March 17, 2009

Those "uncompromising" modernist composers...


Many occupations are known for their "proprietary" ailments in the form of various syndromes: the housemaid's knee, the tennis elbow, the writer's cramp - the list is too long to continue. One occupational syndrome, however, has so far eluded the attention of the medical profession. This still unnamed malady afflicts many music writers (critics, historians, educators), and it manifests itself in this way:

Every time a music writer attempts to write something about a contemporary 12-tone composer, the word "uncompromising" swells up in the writer's left hemisphere, then quickly overtakes the entire cerebral cortex and inserts itself in one of the first three sentences of whatever it is that the writer is working on. And if the subject is the composer Charles Wuorinen, the symptoms may become so acute that the word "uncompromising" will make multiple appearances beginning with the very first sentence. Here is a partial list of documented cases of this syndrome among music writers working for just one newspaper and writing about just one 12-tone composer.

Incidentally, when the subject is a composer whose tone rows carry strong tonal implications (or deviate from the magic number "12", or are manipulated in unorthodox ways), this syndrome manifests itself in a weaker, gentler form: Such a composer is invariably described as working with a "highly personal adaptation" of the 12-tone system.

At the risk of appearing insensitive to human suffering, I can't resist noting that this "music writer's syndrome" has a mildly hilarious side to it. Because this syndrome manifests itself only in connection with 20th century composers (the earliest documented case I know of dates to a 1935 review of Vaughan Williams's F-minor symphony), it gives the impression that (among other things) Bach's Passions, Chopin's etudes and Brahms's symphonies are full of "compromises", while the "adaptations" of the sonata form by Beethoven and Schubert are no more "personal" than in the music composed by an A.I. software at U.C. Santa Cruz.