"[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:
And there was a time when we actually believed nonsense like this!"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
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: