How will this century sound?
Classical music faces a new age in unexpectedly buoyant form. It is livelier and more surprising than at any time since Rachmaninov, says Norman Lebrecht
THE final decade of the 20th century brought a measure of relief to the agonised search for a musical identity. Warily, the art looked into a mirror and accepted what it saw, an image fractured and more complex than any in its history.
Unlike former centuries which wore a uniform musical face – the 19th century being broadly Romantic, the 18th Classical, the 17th Baroque – the 20th century had expended a terrible wastage of musical energy worrying what on earth it was creatively about.
Masters of invention and leaders of opinion hitched the art to a general trend of modernism, without ever defining what precisely made it modern.
Was Webern, who wrote in thorny serial formulae for an audience of initiates, more or less modern than Kurt Weill, whose Brechtian hit-songs possessed a distinctly epochal ironic edge? Was Schoenberg, who wanted his music to be whistled by milkmen, more a man of his times than Debussy, who could not care less? What, in any event, was “modern” about men (invariably men) writing music for a hundred penguin-suited functionaries to play in shoebox-shaped halls before a dressed-up bourgeoisie?
The term “modernism” could be usefully applied to Joyce, Picasso, Beckett and Le Corbusier, since what they were doing represented a self-evident breach with the past. But music, even at its most futuristic and iconoclastic, was manacled by rules, scales, traditions, routines and union agreements that could not be shed in the interests of renewal. The use of modernism as a musical term was either a misnomer or, more frequently, a calculated fraud. It enabled composers to portray themselves as contemporary and cutting-edge, when their methods, ideals and expectations were not markedly different from Beethoven’s or Verdi’s.
Intellectually, it encouraged social and cultural theorists to harness the art to a dominant ideology, generally of the political left. In the view of the Marxist philosopher Theodor Adorno, Mahler and Schoenberg were saving the world for socialism, while Bartók and Stravinsky were irredeemable reactionaries.
In a different sense, one that belonged more to Madison Avenue than to reasoned analysis, “modernism” signalled the desire of a composer to appeal to younger and better educated consumers, to move with the times and embrace its technologies. In mid-century, both Boulez and Bernstein wore the badge of modernism, in the service of diametrically opposed styles.
Collectively, the strategy of modernism proved spectacularly self-defeating, attracting few durable enthusiasts and succeeding only in deterring traditional audiences from concerts that contained works by a living or recent composer, and ultimately from the habit of regular concert-going as a requisite of a civilised metropolitan existence. By the end of the century, many feared that serious music was economically dead, socially sterile and beyond regeneration.
Modernism was, by then, a distant memory, replaced in the visual arts by postmodernism, neo-traditionalism, neurotic realism and all manner of publicity-driven contrivances. Among creative musicians, confusion reigned.
Music has entered the third Christian millennium more bewildered than most art forms, having long since lost its bearings. Yet the very anarchy of millennial mayhem may subtly assist its arrival at an epochal self-recognition. For the more diffuse society becomes, the more it reflects the eclectic state of musical creation.
Pluralism is the ingredient that made 20th-century music different from all others. For the first time in history, composers had or grabbed the freedom to compose in whatever mode they preferred or invented, regardless of fashion and often heedless of personal safety. Where Classical composers worked to court orders and Romanticists to public expectations, Pluralists of the 20th century shunned every external impulse, including pecuniary self-interest. They wrote, on the whole, exactly as they pleased – even under conditions of extreme duress. The heroic absence of uniformity gave their art a frisson of excitement that will persist long after the petty squabbles over style and substance are consigned to the dust-sheets of history.
Pluralism, however, is more than just a catch-all term to be thrown to liberal-arts students and the lower conservatory classes. The value of art is greater than pleasure. It reflects, in more ways than artists realise, the hidden truths of a fast-changing world; artistic style is a mirror of global momentum.
The pluralism that overtook musical composition in the late 20th century was in no sense coincidental. This was the century in which nation states ceased to be racially and religiously homogeneous and became multicultural. It was the period in which black music entered the white bloodstream and notions of cultural superiority had to be revised or scrapped.
Old music, long mocked as primitive, was excavated and reinstated as an authentic cultural ancestor and a source of creative regeneration. In a world where national borders were disappearing and offshore media magnates held more power than any national government, musical cross-pollination was presciently and promiscuously fertile.
When a composer sits down at the start of the new century to write anything from a sonata to a rap album, he (or, increasingly, she) is no longer able to write an orthodox piece in an insular style without risking derision. The Mahlerian prescription has finally been fulfilled. The symphony, said Mahler to Sibelius, “is like the world – it must embrace everything”.
There are fears that creative purity and traditions have been diluted by external influences, but these qualms are outweighed both by the abundance of voices and by the weight of creative substance. The 20th century is often regarded as poorer than its predecessors in musical genius. A long list of indubitably great composers refutes this supposition. Mahler, Sibelius, Prokofiev and Shostakovich extended the lifespan of symphonic form. The concerto flourished in the hands of Rachmaninov, Ravel, Poulenc and Gershwin. Opera was renewed by Strauss, Janá cek, Berg and Britten. The string quartets of Bartók and Shostakovich stand beside Beethoven’s without blushing. The solo sonata grew from Debussy to Schnittke. Ballet was revitalised by Stravinsky, Cage, Copland and Henze. Music theatre was revived by Weill, Coward and Bernstein. In none of its significant forms was serious music weakened during the 20th century, and none of its masterpieces was less important or durable than those of previous centuries.
The music of the future is harder to judge, but following the collapse of asceticism, there has been an eruption of new ideas and trends. Freed from political restraints, composers in the eastern half of Europe dipped into a submerged palette of aural sensations, ancient and modern. In the West, overthrowing serialism, composers have shyly began again to write big tunes and bold concertos.
Names like Pärt and Kancheli, Piazzolla and Adams, Tavener and Rautavaara crept into the general culture. A simple spirituality, lost to many established religions that modernised their services, pervades the symphonies of Górecki and Karamanov. Listeners now turn to serious music not for sensual pleasure or cerebral stimulus but out of urgent need: to seek relief from manifold anxieties. Music, in its plural forms, has regained social relevance.
The pessimism that gripped the concert hall pertained mostly to music of the past. Music at the start of the 21st century is livelier and more surprising than at any time since Rachmaninov walked the earth. New names like Adès and Ali-zade, Tan Dun and Turnage, Aho and Zorn are blazing a trail in an art without maps. Pluralism opened doors to the brave and the brilliant. New means of Internet communication provide ways of reaching unprejudiced ears. The old modes of concert performance are in deep trouble but, as a new century dawns, the creative spark shines brighter than ever and music is mutating into a genuine modernity.