12-tone music is popping up all over the blogosphere lately, or, that is, discussions about it- how all those empty halls for performances of Beethoven symphonies were actually caused by Milton Babbitt and about how so much insipid monotonal neo-pasctichio music is actually a deeply personal response to the traumas of having studied with someone who knew Berio.
Elaine Fine recently wrote a quite thoughtful and perceptive piece on 12-tone music and music reservata, but it still left me feeling like something was left out.
Of course, a lot of these things read like group therapy. It seems that 80 years on, people are still mad about the longstanding tradition of overblown rhetorical flourishes begun with Schoenberg (“this new method will insure the supremacy of German music for the next 100 years)” to Boulez and Stockhausen. Word to the wise- don’t take these things to seriously. Public pronouncements from composers are a great tool for getting noticed, and hopefully getting their music played more often, but you don’t really believe what Stravinsky said about Beethoven and Gounod, do you? You don’t really believe what Debussy said about Wagner or Saint-Saens, do you? He copied too much from both of them for that to be true. People like to talk about how the serialist bullies dominated academia in the 60s and 70s, but didn’t Piston, Creston, Diamond, Schuman and Hanson all have academic positions in the US? As with everything, at all times, don’t believe all the hype.
However, nothing I’ve read lately seems to have captured what the real problems are with atonal music and the real strengths are with tonal music. To read most commentary, the problem with atonal music is that it is ugly and the strength of tonal music is that it is pretty. People like pretty music and don’t like ugly music. Those planet-raping modernist “composers” such as the diabolical Berio like ugly music and don’t like pretty music, which is why they write atonal music.
To quote Richard Taruskin: Balderdash!
I actually think one of the liabilities of much tonal music, especially the very best like Haydn and Schubert is that it is too pretty for modern ears. Especially for the young, emotionally intense crowd that we’re trying to attract, 20 seconds of Haydn can just sound like background music for a tea party. All the sinister wit and deep pathos, warmth and irony is completely missed- they find it just as incomprehensible as many others find Stockhausen. Noise music, atonal music, electronic music- all of these demonized modernist idioms- have all long since become mainstays of popular culture in rock, rap, dance, techno and movie music, while voice leading, modulation, tonal centers and structural chromaticism have long since been excised from the tool box of the popular song-smith.
No, ugly and pretty have NOTHING to do with it. I know, some of you reading think I’m wrong, and that you really cannot stand the abrasive cacophony of “modern” music, and you’d rather have a tooth pulled than listen to 10 seconds of a mature Schoenberg Quartet. Trust me, you’re wrong- you actually do like that sound, you just don’t know it yet, because you have not made an emotional imprint of that sound-world.
The real strength of tonal music has nothing to do with how pretty it is, or how harmoniously all those overtones ring in a triad, because the strengths of tonal music are apparent in modal, quartal and highly chromatic music. The amount of dissonance doesn’t seem to matter. What tonal music has is tonality, which is to say tonal relationships.
Tonality is possibly the most powerful tool ever invented for creating musical form, and it is no surprise that long forms grew out of an era in which composers were discovering ever more powerful expressions of a wider range of tonal relationships.
Tonality is all about relationships between keys. In our modern world, it is easy to see the classical voyage from tonic to “not the tonic” and back to the tonic as a bit too neat and tidy for a world of genocide, nuclear weapons and Dick Cheney. However, tonality doesn’t mean that you always return home, it means that tonal areas have specific relationships to each other, and that these relationships have intrinsic emotional meanings and resonances.
Whether it’s the magic and mystery of Schubert’s chromatic third relationships or Mahler’s metaphysical understanding of the myriad meanings of progressive tonality, Beethoven’s life and death struggle to get from D minor to D major or the simple perfection of a binary form tonic-dominant-tonic dance movement, tonality gives composers an unbelievably powerful tool for creating compelling musical architecture.
Musical architecture, form, structure- these are all rather cold sounding words. In another art form you could call these story, plot or even just meaning. Meaning is what brings people to art- when a listener gets to the culmination of a work and can feel the cumulative impact of everything they’ve heard so far, whether it’s a Beatles song or a Berg opera, that is the point at which their brain really begins to latch onto and bond with the sound world, the pretty and ugly, of the piece. If you’ve never felt the form of a piece of atonal music, your brain has never then gone that extra mile to imprint and internalize the rhetoric. Form is metaphor- tonal relationships give music the chance to express patterns of nature, of life, of distance and loss, of return and release. Tonality is the most flexible and powerful tool for expressing tension, for expressing distance, and for creating a musical landscape as infinite, four dimensional and complex as the world we experience and try to understand in our daily lives.
This is not to suggest for a second that atonal music lacks form, but to point out that tonality (not prettiness) is the most powerful tool for creating and expressing form. In its purest form, 12-tone music eliminates that hierarchy completely, making all pitches equal, and only the order of pitches has meaning- the prime form of the row replaces the tonic.
The problem of form in serial music is one that many composers have meditated on and worked at for nearly a century with hundreds of spectacular successes. Some have resorted to sneaky forms of tonality- Boulez’s Messagesquisse, the subject of my DMA lecture recital, has a very clear tonic pitch of e-flat and a very clear dominant of a- natural, the first two pitches of the set SACHER (eb-a-c-b-e-d) the piece is based on. There are thousands of other ways of expressing form, but tonal relationships are such a simple and powerful tool, one does away with them at one’s peril, and if one does away with that tool without realizing the value and the power of the tool you’ve given up, then you’re really in trouble. I’d like to do a post on Berio’s Les mots sonts allés, which expresses in a very short time span and incredibly powerful and relevant form. Stay tuned….
NOW- hear some more hideously ugly, despicable music of Berio, that lout, that vile killer of all things beautiful. This is KW conducting a performance of one of the folk songs with Patricia Rozario from a recent broadcast. Listen carefully and you’ll get a sense of just how much he despised melody!
c.2007 Kenneth Woods