This is part two of my essay on modern classical music. My basic position, taken up in On Modern Classical Part 1, is that modern classical, defined in this instance mostly as atonal and championed by famous composers such as Arnold Schoenberg, Alban Berg, Anton Webern, and others, is for the most part awful music. And I make the audacious claim that I can prove it.
Of course, I can’t; but my dislike for this kind of music goes so deep that I have to at least try. As with pretty much any voice in the wilderness, the emotions behind it resonate so powerfully with me that they have to contain more than just a scintilla of truth. They just have to. Either that, or the strong emotional responses to music I’ve been experiencing all my life become quite a bit cheaper as a result. And I cannot have that.
I love the music of Beethoven, as many of us do, but how would you rather have it when listening to him? My way:
Or the way the modernists would have it:
Now let’s back up a bit.
I am not saying that composers of Modern Classical music or those who enjoy it A) engage in atheism, B) downplay relationship between music, math, and physics, C) think that classical composers would have experimented more if they knew such music would sell, or D) believe I have a beer gut for a brain for the reasons listed in the fine print above. But if you believe pretty ardently in at least some of these things, then it is likely you’ll more easily relate to Arnold Schoenberg and his ilk than the composers who came before them. After all, classical music was born in the Church, stays true to a tonal system grounded in math and physics, and for the most part really really tries to hew something true and beautiful out of the air molecules fluctuating chaotically among us.
For modern classical, on the other hand, that would be strike one, two, and three. So let’s get the subjective and therefore flimsiest part of my argument out of the way. When I listen to the music I love, I really want to believe in the sequence outlined in the first spreadsheet. I really want to believe that something truly unique occurs. Albert Einstein once proclaimed that violin playing of Yehudi Menuhin gave proof that there was indeed a God in heaven. This is what I’m talking about: art providing evidence for the theory that Humanity is part divine and indeed unique throughout the universe. It would be as if God created the universe so incalculably vast for the sole purpose of beating the infinitesimal odds that a planet can be formed under the right circumstances and with the right materials from which intelligent life (i.e., human beings) could prosper.
In other words, Ptolemy was right. Humanity is the sole point of existence. We are its headlining act on center stage, its crowning achievement. After us there is nothing. And if you don’t believe me, then listen to Beethoven’s Fifth, read Moby Dick, gaze on this. As I have said. This argument. Is. Exceedingly. Weak. Weak because I can prove none of it. Also, it is, um, self-gratifying. I want to believe this because it feels good to believe it. Or, I should say, it feels right, which is more or less the same thing. But my opponents could then pounce on my position and say, “But you subvert your own position by claiming a conflict of interest. This is a classic example of wish replacing thought.” True, true.
On the other hand, if my opponents accuse me of self-gratification, I can accuse them right back. I mean, who wouldn’t want free the musician from the shackles of tonality? Who wouldn’t want to blaze a trail of revolutionary music and be the “Emancipator of Dissonance”? Who wouldn’t want to lead the ignorant and closed-minded masses into a realm of higher art, higher thinking, higher living, et cetera? Why, low ticket sales and apathy or contempt from the public are small prices to pay for such historical awesomeness. Furthermore, who wouldn’t want to be on the cutting edge of such a noble crusade? All you have to do is buy a few of the right CDs (Tony Conrad, Steve Reich, Phillip Glass, take your pick), be seen going to the right concerts, pen a few incomprehensible reviews on your website or a local arts daily, claim you’ve read some Adorno, and shazam, you’re instantly better, yes, better than all the troglodytes out there who actually prefer paintings that resemble the real world, poems that rhyme, and music that doesn’t require an advanced degree (or the patience of Job) to understand. Bet that would feel pretty good too.
Like I said. Weak. But maybe a little less so since I know how to use someone’s own argument against them and never back down from a good fight.
Anyway, I’ve always found Brahms’ approach a little more honest than Wagner’s. Judge for yourself. It’s the genius who envisioned himself spearheading the Artwork of the Future and being the most important composer since…well, since ever, versus the genius who labored within the tonal system to produce works on par with its champions Bach and Beethoven…and succeeded some of the time.
But let’s return to the original reason we’re here: the justifications for modern classical. The first was that by the 1890s the tonal system was pretty much used up, and composers had to go beyond it if they wanted to stay vital. The first part of this polemic takes that on. The second justification goes as follows: We feel the emotional pull of harmonic sequences because we are brought up to do so, not because the emotional pull is objectively there. Thus, atonality was inevitable and necessary, and we didn’t lose much by abandoning the tonal system anyway.
There are two ways for me to attack this. One is to simply describe the rock-solid mathematical relationship between music and physics. But guess what? I won’t do that because others have done it so well before me. But I don’t think I’m going out on a limb when I say that keeping a tonal center and abiding by the age-old rules of music provides its emotional pull because of its grounding in math and physics and not despite of it.
The second is to look at music made in non-Western cultures because evidence supporting the second justification above can be found there. Essentially, itâ€™s the nurture over nature argument. We feel the emotional pull of the music we’re brought up with and not of the music we’re not brought up with unless we apply serious effort. It reminds me of a quip my brother once made in the late 1980s. I was watching the film Gandhi on television, and some Indian music was playing. My brother winced and said, “Sometimes I think they made that kind of music just to annoy the white man.” Funny, in part because it is demonstrably not true. But it reveals how music from foreign cultures won’t easily make sense for those not immersed in it or who can’t be bothered to learn it. We are “conditioned” to appreciate certain kinds of music.
Okay. Fair enough. But the argument goes further and deduces that if we are culturally conditioned to appreciate certain kinds of music then there is nothing inherent in the cultural nature of the music itself that draws people to it. It’s all about the accidents of conditioning. Where and when you were born, and to whom, etc. And if this is so, then we can be conditioned to appreciate all kinds of music, even the kinds without tonal centers, provided we have open minds and apply the discipline.
This is a false conclusion.
It is false because music from non-Western cultures also tends to be tonal. This is so despite different tuning systems, scales, vocal styles, melodies, harmonies, and so on. Therefore you can argue that the nurture argument applies only to tonal music and does not necessarily encompass the atonal. You can argue that people have a natural inclination towards tonal music first, and towards music of a certain culture second. This leaves atonal music out to dry, that is, if non-Western music truly tends to be tonal. This is where it gets tough. Most sources will begin talking about atonality with people like Debussy in the 1890s, or perhaps Franz Liszt’s Bagatelle sans tonalitÃ© from 1885, and then move on to Schoenberg. I don’t think atonality was even a concept in the music theory of non-Western cultures until well into the 20th century and only after solid contact with the West. I can’t be sure because I am not a musicologist, but my hunch is strong. It is also backed up by this passage from Brian Hyer’s essay “Tonality” found in The Cambridge History of Western Music Theory edited by Thomas Street Christiansen (2002), page 727. According to Hyer, tonality
is often used to describe the systematic organization of pitch phenomena in both Western and Non-Western music. Tonal music in this sense includes music based on, among other theoretical structures, the eight ecclesiastical modes of medieval and Renaissance liturgical music, the slendro and pelog collections of Indonesian gamelan music, the modal nuclei of Arabic maqam, the scalar peregrinations of Indian raga…
If this is true (and I welcome arguments to the contrary) then it’s game, set, and match for the nurture argument. I can beat it to the punch with nature by claiming that most humans struggle with atonal music because most human ears simply cannot cope with it, not because we weren’t brought up to appreciate it. It’s a problem of the brain rather than that of the mind.
What follows will be a scatter-shot approach providing even more evidence against modern classical.
1. My favorite is this, Audiences hate modern classical music because their brains cannot cope. I linked to this in part one of this essay. Its basic premise is stated nicely in the title. Here’s the best part, but please read the whole thing. It’s not long.
Professor David Huron, an expert on music cognition at Ohio State University, has studied some of the underlying reasons why listeners struggled with such modern classical pieces. He said: “Much of what the brain does is to anticipate the future. Predicting what happens next has obvious survival value, and brains are remarkably adept at anticipating events. We measured the predictability of tone sequences in music by Arnold Schoenberg and Anton Webern and found the successive pitches were less predictable than random tone sequences.”
Heh. Less predictable than random. Think about this for a moment. What would be the point of any art if its fundamental elements are organized in a manner that is less predictable than normal? What if all painters just splashed their paint at random across their canvases? What if all writers just sprinkled words at random across the page? What if all sculptors put on blindfolds and hacked away at slabs of marble until their arms got tired? The end result would not be art. It would be an embarrassment.
2. Alexander Zemlinsky, perhaps the last in the line of great German-Austrian composers starting with Bach, was a great champion of atonal music despite not really composing much of it himself. He worked closely with Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern (in fact, he was Schoenberg’s brother in-law). He organized concerts with them, bestowed professional favors on them, corresponded with them, and basically acted as a powerful ally. According to Marc Moskovitz’s splendid Zemlinsky biography, Zemlinksy admitted towards the end of his life (late-1930s, early-1940s) that he did not understand Schoenberg’s later works. Moskovitz describes this as a startling confession and states flatly that Zemlinsky “could no longer comprehend the music of the man whose cause he had once so ardently championed.”
3. From the same biography comes this amusing little anecdote. Sometime in early in World War I, Zemlinsky proposed to conduct some of Schoenberg’s more daring pieces in Prague. Schoenberg begged him not to. You see, his music gave people fits in peace time. Imagine what it would do during war time. Actually, Schoenberg didn’t want to do that (fearing for his own skin), and so pressed on his brother in-law to perform something of his that he can “count on being fairly well received by the public.” Zemlinsky did, and the concert was successful. But this underlies an important point: According to Schoenberg, apparently, when death is near or when you are fighting for survival, atonal music will necessarily have destructive consequences. It will inspire high levels of madness and violence. To take Schoenberg’s point to its logical conclusion then, atonal music should only be played during peace time and when people’s fortunes and futures are more secure. In other words, it is music for pampered, intellectual elites who never have to get their hands dirty fighting for their survival. I’m just extrapolating here, and I’m sure someone else could be more charitable in their conclusions from the same facts. Still, when the chips were down, Schoenberg lost faith in his own music. That says a lot.
4. In 1918 Schoenberg and his students founded the Society for Private Musical Performances. Note the word “private”. It was a members-only club, and according to Wikipedia:
Only those who had joined the organisation were admitted to the events: the intention was to exclude ‘sensation-seeking’ members of the Viennese public (who would often attend concerts with the express intention of whistling derisively at ‘modern’ works by blowing across their house-keys) as well as keep out hostile critics who would attack such music in their publications: a sign displayed on the door â€“ in the manner of a police notice â€“ would state that Kritikern ist der Eintritt verboten (‘Critics are forbidden entry’).
I can understand keeping the ruffians out, but the critics too? Also, by limiting the amount of people who could listen to the music, it seems that Spinal Tap definitely had a predecessor.
5. One of main problems I have with most modern classical music (excepting John Adams and a few others) is that there is so little joy in it. It’s so often serious, strange, forbidding. It seems to have forgotten why people invented music to begin with: to provide comfort or delight or, at its most sublime, to exalt the greatness and mystery of God. I love Rachmaninoff, and I think I will end with this pithy quote from him in 1941: “The new kind of music seems to create not from the heart but from the head. Its composers think rather than feel. They have not the capacity to make their works exaltâ€”they meditate, protest, analyze, reason, calculate and brood, but they do not exalt.”