Friday, July 3, 2015

Two Faces of Non-Modernism

It was long the ideological practice of the modernist avant-garde to smear their aesthetic opponents as mere reactionary dolts. As Boulez so memorably averred:
"[A]ny musician who has not experienced—I do not say understood, but truly experienced—the necessity of dodecaphonic music is USELESS. For his whole work is irrelevant to the needs of his epoch."
This is deeply Marxist in its concept of history, of course, but somehow that has not prevented it from becoming, for a while at least, a benchmark of aesthetic truth: if you weren't part of the solution (dodecaphony, or whatever other method was the flavor of the week) then you were part of the problem. Composers who were shunned as a result included people like Sibelius, who, after the late 1920s never finished another piece, even though he lived until 1957, and Shostakovich, who was abhorred for writing music in traditional forms and keys. Here are a couple of samples of comments on Sibelius by ideologues of modernism:
"If Sibelius is good, then the musical criteria that have been applied from Bach to Schoenberg (…) are invalid."
Theodor Adorno 1938

"Sibelius, the worst composer in the world"
René Leibowitz 1955
And there was a time when we actually believed nonsense like this!

But let's make some distinctions: just as there are wonderful, serious, compelling works that are modernist such as the Rite of Spring by Stravinsky, there are also non-modernist works written in the 20th century that are trivial regurgitations of the clichés of the past, just as people like Boulez have claimed. But they were not written by Sibelius or Shostakovich. They were, perhaps, written by people like Jean Françaix. Have a listen to his Concertino for piano and orchestra of 1932:


Yes, I know I just posted it, but listening to it prompted this post. It is hard to believe something so trivial and trite was written after the horrors that France experienced in WWI and during the Great Depression. It is the classical equivalent of the song "Life Is Just a Bowl of Cherries" which dates from almost exactly the same time (1931):


Schoenberg, on the other hand, deeply tapped the surreal pessimism that Europe was feeling during the first half of the century, when it seemed that European civilization was destroying itself. These are the two Piano Pieces, op 33a and b, also dating from 1931:


Schoenberg was in tune with the "needs of the epoch", but aesthetics, I believe, is more than just holding up a mirror to society or history. It involves the creation of something that, in some way, transcends society and history. We don't admire our artists simply because they are weird kinds of sociologists or historians, but because they create things that we admire for aesthetic reasons. This is what was left out of modernism, intentionally, of course.

But that leads to ground already covered. What I wanted to do with this post was just insist on some aesthetic distinctions. There are many pieces of modernist music. Some are great and wonderful and others are trivial and mediocre and this has little to do with the musical vocabulary. There are many pieces of non-modernist music. Some are great and wonderful and others are trivial and mediocre and this has little to do with the musical vocabulary. Just as with poets: even though they may all be using the same dictionary, some are great and some are not. But somehow, the modernists managed to sell us the bill of goods that merely because they were writing dodecaphonic music or aleatoric music, using a new dictionary as it were, that the music was important or "valid" just because of that. And any music written using traditional methods was invalid. That's a load of crap.

Here is the Symphony No. 7 by Jean Sibelius, dating from 1924. Esa-Pekka Salonen conducts Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra:


4 comments:

Marc Puckett said...

Have those people made any legitimate, well, non-ideological, criticisms of Sibelius, do you think? I'll search through your archive when I get a half hour....

Bryan Townsend said...

You won't find anything in my archive, I don't think. But check out the Wikipedia article on Sibelius, it has some info on this.

Rickard Dahl said...

What does "Marxist in its concept of history" mean specifically? Is it basically pushing progressive values or is it the idea of achieving equality by pushing the peopl0e/ideas/art at the top down to be at the bottom along with the rest (in the context of music it would be getting rid of aesthetic values, i.e. such as the idea of dodecaphonic music somehow being equally as good or better than lets say music by J.S. Bach)?

Of course Sibelius and Shostakovich did far better compositions in general than at least the post WWII modernists who tried to keep pushing the boundaries until every aesthetically pleasing element was thrown out of the window. But it raises the question of neoclassism. On one hand it was the first true form of modernism that got rid of the romantic ideas (probably with the exception of impressionism). But on the other hand it was what seems to be a return to more aesthetically pleasing music, at least to some extent. Of course The Second Viennese School kept pushing their music to more chaotic levels with the 12-tone system. But at the same time we had Prokofiev making hard to play but pleasing music or Gershwin making amazing music that was fresh and innovative. There was also music that fell in-between. I don't enjoy Paul Hindemith's music for instance and Stravinsky, well, it was lots of hit and miss during this period for him. It's almost like neoclassism was more in-between the modernist ideal and the pre-romantic ideals. Maybe the true modernism (in its' pure form) came after WWII.

Anyways, the concertino you included in the post was nice. I think Henry Cowell is a good example to put on the same list as Sibelius or Shostakovich when it comes to rejecting the modernist trend. Sure, some of his music agrees a lot with the modernist idea of pushing the boundaries, especially with very dissonant works such as Dynamic Motion, Tiger or The Banshee. However, lots of his music has a neoclassical sound to it and neoclassical in a good way too. Here are two examples: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k-o37qzHX8A (quite "American" sound in this one) or https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-wNkxmHlk_o (I guess it can be described as neo-baroque, the first two movements are more dissonant and filled with the neoclassical sound of beauty mixed with ugliness, there happens to be a quote about the work in the description:
"While Cowell's late works seem more conservative, his undying instinct for fresh thinking can be heard in the Quartet for Flute, Oboe, Cello, and Harpsichord, written for the harpischordist Sylvia Marlowe in 1954. As in the much earlier Suite for Violin and Piano, Cowell availed himself of a baroque aesthetic, approaching it with his quiet and melodious heart." - Joel Sachs).

Bryan Townsend said...

I realized later that my comment about the Marxist concept of history was very enigmatic, so the very next day I put up a pretty long post, Cultural Hegemony, that went into it in detail. I think what I was specifically thinking of here was the idea that after a revolution you have to restart history from zero, wiping out the past. That was Boulez' idea and we see the same idea after the Russian Revolution (and after the French Revolution for that matter).