October 29, 2011

How to recognize a major composer...

There are few ways to kill time that are more entertaining for me than exploring the Zeitgeist of our (relatively) recent past.  The sense of the surreal I get from brief archeological excursions into books and various archival databases is often stronger than what one could get from looking at Magritte's paintings, smoking dope, or reading Victor Pelevin's novels.  Here is one example:
      ... there is an international style of composition that is virtually devoid of individuality.
Harold C. Schonberg, Senior Music Critic, "An End in Itself", New York Times, March 26, 1961.

At the time of the article's publication, avant-garde music already included such strikingly individual works as Stockhausen's Gruppen, Boulez' Le Marteau sans Maitre, and Carter's first two string quartets along with his Variations for Orchestra (to mention just some important composers active at that time).  For a music critic at the most influential newspaper in the country, failing to recognize the artistic significance of these works is already embarrassing enough.  (Music criticism, after all, is not just about patting Mozart on the back while gently admonishing Rudolf Serkin for being overly serious in his performance of K.595 with the New York Philharmonic.)  But Schonberg's concern was not with specific works or composers.  He was quick to admit that "every age produced a lot of bad music," whereas it was the post-war compositional style itself that he saw as an insult to our basic standards of artistic sanity and our sacred aesthetic ideals (read: the kind of music that an average season subscriber to the New York Philharmonic will embrace as a worthy successor to Prokofiev's piano concertos and Stravinsky's ballets).  And it was as a self-appointed defender of these 'standards' and 'ideals', and with the imprimatur of his powerful newspaper, that Schonberg went to war against contemporary music in reviews and Sunday pieces.  His frequent, indiscriminate, and derisive use of "serialism" was eerily reminiscent of how the term "formalism" had been used a decade earlier by the Soviet officialdom to attack Soviet composers who were deemed to have deviated from the standards of Socialist Realism.  In both cases there was a clear message that composers must adjust their subjective, internal creative impulses so as to compose music satisfying certain objective, external criteria of aesthetic worthiness.

And Schonberg got away with it.  And he got away with it in a city that had already embraced post-war modernism in painting (Pollock, Rothko), sculpture (Noguchi, Smith), and architecture (van der Rohe, Saarinen).  And he remained unrepentant to the end.  Two decades after the publication of the above article Schonberg went on record saying "Many professionals would rate Carter a major composer.  I do not."  Then, to make sure we know that this curt dismissal is based on objective, irrefutable evidence, he added: "I have suspicion about a composer who at the age of 71 (at the point of writing) has not been able to attract a public." [Facing the Music, Summit Books, NY 1981, p.198]

Oh, the fucking power of fearless inference from true but irrelevant premises to startling but false conclusions!  It worked for Kant and it sure as hell worked for Schonberg.  I used to think that to feel stupid (while staring in disbelief at the printed page) one had to read the Critique of Pure Reason.  But it seems that reading music criticism may do just as well.  I simply can't see what attracting a public has to do with the aesthetic merits of a living composer's music.  Bach went to his grave without having attracted a public beyond an occasional small gathering at Zimmermann's Coffee House.  (Those who heard Bach's music at the Thomaskirche or at the court of Anhalt-Köthen did not go there for the music, and many disliked the music anyway.  And lets not forget that Mozart was nearly 26 years old when he "discovered" Bach's music - three decades after Bach's death - through Gottfried von Sweiten.)  Schumann departed this world without having attracted a public either.  The only public that Ives had been able to attract was the clientele of his insurance company.  That, of course, did not matter in the least.  What did matter, and matter a lot, is that the music of these composers attracted the professionals; and it was the collective aesthetic judgment of professional musicians that eventually prevailed over the superficial, unsophisticated musical tastes of the general public.  Which tells me that being able to attract a public is not a necessary condition for acknowledging a living composer as a major artist.  And it surely isn't a sufficient condition either.  Hummel, to mention but one example, had a large public by the standards of his day, yet when he died his music pretty much died with him.

Attracting a public my ass....

There was plenty of time for all this to run through my head as I was listening to the surging ovation, punctuated by whistles and shouts, at the end of Jerome Comte's performance of Carter's Clarinet Concerto.  It felt ridiculously voyeuristic to stare at the speakers for so long while listening to the torrential outpouring of gratitude for a breathtaking performance of Carter's playful, joyful, exhilarating, and so unmistakably American music.  And because it was Boulez who conducted that performance, before the applause died down I couldn't help but to borrow my last thought from Boulez himself (albeit with a one-letter misspelling):



maready said...

Nicely put essay Boom!

Anonymous said...

Schonberg is dead. Long live Schoenberg.