexpected gift spread that, in the visual arts, it passed
from fathers to sons, brothers, nephews, to whole families such as the Vivarinis,
Bellinis, Robbias, Lombardis, Pollaiuolos, Ghirlandaios and Lippis and many
others. Musical talent does not seem to have been so hereditary, and cases
are rarer. The Bach family are the outstanding example, but it also happened
with the Couperins and Scarlattis and with the Johann Strauss family.
In the seventeenth century it is music which, like the visual arts in the
fifteenth, attracted the men of genius and talent. At the end of that century
Italy was overflowing with music and musical enterprise-overflowing in the
true sense, because music now captured the imagination of all Europe. Musicians
from the North came to Italy in large numbers to learn this new music, Heinrich
Schutz and later Handel among them. Italian musicians were to be found at
European courts from Paris to St Petersburg. In the eighteenth century there
were as many great composers as there were painters in the sixteenth. Was
this new outburst of talent in one particular art not some kind of miracle?
What brought it about? What created the public enthusiasm which accompanied
it. Again, there is nothing in the environment to explain it. This was not
an exceptionally prosperous or contented time. One can search in vain for
any special conditions of life in those days which could be said to have
promoted the musical gift. There was no material inducement such as, two
hundred years before, had led even minor talents to painting or sculpture.
The composer in those days never rose to the importance and opulence of his
Renaissance colleagues, and a genius like Vivaldi could lie in an unknown
grave while Michelangelo's remains were treated like those of a saint or
Since then life and art have changed beyond description, but the excitement
of these two great movements can still be felt and their light glows on the
horizon of our existence. Every year thousands of people make the pilgrimage
to those places where the revelation of the arts took place. A large industry
has developed out of this latter-day reverence. A whole vocabulary of
unforgettable gestures, postures, faces and expressions has engraved itself
upon the European mind and has withstood all the changes of time and taste.
And likewise the music of that glorious time fills the concert-halls and
opera-houses of the world. It lives with us and is as familiar to us as if
it expressed our own feelings no less than those of its first listeners and
performers. It still seems natural to us although, as in the visual arts
at their greatest period, the precious moment of first achievement is lost
We know, by comparing Renaissance art with the art of preceding and following
periods, which qualities the arts had to acquire in order to become as great
as they were at their best in the first quarter of the sixteenth century
and which qualities they had to lose in order to decline again.
Which then are the qualities that music had to assume in order to achieve
equality with the other arts, in order to rise from small beginnings and
become a 'great' art, creating works destined not only for the moment but
for the future of mankind.
The first step, no doubt, was the abandonment of an overcomplicated technique
and a concentration on the contents-a simplification of 'how' and intensification
of 'what'. Although there is only an ephemeral similarity between music and
language the simplification of musical expression seems to correspond to
a process philologists believe they can observe with languages. Modern philology
says that simplicity of grammar is a sign of perfection. The language of
the Eskimos is called primitive because it is complicated, using, for instance,
different forms of a verb to indicate whether a man is alone or in the company
of others; whether he is standing on a hill or on a plain, while the English
language, with an almost rudimentary grammar, is capable of expressing the
most difficult thoughts or observations in the shortest and most precise
manner. Similarly, music escaped from an involved grammar and so could become
simple and beautiful. This is the problem Italian music set itself in the
seventeenth century, when it shed its contrapuntal complications and increasingly
surrendered to the sheer beauty of sound. It entered the eighteenth century
in full possession of a new and original power: from the melos of former
times it had distilled 'melody'.
This new-found melody is, I believe, the greatest invention of musical genius.
It is a purely musical creation, in the real meaning of the word-that is
to say, something which does not exist unless and until it is created. Melody
is the purest thing in all music. Rhythm depends on the experience of the
surrounding world. It is an exaggeration or regularization or, if you will,
a sublimation of noise-patterns, or instinctive or observed movements, of
language itself. The web of juxtaposed or imitating parts is an intellectual
game, as Leibniz described it. Harmony is governed by the natural phenomenon
of proportionate oscillations. But melody has no model, no example in the
external world, not even in bird-song. It is the free creation of the human
mind and does not need the crutches of a text or the erudition of a difficult
technique. For the first time in its history melody introduced free and
unfettered imagination into music, an imagination akin to that which created
Dante's Paradise or Botticelli's 'Primavera'.
Nothing in Western music fills me with greater admiration than this. Its
discovery did not merely affect music as the discovery of such technical
aids as perspective or oil painting or the study of anatomy affected painting
and sculpture; it was the discovery of a new world. In the light of the music
of the last fifty years, this may sound almost childish. But the significance
of melody in European music was immeasurable: it introduced the individual
into music. And in all European art it has always been the individual, not
the type, which is capable of greatness. This is one of the great dividing-lines
between the European and the non-European minds which, if carefully followed
through the history of public and private life, may explain the cultural,
ethical, and political supremacy of European man. Longer than any other art
music seemed to have been held down by the 'type', but melody eventually
made the art grow in stature and importance and filled it with a new creative
impulse and a new joy in itself.
In the north people watched with misgiving as all the learning disappeared
from music. To many it seemed that it was losing its seriousness, that it
was about to be debased by free and easy living. Even with Richard Wagner
one can hear the echo of these old objections. But while Handel came back
from Italy a different man, the works of the greatest composer of that crucial
period, J. S. Bach, who never knew Italy and the Italian masters of his time,
display the struggle between old and new music in a dramatic manner. There
are his well-known exercises in pure beauty, where part-writing recedes into
the background (though without being forsaken altogether), and other pieces-and
they are the majority-where the old craftsmanship is developed to perfection,
reducing inspiration to invention. Between those two extreme types there
are many pieces, such as the organ fugue in G minor, where a fugal theme
becomes a 'fugal melody'. Like many old musicians in our own time Bach, at
the end of his life, turned away from all the new music. I have said before
that his 'Art of Fugue' was the legacy of 'old' music. New music rejected
Hindemith once expressed his regret that there was no textbook on melody
similar to those on harmony or counterpoint. But melodies are born and not
made, there is no rule or recipe, they spring from that much maligned inspiration
which can neither be taught nor learned. But listen to the unaccompanied
cor anglais in the third act of Tristan, the 'sad tune'. It is so eloquent
that it makes all explanation superfluous.
The listeners to that new Italian music soon felt the change. Greater and
lesser princes and noblemen dispensed with their court poets and reduced
their court painters to portraitists, for practical rather than artistic
purposes, but they engaged court musicians. A steadily rising passion for
music, fed by an ever-increasing stream of new works, spread all over Europe.
As the visual arts had in the sixteenth century, so music in all its forms
became the favourite art in the eighteenth.
This must have been a great encouragement for the further development of
new music. Up to and including J. S. Bach and his Italian contemporaries
every piece of music was monothematic and avoided all contrast. The rule
was to elaborate the one subject, and when this was done the piece came to
its natural conclusion. This kept the individual piece rather short and concise.
But even the conservative Bach tried his hand at the combination of several,
though not sharply contrasting, subjects in the same piece and his works
grew more extensive, as for example the 188 bars of the organ prelude in
E flat. Only when the subject or theme became a real melody did contrast
find its proper place and justification. Italian composers then turned almost
exclusively to opera, discovering and exploiting the capacity of new music
to be 'characteristic'. They added many new shades and facets to melody proper,
while in the North 'absolute' instrumental music grew and developed. In the
last quarter of the eighteenth century a new balance between inspiration
and craftsmanship was found-the right balance as we, with our knowledge of
its results, are entitled to say. It was a precious, irretrievable moment.
Then, just as Michelangelo had come to the visual arts three centuries before,
came Beethoven, the man of destiny. In his hands music acquired yet another
unexpected quality which confirmed it as a 'great' art, capable of expressing
great emotions and great ideas, however vague. This latest acquisition was
monumentality: of thought, conception and size. Beethoven's music is amazingly
expansive. The dimension of his works is no longer achieved by the uniform
pattern of sequences which, in Baroque music, remain on the same level of
expression. With Beethoven the length of a work is determined by an increase
in expression, feeling or temperature. His 'Eroica' of I 804 is, compared
with all preceding music, a real monstrosity, reminiscent of Michelangelo's
athletic supermen. Such increase and intensification become the essential
elements of Wagner's gigantic music dramas, of Mahler's gigantic symphonies,
introducing the gigantic into music, a striking departure from its old
'miniature' world', small in scope and size. Even in Beethoven's Opus 7 of
1797 a phrase of ominous import raises a warning finger. This E flat minor
phrase recurs in the music of the following century in innumerable variants,
just as the gesture of the Eternal Judge in Michelangelo's 'Last Judgement'
is repeated in painting and sculpture over and over again. With it, something
dangerous crept into music, something which Haydn had already foreseen. Nothing
shows the spirit of this new music more clearly than Beethoven's enormous
fugues, where no breath of the old masters is felt.
It is a matter of taste rather than objective judgement where one believes
that the summit of an epoch in the arts is to be found, in Raphael or
Michelangelo, in Mozart or Beethoven. For me it is in the Magic Teyte, where
inspiration and the 'science of composition' enter into an ideal communion,
where melody is of the purest beauty and greatness not yet monumentality.
With Mozart and Beethoven music reached a state of perfection comparable
to that of the visual arts in Raphael's Vatican frescoes and Michelangelo's
Sistine ceiling. The contemporaries of either may not have been as aware
of it as we are, and may have expected that the arts would for ever remain
on that exalted level. But they did not and could not.
Jacob Burckhardt says, perhaps too severely, that after Raphael's death in
I520 no other perfect work of art emerged. There were still great works to
come, the terribilita of Michelangelo's 'Last Judgement' and others. But
it is certain that by the middle of the sixteenth century the flower began
to wither, that the former revelation became mere mannerism. All the groupings,
gestures and postures, all the effects of light and shade, the facial expressions
and the drapery, were exhausted. It is as if Michelangelo (and Beethoven
after him) had led art into a cul-de-sac. Around him the once mighty flood
began to slacken and general interest grew weary, as if in secret understanding
with the spirit of decline. The once clear lines of the design began to be
twisted out of shape, greatness became grandiloquence, inner feeling became
outward decoration. Again, like a natural phenomenon, within fifty years
of Michelangelo's death, the rich abundance of the previous hundred years
had disappeared. There are still a few great names, but would one seriously
place Guido Reni on the same level as Raphael or compare Bernini with
Michelangelo? Italian genius vanished as mysteriously as it had come. The
curtain falls, the great spectacle is over. The day is not far distant when
the impoverished descendants of the patrons of the art will sell their treasures
abroad to fill other palaces and future art galleries.
One would have thought that the talent so widely spread over the whole of
Italy, from Como to Messina, and proved by thousands of major and minor works
by hundreds of major and minor masters, was inherent, a phenomenon of biology
that could never again be lost entirely. But, as Professor Collingwood so
rightly observed, art is not inherent, but conditioned by all those facts
and their inscrutable, cumulative effect which are understood under the
collective name of 'history'. And never again have the arts risen in Italy
to any comparable level. Respectable artists were to come, great virtuosos
such as Tiepolo, but none of them had the attraction, the panache of their
greater predecessors. It was to be the turn of the Dutch and the Flemish.
More precisely than the Italian Renaissance this much shorter artistic upsurge
coincided with political and economic prosperity and produced a bourgeois
art of landscapes, genre pieces, still lives and portraits of municipal
dignitaries centred around the Italian-trained virtuosity of Rubens and disturbed
only by Rembrandt's daemonic personality. Concentrated as it was in a small
strip of land, among a small number of people, it is not surprising that
it vanished without trace.
All this is not without precedent. In their own time the Chinese, Indians
and Arabs lost their intellectual and artistic powers. So the question remains
unanswered: is genius always dormant, ready to emerge, or are there times
when it does not exist at all? The present day is not the time for great
artistic ventures, and no genius could force them upon us. We need roads
and schools, factories and hospitals, machines and yet more machines. And
even the avant-garde artist finds himself in the arriere-garde of modern
But most of the shoes the world is wearing, many of the cars the world is
driving, new fashions in pullovers and cardigans, are all designed by Italians.
Perhaps, in these materialistic times, one should look for minor manifestations
to discover the faint glow of some imperishable gift awaiting another chance?
I have dwelt at some length on the visual arts at a crucial time in history,
because here was a rise and decline which is most fully recorded and known
to us in every detail. In the field of the arts the events were as momentous
as the fall of the Roman, Spanish or, more recently, British Empires were
in the political field. Even Vasari, when he published the second edition
of his Vite in 1568, could not have believed that it was possible.
How does it all compare with events in music?
With his late works, with the Ninth, the Missa Solemnis, and the last string
quartets, Beethoven passed the crest of the musical art. There is a certain
snobbery which rates the works of his last years higher than those of his
'middle period', the 'Eroica', the Rasoumovsky quartets, the Violin Concerto.
I certainly have no wish to decry the last works. There are movements in
almost any of them which belong to the greatest achievements of music. But
spiritual and technical difficulty are not necessarily signs of accomplishment.
These works brought a new spirit into music, just as Michelangelo's Library
in Florence introduced a new and destructive spirit into the arts And indeed,
what happened to music during and after Beethoven's life was exaggeration,
exaggeration of melody, expression and dimension which disturbed the classical
balance. In Italy, with Rossini, Bellini, and Donizetti, musical 'science'
is reduced to a mere shadow, and unbridled melody becomes almost immorally
beautiful in its best moments and trivial in its worst. North of the Alps,
romanticism drove expression to extremes, depriving literature of subjects
and inspiration which it could no longer satisfy in itself. With Wagner music
became an inflated monster feeling itself to be and presenting itself as
the crowning of all the arts, the Gesamtkunstwerk. All this is no longer
the language of the Golden Age but, as Burckhardt said of Baroque art, a
barbarous dialect. Brahms may have tried to stem the tide, but it was too
late. The century after Mozart could do no more than squander its rich heritage.
But music led a high life. It outpaced all the other arts. The whole of Europe
revelled in it and found its greatest sensations in it and in its colourful
artists. Opera in particular became a major entertainment, better and bigger
than anything literature or the visual arts had to offer. There was a general
clamour for new and yet more new music which, in retrospect, far exceeded
the supply of good works. Those were the days when the great virtuosos, the
great singers and performers and eventually the great conductors achieved
almost greater honours and commanded more respect than the composers themselves.
In the end it seemed to be too much. People grew tired of gross pleasure,
of beauty and monumentality and uninhibited expression. What had made music
a great art ended up, as Paul Dukas said, in Ravel's refinement and Stravinsky's
boldness which, he thought, could not be surpassed. Wagner had dreamed of
a 'music of the future'. At the end of the century there were wicked thoughts
about a 'rejuvenation' of music. It was inevitable: music was no longer satisfied
with itself After Tristan it could not continue in its old ways.
And it did not. Almost before our eyes music has foresworn everything that
raised it from the old insignificance to the greatness of the late eighteenth
and early nineteenth centuries, when it was capable of great works and great
designs. It first lost its equilibrium by breaking all the rules, then it
swung back and barricaded itself behind a wall of still harder rules which
restricted scope and size as they had done five centuries earlier. Melody
was lost in the process, although Schoenberg insisted that his music was
melodious and Alban Berg wrote that twelve-note music, 'like any other music',
was based on melody, on the leading voice, on the theme. But leading voice
and theme belong to another category than melody, which is as unmistakable
as it is indefinable. With melody went contrast, and the new works contracted
in size, as Webern most convincingly demonstrated.
The works of new music are once again short, like those of 'old' music. When
a composer of the avant-garde tries to write a long piece, such as Stockhausen's
'Gruppen', it is only long for no obvious reason. It does not have the continuity
which requires length; it could stop at any moment without seeming abrupt
or could continue for much longer without necessity. But the desire for long
works is rare in new music and new composers resolutely face the consequences
of new techniques and a new spirit. This new spirit is, however, new only
by comparison with the spirit of music as it has developed in the last two
hundred years. And quite consistently this old new spirit brought with it
the old objectivity. With Beethoven music had become a highly personal means
of expression, with Tristan an obtrusive self-confession. But new music gives
away nothing of its creator save his cleverness and his intellectual powers,
just as it did before the Golden Age. 'Music should express nothing but itself,?
said Stravinsky, and the 'old' masters would heartily agree with him. This
does not prevent an innovator such as Boulez from explaining how, in his
'Improvisation No. 2 sur Mallarme', a lace curtain is represented by the
coloraturas of the soprano and its reflexion in the window by the 'glassy'
sound of celesta, vibraphone and harp, which is no more than a sophistication
of Haydn's often ridiculed musical descriptions of rain and snow, of proud
eagles in the sky and great whales in the sea.
One might feel some disappointment at this development. When Debussy showed
how music could be written after and in spite of Wagner the world was justified
in believing that a new era of great music, perhaps a new Golden Age, was
about to begin. The obvious kinship between Debussy's music and the great
upsurge of French painting and poetry seemed to disclose new rich sources
for all the arts. Now, fifty years after Debussy's death, we have to admit
that what we took for a promising dawn was a glorious sunset. Stravinsky,
on the other hand, never promised more than a complete and ruthless change.
So the historic mission devolved on Anton Webern, who, in the critical years,
might have been overlooked altogether. But, as I have said before, the destinies
of an art do not depend on one single genius. The whole edifice of music
had to be brought down so that new music could build its own home. To this
destruction all the composers since Beethoven in his last period have
contributed, Richard Strauss as well as Stravinsky, Debussy as well as
Schoenberg. It was the sustained effort of a century.
This, then, is the point at which new music has arrived: it is again a small
art, an art of complicated structures for their own sake. The lofty purpose
of the Golden Age has been lost. To calculate intervals or to have the
probabilities of a given tone-row calculated by a computer or to improvise
noises are not the subjects of a great art. And with almost mathematical
exactitude the vast public turns away from its new music and assumes an attitude
of complete indifference. It is frightening to see how very few works written
in the last fifty years have become as familiar with music-lovers as the
hundreds of works of the Golden Age from J. S. Bach to Beethoven.
How well the average music-lover of the nineteenth century knew 'his' music
and how little he knows about 'his' music now! Even the greatest names of
our time seem pale compared with the great names of a hundred or a hundred
and fifty years ago. 'The time of great masterpieces is over,' wrote the
often-quoted Boulez, meaning both old and new masterworks which everybody
who claims to have any knowledge of music should know intimately.
It is a striking-and strikingly contradictory-coincidence that in the midst
of all the new and easy methods of listening a kind of music is being created
which tells the listener so little about itself. It must be realized that
music has never before found more favourable conditions: it enjoys a highly
refined and effective system of protection which is widely held to be an
encouragement of the art; it is preservable and transportable and, therefore,
more easily accessible than ever before; and, last but not least, the Western
world is very prosperous and music is an important item in the budgets of
the individual and of the community. There is nothing in the visible
circumstances of life that could justify a decline of the art. But music
has declined, however harsh, however unbelievable it may sound.
If external conditions tend to make the composer comfortable, there must
be internal causes which make him uncomfortable. Our age is commonly and
perhaps somewhat summarily called the 'technological age', which hints at
materialism too. There were in the known history of man certain periods which
produced certain popular tendencies or propensities. At times people were
given to religious meditation or fascinated by the arts, there were mass
passions for charity or nationalism and all of them were more than the mere
quirks of a leader. Now it is 'technology', the impact of the most adventurous
discoveries and inventions man has ever made within the short space of less
than two generations. Technology, which embraces every aspect of scientific
research and application, is an irresistible attraction. It opens a new world
with the expectation of large monetary rewards, it has every quality of
attracting the best brains, the most fertile minds. But the whole demonology
of the human race, religion, and the arts, has been left behind by this world
of bold but closely calculated projects.
Narrative or descriptive literature flourishes to some extent, perhaps because
the problem of existence in the midst of all this 'technology' is an
inexhaustible topic for discussion, though discussion may not have advanced
far enough to bring about such final results as are required to produce a
lasting masterpiece. But poetry in the narrower sense has become very scarce.
There seems to be as little inclination for writing it as there is for reading
it. It may be too personal, too individual for an age which has robbed
individuality of much of its former relevance. Everywhere (and nowhere more
than in the arts) individuality seems to be withdrawing behind a shield of
It is equally hard for the visual arts to make proper contact with the times.
Enormous demands are being made on architecture. Whole towns are being built
or rebuilt, with all the old requisites of private dwellings and public
buildings, theatres, concert-halls and sports arenas. But the artistic use
which architecture is making of these unique opportunities is astonishingly
small. New architecture is striving to make buildings and designs 'functional',
and this accounts for the uniformity, for the narrow orbit within which
imagination can move. Where the function of a building is not practical,
with churches for example, or theatres, this new architecture is, as I have
said before, embarrassed, as embarrassed as painting and sculpture are today.
It is not incompetence which throws a few blobs of colour onto a canvas or
transforms a shapeless block of stone into a different but equally shapeless
block, but perplexity. There is much to think about in this brave world of
ours but little that is worth seeing. There is a fatal consistency in the
endeavour of the visual arts to free themselves from the visible. But they
are and remain chained to the world of shapes and colours, real or imaginary.
This is their great problem, which prevents them from creating works of lasting
merit, and explains their difficulty in communicating with a larger public.
And, other things being equal, this is the problem of new music, which cares
so little for sound and so much for intellectual effort; for music is and
remains an acoustic phenomenon. There are frequent congresses of composers
and experts of new music which discuss the burning question of musical creation
and communication in our time. Such a congress recently dealt with the theme:
'Does the composer need the public? Does the public need the composer?' More
correctly formulated the question should have read: 'Do we need new music?'
Then the answer could have been an unequivocal 'Yes', instead of the
time-honoured hope that later generations may appreciate the present struggle
and its achievement. If after half a century new music is still outside the
main stream of musical life, the inescapable conclusion is that it has not
created masterpieces which could compare with those of the Golden Age. There
is no reason to believe, there is indeed no indication, that the new music
of our time in its most outstanding manifestations is not masterly within
the limitations imposed upon it by all the known and unknown conditions of
our spiritual existence. But ours is a post-Periclean, post-Augustan age
and while the best works of new music are undoubtedly the best that can be
written today they are not the best ever.
It seems that at least some of the theorists are beginning to realize this
inherent imperfection. They speak of the 'chaos of the material' confronting
the composer today, meaning the chaos of sounds or noises, the raw material
of music. They speak of an experimental stage, which every unbiased listener
or student of new music will readily confirm. But experiment alone will not
solve the problems which are now facing music. Something must have thrown
into chaos what at the beginning of our century seemed a reliable order.
Something must have rendered the experience of our fathers invalid and
inapplicable and must have sent a new generation forward on its road to the
unknown. This something, this malaise, must be overcome before chaos reverts
to order and experiments become successful. This does not and cannot mean
that we shall ever return to the old order. Mankind has never returned to
the abandoned dwellings of the past. But we must accept that, with all the
present-day experiments groping in the dark, the new order is nowhere in
The public, as a supreme and incorruptible judge, senses this experiment
with unerring instinct and will have no part of it. It cannot be expected
to follow, to encourage or to like it. Nothing less than achievement will
kindle its enthusiasm and secure its approval. Until it is presented with
positive achievements, it will remain as indifferent as it is today.
It may be said that I am dismissing my readers with cold comfort But when
I said before that our new music is neither the salvation nor the destruction
of music I expressed my belief that one day mankind will regain its inner
balance, which is the precondition of any self-assured art. It may be hard
to be patient, so far as the arts are concerned, in an impatient, militant
age. But patient we have to be. It would be disastrously wrong to discourage
the experiment, the desire to come to terms with the times and with ourselves.
If the urge to create were lost, however adverse the conditions, all art,
old and new, would be lost with it. The true merit of experimental new music
is not to be found in its results, which may be no more than documents of
the struggle, but in its endeavour. For all hope for the future lies in the
quest of today.