Tuesday, October 18, 2016

It's Canonic: 20th century, 2nd half

The first half of the 20th century was surprisingly easy, but the second half won't be and I expect a lot of disputatious comments whatever I choose. The reason is that the closer you get to the present day, the foggier the picture is. I think that a hundred years is needed to really see what stands out from the crowd with any certainty. By 2100 will it be generally acknowledged that Harry Partch is the great American composer of the second half of the 20th century, or will it be Steve Reich? Will Karlheinz Stockhausen be forgotten or widely loved? I don't think anyone knows for sure at this point, but I have some opinions. So here we go. Bear in mind this is just orchestral music after 1950.

Let's start with France as I find it helps to look at specific traditions in sorting out who's who. Olivier Messiaen is an obvious choice. He made the pre-1950 list with his Turangalîla-Symphonie, one of the most striking pieces of orchestral music of the era, but there are some good candidates from after 1950 as well. Messiaen lived until 1992 and was very productive. I think I would pick out two pieces, Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum (1964) for wind, brass and percussion and Des Canyons aux étoiles for piano, horn, glockenspiel, xylorimba and small orchestra (1974). Another composer very active in the second half of the century was Henri Dutilleux, a lapidary composer who wrote a select few outstanding pieces. Among them, perhaps the most memorable are two concertos: one for cello, written for Mstislav Rostropovich titled Tout un monde lointain (1970) and one for violin, written for Isaac Stern, titled L'arbre des songes (1985).

German composition post-war was very different from before simply because of the desolation of war and the departure or loss of Jewish musicians. The sense was that everything had to begin anew, a blank slate as it were. Composers like Karlheinz Stockhausen found themselves in the class of Messiaen at Darmstadt. In the 1950s and into the 60s, there grew up a "Darmstadt School" of composition that included, apart from Stockhausen, Pierre Boulez, Bruno Madera, Luigi Nono, Luciano Berio, Mauricio Kagel and others. Characteristically, their music was avant-garde, experimental, and, at least in my opinion, hasn't aged well. I think that if we regard "canonic" works as ones that have a special aesthetic appeal to audiences, then hardly any of this music has become part of the canon. That phrase "hardly any" is rather weaselly! So let's have a look: are there any possible candidates? Two that come to mind are Gesange der Jünglinge by Stockhausen, an early electronic piece, and the Sinfonia by Berio. I think that my readers should weigh in on this. Do you think they have achieved canonicity?

Let me know in the comments.

More and more, as the century progressed, we see composers from outside central Europe, not just Russia and North America, but Poland, Greece, Great Britain and Japan. Shostakovich wrote some wonderful symphonies post-war of which I think that the Symphony No. 10 (1953, but possibly completed earlier) is perhaps the most-enjoyed (that is the basic measure of canonicity). There is one enormously popular symphony by the Polish composer Henryk Górecki, the Symphony No. 3 the "Symphony of Sorrowful Songs" of 1976 that even crossed over to the pop charts in Europe. British composers became more and more prominent after the war, particularly Benjamin Britten, though his strengths are perhaps greatest in opera and vocal music. Still, his Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra and the Sea Interludes, adapted from the opera Peter Grimes, would likely qualify. Unfortunately, due to my oversight, they should have been included in the first part as they were composed before 1950! Sorry, Britten fans.

After all the experimentation in the 50s and 60s, a new kind of approach arose in the 1970s with the so-called "minimal" composers whose music, though featuring a steady pulse and lots of repetition, was hardly minimal. The two names to note are Philip Glass and Steve Reich and I think that there are likely canonical works from both of them. But we have to bend the category a bit: they both tend to write music for unusual ensembles that are somewhere between what we usually think of as chamber music and orchestral music. An example, and I think a piece that is sure to be in the canon, is Steve Reich's Music for Eighteen Musicians:

Philip Glass, on the other hand, has written quite a bit for conventional orchestra and the Symphony No. 3 from 1995 is a good candidate for the canon:

Going even further afield, the first composer from Japan to have real recognition in the West was Toru Takemitsu and he might have a bid for canonicity with the piece November Steps for biwa, shakuhachi and orchestra from 1967:

From here on, the number of composers multiplies enormously and the difficulty of sorting out the exceptional pieces becomes harder and harder. For one thing, there are so very many works--and even composers--that I simply have not heard. Here is where my astute and knowledgeable commentators will undoubtedly make a contribution. What have you heard that you think will make the cut?


Jives said...

If "canonicity" is in some part dependent on audience enthusiasm, and demand for repeated performances, then a century from now, we'll probably have a lot of John Luther Adams and Philip Glass in the mix, which is ok. I think Arvo Part will be kindly remembered, as well as Reich. I'm reminded of this book by Robert Reilly, which you've highlighted before.


I think that euphony (more or less) will win out, and most of that spiky, inhospitable the mid-twentieth century music will linger on as a curiosity, aired out at bearable intervals.

At this late stage, our cultural landscape is so fragmented that we're not really experiencing cultural high points together. Maybe the canons themselves will be multiplying.

Anonymous said...

I'd defend Stockhausen somewhat. His work could be memorable, and even interesting. Case in point being Stimmung, though that's probably just because of its minimalist bent.

To some extent I wonder whether the canon differs country to country. I would point to the works of Oliver Knussen as part of the canon (e.g. Ophelia Dances), but it may well be that they just get played more in Britain.

More Brits. For James Macmillan I think it's fair to say his work will make the cut. His percussion concerto Veni, Veni Emmanuel has been performed over 500 times worldwide since its premiere in the early 90s, I believe. Also Michael Tippett's A Child of Our Time; however, that's the only Tippett piece that'll make it, I imagine. And even John Tavener, boring though I find his music, his work is very popular.

Oh, mustn't forget Penderecki. His St Luke Passion and Polish Requiem, for example, are already widely appreciated.

A handful of others spring to mind that may well enter the canon:
Pettersson -- Symphony No. 7
Per Norgard -- Symphony No. 3
Sofia Gubaidulina -- Offertorium
Kalevi Aho -- Symphony No. 9
Arvo Part -- there's too much to choose from...

With the exception of Norgard, whose work I'm not overly familiar with, I think all the composers listed have produced work that listeners actually like, which should ensure their longevity. It is interesting that most of the works that first come to mind for me are later in the century. The exceptions are mainly Shostakovich and Messiaen. Even with Penderecki, his Polish Requiem (1984) will likely prove more enduring than his St Luke Passion (1964, I think).

Bryan Townsend said...

Jives, thanks! I will do an update adding Arvo Pärt. About the Adamses: I think I will add John Adams based on things like Shaker Loops, but John Luther Adams I think is a good example of a composer that will be forgotten fairly quickly. Or am I just a big meanie?

Slugging, you know, I thought of Stimmung, which I will probably include in vocal music, but I honestly could not think of an orchestral piece that is canonic. Oliver Knussen is an interesting example, though possibly too national, as you say. Claude Vivier would be a Canadian example. Pretty good, but really not known elsewhere.

James Macmillan has been mentioned to me by other commentators, but I have not explored his music yet. Michael Tippett is my go-to example of a composer that should be forgotten as soon as possible. Tavener is a good suggestion, though.

Yes, I considered Penderecki, especially the Threnody.

To your ending list, which is great, we could add something by Einojuhani Rautavaara maybe?

How about Rothko Chapel by Morton Feldman?

Anonymous said...

Claude who? Yes, I see your point.

I forgot this was just orchestral music. Gruppen might count though.

You know, I've never heard any Rautavaara, for some reason or another. Rothko Chapel is a great suggestion, however.

I've never had particularly strong feelings about Tippett -- what's your objection? Couldn't agree more about John Luther Adams though. Fortunately his music is very easy to forget.

You must explore James Macmillan's work. Just saw the premiere of his Stabat Mater last week, and it was a very impressive work, met with rapturous applause and a standing ovation. I only say this to convey how much his music is liked, and why I suspect he will be remembered as an important composer. So, yeah, worth exploring.

Bryan Townsend said...

Gruppen and Momente seem to me to be the perfect examples of Important Avant-Garde Works Much Mentioned in Music History Classes but ones with little chance of becoming part of the canon!

I know that Tippett is pretty highly regarded, but I always find his music ugly.

James Macmillan!! Yes, will do.

Henry Johnston said...

Berio's Sinfonia has not aged well, in my view. The theme of alienation, cultural fragmentation, and the idea of there being nothing else to say has been explored much more powerfully by many others -- and long before he came along.

In fact, Shostakovich's 15th Symphony covers some of the same ground, but with about ten times more depth and profundity and without the tendentiousness. Speaking of Shostakovich, really most of his late work is canon-worthy. I would particularly note the Second Cello Concerto.

Lutoslawski might find a place in the canon, especially some of his early work. I think the Third and Fourth Symphonies may yet get their day.

Schnittke will probably linger on the fringes of the canon and avoid relegation to total oblivion.

Boris Tchaikovsky is little known in the West but would perhaps be my dark-horse candidate for someone who may yet get his due. His Third Symphony (Sevastopol) is a fine piece.

I think Britten's War Requiem will NOT earn a spot in the canon. It's banal, mannered and, in my view, quite pretentious.

I also have my doubts on Gubaidulina. Western audiences are easily hoodwinked by the "mysterious Russian soul" but her music is really quite primitive -- upward and downward scales and predictable contrasts between extremes.

I was surprised to see someone mention Penderecki's Polish Requiem. That piece seems to already have been buried. If the St. Luke's Passion still gets an occasional performance (will be performed next year in London), the Requiem seems to have already been forgotten, save the Chaconne. I like some of Penderecki's work but a lot of it is terribly cliched and really quite pedestrian.

Bryan Townsend said...

I am hugely in agreement with you regarding Shostakovich and his Symphony No. 15! I considered Lutoslawski and may have to think some more about him. I agree with you regarding Britten's War Requiem. Thanks very much for your other suggestions, which I will try to get around to considering.