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by Frank T. Manheim


Frank Manheim

Noted U.S. music critic and composer, Greg Sandow, has made the point in articles in Symphony Magazine that contemporary "classical" composers, with the exception of Philip Glass in his Einstein on the Beach, just haven't created much public interest. Only peer professionals and a small circle of cognoscenti are really interested in world premieres of new compositions. In America even celebrated  "audience-friendly" composers like John Corigliano and John Harbison are not really connecting with general music audiences - no matter how highly they may be praised by music critics or leading professional experts. Why is this?    

Explanations as to why contemporary composers arenít scoring with audiences include the abuses or corruption of the art music world by promoters or stars (Lebrecht), insufficient exposure or other deficiencies in audiences (John Corigliano, Charles Rosen), competition by electronic and pop music, or that classical music never had a strong hold on the U.S. anyway (Joseph Horowitzís new book: Classical Music in America). To me, these explanations wonít wash.

This article accepts the more obvious conclusion that the failure to excite audiences lies with the composers, not with external circumstances or audiences (e.g. Henry Pleasantsí book of 1955, The Agony of Modern Music). More than that, I suggest that the failure is rooted in a stigma that is a relic of a nearly forgotten early 20th Century revolutionary philosophy that may still affect the arts.

At the beginning of the 20th Century revolutionary ideas swirled in the air. Futurism was a philosophy that embraced all the arts. Futurism can be summed up as the idea of focusing on the future rather than the past. How can one evoke the future, since it isnít known? In music futurists like the Italian composer, Balilla Protella* took the approach that music oriented to the future - to new, fresh ideas and inspiration - could not be expressed in composition that contained references to familiar musical language, to melodic or harmonic devices and rhythms that evoked the past. 

Revolutionary approaches to musical composition in the early 20th Century were many and diverse. One school involved new formal compositional systems like Schoenbergís serial (12-tone) method that eliminated the possibility of traditional tonal melody. Pierre Boulez added randomization of rhythm to this approach. Charles Seegerís "dissonant counterpoint" reversed the roles of consonance and dissonance. Other composers superimposed notes on visual images, or created sounds through unconventional means. Jacques Barzun in his book, The Use and Abuse of Art, cites the example of Knocking Piece, in which two men banged on a piano case with mallets. Other composers like Karl-Heinz Stockhausen devised elaborate mathematical or electronic means of generating musical sounds. John Cage challenged even the concept of purposeful composition with his aleatoric music, e.g. directing groups of musicians to independently improvise cacophonous sound for a given length of time.

All these approaches had one thing in common: the futurist concept of rejection of traditional musical models familiar to and embraced by general musical audiences.

The more extreme manifestations of revolutionary musical styles may be rare today. But a key corollary of the futurist concept is still with us. That corollary is expressed in the idea that music which evokes strong response in non-professional or average musical audiences cannot contain new inspiration, originality, and artistic interest.

I suggest that a futurist stigma attached to music that generates excitement or interest in audiences continues to be accepted subconsciously even by contemporary composers who utilize neo-romantic or other conventional musical vocabularies. Put a bit crudely, "it really doesn't matter what style you compose in - providing audiences canít really enjoy it". If they do, it suggests that the composer is catering to popular tastes and is not really interested in depth and artistic creativity.

During the 20 years of former avant-garde composer, Aaron Coplandís "popular period" of composition, he was careful to incorporate "arbitrary" dissonances and other "erratic" elements in his compositions as if to say:  "Yes, I am composing this piece for the unsophisticated public, but want to make it clear I'm still a professional and a modern". A recent Bernstein retrospective on National Public Television pointed out letters written by Copland to young Leonard Bernstein, criticizing the "accessibility" of certain early compositions, and urging him to make them sound "newer" and "more interesting". 

The dissonances in Coplandís music that I refer to seem to me ad hoc, rather than essential parts of the musical ideas, as were the magnificent dissonances in Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, or in the orchestral introductions and intervals in Gershwin's folk opera, Porgy and Bess. They involve creative compositional devices that may enhance music to the ear of professionals, but add nothing to the enjoyment of non-professional audiences.

Among the neo-romantic contemporaries we often find compositions that seem to continually build up to a voluptuous romantic melody or harmonic effect - that never arrives. At the last minute the composer always veers away from delivering anything that could really excite and transport audiences as DvořŠk did in Philadelphia in 1893 with his New World Symphony - or as Respighi and Kodály many decades later did in works like the Pines of Rome and the Hary Janos Suite and Dances from Galanta. Respighi, Kodály, Holst, Leroy Anderson, John Rutter or John Williams, composers that establish immediate bonds with audiences, are essentially ignored by the music establishment.

The style of composition that approaches but never reaches audiences has certain benefits to composers. While not actually offending and sometimes becoming marginally interesting, it meets the futurist prohibition on exciting audiences, and can thereby retain the approval of the establishment. The kind of melodic inspiration that Schubert and Beethoven possessed is a rare gift. Excluding it from new composition means that other more widely available qualities, like skills in handling orchestral instruments, structural musical development, dramaturgic conceptions, etc. can be substituted.

Structural musical skills and technical innovation are all important to contemporary music composers and writers. But they count little to even experienced and sensitive nonprofessional audiences, provided that the composer has the musical sensitivity and skill to avoid obvious clumsiness or musical gaucherie. Commentary Magazine music critic, Terry Teachout, for example, has pointed out George Gershwin's growth in technical and compositional skill as he progressed from his first "classical" orchestral effort, Rhapsody in Blue, through the Concerto in F, and An American in Paris.  But ask the average American music lover which piece he likes most, and I think you will almost always find it's Rhapsody in Blue, because of its stunningly original melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic inspiration.

So, to conclude, I don't think we'll have broken the grip of the futurists and returned "classical music" to its rightful place of meaningfulness to the larger music-loving public until Ė itís almost self evident, isnít it? Ė the ability to inspire audiences stops being a demerit and again becomes valued in new composition.


*Futurism, the rebellion of the life of intuition and feeling, quivering and impetuous spring, declares inexorable war on doctrines, individuals and works that repeat, prolong or exalt the past at the expense of the future. It proclaims the conquest of amoral liberty, of action, conscience and imagination. It proclaims that Art is disinterest, heroism and contempt for easy success. (B. Protella, 1909.

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