Sunday, March 29, 2015

Thoughts on Boulez' list

There are a few interesting things about Pierre Boulez' list of 10 great compositions of the 20th century. Perhaps the most striking thing about it is not so much what it includes, a lot of justifiably famous 20th century pieces, but more what it excludes. First of all, let's have a look at when the pieces he selects were composed:

  1. Varèse, Ameriques: 1918-1921, revised 1927
  2. Berg, Three Pieces for Orchestra, op. 6, 1913-1915
  3. Stravinsky, Rite of Spring, 1913
  4. Bartók, Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, 1936
  5. Webern, Six Pieces for Orchestra, 1909-10, revised 1928
  6. Berio, Sinfonia, 1968-69
  7. Stockhausen, Gruppen, 1955-57
  8. Mahler, Symphony No. 6, 1903-04, revised 1906
  9. Schönberg, Erwartung, 1909
  10. Boulez, Répons, 1984
There are two enormous omissions, at least they seem enormous to me. The first is a surprising one: a composer who is not only one of the most influential of the century, but one who shares his nationality with Boulez: yes, of course, Claude Debussy. We might argue as to which piece to mention, perhapPrélude à l'après-midi d'un faune (even though it was composed in 1894), perhaps his late ballet Jeux. But I think few would disagree with how Wikipedia describes Debussy's influence:
Claude Debussy is widely regarded as one of the most influential composers of the 20th century. His innovative harmonies were influential to almost every major composer of the 20th century, particularly Maurice RavelIgor StravinskyOlivier MessiaenBéla BartókPierre BoulezHenri DutilleuxNed RoremGeorge Gershwin, and the minimalist music of Steve Reich and Philip Glass as well as the influential Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu. He also influenced many important figures in jazz, most notably Miles DavisDuke EllingtonBix BeiderbeckeGeorge ShearingThelonious MonkBill EvansJimmy GiuffreAntônio Carlos Jobim, and Herbie Hancock. He also had a profound impact on contemporary soundtrack composers such as John Williams, because Debussy's colourful and evocative style translated easily into an emotional language for use in motion picture scores.
So why would Boulez omit him? Perhaps because Debussy contradicts one of Boulez fundamental assumptions: that great music cannot at the same time be popular. This is a core assumption of 20th century modernism in music, at least up until the mid-century. But just looking at the list above shows that Debussy's influence was very, very broad. Why ever would Boulez include a piece by Mahler and not one by Debussy?

The other omission is more subtle: notice how, with just a couple of exceptions, the list avoids any mention of music written after the mid-century. Note the inclusion of Boulez' own Répons, which is the newest piece on the list! Setting aside that, there are only two pieces written after 1950, Gruppen by Stockhausen which is just barely after 1950, and the Sinfonia by Berio. Boulez includes his Pantheon of great pieces, meaning the ones that were very important to him, but at the same time omitting perhaps the most important, Debussy, while avoiding any hint that the course of 20th century music has changed since the maximal complexity of the mid-century.

So we pose the question, what might we suggest are some great works from the second half of the century, as Boulez has not troubled himself with that? Some names that seem to be important are John Cage, Steve Reich, Philip Glass, John Adams, Thomas Adès and Esa-Pekka Salonen. These figures are likely anathema to Boulez because they repudiate some of his fundamental beliefs about music: that you cannot write great music and be popular, that music, in order to be taken seriously has to always strive for the maximum complexity and that tonality is dead.

I think my list of 10 great pieces of 20th century music would look something like this:

  1. Debussy, La Mer, 1903-05
  2. Sibelius, Symphony No. 4, 1910-11
  3. Schoenberg, Pierrot Lunaire, 1912
  4. Stravinsky, Rite of Spring, 1913
  5. Berg, Wozzeck, 1914-22
  6. Bartók,  Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, 1936
  7. Cage, 4'33, 1952
  8. Pettersson, Symphony No. 7, 1966-68
  9. Reich, Drumming, 1970-71
  10. John Adams, The Death of Klinghoffer, 1991
A lot of this list needs no special justification. You could argue for a different piece by Debussy and the only reason I did not cite the Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune is that it was composed in 1894. There was another odd omission in Boulez' list, no opera or vocal works, and I have tried to correct that by including the obviously most important piece by Berg, Wozzeck, and Pierrot by Schoenberg. A couple of pieces might be surprising to readers of this blog: the silent piece by Cage and the very controversial opera by Adams which Taruskin accused of "moral blankness and opportunism", both of which might be true. But both these pieces, for different reasons, have had an important and wide influence so I thought they needed inclusion. As for the Pettersson, I honestly can't think of a more powerful work from the 1960s, a decade really dominated by the Beatles. And I continue to believe that the most radical work of the century has to be Drumming by Steve Reich, whether you like it or not. It pared music down to its absolute essence and rebuilt it--you don't get more radical than that.

I would very much have liked to include something by Shostakovich, either the Symphony No. 5 from 1937--perhaps it could share billing with the Bartók--or the String Quartet No. 8 from 1960. Certainly, if I were to follow my own taste I would drop the Cage in favor of the quartet. But I think that my list leans as far as possible in the direction of historical importance while also considering aesthetic importance.

Hmm, what to pick as a musical envoi? I suppose the most unfamiliar piece on the list is the symphony by Allan Pettersson, so let's hear that. Here is Sergiu Comissiona conducting the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra:


Marc Puckett said...

Listened to the Pettersson earlier, simply because his is the one name in your list that I don't believe I'd ever seen. A rewarding fifty minutes, and I can see listening again.

Death of Klinghoffer had its première in (I looked, didn't know) in 1991, twenty years ago. In what sense has it had "an important and wide influence"? Have listened to it only a couple of times-- this having nothing to do with the regrettable political orientation of the libretto (although I did reget the Met's cancellation of the theatre simulcast last fall, which would've been probably as near as I will come to a live performance) and very much to do with my preference for Handel, Verdi and that lot, ha-- and am surprised that it is considered influential.

Bryan Townsend said...

John Adams has been writing pieces that have had a wide hearing, such as Shaker Loops, Short Ride in a Fast Machine, Nixon in China, Harmonielehre and many others, for several decades now, so I consider him fairly influential. I could have picked any of these, but I wanted something from as late in the century as possible, so it was The Death of Klinghoffer. This piece has engendered a lot of controversy, which for me, given the very low profile of classical music these days, is very nearly enough. A classical piece which is not ignored, but actually argued about, is of some historical importance.

Yes, the symphonies of Allan Pettersson are rather compelling!

Anonymous said...

Would you care to explain why you included 4'33". I think I know what Cage was trying to achieve, just as I know what Duchamp, Rauschenberg, and Satie were trying to do. (I mention Satie because he'd thought all of this much earlier and the idea of 4'33" is not even original.)

I think 4'33" has caused huge harm to classical music. In some ways, you may say it killed it, just as Duchamp killed painting.

Marc Puckett said...

Ah, yes, I see you've good reasons to include Death of Klinghoffer in the list, indeed.

[Had been listening to Schoenberg and reading about Schoenberg, doubtless to the detriment of the listening and of the understanding, and somehow stumbled upon (you mentioned him earlier!) Richard Taruskin and his essay 'The Poietic Fallacy'. Musicians on "professional politics" can be quite vicious, evidently. :-)]

Bryan Townsend said...

Yes, I think that the inclusion of 4'33 does rather call for an explanation! Remember that I said that "my list leans as far as possible in the direction of historical importance while also considering aesthetic importance." A lot of things happened in music in the 20th century: pop music became much bigger than "classical" music and classical music went down the road of high modernism, then post-modernism. So I am defining "great" in my list as including those pieces that were of great historical importance, not just great from an aesthetic point of view. One of the stratagems of modernism, to get us to accept the music, was to short-circuit all traditional avenues of aesthetic judgment. The piece that did this in a more thorough fashion than any other was 4'33. How can you criticize a piece of music that has no sounds? You can't. It isn't actually a piece of music, but rather a piece of meta-music, one that comments on the very nature of music. So, actually, rather an important piece in the history of 20th century music. Personally, I think any string quartet by Shostakovich is worth a hundred pieces of John Cage, but that is because I am in favor of some traditional aesthetic judgments!

Instead of saying that 4'33 caused great harm to classical music, I would rather say that it caused great harm to modernism! In an Emperor's new clothes kind of way.

Marc Puckett said...

Bravo! Is there some reason, apart from the reasonable desire to continue participating in the conversation, to call four minutes of silence music? rather in the same way I agree with my old great-aunt that, yes, that's a wonderful cup of tea! after she's forgotten to put the tea in the pot.

Bryan Townsend said...

It is, rather than being a piece of music, a piece of "meta-music", i.e. a reflection on music itself. While there have been previous similar things done (I recall a piece by a German composer in the 1920s that had one movement entirely rests), Cage did a silent piece in the clearest and boldest way. It is a piece that could likely not have appeared in any other century and for this reason it is an historically important piece and very characteristic of a certain trend within modernism. If I were to make an invidious comparison, I would say that World War II was a very unfortunate event, but we would certainly not want to omit it from the history books!

About all you can do with 4'33 is talk about it!

Anonymous said...

I agree with you about its importance. To some extent that's precisely what bothers me. The "music" is coercice since it's all about the artist's conceit and not about the art. But the mark of great art is when the artist vanishes behind it. But here John Cage never goes away. As though arrogance becomes a substitute for talent.

Cage is not worthy of tying Bach's shoes and yet what's most striking about a Bach cantata is its supreme humility. Bach takes you as you are and reveals the immense beauty lying inside your musical soul. The aptly named Cage kidnaps you and forces you into a "musical" cage.

Where Bach, Haydn, and Mozart breathe freedom, Cage's impulse is totalitarian. No wonder everyone ran for the exit signs with the words, pop and jazz.

Bryan Townsend said...

I think that Cage would disagree. He took a great deal of his inspiration from Eastern philosophy and he would argue that his dismissal of his own choices in creating music through chance procedures and the I Ching and even the choice of any notes at all in 4'33 are indications that he has transcended his ego. But someone else might point out that these things are rather indicators of the strong presence of nihilism in the post-war arts--horror at the destructiveness of WWII. It is interesting that you say that Bach, Haydn and Mozart breathe freedom as the environment they worked within was a hierarchical one with inherited aristocratic privilege! But this is one of the many ironies of art history.

Marc Puckett said...

'Coercive' is perhaps not the word I'd use but I'm reminded in this context of my response to certain 'installations' I've seen: art in his head, art in his intention, the 'conception', but immediately perceptible only as boxes scattered on the carpet. Although one doesn't just stumble into a gallery where the piece is, I guess. Hmm; don't know about this as an analogy.

Anonymous said...

I believe true freedom requires strict rules. Once the rules are removed, there is a single tyrannical force that guides artistic expression, and that's transgression. When transgression becomes its own goal, art becomes an attitude, a pose. And it's rarely original. Fact is that Bach broke more rules than Cage ever did: the latter simply aped what the French had done better and earlier.
Interest in his "art" became a snobbery. Cage is mostly about signaling. Bach is about art: huge difference.

One can't help suspect that Cage and his ilk simply had run out of ideas (why else turn to eastern philosophy for inspiration?). They came at a time when Jazz redefined Western music as the most vibrant, creative, and plain fun art form, with its pop outgrowth called rock 'n' roll.

What's important to remember is that Bach and Schubert did it all! They were both Stravinsky and the Beatles rolled into one. They knew of no arbitrary distinction between cerebral music and the pop variety.
Post WWII, only Jazz bridged that gap. "Serious" music became film music and/or sterile academic exercise of no lasting value (cage/babbitt, etc.)

Death of an art form.

Rickard Dahl said...

I don't agree with Anonymous that true freedom requires strict rules. True freedom requires an aesthetic judgement that is honest. You don't need strict rules to make music that sounds good. Either your music sounds good or it doesn't. Overemphasis on rules leads to sterility. Just to disprove that strict rules necessarily lead to true freedom (or good aesthetic quality in this context): Just look at pop music, you got strict format, strict harmonies, strict use of instrumentation and so on. The result? Sterile, very much so.

Nathaniel Garbutt said...

I've always found that John Cage seemed to rely too much on intellectual slight of hand. He could be provocative without actually holding or voicing a concrete opinion. His work/statements quite often require his followers/adherents to think about the profundity and decipher a meaning without him ever really having to interact further or explain. This, to me at least, is where the sometimes savage comments from Boulez/Xenakis etc come from regarding Cage.

I've always found the idea of removing the ego of the composer from the music (this as one of Cages' stated aims) to also be rather flimsy and I agree with Anon. With Cage I find it to be the opposite. His music is lathered with his ego.

I was reading the composition notes for Apartment house 1776 some years ago, in which he took music composed in the 18th century America and mutated it with the I-Ching. Cage is known for having a strong dislike for 18th cent. music and when his first series of questions didn't remove enough of the 18th 'centuriness' he simply modified the questions posed to achieve the music he wanted. The music exists in its current form entirely because his ego, his tastes and his manipulation of the I-Ching.

The whole body of work involving the I-Ching becomes a little suspect for me and just seems to be more a gimmick in the end as point of departure (controversy?) from his peers.

Anonymous said...

Rickard Dahl: I didn't say freedom requires following rules; it requires the existence of rules.
Much of Western music consists of innovative ways of breaking tonal rules. Think of how a bird flies. It must master (innately) tons of gravity-based rules. Only within the constraints of these rules the bird can take off and fly and express its freedom. Without the rules, the bird is grounded: some freedom...

Music is similar. Without rules, you end up with free Jazz, which to me is just fancy noise.

Bryan Townsend said...

Gee, I go away for a few hours and you guys run wild in the comments section. Good on you!

@Anonymous: I think that "rules" is the wrong word perhaps. The Classical and Baroque eras are often accused of having strict rules of composition, but what they had instead were creative principles and practices. If you look, for example, at what Charles Rosen has written regarding the Classical Style, you will see that Haydn structured his sonata movements in an amazing number of different ways. There were no "rules" as such, not at the time. Much later 19th century theorists tried to formalize sonata form, but they failed to capture the amazing variety of methods used by Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. But yes, people like Bach and Schubert were both popular and serious.

Cage practiced what we might call the Zen of composition. A lot of his music seems designed to perplex, just like a Zen koan. He was also the master of attracting public attention through being fashionably ahead of his time--a core necessity for a career as a 20th century composer, it seems.

A lot of 20th century music, in various genres, could be described as "fancy noise"!!

cloudpine said...

Thank you for your inclusion of Pettersson, the only one in your list I had not heard, or heard of to my shame. I bought the collected symphonies box set and it is very moving!

Bryan Townsend said...

I think I would probably do a slightly different list if I were doing it today--but Pettersson would likely still be on it. Interesting composer, powerful music and not like what anyone else has done. Glad you connected with it!

Maury said...

Debussy's ballet Jeux, cited above, would be on my list of the most innovative 20th C. music works. The irony of two innovative works premiered weeks apart by the same artists in the same city where one sinks and the other rises is quite remarkable. Le Sacre is also relatively easy to conduct while Jeux is extremely difficult which points up the difference between them.Le Sacre's innovations are on the surface while Jeux's are of musical organization. Boulez of course was a polemicist even from his student days. Interestingly his best compositions to me sound like modernized Debussy. I found him somewhat disappointing as a conductor FWIW.

Bryan Townsend said...

Interesting thoughts, Maury. I suspect most conductors would not say that Le Sacre was easy to conduct, though!

Maury said...

Well I meant relatively easy compared to Jeux haha. I have heard many versions of Le Sacre on recordings and in the concert hall and almost all were very competent. Most recordings of Jeux sound incompetent to me.

But as to your general points about Debussy I agree that he has been undervalued as innovator due to the heavy critical backing for the serialists. I wonder if his influence in a curious fashion went through the back door in what I call the proto Hollywood group (Korngold, Schreker, Zemlinsky, Szymanowski plus Scriabin).