Monday, September 25, 2017

A 20th Century Debate

My post from Saturday on the Ten Best Compositions of the 20th Century sparked some interesting comments. One of them made such outstanding points that I want to bring it, and my response, into a separate post. First you should go read the original post so you know what we are arguing about. Where the discussion got very interesting was with this comment from Anonymous (a regular commentator):
I find that list depressing. Mind you, the selection is perfectly reasonable. I would probably add Ligeti, remove Prokofiev or Ives. But it's scary to think how relatively weak these pieces are compared with a 19th c. equivalent. (Only the Rite stands out.) Wagner alone has produced greater music than all of your pieces combined.
I think the problem is the very concept of 20th c. music. It actually makes little sense historically. Twenty is just a nice round number but it's meaningless. Historically, the period you want to consider and compare would be called "modernity" and that's 1870-1950. You would then have a more coherent, and far stronger selection.
To which I responded:
Very good point about the arbitrariness of the century and yes, 1870 to 1950 is an era in itself. However, in recent years historians have been eschewing using terms like "Baroque" and "Romantic" in favor of labeling their studies simply the "19th Century" or the "20th Century." However I have to disagree about the 19th century. It is just personal taste, but I don't find much that I enjoy from the death of Schubert to Debussy. Shocking, I know, but I have never had much liking for the ponderous pomposity of 19th century music. Exceptions for Chopin, some Brahms... I find Wagner to be particularly unpleasant! But, as I say, just a personal view. I look at the list of 20th century music and think, "wow, what great stuff!"
Anonymous came back with a further comment:
In your list only Stravinsky might be seriously considered in the top 10 among all composers. Perhaps Bartok but that's already pushing it. 
Meanwhile, in the 19th c., you have Beethoven, Schubert, Debussy, Wagner who are all instant top-10 members. Next, people like Schumann, Brahms, Verdi, Chopin, Puccini are all knocking on the door. 
In other words, nearly half of the 10 greatest composers who ever lived can be associated with the 19th c. 
Another problem with your list is the sole inclusion of Reich. To me, he's the greatest American composer that ever lived. But his inclusion requires the consideration of Jazz musicians, for example, Miles Davis, Kenny Clarke, Thelonious Monk, and especially John Coltrane. So if you're going to have Reich, then you need to have Coltrane because they share so much -- and in just about all aspects (originality, range, influence), people like Miles Davis and John Coltrane leave, say, Ives or Messiaen in the dust.
The problem is this: until 1950, the best musical minds went into classical music. After that, this was no longer true. Also, too much of music composition moved into academia, from which great art has never emerged.
This was a very stimulating comment, so I responded with this:
Excellent comment!! I did say that this was just personal taste for me, so setting that aside and looking at it objectively, yes, there are a lot of great, that is to say, widely loved, composers from the 19th century. Let's take the New York Times list, put together by Anthony Tommasini as our benchmark. The list, in order, is Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Schubert, Debussy, Stravinsky, Brahms, Verdi, Wagner and Bartók. We might quibble over some, but let's just take it as a reasonable attempt to list the greatest composers no longer living starting with Bach (pre-Bach composers were excluded).
Here are my quibbles: Beethoven and Schubert are composers born in the 18th century who had their greatest influence in the 19th century, but to my mind, they are not really 19th century composers. What Charles Rosen calls "The Romantic Generation" begins with a number of composers all born around 1810: Berlioz, Liszt, Schumann and Chopin. Those are the true 19th century composers. Beethoven and Schubert wrote music on a solid 18th century foundation. Debussy, while born in the 19th century (as were Stravinsky, Prokofiev and Sibelius, all composers we consider 20th century) is considered to be perhaps the founder of 20th century music. I know that it seems as if I have just promulgated a contradiction: why do I consider composers born in the late 18th century to be more 18th century and ones born in the late 19th century to be more 20th century? Yes, it seems odd! But I think that is due to the fact that the large tidal movements in the arts do not quite align with the zeros! In other words, the 18th century musical structures did in fact endure into the first part of the 19th century, while the 20th century concepts of structure began a bit before the turn of the century. This is all debatable, of course! But assuming that what I have proposed is plausible, that means that, on Tommasini's list, four of the ten are 18th century (Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert), three are 20th century (Debussy, Stravinsky and Bartók) and only three are 19th century (Brahms, Verdi and Wagner) and two of them are known only for opera.
Your other point is regarding Steve Reich. Yes, he does seem to both be an awkward fit with the other composers on the list, but at the same time, I agree, he is perhaps the greatest American composer. He is the only one on the list who came to prominence after 1950. But I think it is pretty clear that he is a "classical" composer. According to Reich's own way of classifying music, he is one of the guys who writes it down, that is to say, he creates a musical score which is then performed by specialist musicians. Jazz, while an influence on his style, is a very different genre with different methods. If we accept your criteria we would have to consider other influences: drumming from Ghana and gamelan from Bali. In a similar vein, we would have to bring in Ravi Shankar if we are talking about the music of Philip Glass.
But your last point is a very powerful one! I have experienced this with my own students: the most highly gifted tended to go into something else other than classical music! And yes again, academia does not produce great music, though I am not sure why. Composers are always bemoaning their poverty and difficulty of getting performances and general insignificance. Academia provides a nurturing environment with a steady paycheck, enthusiastic students, performance opportunities and prestige. So why don't academic composers write great music?
Here is the Tommasini list from the New York Times:

The question of why the environment of academia seems to stifle creativity is a good one, and one that I don't have an answer for.

On reflection, it seems that one of the most important events in music in the 19th century was the dominance of opera. I don't think any other century or era witnessed the over-reaching of one genre to this extent. The concerto was very important in the 18th century, but it did not dominate the way opera did in the 19th century. Just look, two out of the three 19th century composers were known ONLY for opera! And the century is rife with other composers who were nearly exclusively opera composers: Rossini (yes, born in the 18th century, but worked extensively in the 19th), Puccini, Massenet, Bellini, Gounod, Offenbach, Bizet, Rimsky-Korsakov. The only serious rivals to opera were the solo piano recital, invented by Liszt, and the symphony concert. These two genres were almost as important as opera, to music historians at least, if not the audiences of the day. Opera was the mass entertainment of the century as the cinema and team sports were of the 20th century.

It is spectacularly true that no 20th century composers were very successful with opera, with the exception of Alban Berg, who only wrote two (well, one and a bit). Overnight, it seems, composers moved into other genres.

Fascinating subject...

Let's have an envoi. How about some great 19th century music? Giuseppe Verdi's life precisely spans what I see as the "19th Century" which actually begins a bit into the century: 1813 - 1901. Aida is one of his greatest masterpieces. This is a San Francisco Opera production starring Luciano Pavarotti and Margaret Price:


Gene said...

"It is spectacularly true that no 20th century composers were very successful with opera, with the exception of Alban Berg." I admire Berg immensely: Lulu, Wozzeck, and the Violin Concerto are indispensable. But aren't you forgetting Richard Strauss? Salome, Elektra, Der Rosenkavalier, Ariadne auf Naxos, and Capriccio (and maybe a couple of his other operas) are well-known staples of the repertoire. All were written in the 20th century. Strauss himself lived until 1949. Is he really a 19th-century composer?

Will Wilkin said...

I appreciate the variety much more than I would, say, listening to my "favorite" all the time. At different times in my life, or in different moods as days go by,different composers will hit or miss. Of course certain favorites really do shine through, such as Puccini for me, despite my overall preference for baroque and classical opera, Puccini just sweeps me away in spite of my prejudices. In the end, I need them all!

Bryan Townsend said...

Yes, Gene, quite right! I did completely forget about Richard Strauss. He is not a composer I have ever felt very comfortable with and in recent years I have listened to very little of his music. So I tend to forget about him. I really should sit down with Herr Strauss and immerse myself in his music. I think of him as kind of an extension of the music of Franz Liszt, another with whom I am not so closely familiar. Thanks for the reminder!

You bet, Will!

Will Wilkin said...

Regarding 20th century opera, I like Benjamin Britten John Adams. Of them all, who is the "best?" Often just whoever I'm listening to right now....I mean, er uhm...Monteverdi or Cavalli....

Bryan Townsend said...

There are undeniably some fine operas in the 20th century. But for much of the century most composers seemed to avoid that medium entirely.