New Music and the Wounded Dragon
Brahms’s Requiem has not the true funeral relish: it is so execrably and ponderously dull that the very flattest of funerals would seem like a ballet, or at least a danse macabre, after it.
– George Bernard Shaw, The World, November 9, 1892
Beethoven’s second Symphony is a crass monster, a hideously writhing wounded dragon, that refuses to expire, and though bleeding in the Finale, furiously beats about with its tail erect.
– Zeitung fur die Elegante Welt, Vienna, May 1804
Scathing commentary about the music of two of the world’s finest composers! Even Brahms and Beethoven were subject to negative, albeit highly amusing, reviews by the press. It is fascinating to peruse Nicolas Slonimsky’s Lexicon of Musical Invective, a collection of “critical assaults on composers,” to learn how music by the most celebrated composers has been scorned and misunderstood. Perhaps the more important message to deduce from Slonimsky’s book is that music we now consider “old” was once new.
Unfortunately, resentment toward anything new has persisted into today’s musical culture. If you scan the season schedule of a typical orchestra, you are unlikely to find more than a handful of works written in the twentieth century, let alone the twenty-first. Instead, many orchestras program the same works by the same composers year after year. The reasons for this vary: contemporary music can be more technically demanding for an orchestra and can require increased rehearsal time; some orchestras do not have access to new music scores or may find them prohibitively expensive in these troubled days of arts-funding cuts; or, as I discovered from a response to a letter that I wrote as a concerned undergraduate to the president of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, it comes down to balancing artistic vision with keeping people in the seats.
In my own teaching experience, 1 always become nervous when the twentieth-century music unit begins because I can already hear the complaints from my students – “This isn’t music!” “Where’s the melody?” “It sounds like a bunch of noise.” – and those are some of the more polite statements. I often shake my head when confronted with these comments because the majority of the music about which students complain was written more than fifty years ago. It is difficult to call the works of Bela Bartok (d. 1945) or Arnold Schoenberg (d. 1951) “new,” despite the declarations I hear in my class to the contrary.
In his provocative book, Who Needs Classical Music?, Julian Johnson notes that “Musical modernism is little liked and even less understood. . . . This alone suggests that the music requires critical reflection.” In light of that observation, I was intrigued to read that the topic for this issue of the Forum is literacy because I believe that we have an opportunity to increase and sharpen our literacy when it comes to more contemporary artistic expressions. Instead of shying away from what is unfamiliar to us, why not embrace it? This resolution should extend to all of the arts.
Like those voiced by some of my students, the most common complaints from concertgoers about contemporary music revolve around its having “no melody,” or that one “can’t tap along with it,” or that it just plain “sounds weird” (and sometimes it does). From my perspective, these remarks assume that a piece of music written in 1995 inherently shares a link with a piece written in 1750 and should be expected to function in the same way. In other words, few people have a difficult time listening to the music of J.S. Bach because it can be expected to do certain things that are familiar to most listeners. By contrast, one may not know what to expect with a newer work. What I suggest below may be a simple method for approaching new music, as well as other arts.
Let’s take the first movement of the second Brandenburg Concerto as a piece that exemplifies characteristics which we might find in Bach’s music. Immediately the listener is presented with richly melodic music stated by the violins and answered by a piccolo trumpet. Rhythmically, the movement stays in the same meter, so it is easy to tap the beat. Finally, Bach’s music consists of harmony that we have heard many times before; these familiar chords appear in all types of music written before Bach’s time and beyond.
Now consider the composer, artist, and philosopher John Cage (1912-92). In musical circles, Cage is probably best known for his piece 4’33”, in which a pianist sits silently at the keyboard for the time specified by the title. The “music” consists of whatever sounds occur in the performing space: coughing, rustling, and talking, to name a few. To take a less extreme example, most of Cage’s music allows for the element of chance to shape a piece. For instance, Cage determined the compositional structure of many pieces by rolling dice or consulting the I Ching; additionally, he directed performers to play movements from compositions in any order, at any tempo or dynamic. This is where listeners to Bach and Cage part company. Though Cage’s music often contains the same instruments as Bach’s, Cage’s music sounds entirely different because it does not fulfill the expectations that we learn listening to Bach. A person expecting to find a hummable melody, steady beat, and pretty chords in a Cage composition will be disappointed from the downbeat on.
But why should these differences create a value judgment? Bach is not “better” than Cage, just as Rembrandt is not “better” than Jackson Pollock; they are artists from different eras, each expressing unique artistic statements. To help a potential listener who is frightened by modern music (and art), I would argue that everything has to do with expectations – just as one would not expect a painting by Pollock to look like a Rembrandt painting, one should not expect Cage’s Music of Changes to share the exact characteristics as Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto. If listeners approach an unfamiliar musical work by suspending their expectations and focusing on it as its own entity, they have a greater chance of at least appreciating the composer’s efforts. So upon entering a recital that contains new music, try focusing on something else besides the melody. Does the piece have an interesting rhythm? Are the instruments playing in nontraditional ways? just what makes the piece sound different from music that you know? Try to find at least one or two aspects of the work that you find intriguing or noteworthy.
Additionally, you might consider the history of the artwork that you plan to observe or hear. More recent paintings or musical compositions sometimes offer an advantage to us because we might relate to them better as a result of their immediacy. For example, works that depict the Holocaust resonate deeply in our society because the details of those atrocities still remain in our shared memory. In this sense, contemporary works could have a better chance of reaching the listener – often the artists are alive and sometimes in the concert hall or art gallery with you – because artist and listener share common experiences.
I close with another quote from Slonimsky’s book, this time about Claude Debussy:
Poor Debussy, sandwiched in between Brahms and Beethoven, seemed weaker than usual. We cannot feel that all this extreme ecstasy is natural; it seems forced and hysterical; it is musical absinthe; there are moments when the suffering Faun in Debussy’s Afternoon of a faun seems to need a veterinary surgeon (Louis Elson, Boston Daily Advertiser, January 2, 1905).
I suspect that today’s composers would not mind becoming the next Brahms, Beethoven, or Debussy, even if told their music writhed like a wounded dragon or needed a veterinarian.
David Thurmaier is an assistant professor of music theory at Central Missouri State University. His musical interests include Charles Ives, American music of all types, and the Beatles. he is also an active composer and performer on horn and guitar.
Copyright National Forum: Phi Kappa Phi Journal Spring 2004
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