Very nice article by Chris Fox in the Guardian this weekend – thanks Colin H for the pointer. Ostensibly it’s about Schoenberg, but the real value is in Fox’s cautionary remarks on the sort of mainstream modernism marketed around the globe as ‘cutting edge’, in place of the real thing:
In retrospect, the most striking feature of the postwar period was the way in which Schoenbergian modernism hardened into the dominant orthodoxy of new music. Adorno had argued that Schoenberg was the true musical heir of Beethoven and Brahms, and Adorno’s arguments persuaded generations of composers to adopt the techniques pioneered by Schoenberg. Not to do so was to risk being thought old-fashioned or worse: in The Philosophy of Modern Music, Adorno dismissed Britten and Shostakovich as “feeble” and “impotent”. From Tel Aviv to Toronto, Cambridge to Cape Town, post-Schoenbergian composition became the lingua franca of new music, studied in the academies, commissioned for concert halls and opera houses. Even those composers who chose not to adopt this way of musical speaking could turn its ubiquity to their advantage: composers of bad tonal music explained their lack of success as evidence of institutional prejudice; composers of interesting tonal music (mostly minimalists) could celebrate success achieved in the face of the same prejudice.
The result has been a peculiar form of quasi-modern music that still survives today. It has the superficial characteristics of Schoenberg’s version of modernism – angular melodies, uneasy harmonies, abrupt shifts of tone – but, lacking the expressive necessity that propelled Schoenberg towards his new musical language, it has none of the fervent urgency of the second string quartet. This paradoxical music, conservative modernism or modernist conservatism, has its merits. It is often very skilfully made and, for those who acquire the taste, it can seem very tasteful. It sounds like modern music and is assiduously promoted as modern music by much of the classical music industry. Its disadvantage is that, when heard alongside the modernist masterpieces of the first decades of the 20th century, it just sounds vapid and dull.
One hundred years after the premiere of the second string quartet, Schoenberg’s musical legacy is a somewhat mixed blessing. His own works, particularly those of the early atonal period, retain the disturbing, kaleidoscopic vision that so upset the Viennese public a century ago. But the subsequent institutionalisation of the techniques he developed in those decisive months has produced hour upon hour of greyness, convincing generations of listeners that new music is always dull and often difficult.
There are two ways of reading this passage: one, and probably the more common, is to see it as the latest in a line of manifestos for audience-friendly, non-difficult, non-dissonant music.
But, knowing what I know of Fox’s music and his writing, this doesn’t sit right with me. For a start, the equation of ‘non-dissonant’ with ‘non-difficult’/'audience-friendly’ simply isn’t tenable – as many examples of difficult consonant music and non-difficult dissonant music attest. A second reading sees this passage as a call for the promotion of music that is actually more challenging. Not necessarily atonal, but not necessarily tonal either – narrow technical definitions get us nowhere in matters of aesthetic appreciation and should not be used to divide good from bad in this way. What does divide the good from the bad, Fox argues in this alternative reading, is ‘expressive necessity’ over ‘superficial’ ‘quasi-modern[ism]‘, ‘disturbing, kaleidoscopic vision’ over ‘hour upon hour of greyness’. Too much of the music that is put promoted by ensembles and institutions in order to fulfill a real or imagined obligation to present new music falls under the latter descriptions and it is, simply put, not good music. This is the stuff that orchestral subscribers and Proms goers and YouTube users and Sunday supplement readers think is contemporary music (because that’s what they’re told) and quite rightly decide that it is stuffy, uninspiring and not for them. The trick is to show them how wrong they are: the underpublicised new music ghetto is full of composers ten times more interesting than this. It won’t be for everyone – why should it be? – but it will mean a lot more to those who it does touch, and isn’t that worth more?