Web Essays

The Disappearing Modernists

Where did it all go wrong for so much music of the 20th century?

By Mark N. Grant | August 4, 2022
Sir Ernest MacMillan conducting the Toronto Symphony Orchestra for a Canadian Broadcasting Corporation production, ca. 1947 (Wikimedia Commons)
Sir Ernest MacMillan conducting the Toronto Symphony Orchestra for a Canadian Broadcasting Corporation production, ca. 1947 (Wikimedia Commons)

When Pablo Picasso was 18, his immortal greatness was not yet self-evident. As the historian and painter Paul Johnson writes, the artist lacked “full academic training,” and his drawing was “sometimes weak in consequence (one of the myths most consistently spread about Picasso is that he was a superb draftsman).” According to Johnson, “Picasso seems to have grasped, quite early on, that he would not get to the top of the field of conventional painting.” In Barcelona, “he was up against Ramon Casas i Carbó, fifteen years his senior and far more accomplished in traditional skills.” Johnson maintains that Casas was “a draftsman on the level of Ingres” and that “Picasso’s portraits invited comparison with Casas’s and are manifestly inferior (both can be seen in Barcelona).” Picasso left Spain for good in 1904, “to get away from life under Casas’s shadow and … endless disparaging comparisons with Casas,” and he saw “that Paris, with its preoccupation with novelty and fashion, was the place where he could shine and rise to the top.”

Some 30 years after Picasso went to Paris, a well-known but frustrated musician in France published a book in the Russian language in which he defined modernism with this phrase: “the fashion for fashion.” The author of The Muse and the Fashion was the Russian-born pianist-composer Nikolai Medtner (1880–1951), a close friend of Rachmaninoff’s. Medtner’s 19th-century romantic style was not popular either in Weimar Republic Berlin or in cutting-edge Paris, where he had, successively, settled after the Russian Revolution. In the 1930s, he emigrated to England, where he began to find a small but adoring audience and munificent patronage. In a word, Medtner thought nontonal music was ooh-la-la bunk. “In the days of our youth,” he wrote,

in perceiving not only classical music, but in hearing for the first time the new works of Tchaikovsky, Brahms, Grieg, and others, it never occurred to us to analyse them. We just enjoyed them. Our direct perception of them was not interrupted by any cuts in the senses. … But from the beginning of our century there gradually began to appear … musical works in which the … spontaneous listener, instead of being lost in blissful contemplation … began to suffer at every turn severe bumps from the cutting of the senses.

More than 100 years after not just Picasso’s cubist period but all the other -isms in modern art—fauvism, surrealism, abstract expressionism, Dada, and color field among them—art lovers, art buyers, and masses of museumgoers throughout the world wholly accept the presence of most abstract modernism cheek by jowl with contemporary figural and representational works. Every year, New York’s Museum of Modern Art attracts more than a million visitors who buy postcards, posters, and coffee-table books that reproduce Piet Mondrian, Jackson Pollock, and Mark Rothko as much as Rembrandt and Van Gogh. Yet it is an uncomfortable home truth that, more than 100 years after Igor Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring and the 12-tone music of Arnold Schoenberg, Alban Berg, and Anton Webern (not to mention the later more radical innovations of Pierre Boulez, Karlheinz Stockhausen, and John Cage), most non-musicians still agree with Medtner’s 1935 opinions about music: they have never accepted highly dissonant, atonal, or serial compositions. They still don’t want to listen. (Even some sympathetic musicians don’t like such works. Stage director Harold Clurman once asked composer Hanns Eisler, a student of Schoenberg’s who had himself composed works in a 12-tone idiom, “if it were possible to understand Schoenberg’s music and still not like it.” Clurman was “astonished” to hear Eisler reply, “That is my case.”) Except for a small niche of connoisseurs, classical music patrons these days spend their money on endless performances of a musical canon that mostly ended around 1910. Why is there this difference in public reception of modernism in the two art forms? Why is abstraction no longer seen as avant-garde in art and sculpture, but continues to be in music? Why do people line up around the world to see canvases by post-1910 painters, why do paintings by Willem de Kooning and Frank Stella sell at auction for millions, but the orchestral music of Schoenberg, Pierre Boulez, or Elliott Carter is never played at pops concerts (and rarely at subscription performances, for that matter)?

Only two American presidents in the last 75 years had any genuine taste for even pre-1910 classical music: Harry Truman and Jimmy Carter. However—in one of the counterintuitive paradoxes of 20th-century barbarism—the three monstrous European dictators of World War II, Hitler, Stalin, and Mussolini, all were pre-1910 classical music lovers. Hitler, a failed painter, adored Richard Wagner and the operettas of Franz Lehár, and was a welcome guest at Bayreuth. Mussolini owned a 300-year-old Amati violin and played it competently, had once been a music critic, and even liked American jazz (his son Romano, who lived to 2006, became a professional jazz musician after the war). Stalin collected opera recordings, attended the ballet, and habitually listened to classical music on the radio. The three leaders shared a predilection for the very tonal music that Medtner extolled as the only real musical art. Under Hitler and Stalin, performance of atonal, dissonant, or otherwise modernistic music was verboten. (Mussolini’s Italy was somewhat more tolerant of such styles, according to author Harvey Sachs.) Stalin decried abstract modern music as “formalism.” The Third Reich denounced both Kulturbolschewismus in music and entartete musik—“degenerate” modernistic music, mostly created by Jewish composers but also referring to jazz and other Black music.

Under the 20th century’s totalitarian regimes, a musician’s defiance of the state’s preferred artistic taste could mean getting beaten up, arrested, deported to the gulag, interred in a concentration camp, or tortured—it could also result in outright murder. Dmitri Shostakovich lived much of his life under such conditions, while Jewish composers in the Holocaust such as Viktor Ullmann, Pavel Haas, and Erwin Schulhoff perished in concentration camps or prisons (the first two were gassed). Today the term cancelation has come to refer to a nonfatal (but not harmless) version of these sanctions in democracies, a collective Scarlet Letter storm of opprobrium that effectively “deletes” a person from his or her career (it was called blacklisting during the McCarthy era). Such cancelation can be occasioned either by geopolitics or by domestic politics. But even the U.S. government once interned a famous musician. In 1917, after America had entered World War I, the German-born conductor of the Boston Symphony, Karl Muck, a Swiss citizen, allegedly declined to perform “The Star-Spangled Banner” before a concert, as had been requested (Muck was probably unaware of the request.) For this and other drummed-up anti-American offenses, Muck was arrested and imprisoned for a year and a half at Fort Oglethorpe in Georgia, and ultimately deported to Europe. Muck left Germany after Hitler came to power in 1933 and retired to his native Switzerland, dying in 1940.

In the immediate aftermath of World War II, the careers of several eminent European musicians associated with the Third Reich or the Vichy regime in France were, for a time, canceled—Wilhelm Furtwängler, Alfred Cortot, Walter Gieseking, and others. One such victim was the sensationally popular Metropolitan Opera Wagner diva Kirsten Flagstad, who had joined her husband in Nazi-occupied Norway for the duration of the war, leading to public uproar. All of these musicians eventually were reaccepted by the public, though clouds of historical disfavor have persisted. More recently, Karlheinz Stockhausen was temporarily canceled because of his comments praising the 9/11 hijackers as conceptual artists only days after the event; a few months later, Pierre Boulez was arrested in Basel by the Swiss police as an “alleged terrorist suspect” because in the 1960s he had said that opera houses should be blown up.

Today, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has not occasioned stateside internments, but it has led to the cancelation internationally of longtime superstar musicians like soprano Anna Netrebko and conductor Valery Gergiev and, unthinkably, even of some performances of Russian masterpieces that have hitherto been canonical, like the opera Boris Godunov or the 1812 Overture. Meanwhile, irrespective of Russia and Ukraine, the twin antipodes of the domestic culture wars are at it trying to cancel their respective bêtes noires. Just at this precarious moment, a book has appeared—The War on Music: Reclaiming the Twentieth Century by the veteran American orchestra conductor John Mauceri—that could not be timelier or more topical.

Mauceri argues a novel, iconoclastic thesis. The eclipse of tonal, “traditionally grammatical” music in the 20th century, and the ensuing estrangement of much of the concert hall audience, he writes, was not caused merely by artistic infighting (the pursuit of novelty and “the fashion for fashion”). It was also the political backwash of the defeat of 20th-century totalitarian regimes that had the unintended consequence of canceling a large swath of tonal music. Why? Not only because many tonal, accessible composers who wrote under the Italian fascists, German National Socialists, Soviet communists, and their satellites became non-persons after the war, but also because their very style of writing music was seen to be associated with those infamous totalitarian regimes. “Any composer who wrote non-avant garde … classical music—symphonies, operas, chamber music—was required to prove his innocence of having been a Nazi or a Fascist,” writes Mauceri. These composers were redacted out of music history just as the Soviets redacted czarists and white Russians out of their national history. Instead, abstract, experimental styles of music that audiences found ugly and incomprehensible became identified with postwar free expression, resurgent democracy, and a phoenix-like resurrection from the ashes of mass destruction. Such avant-garde music was even financially supported and championed by a covert propaganda campaign by the CIA during the Cold War’s battle for hearts and minds. The avant-garde style became the default definition of “modern music” for intellectuals in the academy, music textbooks, and music histories; it had not been so before the World War II. He doesn’t say it out loud, but Mauceri obviously thinks that this purge of tonal/romantic music is partially responsible for the devastating shrinkage of the classical music audience, and his book implies that the whole saga is a red-letter warning for the potential perils of geopolitical cancel culture.

Of course, atonalism didn’t start with denazification, and tonal music didn’t exactly disappear. British tonalists such as Ralph Vaughan Williams and Finland’s Jean Sibelius have never left the repertoire. But Shostakovich and Sergei Prokofiev simplified their styles under Stalin to toe the line (the former with the accessible Fifth Symphony, the latter with Peter and the Wolf), and Mauceri accordingly asks, with obvious irony, “whether rejecting modernism actually gave us a number of masterpieces we would otherwise not have.” In America, Aaron Copland, Virgil Thomson, and others embodied a tonal “social realism” school during the Stalin and Hitler years, and they are still played. Carl Orff’s tuneful Carmina Burana, a product of the Third Reich, has been perennially popular ever since. Not every composer in the early 1900s progressed from tonalism to abstraction; some went in reverse. The American-born George Antheil (1900–1959), the toast of avant-garde Paris in the 1920s with his score for Ballet Mécanique (which included airplane propellers), later composed tonal operas, symphonies, and splendid Hollywood film scores—his music for the final fugitive scenes in the 1952 film noir The Sniper rivals anything by Wagner or Richard Strauss—and at the end of his life wrote the famous title music for the CBS news documentary series The 20th Century, heard by millions.

But the ascendant postwar Darmstadt school of Boulez, Luciano Berio, Iannis Xenakis, Luigi Nono, and other composers erased the history of all the Italian composers who created under Mussolini—Franco Alfano, Ildebrando Pizzetti, Italo Montemezzi, Riccardo Zandonai, Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari, and others—melodious composers who Mauceri thinks may have created some operas worthy of joining the international canon were they not declared verboten because of their provenance. Ironically, Arturo Toscanini, often criticized for his failure to perform new music, did program works of these composers in America. Ottorino Respighi died in 1936, so his work predates the war, but his protégé Ennio Porrino, a Sardinian, has been substantially canceled due to his alliance with the fascists. The same for Alfredo Casella, though his early enthusiasm for Mussolini faded when he had to hide his Jewish wife from a Nazi raid.

Mauceri additionally claims that untold numbers of orchestral scores of traditional, romantic, and/or “complex tonal” Stalin-era composers of the Union of Soviet Composers have disappeared through the redaction of history (he only names a few of these composers), and that the more accessible works of such international masters as German-born Paul Hindemith were considered too crowd-pleasing and thus lost prestige among postwar intellectuals. (This doesn’t seem to have been the case with Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress or Béla Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra, late tonal works that call to mind Picasso and Matisse’s neo-representational painting in the post–World War I period called retour à l’ordre.) Musical polymath Nicolas Slonimsky painted a somewhat more complex picture of Soviet music post-Stalin. He wrote of his October 1962 visit to the Soviet Union:

The political stand of a composer, no matter how laudable from the Soviet point of view, does not give him preferential treatment if he composes “decadent” music. Luigi Nono, a charter member of the Italian Communist party and composer of dissonant music (and, incidentally, married to Schoenberg’s daughter), is still “no-no” in Soviet Russia. On the other hand, Rachmaninoff, an avowed monarchist who left Russia on the day of the Soviet Revolution, never to return, is hailed by Soviet politicians as an exemplar of true Russian art.

By the mid-1980s, however, Slonimsky reported that there was “total acceptance of modern techniques of composition.”

Mauceri’s cancelation theory is on more tenuous ground with tonal Third Reich composers, not just because of Richard Strauss’s enduring appeal but because Mauceri cites few names: he doesn’t even mention Hans Pfitzner or Karl Amadeus Hartmann, a composer who remained in Germany during the Third Reich but hid his anti-fascism through “inner emigration,” in other words, by withdrawing his works from public performance. (Hartmann is still obscure to this day, proving Mauceri’s point.) The highly original Austrian composer Franz Schreker, who was half-Jewish, died in Berlin in 1934 at the beginning of the persecutions; another superb Austrian composer, Franz Schmidt, died in 1939, only a year after the Anschluss. Unintended historical confluences have marginalized both, but both strongly merit revival; neither was an atonalist; Schmidt may have been a Nazi sympathizer, though the evidence is equivocal. Kurt Atterberg, an outstanding Swedish composer, also seems to have lost his place in the international repertoire because of his suspected Nazi sympathies. And although Anton Webern was branded a degenerate, his music banned during the Third Reich, letters he wrote to a friend in the military expressed strong enthusiasm for the Nazi regime. After his shocking death (he was shot by an American G.I. policing a curfew in Allied-occupied Austria after the war), Schoenberg—Webern’s teacher and friend—refused his family’s request for financial help. (Webern is still in the canon notwithstanding.) Even Alban Berg, in a desperate lunge against being canceled, was trying to prove his Aryanness to the Nazis when he died agonizingly from sepsis following an infected insect bite in pre-antibiotics 1935.

The geopolitical gameboard is complicated—as Mauceri notes, Giacomo Puccini and Stravinsky praised the early Mussolini (before Il Duce’s alliance with Hitler)—and his theory is not airtight. According to the late musicologist Richard Taruskin, at least two 12-tone composers were performed in the Third Reich: Schoenberg pupil Winfried Zillig and the Danish-born Paul von Klenau, who somehow publicly proclaimed the kinship between Nazi totalitarianism and the 12-tone method without getting arrested. And there were cooperative musical projects between fascist Franco’s Spain and the Third Reich that confound neat stylistic and political categorization, according to scholar Eva Moreda Rodríguez. On the one hand, Roberto Gerhard wrote folk/nationalistic music under Franco but emigrated to England and changed to the international avant-garde idiom. But Salvador Bacarisse, who fled to Paris in 1939, was a Republican who wrote in a neoromantic, nationalistic style, while Joaquín Rodrígo was a committed falangist, yet his tonal, very nationalistic music has never been out of fashion since the war. As soon as the Soviet communists entered the war on the Allies side, there were three cooperative festivals of new music in Franco’s Spain from 1941 to 1943 sponsored by the Third Reich. Rodrigo and Ernesto Halffter participated, and Joaquín Turína traveled to occupied Vienna to take part in Mozart concerts. The Berlin Philharmonic toured Spain four times during the war.

In France, composers Florent Schmitt, Joseph Canteloube, Eugène Bigot, and Marcel Delannoy were all Vichy collaborationists, and accordingly suffered reputational decline in later years, though Canteloube’s “Songs from the Auvergne” was a repertory chestnut until recently. Allegiances, opportunism, and expiation can be hard to parse as motives. In 1949, the New York Daily Mirror gossip columnist Walter Winchell referred to Walter Gieseking as a “pianazi” who would be playing at “Carnazi Hall,” but Polish pianist Marian Filar, a Jewish concentration camp survivor, studied with Gieseking for five years after the war (Gieseking charged him nothing) and to his dying day, he affirmed Gieseking’s kindness and devoted support. Though pianist Alfred Cortot cooperated with the Pétain regime and concertized throughout Germany in 1942, he had been the second husband of the Jewish Clothilde Bréal (previously married to novelist Romain Rolland) and pulled strings to get Jewish soprano Marya Freund released from a camp. Cortot was arrested in 1944 during the Resistance’s épuration and canceled until about 1949; during those trying years, he also suffered health problems and got addicted to morphine.

Mauceri also argues that the violent breaks with established musical form (The Rite of Spring, Schoenberg’s Five Orchestral Pieces, Claude Debussy’s Jeux) that, incongruously, were composed during the prewar, peaceable Edwardian era, were in effect encrypted foreboding of the chaos to come. (Hanns Eisler later agreed with this concept, telling Harold Clurman that “Schoenberg’s music conveyed the fear and trembling inspired by the atom bomb before the atom bomb had even been invented.”) Mauceri adds that after World War I, an emotional retrenchment in musical expression, in reaction to the war’s horrors, analogous to the shift in styles after 1945, occurred, though he notes some exceptions, finding echoes of the violence of World War I, for example, in Ravel’s 1931 Piano Concerto for the Left Hand. Further, Mauceri speculates that the wartime environment of Boulez’s and Stockhausen’s 1930s-40s childhoods (the latter suffered grievous family disruption) had much to do with the siring in their souls of the apocalyptically radical forms of their music.


So where did all the momentum of expansive tonal music go, if wartime politics so buried its past creations, discouraged its prospective usage, and skewed its hegemonic course? Mauceri submits that it went into creating a new artistic medium—symphonic film music. Many commentators have opined that jazz was the real new classical music of the 20th century; Mauceri seems to suggest that film music is just as arguably the real new classical music of the 20th century. The music world’s loss of canceled composers become the greater world’s musical gain, he suggests. In fact, he writes, Hollywood film music “taught the world classical European music” (he might have added that Warner Brothers Bugs Bunny cartoons taught a lot of children themes from Rossini, Liszt, and others). The advent of Hitler forced Max Steiner, Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Miklós Rózsa, Franz Waxman, Dimitri Tiomkin, Bronisław Kaper, and other Jewish composers to emigrate to America (though not all leading film composers of the Hollywood heyday were émigrés, for example, Bernard Herrmann, David Raksin, Alfred Newman). As the sound film medium took its first steps in the early 1930s, Jewish composers such as Steiner and Korngold sought work in Hollywood and, in a savage irony on Hitler’s aims, adopted the idiom and leitmotif methods of Hitler’s favorite composer—Wagner. In creating a “New World Wagnerian” pastiche, these composers, Mauceri argues, synchronized musical lines and motifs with screen action exactly as Wagner’s prose stage directions on bars of his opera scores synchronize with moments in his librettos. This was not entirely an innovation: according to scholar Michael V. Pisani, dramas presented on the legitimate stage in 19th-century New York and London typically featured a small live orchestra playing incidental music, and even coordinated underscoring with dialogue. Mauceri doesn’t touch on director Rouben Mamoulian’s pioneering synchronization of Rodgers and Hart songs with the lyrics and the camera in Love Me Tonight (1932).

The inheritance of cinematized Wagner continues 100 years later down to John Williams, Danny Elfman, Hans Zimmer, and others today, Mauceri asserts, though many other film-music styles have since also been employed. The author also insists that the pioneer film composers were not hack workmen, but gifted artists who had to tax their powers far beyond the stock vocabulary of silent movie piano accompanists and rise to the imaginative challenge of dramatizing stories with full orchestra in stopwatch-constricted (eventually by click-track) segments—a straitjacket as tight as a fugue. (Indeed, Benjamin Britten began his professional career as a documentary film scorer, and he wrote incidental music for the theater before he wrote any of his operas or orchestral masterpieces.) Mauceri points out that audiences do accept dissonant and atonal music in visually appropriate movies (horror or sci-fi) but not in the concert hall, and analogizes that to the 19th-century practice of concert promoters posting tableaux vivants at the door of new music premieres to help visualize for the audiences the challenging music they were about to hear. (He does not discuss the concurrent development of incidental music in the golden age of radio; Bernard Herrmann composed prolifically for broadcasts of radio plays by Orson Welles and Norman Corwin.)

Korngold, Rózsa, and others composed many dedicated concert hall works, and their film music has given joy to millions, but can suites of film scores work in the concert hall for a non-pops concert? Mauceri has conducted it there successfully, but opinion varies. King Kong (1933) and Hitchcock’s 1958 Vertigo are unimaginable divorced from their musical scores by Steiner and Herrmann, respectively, but is the reverse true? Leonard Rosenman’s complex, evocative score for The Young Stranger (1957), a sleeper with a young James MacArthur as a spoiled suburban teenager with oppositional defiant disorder, could well stand separately as a concert hall suite titled The 1950s American Dream Gone Sour. But are concert performances of even magnificent classic film music like David Raksin’s Laura (1944) or Jerome Moross’s The Big Country (1958) more remembrances of the films (like original cast albums of Broadway musicals) than independent creative entities?

As most European films of the Hollywood studio era were not written in pseudo-Wagnerian pastiche but rather wrought in the personal concert idiom of the composer, they often do not mirror the psychology of the film’s action and can stand freely as concert music. Arnold Bax’s score for David Lean’s Oliver Twist (1948), for instance, sounds too posh and royal to reflect the grime of Dickens but is effective in other ways and has been performed as a concert suite. (Though Aaron Copland’s score for William Wyler’s The Heiress (1949) sounds too airy-prairie for the Edith Wharton-Henry James milieu of the story, it won Copland an Oscar.) Mauceri points out that in Europe, writing music for films has never been considered slumming (Prokofiev and William Walton wrote several film scores), whereas Korngold’s later concert works in America were tainted by perceptions that he was only a film composer. Arthur Honegger’s score for the 1938 British film Pygmalion could well play as a concert suite without the film; the same for Arthur Bliss’s score for H. G. Wells’s Things to Come (1936). Brian Easdale’s music for the Powell-Pressburger ballet film The Red Shoes has long had an independent life.

There’s no question that film scores have blazed trails for concert hall composers. Franz Waxman’s use of the ondes martenot in Fritz Lang’s French language Liliom (1934) to accompany the title character’s afterlife ascension to the starkeeper is the best scene in the movie and may have influenced Olivier Messiaen’s use of the instrument from 1937 on. Rózsa’s use of the theremin, not in horror movies but in Spellbound and The Lost Weekend, did much to make that electronic instrument legitimate. But just as often, novelty instruments in films didn’t find uses in the concert hall: Ennio Morricone’s pan flute has rarely appeared in classical scores, while soundtracks using solo instruments exclusively, like Anton Karas’s zither in The Third Man or Eddy Manson’s harmonica in Ruth Orkin’s 1953 independent The Little Fugitive, have rarely begotten vogues for concertos for the concert hall, though they are hauntingly evocative in those films.

Unlike concert hall composers, film composers are always well paid (as are their copyists and orchestrators), immediately performed, and recorded only by elite studio musicians. They are hired to be fantastically rapid and productive—the only such composing assembly line in the free world. (In Soviet Russia, all members of the Composer’s Union had their scores and parts instantly published, performed, and recorded at the cost of the State. It was automatic.) The most prolific creation of orchestra music in the 20th and 21st centuries thus has come not from concert halls or conservatories but from movie studios, where composers have turned out thousands of hours of symphonic music exceeding even history’s most prodigiously productive classical composers. Their preponderantly tonal music has been heard by millions more people than have ever heard the three B’s. Mauceri implies that if Gaetano Donizetti, who composed more than 60 operas in a lifespan of 50 years, were alive in the 20th century, he would have been Max Steiner or Carl Stalling, not Alban Berg or Harrison Birtwistle. He concurs with Richard Taruskin’s statement that the 20th century was “irrevocably divided between those who wrote ‘audience music’ and those who wrote ‘composers’ music’” and that the two were “factions vying for legitimacy.” This notion was already propounded at length in a 2014 doctoral dissertation that has become an Internet legend and a cause célèbre at academic symposiums: Canadian musicologist Herbert Pauls’s “Two Centuries in One: Musical Romanticism and the Twentieth Century.” Anticipating Mauceri, Pauls wrote,

Why did common-practice harmonies, if they were dead, still have the immense power to help shape the living language of pop, broadway and film music? Also, why was the musical language of popular music not all that far removed from the language of the most-performed modern composers in the classical tradition, and why were the latter composers not allowed to help define their era?

Indeed, Mauceri goes to great rhetorical lengths to demolish the logic of abstract modernist music and what he terms “the myth of progress.” He suggests that the intelligentsia’s backlash to Korngold’s concert music was mere anti-Romantic snobbism and bigotry, and that aleatoric music by John Cage and totally serial music by Milton Babbitt sound almost fungible to the ear. He is in good company historically. In his 1934 book, Music Ho! British composer Constant Lambert, who thought Sibelius was likely to endure longer than Stravinsky, wrote,

In the past the minor artist without any intense or personal vision usually relapsed into a mild form of academicism; today he is offered the exhilarating outlet provided by deliberate incongruity. … Those who live for technique are killed by technique. … Except for a few isolated figures, however, I think it in the highest degree unlikely that atonalism will ever become an instinctive and natural idiom, part of our mental background, in the way that Debussy’s idiom has become so—his mannerisms now being the property of every jazz hack.

In 1961 Swiss conductor Ernest Ansermet, a trained mathematician, published a book claiming to disprove via mathematics the validity of atonality, and a few years before that, the music critic Henry Pleasants opined similarly, if less mathematically, in his book The Agony of Modern Music.

Mauceri suggests that the supposedly aesthetically corrupting role of money for composers is a fallacy; he avers that “tenured professors” who have “job security and pensions and felt no responsibility to cater to an audience” are themselves engaged in a kind of commercial bargain with their employers. His argument that tonal music has been canceled, however, omits mention of the highly successful (and commercially remunerative) world of contemporary band music. Take American band composer Alfred Reed (1921–2005), who had dozens of commissions at any one time, whose Festival Prelude for wind band sold more than 12,000 sets and had well over 80,000 performances in 20 years by the 25,000 bands in the United States (school, military, and concert), and made a good living from his music alone. No contemporary classical composer could possibly match his record of performances and royalties. As Reed wrote to critic Walter Simmons,

To a composer, a piece of music not performed might just as well not be written. … It is performance, again and again, and consequent acceptance (or rejection) of the work by the widest possible audience time and time again that ultimately counts in the final value judgment of the composer and the music, whether it is Beethoven or Berlin. … If you are going to give people the right (among other rights) to read, see, and listen to what they please, are you prepared to put up with what they freely choose if what they choose does not happen to agree with your own taste and judgment?

Meanwhile, the other arena of contemporary classical music that has a large dollar reward is choral music. Today’s leading practitioners of tonal choral music, such as Eric Whitacre and Morten Lauridsen, are regularly performed for large audiences around the world.

But the author’s arguments about political cancelation weigh heavily on our current social and political dilemmas. As I wrote in a previous article for The American Scholar, many worthy African-American composers who had been effectively canceled by neglect have been rightfully restored of late, as have previously forgotten fine women composers such as the 19th-century Louise Farrenc. The problem gets ticklish when we come to fine composers who are less attractive politically, like the French collaborationists of World War II. Could we be suffering our own American homegrown version of Mauceri’s politically disappeared composers of wartime? Has the music world canceled fine southern regional composers because of real or unfairly rumored connections to white racism? The Virginian John Powell, whom I mentioned in my last Scholar piece, is certainly a case of a gifted composer who was a declared white racist.

But what about the North Carolinian Lamar Stringfield (1897–1959), who wrote much fine orchestral music and composed for the regional theater projects of his fellow Carolinian playwright Paul Greene? Have you ever heard of Stringfield? Is it because his work collecting white Appalachian folk music and his composition of “A Negro Parade” have redounded against him? There may be other Southern regional composers we don’t know because of such oblique opprobrium. Louis Moreau Gottschalk is politically acceptable because although a Southerner, he sided with the Union in the Civil War and freed his father’s slaves in the early 1850s.

If every composer who was ever racially, ethnically, misogynistically, or religiously prejudiced, or on the wrong side of a war, were removed from the concert hall, many fixtures of the repertoire would disappear, not just Wagner but perhaps Chopin and Stravinsky. Wagner’s anti-Semitism is too obvious an example. American Carl Ruggles, a now-canonical modernist, was an outspoken anti-Semite. Charles Ives is accused of being a homophobe. And even ultramodern, cosmopolitan Edgard Varèse, according to historian Vivian Perlis and others, was in his later years outspokenly prejudiced toward minorities.


Picasso may or may not have been a draftsman on the level of Ingres, but the fashion for fashion remains big business in the art market today. Mauceri mentions Jean-Michel Basquiat (once critically panned) and cites, almost approvingly, the posthumous 2017 sale of his painting Untitled for $110,500,000, as if it proves his point about audiences knowing better than critics. This seems like a reductio ad absurdum of his arguments. Aesthetic quality and market value are not synonymous. Is Jeff Koons a better artist than Henry Darger? Was Andy Warhol a better draftsman or figural master than Norman Rockwell? Mauceri praises video game composers like Austin Wintory and Nobuo Uematsu as though they share equal aesthetic value with Hindemith or Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco. Are industrial trade shows equal in artistry to actual Cole Porter musicals? Does he really believe, as he implies, that Hamilton has music as good as that of Weill’s Street Scene or Bernstein’s A Quiet Place, both of which Mauceri has conducted? Cannot some neotonal music be mediocre and simplistic? Morton Gould, whose entire career would seem an object lesson in most of the musical values Mauceri extols, surely was a far more artful, equipped, and skilled composer than anyone writing music for video games.

Art and artists have always been in part about seeking the cutting edge, the new. Why can’t neotonal and cutting edge coexist? Much 19th-century music we now recognize as euphonious was initially received by audiences as cacophony, as Nicolas Slonimsky’s book Lexicon of Musical Invective abundantly documents. Furthermore, for some composers, atonality is their song (Ruth Crawford Seeger) just as abstract minimalism was the instinctual preferred language of painter Sol Lewitt (who nevertheless always played classical music recordings, especially Bach, in his studio while he worked). Are the armies of composers today who are struggling to get their scores performed, entering competitions and attending workshops, misguided simply because they are not writing film or video game music in the language of John Williams? Isn’t it possible that a concert piece exerts an inherent abstract concentration that a film score played in the concert hall does not and cannot?

It is true that vast numbers of composers of the past have been lost to history, both for political and for apolitical reasons. In its full-throated campaign to remind the 21st century of the lasting, epic cultural fallout of World War II, Mauceri’s book calls to mind Clive James’s Cultural Amnesia. In its fearless assault on modernist chauvinism, aesthetic camp-following, and so-called received wisdom, it reminds me of Tom Wolfe’s The Painted Word and its evisceration of modern art critics Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg. Underneath its informal, breezy, anecdotal prose, The War on Music: Reclaiming the Twentieth Century is a no-holds-barred scarification of many sacred cows. Mauceri brings to bear a broad compass of cultural knowledge acquired in a lifetime. It’s absorbingly readable, with fascinating fun facts you didn’t know about history (musical and otherwise) on almost every page. Some people may not just disagree with some of his opinions but wince and be angered by them (he actually cites examples of these reactions among early readers of his manuscript). But the book should be on the desk of every conductor and orchestra manager. Bumps and all, it’s a bracing joyride. Fasten your seat belt.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Comments powered by Disqus