Book Reviews - Autumn 2007

Atonality and Beyond

The century when composers and audiences parted company

By Sudip Bose | September 1, 2007


The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century, by Alex Ross, Farrar, Straus and Giroux

In 1958, the violinist Yehudi Menuhin commissioned a solo sonata from the American composer Ross Lee Finney and decided to include the work—written in the thorny 12-tone style pioneered by Arnold Schoenberg—in a recital he was giving in London. A week before the performance, however, ticket sales were dismal. So Menuhin announced a change: the Finney would be replaced by Beethoven’s ever-popular Kreutzer sonata. Not surprisingly, the concert sold out at once. But Menuhin, who had championed contemporary works by such composers as Béla Bartók and Frank Martin, was not about to let the audience’s aversion to a difficult, dissonant piece influence his artistic choices. In his 1976 memoir, Unfinished Journey, Menuhin recounts the scolding he delivered to the gathered crowd. “You weren’t going to come to hear the Ross Lee Finney which I wanted to play for you,” he said. “We announced we would play the Kreutzer, and so we will. But first you must listen to Ross Lee Finney.”

In its less-cunning guises, Menuhin’s ruse is still being enacted in the concert halls of today. After all, when contemporary works are played, they are often the first thing to appear on a program, and they typically last no longer than 10 minutes or so. Take your medicine, conductors seem to be saying, and then you’ll get your feast of Mozart, Beethoven, or Brahms. As Alex Ross, the classical music critic of The New Yorker, writes in his superb narrative history, The Rest Is Noise, 20th-century music “still sends ripples of unease through concert audiences.” We recoil from abstraction, from great collisions of rhythms and harmonies. When we encounter the works of György Ligeti, Hans Werner Henze, Witold Lutoslawski, or Olivier Messiaen—to name just four giants of 20th-century music—we do not, alas, hear great music. We hear only noise. And we are all the poorer for it.

How did it all go so very wrong? Why, over the course of the last century, did composers of classical music veer so sharply away from their audiences? Answering these questions, while illuminating the peculiar predicament of the composer in 20th-century culture, is Ross’s project in this magisterial book. One could not hope for a better guide; his knowledge of both music and the historical forces that shaped it is deep and nuanced, and his descriptions of specific musical passages are rich and evocative, always employing the right metaphor or turn of phrase.

So how did this most vibrant of arts come to be, in Ross’s words, “an art of the dead, a repertory that begins with Bach and terminates with Mahler and Puccini?” Much of the problem resides in the human ear’s initial reluctance to assimilate atonality—the free use of those musical intervals that jar the senses and grate on the nerves, intervals such as the major second and minor ninth. The entire history of Western music, of course, is a progression from tonality to atonality, from consonance to dissonance. The apex of tonal music was reached in the sprawling, heroic works of Anton Bruckner, Richard Wagner, Gustav Mahler, and Richard Strauss, pieces that straddled the divide between the 19th and 20th centuries. But even the works of Mahler and Strauss, those grand emblems of fin-de-siècle Vienna, herald the break with tonality in varying degrees. Mahler died in 1911, leaving his Tenth Symphony unfinished but for a first-movement Adagio, a sublime and darkly hued piece. At the climax of that movement is a titanic, dissonant chord, a frightful convergence of nine notes; the preceding 25 minutes or so push the bounds of Mahler’s harmonic language, but nothing prepares one for the shock of hearing that awesome dissonance.

Strauss’s opera Salome, which premiered in 1905, bends tonality in an even more daring way. At the end of that “ultra-dissonant biblical spectacle,” Ross writes, after Salome demands the head of Jokanaan and performs her lurid Dance of the Seven Veils, “the horns play fast figures that blur into a howl, the timpani pound away at a four-note chromatic pattern, the woodwinds shriek on high. In effect, the opera ends with eight bars of noise.” And yet, when the opera was heard in the Austrian city of Graz, “the crowd roared its approval.” Mahler, who was both a friend and rival of his younger colleague, recognized the genius in the work and could not fathom how it could have been so well received; he had assumed that the crowd would have revolted. Of course, Strauss’s dissonances give way, at times, to passages of spectacular lushness, of rich tonal opulence. Audiences were willing, it seems, to accept rampant dissonance, so long as it was accompanied by consonance, too, as a way of relieving the tension.

Things began to change with the advent of Arnold Schoenberg, who did nothing less than revolutionize harmonic expression. Schoenberg came of age in the Vienna of Mahler and Strauss, and his early tonal works, such as Verklärte Nacht and the magnificent Gurrelieder, betray the influences of those composers. But he soon lost interest in tonality, believing it to be diseased and degenerate—echoing the philosopher Otto Weininger, who argued that purely aesthetic and beautiful art was worthless—and he began to write music of a kind that had not been heard before. In Schoenberg’s Second String Quartet, Ross writes, “the very concept of a chord [dissolves] into a matrix of intervals.” The Three Piano Pieces turn the keyboard into “something like a percussion instrument, a battlefield of triple and quadruple forte.” Audiences shuddered; so, too, did the critics. But Schoenberg was unfazed. If audiences did not want to listen to new music, he believed, “the serious artist should stop flailing his arms in a bid for attention, and instead withdraw into a principled solitude.”

Together with his pupils Anton Webern (whose atonal scores are miniature worlds of fleeting gestures and stripped-down textures) and Alban Berg (who incorporates Schoenberg’s principles into a more Romantic harmonic idiom), Schoenberg formed what came to be known as the Second Viennese School. This movement soon went beyond atonality into the world of 12-tone composition, in which a work is based on a particular arrangement and subsequent manipulations of the 12 notes in the chromatic scale. The results were mixed. Schoenberg continued to encounter rabid resistance and, as Ross notes, “began to take pride in the fact that his music attracted so few listeners.” Meanwhile, Berg’s opera Wozzeck was an opening-night success when it premiered in 1925, causing bewilderment in the German philosopher Theodor Adorno, who—echoing Mahler’s reaction to Salome—could not believe that such a great piece of music could be cheered by any audience. The triumph, Adorno argued, reflected poorly on the opera.

What the Second Viennese School did for harmony, Igor Stravinsky was doing for rhythm. His jagged, propulsive, primeval rhythms were a revelation. The audience at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris on May 29, 1913, could hardly have been prepared for the blistering sounds that assaulted them during the premiere of The Rite of Spring. Stravinsky’s ballet Petrushka followed in the path blazed by the Rite, with “periodic explosions of dissonance and rhythmic complexity, which mimic the energy of the modern urban crowd.” And yet, the public still did not turn its back completely. The scandal that erupted that first night at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, with howls of dissent and fights breaking out among the crowd, is now legendary. Less well known is how quickly audiences warmed to the work. “Subsequent performances,” Ross writes, “were packed, and at each one the opposition dwindled. At the second, there was noise only during the latter part of the ballet; at the third, ‘vigorous applause’ and little protest. At a concert performance of the Rite one year later, ‘unprecedented exaltation’ and a ‘fever of adoration’ swept over the crowd, and admirers mobbed Stravinsky in the street afterward, in a riot of delight.”

Politics—and in particular, the legacy of totalitarianism—widened forever the great divide between audience and composer. Nobody forgot how Hitler had championed the work of Wagner and Bruckner; that music was almost the official soundtrack of the Nazi Party. So strong was the association between fascism and such works as Bruckner’s Fifth Symphony and Wagner’s Parsifal that postwar composers wanted to rid themselves of the Romantic tradition, to cast off, once and for all, the last vestiges of a “fascist” tonality and to embrace the avant-garde. Music in postwar Europe, as a result, “exploded into a pandemonium of revolutions, counterrevolutions, theories, polemics, alliances, and party splits.”

In such a climate, Schoenberg was the musical god before whom nearly everyone genuflected; virtue and morality were thought to be synonymous with the atonal and 12-tone styles he developed. Now, “music would . . . carry its holy torch into abysses where even Schoenberg had not dared to go,” Ross writes. “All familiar sounds, all relics of convention, had to be expunged.” And as a succession of compositional styles took root—the brutal serialism of Pierre Boulez, the electronic music of Karlheinz Stockhausen, the music of chance and silence of John Cage—the public became almost an afterthought.

Elliott Carter, whose four string quartets are the heirs to Bartók’s set of six, articulated the sentiment of many a composer when he said, after finishing his First String Quartet in 1951, “I decided for once to write a work very interesting to myself and to say to hell with the public and with the performers too.” Meanwhile, Hans Werner Henze, whose masterly fusion of the modern and the Romantic had drawn the ire of Boulez and the ridicule of the conductor Hermann Scherchen, summed up the situation this way: “The existing audience of music-lovers, music-consumers, was to be ignored. . . . Any encoun­ter with the listeners that was not catastrophic and scandalous would defile the artist, and would mobilize distrust against us. . . . As Adorno decreed, the job of a composer was to write music that would repel, shock, and be the vehicle for ‘unmitigated cruelty.’”

There are signs that the classical-music composers of today—enlivened not only by melody but also by the sounds of popular music—might be ready, as Ross notes toward the end of his marvelous account, to “modify or reject the classic avant-garde stance of the composer in opposition to society.” It seems to me that the survival of their art depends on their doing so. Our culture values classical music less and less. Audiences are older. Radio stations recycle the same play list of greatest hits. It isn’t a return to tonality that I think is needed (though a whole school of neo-tonalists has emerged in recent years), but rather a greater exposure to the masterpieces of the 20th century, repeated hearings of Messiaen’s Canyons aux étoiles, for example, and Ligeti’s Lux aeterna. That responsibility belongs to our orchestral conductors. Our composers must work hard, as well, to embrace their audiences, to repair the great rift that opened up during the last century. They have their work cut out for them. After all, they have a hundred years of dissonance to overcome.

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