Various items

First, my apologies to anyone who has been unable to access the blog the last couple of days- my webhost seems to be having some kind of major technical problems, apparently this is a widespread problem. Anyway, it’s being worked on, and in the meantime, I am sorry it is so annoying. I hate to deprive anyone of their Vftp fix!

There have been some interesting comments since my last post on A/Tonality…John had an interesting comment, that left me wanting to make two points. First, John said
“I do believe that Serial music “HAD” to happen. Expressionism had taken itself to the breaking point, and there was no where else to go – Boulez certainly proved how FAR it could go.”

This is about as close to a generally accepted orthodoxy as anything about 20th Century Music- serialism and high modernism were inevitable and inescapable evolutionary steps forward from post Wagnerian chromaticism. Wager begot early (Verklarte Nacht) Schoenberg who begot middle (2nd Quartet) Schoenberg, who begot serial (String Trio) Schoenberg, who begot the rest of the 20th Century…

I think one reason that modern discourse about music is so, forgive the expression, fucked up, is that the historical lesson of the 20th Century is EXACTLY THE OPPOSITE OF THE BASIC PREMISE OF ALL 20TH CENTURY ARTISTIC MOVEMENTS.

For all the “isms” that came and went in the 20th C., one, all powerful, all-consuming idea unified them, and it’s power ranged from modernist art music to popular home design to literature.

This has been the age of the zeitgeist, and the one law we’ve all been expected to obey is that, whatever you create, it must fit the spirit of the time. Therefore, for 100 years we’ve had roaring, pointless arguments about what is the music or the painting of this moment. Anything that isn’t was has to be now, is not relevant and shouldn’t be created.

I hope that now we’re starting to realize the stupidity of this world view, at least in the world of art, if not in fashion and commerce.

The real lesson of the 20th C. is that an infinite variety of styles, vocabularies, idioms- of universes, can exist side by side in time, and have no negative impact on each other whatsoever. Rachmaninoff can compose at the same time as Messiaen, Copland at the same time as Berg, Berio at the same time as Piston.

In fact, the real lesson of the last hundred years ought to be that style is meaningless, and the time of composition is meaningless. Rachmaninoff was a figure of ridicule to serious composers, then damned as only “popular,” but his music is so marvelously crafted and so powerful that we’re finally starting to be allowed to take him seriously. Can you believe there were no uncut recordings of the 2nd Symphony until the 1970s?

Who would have stood up for Britten as the greatest composer alive at the time of his death? Not most members of the establishment, who treated him as a quaint anachronism. His achievement is so overwhelming that I think it will take us another generation to figure out just HOW great a composer he was.

Now, it’s fashionable to say Arnie got it wrong, or that Berio stole my lunch money, but the strength of that music that will keep it in the repertoire.

I still find “postmodernism” a rather irritating and useless term. We do not live in the age in which we have outgrown innovation, but in the age when we no longer see innovation as process that proceeds in one direction down a single line.

Oh yes— Messiaen, tonal! Debussy, tonal.

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

Learn about Kenneth at

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2 comments on “Various items”

  1. Jason HEath

    Great post, Kenneth. I don’t chime in frequently enough here, but I really enjoy reading your blog. I check it through my Google Reader every time you put out a new post.

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