Music between the wars was distinguished by its lack of a common style. If
it can be dated with a fair degree of accuracy today the criteria are still
rather negative: the absence of old-established rules, phrases and turns,
rather than any common positive feature, assigns it to its proper place in
the calendar of the art. Ravel, Richard Strauss, Stravinsky, Falla, Bartok,
Hindemith, Schoenberg are all individually recognizable and hence datable.
Where there are no common rules individuality becomes the only guide. Moreover,
politics took it upon itself to govern not only public and private life but
art as well. It decreed what was healthy art and what was degenerate, and
in spite of the different nomenclature the ideas were astonishingly similar.
What was called 'cultural bolshevism' on one side was called 'cultural
capitalism' on the other. And new music was burnt at the stake. War broke
out again and this time it did not come as a surprise. It seemed to be the
end of everything.
But when the last bombs had fallen and the dust of ruined cities had settled
new music rose like a phoenix from the ashes. It was like a miracle.
How it came about that the new teaching, now more than twenty-five years
old and represented only by a mere handful of convincing works, was re-examined
and resuscitated will probably never be known. Resurrection did not begin
in the United States where Schoenberg himself was teaching and composing-it
was rather the younger generations of Germany, France and Italy which awakened
to the uncomfortable feeling that the world had left them behind. Or had
the knowledge imperceptibly seeped through the cracks of consciousness in
spite of war and persecution? Although material destruction in the Second
World War exceeded all experience confusion was not as great as it had been
after the First. There was not the same dangerous trend towards anarchy,
and everything old was so remote and so disgraced that it did not irritate
the present. Enough that submerged Atlantis rose to the surface again; only
then did the teaching of twelve-note music spread and cease to be the exclusive
practice of a black brigade.
The starting-point, however, was not the father and creator of the movement
but the less successful and-one would have thought-largely forgotten Anton
Webern. He alone of the whole school had resolutely turned away from the
past; in him alone the new technique had also produced a new attitude. In
his soft sighs there was not a breath of tradition or convention, while
Schoenberg's Moses and Aaron was still written and felt in the shadow of
Tristan. Both Schoenberg and Webern have orchestrated a work by J. S. Bach:
Schoenberg the organ prelude and fugue in E flat major, Webern the 'Ricercare'
from the 'Musical Offering'. The choice is characteristic of their different
moods, and the results even more so. Schoenberg tried to produce the sound
of a super-organ with a large orchestra, so much so that one might ask what
purpose such orchestration could serve. Webern's score, on the other hand,
looks like any other of Webern's scores. He dissolves Bach's closely-knit
parts into a widespread diaphanous tissue, translating Bach into an entirely
different world-Webern's world. 'Every work of Webern's is like a finely-cut
diamond,' Stravinsky once said to me; not the Koh-i-noor or the Star of Africa,
it is true, but a flawless splinter which, under the magnifying-glass of
loving study, may even sparkle.
It has rarely happened that an artistic turning-point has been so clearly
discernible. Fundamental changes usually develop step by step over a considerable
period of time, and new attitudes are not normally found within one generation.
But here was Webern accomplishing it alone and leaving his pacemaker far
behind, not by merely implementing the new theory but by giving music a new
Such a turning-point is also a moment of truth for every honest music-lover.
I have said before that it is not easy to determine exactly the point where
I could no longer follow the development. I had no difficulty with the music
of the masters between the wars. This was in the true sense 'la musica a'
miei tempi'. I could familiarize myself with the music of Ravel almost as
closely as with the music of Brahms. Access to twelve-note music was much
more difficult. The vocal score of Wozzeck, for example, conveyed to the
player little of the actual sound of the music. One had to hear it and hear
it again, and I found that it left a vivid and detailed memory sufficient
to reconstruct it when playing from the score. This brought Alban Berg's
music within the reach of my understanding.
'Understanding' of music is a rather vague conception, just as vague as the
'meaning' of the music which is to be understood. To understand the technique,
to know how it is done, though indispensable for the composer, is irrelevant
for the listener. In the last resort understanding of music is no more than
a feeling of satisfaction and a desire to hear the piece again. Intimate
knowledge of the music itself may find more detailed justification for such
satisfaction; for example, the change of key from the dark E flat major to
D major when Don Ottavio and Donna Anna enter with lights in the sextet in
the second act of Don Giovanni. This is only one of thousands of such major
and minor features which strike the listener, even if he does not know exactly
why. However, it is only natural that a new work is not so readily understood
at a first hearing. I remember how I detested the first of Beethoven's piano
sonatas, Opus 2, No. I, after having spent my first four years at the piano
with Diabelli, Clementi, Kuhlau, Haydn and Mozart.
If I could, though with some difficulty, follow Alban Berg's music without
being troubled by many doubts, I could not say the same of Schonberg's. None
of his earlier works-Verklarte Nacht, Pelleas, the First Chamber Symphony
seemed to compare favourably with Debussy or Richard Strauss, nor could
'Gurre-Lieder' stand up to Gustav Mahler. Nothing he wrote seemed to have
the vigour of Stravinsky's Petrushka or Rite or the wit of Pulcinella. Pierrot
lunaire appeared to me as an oversophisticated and pretentious attempt at
reviving the long-buried 'melodrama'. But it had a peculiar fascination which
did not fade with repeated hearings, and if I could not share it at least
it made me appreciate the admiration the work commanded in progressive circles.
I was all the more surprised to find it 'dated' when I heard it again towards
the end of the war after an intenal of ten years. It had lost the excitement
of novelty and did not seem to have that enduring quality. I fared better
with the Five Orchestral Pieces, Op. 16, though they seem to be more a 'serenade'
of the old music rather than an 'aubade' of the new. However, with the Wind
Quintet, Op. 26, and the Piano Pieces, Op. 33, over which I toiled for many
months, I found myself quite out of touch.
No wonder that Webern's music remained outside my understanding. It made
no difference that I forced myself to analyse various of his works, and
particularly the Symphony, in order to learn from analysis what I could not
learn from listening-and opportunities of hearing Webern's works were rare.
But I could not discover the inner urge which created this music nor the
desire of the listener which it should satisfy. Inner urge and satisfaction
are not out-moded notions like feeling and expression. Without them every
art is homeless, even senseless. Among the arts music is a 'useless' thing,
which neither educates nor informs nor serves as a permanent decoration.
If a man decides to spend his precious days in writing music he must be driven
by an irresistible compulsion. If I am to understand his work properly, and
not only in a peripheral, technical sense, my desire for it must be akin
to the creative urge. And as music can have no other purpose it depends more
than the other arts on this urge and this desire. This, I believe, was the
origin of anonymous, spontaneous folk music, when creative urge and understanding
desire were the common property of a whole nation or community. Folk music
is gone, buried and forgotten, and the creative urge has become personal
and individual. But it must exist as long as music is invented and required,
with Webern as well as with his contemporaries and predecessors. The result,
however, is overwhelmingly different from everything that happened before.
Before Webern music unfolded; with him it shrinks. Before him music strove
for greatness, monumentality; Gustav Mahler, from whom the whole Schoenberg
school received much encouragement, could not overinflate music. With Webern,
musical content is concentrated, its inner urge exhausted in a few bars,
in a breath. After the colossal painting, the miniature.
I can feel all the ancient objections rearing their ugly heads. I have the
uncomfortable suspicion that Webern's works are most important aphorisms,
the meaning of which I cannot discover; that in his highly organized microcosms
a universe lies hidden which I cannot approach. I might be happier if I did
not try to listen to his works, because the acoustic phenomenon tends to
obscure the finely chiselled structures. In his last years Webern himself
did not care for performances, saying, somewhat cryptically, that the sound
was ever-present. But I cannot do without the old-fashioned desire to hear
As Webern is the true patriarch of our new music I have to admit that I do
not possess the key to its understanding. What am I to do? Should I join
the ranks of those who write books to prove the invalidity of this new music,
and quote what the Patriarch of Jerusalem said eight hundred years ago about
the royal house of Anjou: 'De diabolo venerunt, ad diabolum ibunt'?
I am convinced that Webern and his followers had to compose as he did and
as they are doing, and that their music is inevitable. But I feel entitled
to regret it, as I regret many other things that are happening today. I do
not love this new music and I do not hate it. I do not believe that it is
the final redemption of the art, nor its final destruction.
I know that this is a peculiarly qualified conservative or progressive view.
If one considers the new to be inevitable one ought to love it, and if one
does not love it one should not accept it as inevitable. From an abstract
moral point of view everyone should have the courage of his convictions and
make his own perceptive powers the general yardstick. But these last fifty
years have ridden roughshod over all those who used every device of logical
argument to try to arrest the change or give it the direction which they
thought it should have. Convincing proof of inevitability is very rare. The
bare fact of a change's taking place is its justification. All respectable
people, the man in the street as well as the physicist, philosopher or statesman,
would agree that the atom bomb should never have been invented, constructed
and used. But it happened, and the bomb with its all-destructive power is
being improved every day.
If I may compare the great with the small, the great wickedness with the
small virtue, then I find that same fatalism in our music. I have witnessed
innumerable cases where young people brought up in the strictest tradition
in academies and conservatoires began to compose twelve-note or serial music
as soon as they left them. Who taught them to do it? What attracted them
to abandon all the comfort of old rules and proved effects? When, a few years
ago, I met Bohuslav Martinu in Rome, where he had a teaching grant at the
American Academy, he laughed when I asked whether he was very busy. 'This
time I really have been lucky,' he said. 'Six young Americans came and asked
me to teach them serial composition. When I told them that I knew nothing
about it they went away and I have not seen them since. So I sit in that
marvellous Villa Doria Pamphili and compose.' It is certainly not true that
these young men necessarily have more talent than their elderly teachers,
but they have the instinct of the present and little love of the past which
makes them feel superior. As perhaps never before, music today is the epitome
in sound of the glory and the misery of the time which produces it. Only
in the context of the time, of its moods and its trends, can it be approached