In Defence of Modernism


Patrick Zuk continues to champion the ideas of the book Reviving the Muse: Essays on Music after Modernism (‘Composition and Criticism’, March–April JMI). The thrust of the book is that modernism represents a degeneration for music. So Scruton’s article is in praise of Janacek, Strauss and Mahler. Menno Boogaard’s an argument that the golden years of music were 1788-1860; John Borstlap’s an appeal to recreate the classical and spiritual traditions of music. David Matthews offers an opinion that Beethoven was the ideal composer. Edward Pearce champions Mahler and Bruckner. Robert Walker suggests that experimental composers are motivated by a desire for street credibility. These writers despise contemporary music, they feel repelled from it, and as a result, for the most part, they are unable to provide an insightful response to it.

The question sidestepped in Zuk’s reply to Ian Wilson is the one posed by the book – was the evolution of serialism by Schoenberg the imposition of a straight jacket on creativity? Despite the cry of ‘yes’ offered in the anthology, in the circumstances prevailing around 1900 it was the traditional rules of composition that were stifling. Notes and phrases that jarred or disturbed were considered incorrect, as they did not comply with the audience’s musical expectations. Irregular rhythms equally were perceived as unmusical. Yet this was an age where a generation of human beings were living amongst a welter of new sounds: the deep frightening rumblings of great factory machines, the semi-regular pounding of engines, the noises created by immense numbers of people living in proximity, and, ominously, those of new and powerful machinery for making war.

New psychological states of mind emerged as alienation took hold of this population in an original manner. At one fundamental level all individuals are alienated from all others, a fact that is shared by all human beings throughout time, but in the modern era other forms of alienation appear that are not manifest in earlier epochs of rural and small scale production. In particular the growth of the money economy to dominate every aspect of life is new, so that human interactions become cash transactions and amidst the densest crowds can be found the bleakest loneliness. Life in the city is free but rootless compared to the tighter and socially more restrictive country. The buildings of a giant city, built by individual labourers each with their own hopes, desires, loves, sense of humour or otherwise, became owned by anonymous corporations, so that it is possible to walk around the streets and instead of feeling part of a city, feel that its physical features are alien, even hostile.

Is it any wonder that music needed to change in response to this new world, that a restlessness should creep in to those involved in music when a new piece need only state its theme before the rest of its evolution could be anticipated? It was possible to be bored by a new composition within minutes of the opening statement. How could music move forward and fulfil the aesthetic needs of the modern world within the framework of traditional harmony and rhythm? It could not and cannot.

Schoenberg and Stravinsky were the two most prominent harbingers of a new age in music, answering the needs of their times in very different ways. Schoenberg being the more austere and radical in abandoning traditional rules for tonality, Stravinsky in ignoring the prevailing rules of rhythm. Dissonance, unexpected blasts of sound, abrupt turns in the pattern of the music – these were shocking yet engaging. The music itself did not have to be loud and violent, the psychological damage was done by the failure of an anticipated note to sound, and instead a wincingly ‘wrong’ note fall in its place.

It is necessary to say a fairly obvious point, to ward off misunderstanding, that just because music is modern does not make it any good. The point is that to have fresh, interesting, soul-satisfying, music in the modern era, it was, and is, necessary to go beyond nineteenth-century musical ideas. Nor can it be argued that being willing to flout the traditional rules of tonality means necessarily adopting Schoenberg’s serial method.

Music has travelled so far in a hundred years that it is easy to forget how important and difficult was the break c. 1910 represented most clearly in the work of Schoenberg and Stravinsky. But if we were to take seriously the argument of Zuk (or the authors of the book he was basing his talk on) we belittle not only their works, but those of Adams, Berio, Cage, Glass, Messiaen, Part, Ligeti, Reich and Schnitkke – to list just a few.

Published on 1 July 2004

Conor Kostick is a writer and journalist. He is the author of Revolution in Ireland (1996) and, with Lorcan Collins, The Easter Rising (2000).

comments powered by Disqus