Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Postmodern Music: Groans Wrapped in Mathematics by Roger Scruton

In GurreliederVerklärte Nacht, and Pelléas et Mélisandes, Arnold Schoenberg showed total mastery of tonality and of late romantic harmony, and these great works entered the repertoire. But by the time of the Piano Pieces, op. 11, Schoenberg was writing music which to many people no longer made sense, with melodic lines that began and ended nowhere, and harmonies that seemed to bear no relation to the principal voice. At the same time, it was clear that Schoenberg’s atonal pieces were meticulously composed, according to schemes that involved the intricate relation of phrases and thematic ideas, and this was another reason for taking them seriously.
In due course, meticulousness took over, leading to an obsession with structure and the quasi-mathematical idiom of twelve-tone serialism, in which the linear relations of tonal music were replaced by arcane permutations. The result, in Schoenberg’s hands, was always intriguing, and often (as in the unfinished opera Moses und Aron, and A Survivor from Warsaw) genuinely moving. Schoenberg’s pupils Alban Berg and Anton Webern developed the idiom, the one in a romantic and quasi-tonal direction, the other towards a refined pointillist style that is uniquely evocative. For a while, it looked as though a genuine school of twelve-tone serialism would emerge and displace the old tonal grammar from its central place in the concert hall. Figures like Ernst Krenek in Austria, Luigi Dallapiccola in Italy, and Milton Babbitt and Roger Sessions in America were actively advocating twelve-tone composition, and also practising it. But somehow it never took off. A few works—Berg’s Violin Concerto, Dallapiccola’s opera Il Prigionero, Krenek’s moving setting of the Lamentations of Jeremiah— have entered the repertoire. But twelve-tone works remain, for the most part, more items of curiosity than objects of love, and audiences have begun to turn their backs on them.
It should be remembered that those experiments were begun at a time when Mahler was composing tonal symphonies, with great arched melodies in the high romantic tradition, and using modernist harmonies only as rhetorical gestures within a strongly diatonic frame. In England Vaughan Williams and Holst were working in a similar way, treating dissonances as by-ways within an all-inclusive tonal logic, while in America inputs from film music and jazz were beginning to inspire eclectic masterpieces like Roy Harris’s Third Symphonyand Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. A concert-goer in the early 1930s would, therefore, have been faced with two completely different repertoires—one (Vaughan Williams, Holst, Sibelius, Walton, Strauss, Busoni, Gershwin) remaining within the bounds of the tonal language, the other (Schoenberg and his school) consciously departing from the old language, and often striking a deliberately defiant posture that made it hard to build their works into a concert program. Somewhere in between those two repertoires hovered the great eclectic geniuses, Stravinsky, Bartók, and Prokoviev.
Read More: http://www.theimaginativeconservative.org/2016/06/postmodern-music-groans-wrapped-in-mathematics.html

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