What happened when the wall came down?

by Stephen Johnson, BBC Music Magazine: September 2002

There’s a telling little scene in George Schultz’s famous Peanuts cartoon strip. Linus and his sister Lucy are sitting together, reading. Linus looks up from his book and says: ‘Did you know that in the old days people thought the world was flat, and if you sailed too far you’d fall off the edge and be eaten by monsters?’ Both children laugh helplessly. Then Lucy frowns, and asks: ‘What do we think now?’

I was reminded of that cartoon three years ago, at the 1999 Edinburgh Festival. The composer and conductor Pierre Boulez – one of the crucial influences on the course of contemporary music over the last half-century – had just delivered the Festival Lecture, in which, with all his usual eloquence and urbane charm, he’d summed up some of his hopes and fears for the future of music. Questions were invited from the audience. Someone asked Boulez why it was that of all the hard-line modernist works produced in the post-war period so few were played today. ‘Well’, said Boulez, ‘perhaps we did not take sufficiently into account the way music is perceived by the listener’.

I nearly dropped my notebook. Did he really just say that? It was rather like hearing the Ayatollah Khomeni saying, ‘Well, perhaps I didn’t show sufficient respect for women’s rights.’ – or like hearing a medieval theologian admitting that perhaps the world wasn’t flat after all. I’d better explain. In continental Europe after the Second World War, there was a belief that if composing music was to continue at all, it must cut all its ties with the past – especially the bloodstained recent past – and begin again. As Boulez himself put it: ‘It was like Descartes’ “Cogito ergo sum [I think, therefore I am]”. I momentarily suppressed inheritance. I started from the fact that I was thinking and went on to construct a musical language from scratch.’ This new musical language found expression in works like Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Kreuzspiel (‘Cross-play’) or Boulez’s significantly entitled Le Marteau sans maître– ‘The hammer without a master’. These took the pre-war serialist ideas of Arnold Schoenberg and his pupil Anton Webern into new dimensions. In Schoenberg and Webern’s serialism, the arrangement of the notes in a piece of music was rigidly dictated by the so-called twelve-note now. Boulez, Stockhausen and influential figure like the American composer and teacher Milton Babbitt extended serialism so that not only the notes, but also their lengths and intensity (volume, attack) were mathematically predetermined. Only the instrumental colouring admitted any kind of imaginative freedom. A bit harsh? The object, Boulez said on one occasion, was nothing less than the ‘annihilation of the will of the composer’.

Staggering pronouncements began to accumulate, many of them emanating from the Institute for New Music in the German city of Darmstadt – the name became synonymous with contemporary musical philosophy at its most rigorous and uncompromising. Was music really meant to be listened to at all? Wasn’t Bach’s Art of Fugue, that lofty exploration of abstract musical computation, written with no particular kind of instrument or instruments in mind, the highest, purest form of music? Surely the whole concert experience was a bourgeois compromise, exposing music to the peril of subjective ‘interpretation’, by audiences ‘celebrating the cult of themselves’? It’s true that such extremism soon began to soften. But when you read Boulez observing that in the early 1960s he ‘began to take notice of affective values in music’ – ie the fact that music might actually express something – you begin to realise how much scope for softening there was. It’s as though a famous painter were to announce the discovery that in the visual arts, colour might after all have a role to play.

Another hugely influential figure, for a while connected with Darmstadt, is the German philosopher and musico-sociologist Theodor Adorno (1903-69), author of The Philosophy of New Music, aptly summed up by the conductor Leonard Bernstein as ‘fascinating, nasty, turgid’. The range of Adorno’s learning is awe-inspiring, as too is the magisterial way he brings together German humanist philosophy and Freudian psychoanalysis with Marxist economics and social theory. It was Adorno who made the famous pronouncement that ‘to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric’ – and went on to argue the point in thousands of pages of dense, would-be poetic writing. Strangely, it seems never to have occurred to him that his insistence on the supremacy of selected German composers (Beethoven, Wagner, Mahler, Schoenberg, Berg), against those from the ‘periphery’ (Stravinsky, Sibelius, Shostakovich, Britten), after the Third Reich might also have dubious connotations. For Adorno, Schoenberg was the truly ‘authentic’ composer of his time. His very failure to engage with wider audiences is his moral vindication: it was the cost of his refusal to submit to the demands of ‘the culture industry’: ‘It is not the composer who fails in the work; history, rather, denies the work in itself.’ In The Philosophy of New Music, Schoenberg is hailed as the father of a modern music which ‘falls into empty time like an impotent bullet’. You don’t have to be a Freudian to see why Schoenberg might have found that less than flattering.

In fact Schoenberg generally found Adorno’s advocacy a mixed blessing. After all, this was the composer who had somewhat paradoxically expressed the hope that people would one day whistle his tunes in the street, and now here was Adorno pronouncing that ‘Schoenberg’s inhuman coldness is superior to Berg’s magnanimous warmth’. But you can see the appeal to later generations of misunderstood, unloved modernists. If nobody comes to your concerts, or if they walk out, or hiss you, then you haven’t failed after all – it’s because you’re authentic; you haven’t sold out to that wicked, plutocratic culture industry. If history fails to vindicate you, that’s history’s fault, not yours. As Schoenberg himself had put it in his famous essay ‘How one becomes lonely’: ‘I knew I had the duty of developing my ideas for the sake of progress in music, whether I liked it or not; but I also had to realise that the great majority of the public did not like it.’ Schoenberg had written those words in 1937. At that very time, two hideous regimes – Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union – were denouncing and repressing ‘progressive’ composers and promoting art that was accessible, spoke directly to the people and (hopefully) steered their thoughts in the ‘right’ directions. Anything challenging or disturbing had to be silenced. The conclusion for many of those despised or ignored progressives was irresistible. Don’t go courting popularity. We all know what the herd, the mob wants. Just think of the Nuremberg rallies: the cheering crowd soon becomes the lynch mob – Kristallnacht, the Holocaust, are just around the corner. Duty pointed in a very different direction, in the words of Milton Babbitt: ‘total, resolute and voluntary withdrawal from this public world to one of private performance and electronic media, with its very real possibility of complete elimination of the public and social aspects of musical composition.’ Don’t look for applause – it’s a sign that you’re on your way to perdition.

Along with this, another equation became commonplace amongst the post-war avant-garde – so commonplace that it was rarely stated in bald terms, but it ran like a bedrock beneath the pronouncements of ‘progressive’ composers and critics. Basically, artistic progress was equivalent to political progress, challenging bourgeois structures and raising consciousness. The modernist composer was in the vanguard in every sense: a musical freedom fighter who, even if he was on the losing side, was still on the side of the angels.
Advance was a constant imperative, insisted on ever more widely by elements in the very ‘culture industry’ Adorno had identified as the enemy. The composer Ernst Krenek wryly recalled seeing, in the late 1960s, ‘a newspaper report about one of the international music festivals headlined: “So-and-so Festival – No new Breakthrough”.’ The obverse of this was that composers who made no easily identifiable breakthroughs were against progress in the widest possible sense: anti-freedom, capitulators with the forces of repression. Figures who still wrote tonal music – notably Britten and Shostakovich – were dismissed as irrelevant, or worse. Well, just look at how the Nazis feted stick-in-the-muds like Hans Pfitzner and Richard Strauss, or tonal primitivists like Carl Orff. The inconvenient fact that Hitler’s fascist ally Mussolini had been an enthusiastic supporter of certain kinds of progressive art was left to one side. Similarly inconvenient was the fact that many of the great ‘revolutionary’ artistic figures of the twentieth century – icons of the avant-garde like T.S.Eliot, Ezra Pound, Schoenberg and Stravinsky – had been deeply, even worryingly conservative in their political beliefs. Worse still, the post-war serialists’ godfather Webern (or as Stravinsky wryly dubbed him, ‘St Anton’) had ended up an enthusiastic – if somewhat confused – supporter of Hitler.

Does this ultimately say anything of value about the relative merits of works written under the modernist or traditionalist banners? I don’t think so. Today I wouldn’t be inviting universal derision if I admitted to admiring both Robert Simpson’s Fifth Symphony (1972) and Harrison Birtwistle’s exactly contemporary The Triumph of Time, even though the two composers seemed to be on opposite sides of the barricades at the time. Only a few splendidly isolated composers, critics or new music enthusiasts nowadays would argue that the style in which a composer writes is a serious moral issue. But the point is that for a considerable length of time such a belief was taken for granted – and until surprisingly recently. At the 1987 Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, the American composer John Adams’s recent orchestral work Harmonielehre was greeted with jeers and massed programme-tearing, and the leading pro-modernist critic Peter Heyworth walked out in protest. Why? Because Adams had used tonal harmonies, and dared to address his audience in terms like those of a late-romantic symphonist.

But John Adams looks set to endure, while the righteous indignation of his critics has apparently evaporated. Fascinating, isn’t it. What we seem to have here is an inversion of the old romantic idea of progressive art offending reactionary critics: now the apparently old-fashioned shocks and horrifies the modernist élite. If it were a one-off, we could perhaps dismiss it as an aberration. But such intriguing inversions had happened increasingly in the years before Huddersfield 1987. One example – the 1970 UK premiere of Shostakovich’s Twelfth Quartet (in with Schoenbergian note-rows collided head-on with pages of the purest D flat major) – was described gleefully by the writer Hans Keller. ‘One of the doyens amongst British composers… provoked a verbal fight after the performance of the quartet at Cheltenham – so angry had it made him, and so well did he smell that I had admired it. I hope he reads this article. I put it to him that his anger was his attempt, successful alas, to prevent himself from liking it.’ Again, Shostakovich endures, while the voices that condemned him have either vanished or faded into embarrassed silence.

So what has happened to bring about such bizarre reversals of the expected? Well, for one thing, modernism eventually achieved something that could only have been anticipated in Adorno’s worst nightmares. It became established. Yes, when the young Karlheinz Stockhausen made his first experiments after the war, the German musical establishment was still, as he crisply puts it, ‘full of Nazis’, hugely resistant to post-Schoenbergian ideas. But with time those same ideas became a ferociously defended orthodoxy. And not just in Germany. By the time I went to study music at University in the late 1970s, most of the values outlined above were basically taken for granted across the academic world – they had become, to use today’s language, ‘institutionalised’; or as the musicologist Joseph Kerman put it, ‘the avant-garde was house-broken into the academy’. The influential journal ‘Perspectives of New Music’, published by Princeton University Press, was required reading for student composers. Experimental electro-acoustic music had found a state-funded base in Paris’s IRCAM (Insitute de Recherche et de Coordination Acoustic/Musique), with Boulez at its head. Soon university music departments all over the world were dreaming of creating little IRCAMs of their own. The composer James MacMillan, speaking in a public discussion in the early 1990s could coin the revealing oxymoron ‘academic modernism’ without any eyelids being visibly batted. The result is inevitable. A friend of mine who teaches at a London music college has the regular experience of arguing in favour of modernist works to increasingly sceptical young performers and composers. The young reject the old orthodoxy, as they always have. Why all this masochism? Why this contempt for the listener?

But there’s another possible cause for the decline of avant-gardism. The world itself has changed beyond recognition, and in a remarkably short space of time. The schizoid East-West divide that perpetuated the Cold War for half a century has ceased to exist. The cultural transformation has been immense, yet it seems we hardly register it. On British streets Russian and East European lorries drive past without anyone pausing to consider that this would have unthinkable fifteen years ago. You can walk the streets of Berlin without seeing any reminders that the city was once divided by an ugly concrete wall that people died trying to cross. More than the wall came down in 1989. A situation that had remained fixed – a kind of frozen traumatic reaction to the catastrophe of the Second World War – shattered, melted. It marked the end of what the historian Eric Hobsbawm has termed ‘The Short Twentieth Century’ – ie the period from the beginning of the First World War to the collapse of Communism. True, the Iron Curtain had been looking a little wobbly since the beginning of Glasnost, but the final crash was still epochal.

On a more parochial scale that sense of something immense shifting seemed to me to find parallel in two surprising musical events of the same period. The hugely successful first performances at the BBC Proms of two very different new works – John Tavener’s The Protecting Veil and James MacMillan’s The Confession of Isobel Gowdie – came within months either side of the coming down of the wall. The reception given to MacMillan’s piece was astonishing in its warmth – this from a capacity Saturday evening audience apparently drawn by the prospect of hearing Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony and Sibelius’s Violin Concerto. By the end of the century, MacMillan’s percussion concerto Veni, Veni, Emmanuel(1992) had notched up over two hundred performances – a success unthinkable since the days of Britten and Shostakovich.

Then, as the fiftieth anniversary of the ending of the Second World War (1995) approached, and more and more appraisals of the previous half-century began to appear, a thought struck me. The countries in which the modernist message had been most uncompromising, the calls for rejection of the past most impassioned, were those which had either been fascist or significantly complicit (Germany, Italy, France). These were to be the homes of Darmstadt and IRCAM, the places where the avant-garde was to be at its most uncompromising. Broadly speaking, while modernism had flourished in countries that been occupied, there had also been more willingness to engage with tradition – well, as the Hungarian composer Gyorgy Ligeti explained, for him there was no conflict between the older humanism and the avant-garde; both Beethoven and Webern were felt to be on the same side – against fascism, and then against Soviet oppression. The composers who might have been labelled ‘modernist’ in Eastern Europe or the Nordic countries were often able to learn from Central European ideas, while filtering them through a different kind of consciousness, evolving from different historical experiences. So in the 1980s Ligeti could ease himself back into traditional forms – Piano Concerto, Horn Trio – with no apparent irony. Poland’s Witold Lutoslawski managed a gradual transition back to a grandly rhetorical symphonic style in his Third Symphony (1972-83), while his compatriot Krzysztof Penderecki – creator of a rare modernist ‘hit’ in his Threondy for the Victims of Hiroshima executed an even more radical stylistic volte-face in his ‘Christmas’ Symphony, begun around the time as Lutoslawski’s Third. In Denmark, the radically experimental Per Nørgård could ingest and develop avant-garde techniques while keeping as his leading light Sibelius – the very composer denounced by Schoenbergian apologist René Leibowitz as ‘the worst composer in the world’. The leading Norwegian composer and electro-acoustic experimenter Arne Nordheim could reveal – only half-jokingly – that his ideal was ‘to combine Varèse and Delius’. More recently the Finns Kaija Saariaho and Magnus Lindberg, having put themselves through IRCAM, have moved on something much more directly appealing. Lindberg is even experimenting with such long-discredited notions as themes and developments.

Meanwhile look at Britain and America: the countries that were never invaded, where tradition was never seriously compromised by association with fascism – in fact for many in this country it was an inspiration for endurance and resistance. Small wonder, then, that creative musical engagement with the past lasted far longer here (eg Britten and Tippett) and in the USA (Copland and Barber) than in continental Europe, and has been relatively quick to return after the coming down of the wall. Composers like America’s John Corigliano and Britain’s James MacMillan have taken what they need from post-war modernism and moved on to re-engage with the old romantic humanist forms. Beethoven’s status as a musical father figure looks set to endure rather longer than that of Schoenberg. How ironic it would be if Adorno’s despised ‘periphery’ turned out to be the place where the really fertile new musical ideas have been gestating. Now it seems that everywhere composers and critics are dropping the old line that if you sail too far you’ll fall off the end of the world and be eaten by monsters.

So, what do we think now?


The Telegraph 
Was Mahler killed by his own symphony?

2 March 2020
His ‘Eighth’ offers an inclusive, idealistic world vision, but it may have taken a fatal toll on the composer. In 1910, right at the end of his life, Gustav Mahler finally made his breakthrough as a composer. Until then, music-lovers across the western world saw him as a great conductor who also composed.
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Vaughan Williams - Two-Way Vision

Anniversaries are rarely better timed than this one. No twentieth century British composer stands more in need of reassessment than Ralph Vaughan Williams. You might wonder why a composer whose position at the top of the Classic FM ‘Hall of Fame’ list is beginning to look like a permanent fixture should be a candidate for urgent revaluation. It’s not as though the work that regularly emerges as the nation’s favourite, The Lark Ascending, is anything less than top-drawer VW.
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Per Nørgård - Night Vision

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Per Nørgård is unique. No-one who knows the 68 year-old Danish composer and his bizarrely wonderful music is likely to disagree with that. There are people who, as Thomas Hardy put it, carry their own atmosphere around them like a planet. Nørgård is one of them. To spend three-quarters with an hour with him (as I did early in April) is to be transported from the mundane reality of a fashionable London cafe to a world where normal laws hardly seem relevant.
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BBC Music Magazine
What Happened When the Wall Came Down?

September 2002

There’s a telling little scene in George Schultz's famous Peanuts cartoon strip. Linus and his sister Lucy are sitting together, reading. Linus looks up from his book and says: ‘Did you know that in the old days people thought the world was flat, and if you sailed too far you’d fall off the edge and be eaten by monsters?’ Both children laugh helplessly. Then Lucy frowns, and asks: ‘What do we think now?’
Read the full article


Opera Explained Wagner: The Ring of the Nibelung

Opera Explained
Wagner: The Ring of the Nibelung

Naxos  8.558184-85 (2 CDs)
Released October 2007

Wagner’s Ring cycle is the most ambitious work in the history of music: four operas that combine to tell a single epic story. Based in legend, it has become a legend in its own right: a supreme challenge for conductors, singers, opera producers, and indeed for audiences.

But for all its grandeur and complexity, The Ringis far more accessible than many music lovers think. In this two-CD guide Stephen Johnson explains the basics of the plot, profiles the leading characters, and shows how Wagner’s revolutionary music adds fascinating layers of meaning and psychological insight, as well as providing some of the most stirring and intoxicating moments in the entire operatic repertoire.

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