Most people are tempted to consign musical modernism to the lumber room of history. Music still needs the modernists' spirit of adventureby Ivan Hewett / June 20, 2000 / Leave a comment
Almost half a century ago, Arnold Schoenberg, the man who for so many epitomised the horror and ugliness of modern music, died in Los Angeles. He had brought to music previously unknown emotions of panic and terror, and had dissolved the comforting security of the old forms and harmonies into a disconcerting dream-like fluidity. During the 1920s he set out to order the new musical world with the so-called “12-note technique.” But having launched a musical revolution, Schoenberg flunked it. That, at least, was the view of the 26-year- old Pierre Boulez, who greeted the news of Schoenberg’s death with an obstreperously polemical article, “Schoenberg est mort.” In it Boulez declared that, having invented the serial method of composing, which was indeed indispensable (“anyone who does not compose with it is useless”). Schoenberg made the cardinal error of using it to write sonata forms and waltzes. This hankering for the past had to be purged; a new age demanded a completely new music, and it fell to Boulez and his contemporaries to complete the Schoenbergian revolution.
Fifty years on, younger voices are whispering that it is Boulez, and the rest of the 1950s avant-gardistes, who are “mort.” Odaline de la Martinez, conductor of the London new music group Lontano, has declared: “Old new music is dead-there is a new new music, which wants to communicate with the audience.” It’s not just that the modernists’ aesthetic is alien, their stridency unattractive, their left-wing politics na?ve. They themselves are remote. Boulez may not be literally “mort,” but he is the next best thing: an ?minence grise, who flies from one high-profile conducting appearance to the next, and dines with cultural power-brokers in Paris and New York. Karlheinz Stockhausen is holed up in his country retreat, acting out his fantasies of communicating with astral beings. Luciano Berio writes beautifully textured orchestral meditations, laden with references to German romanticism, while younger Italian composers experiment with techno. Luigi Nono and John Cage are dead. Henri Pousseur has been silent for years. For those who survive, the public’s attention is more and more focused on birthday festivals and tributes-a sure sign that a composer is passing from living music into the history books.
The notoriety of these composers born in the 1920s is as much to do with their success as polemicists and manifesto writers as it is with their music. (This is especially true of…