In the current anniversary-fest the musical world has awarded itself there is an omission which dwarfs the lot of them. This is the invention of what many people still call ‘modern music’. For it was in 1909 that Schoenberg wrote his Five Orchestral Pieces and the monodrama Erwartung. These were early atonal works which used such a fantastic variety of harmony, rhythm, and colour, and took place at such an intense emotional level, that they first justified the use of the term ‘expressionist’. Roger Fry had just coined this term, also in 1909, in order to establish a contrast with the passivity of Impressionism.
The term modern music is still indelibly associated with the early experiments of Schoenberg; and it was an invention. He worked out a system for destroying tonality, called Twelve-note composition, which established dissonance as the core of the musical language to be employed. Consonance, or the sounds most people warm to, became extremely unlikely and much frowned upon as being weak. The result was so influential that when people are asked today what they think of modern music they still think of this endemically dissonant style, and more often than not say they don’t like it even though they probably can’t remember a single piece written in it. This is a remarkable achievement on Schoenberg’s part: to have codified something which, despite many decades now of back-tracking from its principles by most composers, still terrorises whole communities. Surely this is an anniversary worth remembering, for there has been nothing comparable in the history of music.
The horrors of it were obvious as long ago as 1955 when Henry Pleasants wrote ‘The Agony of Modern Music’. In this wonderfully argued account, Pleasants states that Twelve-note composition is an attempt to perpetuate a European musical tradition which is exhausted. He claimed that many composers of that period knew this very well, but they continued to write in it because not to do so would mean renouncing the special status they enjoyed as serious artists. That they had this status is the result of a popular superstition that serious music is by definition superior to popular music. Pleasants goes on to say that ‘there is good music, indifferent music and bad music, and they all exist in all types of composition. New music which cannot excite the enthusiastic participation of the lay listener has no claim to his sympathy and indulgence. Contrary to popular belief, all the music which survives in the standard repertoire has met this condition in its own time.’
Such is the fear of the curse of ‘modern music’ that concert promoters to this day avoid it. Unlike at any previous period in history, a new composition still tends to be something which the public braces itself for, the concert-planner hedges round with more popular fare, and whose second performance is never a forgone conclusion. True, since 1955 there has been something of a rethink, but the blight is still there and trying to convince the general public – the Mozart and Beethoven public – that they want to hear a piece written recently is the devil’s own job. When was the last time a piece established itself in the general repertoire? Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra? It was recently stated (by Chaz Jenkins, head of LSO Live) that the only modern composer who is anything like safe box office is Shostakovich – and his music used to be judged harshly in the West for being unadventurous.
A hundred years is a long time. No-one can now remember when it was thought normal for concert programmes to consist largely of contemporary compositions, as a matter of course. Unlike a hundred years ago, concert audiences now live almost exclusively in the past which, put like that, doesn’t seem entirely healthy. What’s the matter with now? Certainly music can induce a retreat into oneself and one’s thoughts, but does this require a temporal distance as well?
There is some light at the end of this astonishingly long tunnel. Those who say Twelve-note was a disaster are now heard everywhere. The Danish composer Bo Holten, whose opera The Visit of the Royal Physican recently played across ten performances at the Royal Opera House in Copenhagen to audiences of 94% capacity, is one of them. His alternative music must have something, since the risks inherent in staging modern operas are notorious. High time to move on.
This article was published in the Spectator, dated June 20th.