Who Cares If You Don’t Listen?

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As the 21st century opens up, we can consider music in the 20th with a little more perspective than has heretofore been available. It’s just a century since the “magic years” when Stravinsky set one course of modernism on its way, working with major artists in dance and visual art, while the Viennese set off on another path. It’s well past a century since, in December 1899, Debussy wandered about Paris looking at clouds, launching, in Nuages, what Richard Swift memorably called his “subtle, luminous, and subversive” assault on traditional harmony, in the same month that Schoenberg completed Verklärte Nacht, a different but equally earnest attempt at transfiguration.

By mid-century, classical music culture worldwide was deeply divided. Was modernism the style of the future, enthroned by a cultural, or perhaps theoretical, imperative to replace an outmoded tonality? Or was modernism a dead end, fatally unattractive to the real public, the sterile hybrid of intellectual experiments? Composers had long depended upon patronage from individuals and institutions—the church, the aristocracy—and, often enough, insulated themselves from the world by finding support from like-minded, wealthy sources that encouraged their innovation. Did the shift of such support to American academic institutions bring with it a shift to a culture of theory, and, if so, was this an alienating, pernicious change? Did critics acquire a new power to shape the flow of change in music, and did they use that power against the taste of most musicians and the public?

The rhetoric accompanying these debates has been vastly overheated for decades now, and continues to be so long after it has been clear that, whatever the reality of atonality’s academic hegemony, musical systems favoring tonal centers are thriving and will continue to thrive. Adventurous new music reaches wide audiences, and they applaud it. I recently attended a sold-out performance of John Adams’s Dr. Atomic at the Chicago Lyric Opera. The night before, I was in Pittsburgh for a sold-out performance headlined by John Corigliano’s Red Violin concerto. Neither work is atonal in the radically limited sense sometimes used by post-Webernists or their vociferous opponents. Yet neither is remotely tonal in the sense of using harmony according to the common practice of first-year conservatory curricula. Both are clearly major works of their time and place, and both are succeeding in terms comparable to major works of the past. Both make untenable the idea that new works are not entering the classical repertoire.

So this is a good time to sort out rhetorical falsehoods from rhetorical flourishes in the great debate over new music.

Let’s start with the argument that, since important composers throughout history have found their new works met with incomprehension or even hostility, we should expect to confront difficulty within our own new music culture. We have all heard how Bizet suffered ignominious failure with Carmen, and never knew that it would become one of the most beloved of all operas. We are reminded that Mahler found immense hostility to his symphonic ideas, not only among the general public but throughout his own orchestra. A parallel issue in the history of the reception of music is that Mozart’s music struck many of his contemporaries as intensely Romantic, before Romantic was necessarily a good thing—it was challenging and difficult, far from being the radiantly and perfectly balanced Classicism we now admire.

Probably the most often-cited case studies for this argument surround Beethoven. At its extreme, the “Beethoven myth” goes like this: Beethoven’s music was considered impossibly difficult in his time; X’s music is considered difficult now (fill in an academic and/or atonal composer); thus X is like, or thinks he/she is like, Beethoven.

Now, I have never heard a single person on the side of new music actually use the ‘Beethoven myth’ in this silly way. It’s a straw man argument set up by those who resent some trends in new music, to neutralize the force of the real historical analogy. Whether, or not, Beethoven had difficulties when it came to the reception of his more challenging music does not reflect glory on anyone, before or since, whose music is also received poorly. Everyone stands or falls on his/her own work. Beethoven was tremendously admired and even revered in his time. He was a public figure in Vienna, as Shostakovich was, as Bernstein was, as Michael Tilson Thomas and Gustavo Dudamel are today, in their cities. He was not, however, by any means the most popular or successful composer of his time, even in Vienna. That was, to Beethoven’s immense distress, Rossini.

What does this mean for 20th-century composers? Not much, probably. But Beethoven’s very frequent experience—with the 3rd and 5th symphonies, the violin concerto, the “Missa Solemnis,” and, of course, all the late quartets as well as the late piano sonatas—was to be told, even by his great admirers and by the initial performers themselves, that he was making a grave mistake by ignoring the preferences of the public or his own recent successes. The key issue raised ever since is to what degree a composer should follow the audience, and to what degree his/her own view.

This is not a simple question, and it doesn’t favor an absolute answer. Benjamin Britten had the appealing view that a composer should always consider the performers, the place, and the people. Consider, but not run after! One instinctively dislikes the view, which regrettably some composers have held, that the audience can safely be disregarded—but virtually no great composers have held this view.

Stravinsky was given to exaggerated pronouncements about who he wrote for and why, but I don’t think he really believed anything like this. Schoenberg participated in a society for private performances that would allow his music to be heard first by tiny audiences of friends, but so did Schubert and Chopin. Milton Babbitt has been unfairly dogged for fifty years by an article he wrote titled “Who Cares If They Listen?” which subsequently supplied a slogan for gleeful detractors. But, as many readers here already know, the title was created by an editor; the title Babbitt submitted with his article was “The Composer as Specialist,” which would have been more a propos since the article is an argument in favor of allowing some (not all!) composers to experiment after the manner of basic science. There has always been room in the larger profession for a true avant-garde—Gesualdo, Mussorgsky, Schubert, and Wolf were all radical experimenters, and mostly knew only very modest success in their time. Anyone who knows Milton Babbitt knows that he cares deeply about performers and audiences.

Many composers have earnestly believed that they were impelled to experiment in ways that made large sectors of the traditional audience uncomfortable, and they struggled with this. In those struggles, they took comfort in the example of Beethoven, and they were not wrong to do so. It didn’t make a single one of them like Beethoven, and they all knew it.

The Beethoven myth is easy to explode. More significant is the idea that there is, on one hand, the perfection of tonality, and then there is a degenerate non-tonality or atonality. Some see this as a very bright line. There is gorgeous and satisfying tonality, right up until Schoenberg’s “emancipation of the dissonance,” which some would rather describe as an enslavement to rigid atonality. No one disputes that tonality in some form has always existed. It never ceased to be important to most 20th-century composers. And yet, a freedom from the rules of tonality was also important to most 20th-century composers. Many icons of listener-friendly music—Copland, Bernstein, etc.—also wrote non-tonal works. These were never among their popular successes, but they were among the composers’ own favorites. Strauss himself experimented with daringly non-tonal music—Salome and Elektra both use unresolved dissonance in an uncompromising way. Stravinsky veered all over the map, ending in resolute atonality.

The real fact is that pure functional tonality—the tonality of the Classical style—was definitely crumbling by the time of late Liszt, and absolutely so by the time of late Brahms. The idea that every progression, much less every pitch, is governed by the rules Rameau first codified in the early 18th century just doesn’t hold up, even for much of the 19th century. There is an essential continuum to the uses and meaning of tonality. Prokofiev remains very largely tonal in a traditional way, though most of his great works are exceptionally dissonant. Shostakovich is in and out. Britten is almost entirely in, though his tonality is quirky. Bartok is mostly out, though his non-tonality is quirky.

But this list, all by itself, belies the very idea that the establishment somehow abandoned tonality! This was never so. Barber, Harris, Diamond, Thomson, etc. among Americans, all immensely powerful in the academy as well as the concert hall, used an amalgam of tonal and non-tonal elements, favoring the tonal. Boulez and Stockhausen may have been so brilliant as self-promoters that it seemed to some that they had taken the field, but Britten was still active through three quarters of the century. What does one make of Messiaen? Clearly, and by his own description, his musical language depends on scales and harmonies; it’s also clear these are not the traditional ones, though he was a great master in the study of traditional harmony. (So was Schoenberg, for that matter.) Is all of Messiaen to be considered beyond the tonal pale?

It’s often said that the great majority of works written in our time are unworthy of the great traditions of Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms. This is unassailably true, as were virtually all works written at the time, and in the style, of Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms. It’s not an academic rejection of tonality that makes new music so often hard to like. Neither will an embrace of old tonal practices help contemporary composers write masterpieces.

Going further, I believe that audiences, even those that believe they hate nasty modern music, can have very powerful and positive encounters with essentially non-tonal music. First, it has to be music of great integrity, expressive strength, and technical accomplishment. Then, it must be advocated by wonderful performers who deeply believe in it. It helps enormously if the performers have a talent for explaining why they believe—though, in the end, the music will speak for itself. It helps if there’s some narrative element, something that the listener uses to enter into the listening experience expectantly rather than resistantly, though “programs” are also merely a crutch. (But crutches can be immensely useful!)

I remember a performance of Christopher Rouse’s Gorgon, given at the Aspen Music Festival. We took a very small amount of the audience’s time to mention that the work was not melodic, gentle, sweet, elegiac; it was not meant to be. It engaged a time of struggle both personally for the composer and generally for the society. It borrowed from heavy metal rock music, something not generally true of Romantic music. It was meant to be harrowing. Afterwards, the extremely predominant view, shared by almost all of our crucially important, Chanel-clad major supporters, was that the piece was exhilarating, fascinating, strange, captivating—and I felt sure that if it had simply been foisted upon them without comment, they would’ve instead compared it to Enesco’s Roumanian Rhapsodies, and not favorably.

Tonality, per se, is not the dividing line between music that works and music that doesn’t. This doesn’t mean that a chasm never opened up between much of the audience and many of the composers. Nor does it mean that some critics can’t use dissonance as a rallying cry, however false, to lead a charge against new music. Consider Orff’s Carmina Burana, as popular a work as one can imagine. It is tonal, indubitably. But its tonality is not at all that of Mozart. Rather, it’s a kind of pre-Raphaelite tonality, using insistent and repetitive modal elements rather than the elegant and elaborate modulations of Haydn.

We’re asked to believe that there were bravely tonal composers trying to preserve the legacy of the masters, against the forbidding edicts of all-powerful academic composers whose music everyone hated without daring to say so.

I myself was a student, through the mid and late 20th century, of Milton Babbitt at Princeton and Roger Sessions at Juilliard. No one ever asked me to write atonal music, and I didn’t. No one ever asked me to write twelve-tone music either, and I didn’t, at least not in any way Schoenberg would’ve recognized. Sessions once said about a string quartet of mine, in his dry but droll way, that, while Schoenberg had predicted there would be more great music in C major, he probably didn’t envision exactly my ‘ultra-tonality.’ Then he gave me extremely good and helpful advice about my piece, without suggesting that I change its tonality in the slightest. My fellow students were mostly writing tonal music and were winning all the major prizes with it.

I think the extreme examples of teachers creating a hegemony of atonality are either exaggerated, were not in the major centers, or are downright fictions.

So why this fierce yet paradoxically pathetic insistence that all music was led astray, perhaps never to find its way back to the nurturing goodness of tonality? It is true that Schoenberg started an atonal movement with a bang, and a lot of rhetorical flourish. He later softened considerably. Webern’s music is almost purely atonal, and it is truly great music of a very specialized kind. Who insists that listeners must like it? Ultimately, each listener makes an independent decision. Yet a great many serious performers wish to advocate for this music. Should they not? That sounds a bit totalitarian.

If James Levine, one of the consummate musicians of our time, can persuade a significant audience to care about Schoenberg, Babbitt, and Sessions, I think that will be a triumph. If not, it will have been a fascinating chapter nevertheless. But it will be about persuasion, not coercion.

The opinions of performers have generally been the guiding force in the eventual winnowing of a canon in classical music, not composers themselves, who have often carried out unsuccessful experiments. And it hasn’t been the audience—however that is defined—who have very often not appreciated what they hear, at least not at first. It was performers who kept alive the late Beethoven quartets and created a position for Mahler, often despite a grumbling audience.

Once again, the great majority of what is heard on new music concerts is destined for the ash-heap of history. But it was always so. It isn’t bad because it’s atonal, it’s bad because it’s not so good. But Berg is atonal, and brilliant, and lyrically moving. That will survive.

As for tonality, it comes in two kinds, often insufficiently understood. There is the magnificent edifice of the so-called “common practice.” This extremely specific style reaches its height with Haydn, Mozart, and early Beethoven. It is indeed one of the great artistic creations in the history of music. It should be endlessly admired, and studied, and loved. This is the tonality that is taught in conservatories as a set of well-described rules. To the great composers, it was not so much a system as a way of achieving an unprecedented unity of harmony, melody, and form. This unity is wonderfully described in Charles Rosen’s landmark The Classical Style.

Since we agree that this Classical style was supreme, why should we ever leave it? It is not in the nature of authenticity in style that any such achievement can be frozen in time. The sublime style of Cimabue made way for Giotto’s, and Giotto’s for Piero’s, and Piero’s for Michelangelo’s. There are different ways of explaining this troublesome point, but it seems that, no matter how great the perfection of a style, once it has gone a certain distance, it gets used up.

Sunday morning, after the Friday I’ve mentioned with Corigliano and the Saturday with John Adams, I heard part of Haydn’s The Creation. To the words “The wonder of his works displays the firmament,” I heard one of the most convincing and apt uses of the perfect authentic cadence formula ever made. If you told me that Haydn received this music direct from God’s dictation, as Handel is said to have claimed about parts of his “Messiah,” I wouldn’t argue. I wondered, “Is it something at the heart of the style, or is it rather the composer’s mastery, that makes this seem exactly like a divine revelation?”

Current neuroscience, finding that sensitivity to pitch may well be hard-wired into our brains, makes me entertain the idea that neural structures may indeed favor recognizable patterns in music. There may be musical structures that really are more “natural” than others. This wouldn’t mean that music with fewer patterns, or no patterns, was intrinsically bad, but it would restrict its popularity. It is commonplace to assert that the naturally occurring overtone series is the foundation of tonality, though this is problematic since most of us cheerfully listen to pianos tuned away from, rather than toward, the real overtones. The great jazz master George Russell proposes that it’s not the major scale, but rather the Lydian scale, that is truly natural. I would go this far, but not much further: the physical properties of sound bring pitches into each other’s orbits in powerful ways. Every tone is not just like every other tone, as soon as they are placed into a temporal relation by the design of music. Patterns that are recognizable assist our hearing, our understanding, and thus, inevitably, our enjoyment of music. There will be a continuum for each person for how much pattern is good, and where it becomes stultifying; thus there will be statistical justification for saying there is an average amount of patterning that works for most people. Probably, a desire to hear more will lead people to accept more abstract or delicately nuanced patterns.

The idea that there are many ways to bring pitches into sensible relationships, not just the one system that culminated in Beethoven, brings us to a larger view of tonality. This is the second and much more general notion of authentic tonality, still concerned with the centering of pitch and hence unlike Schoenberg’s most extreme experiments, but free of the rules of harmonic progression that were themselves never static except to narrow-minded students and teachers. Really, most composers never fully abandoned this second form of tonality. Some of the most successful composers today—Adams and Glass, for instance—use it in a quite restricted way. Others, like Harbison, go in and out.

Going back to the visual arts analogy, there’s true abstraction, which one can take or leave. Then there’s a plethora of ideas about representation. Chardin represents, Cezanne represents, Picasso represents, Basquiat represents. They also abstract. Anti-modernists in the visual arts have a problem in that Impressionism, which is now generally held to be above all criticism, is not extremely representative by the standards of Raphael, but then neither is Rembrandt.

Some have a wish for music to be primarily an antidote to existential loneliness. When music fills this role, it’s lovely, but the idea that this is music’s primary function is so limiting as to be just bathetic. Music is a powerful, temporal art, and it needs to fulfill all the functions of art—to challenge, to celebrate, to excite intellectually and spiritually. To draw an ineffectual line called ‘tonality’ in the sand, and demand that none shall pass, will not work.

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Alan Fletcher
Photo by Jim Paussa
Courtesy Aspen Music Festival and School

Alan Fletcher, president and CEO of the Aspen Music Festival and School since March 2006, is also a composer whose music has been performed by the Pittsburgh Symphony and the Boston Modern Orchestra Project. He studied composition at Princeton University and The Juilliard School with Roger Sessions, Milton Babbitt, Edward T. Cone, and Paul Lansky, and has taught composition and theory at New England Conservatory, where he was also provost and senior vice president, and at Carnegie Mellon University, where he was head of the School of Music.