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CLASSICAL  May 2005

CLASSICAL May 2005

Subject:

Re: Hoffman on Tonal Music

From:

Steve Schwartz <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Wed, 18 May 2005 11:59:06 -0500

Content-Type:

text/plain

Parts/Attachments:

Parts/Attachments

text/plain (145 lines)

Jon Gallant:

>For those who did not rush out and buy the current issue of the Wilson
>Quarterly, here are excerpts from Miles Hoffman's thoughtful account of
>the virtues of tonal music.

I would certainly quarrel with the word "thoughtful." He's simply repeating
what's been around for at least fifty years.

The problems with all of it are threefold:

1.  The implicit assumption that tonal music is "natural," that it
corresponds with our psyche, etc.  Hoffman says that tonality's longevity,
by which he means the harmonic system's longevity -- he says 200, I say
400, years -- proves this.  Actually, it proves very little.  The system
of modes was around far longer, and it doesn't work the same way the
harmonic system does.  And, by the way, none of this is "natural." They
were quite consciously worked out.  Monteverdi, for example, was seen
by his contemporaries in much the same way as Schoenberg was seen by
his.

2.  The idea of dissonance as tension works only for tonal music.  It's
more or less irrelevant to dodecaphony.  A composer has to find other
ways to create rhetorical push and relaxation.  As ever, it's up to the
composer, not to the system.  After all, we can all come up with long
lists of tonal music that does little for us.  No system comes with a
guarantee.  Incidentally, Schoenberg himself said this, and other things
as well that most people would agree with.

Furthermore, I doubt even Mr. Hoffman could tell me, without looking at a
score, what's dodecaphonic and what is tonal but highly dissonant.

3.  It tends to characterize dodecaphonic music as all of a piece.  There
are dodecaphonic works that sound tonal -- strangely tonal, but tonal.
There have even been dodecaphonic classical hits.

Why hasn't dodecaphonic music caught on in a bigger way after 80 years?
Lots of reasons, some of which have little to do with the music itself.
I suggest the following:

1.  Not all of it is wonderful.  This is also true of tonal music.

2.  The revolution of recording technology and its mass affordability
have given people an option.  Used to be, you heard what a performer
wanted to play, or you went without music.

3.  The decline of serious art in general.  People no longer want to do
the work it takes.  They expect music and other arts to soak them like
a warm bath.  And it's easy for them to indulge themselves.  On the other
hand, it may take years before a dodecaphonic work connects.  Is it worth
the effort?  I can't answer that for everybody.  On the other hand, it
took me decades before I connected with Brahms and Beethoven (frankly,
they bored the earwax out of me).  For me, it was worth the effort to
stick with them.  Whole new countries of music opened up to me.

>As Hoffman points out: "Beethoven was NOT misunderstood in his
>time.  Beethoven was without doubt the most famous composer in the modern
>world in his time and the most admired.  And if there were those who
>didn't "get" his late string quartets, for example, there were plenty
>of others who did, and who rapidly accepted the quartets as masterpieces.

I hate to point this out, but people don't understand Beethoven now.
They may enjoy him, but that's a different thing.  I enjoy lots of things
I don't understand.

>In fact, the notion that great geniuses in the history of music went
>unrecognized during their lifetimes is almost entirely false.  It's
>difficult to find an example of a piece we now consider a masterpiece
>that was not appreciated as such while its composer was alive or within
>a relatively short period after his death."

It's difficult because it's a circular argument.  We know of great genii,
but it's rather arrogant to contend that we know them all.  God doesn't
necessarily watch out for genius.  Not everybody is as lucky as Schubert
or Gesualdo.

>Schoenberg's 12-tone "Serenade" was written in 1924; Boulez' fulminations
>about the superfluity of everything other than serial music date back
>to the 50s, and he founded IRCAM in 1970; Stockhausen's "Gruppen" dates
>back to 1959, and he has been writing his helicopter quartets and his
>cycle of unperformable, egomaniac operas since the 70s.

Have you ever actually heard "Donnerstag?" I find it extraordinarily
beautiful.  And large parts of it are eminently tonal.

>The experiment has been conducted.  However, since it took 50 years for
>Schoenberg, Boulez, Stockhausen, & Co. to make make modern CM truly
>detested, it will take 50 years for the process to be reversed.  If my
>watch is right, we should see evidence of this by about 2030.

Be very careful what you wish for.  You know, people have been predicting
the death of "hard" music for at least fifty years.  To paraphrase Twain,
"the rumors have been greatly exaggerated." People are going to write
this stuff, whether you like it or not, especially since very few people
make a living from the music they write, no matter what stripe of music.
You can't ask composers to give up something as powerful and even downright
fun as serialism.  You might as well try to ban the augmented 11th chord.
Furthermore, performers are still interested in playing it.  I, for one,
am still interested in hearing it (at least I'm not going to do something
childish and stuff plugs in my ears), and recording companies still push
it on CD.  The dislike is apparently not a universal musical truth.  In
fact, with all the opposition to Schoenberg and Beyond, you'd think it
would be dead by now.  To me, the reaction against it is one sign of its
vitality.  Otherwise, people would simply ignore it, as most people
ignore Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Wagner, Mahler, etc.  It wouldn't be
an issue, because it wouldn't even show up on the radar screen.

>Incidentally, I personally find certain non-tonal music (e.g., Ligeti,
>Norgard and some of his younger Danish colleagues) very persuasive.
>But I am not at all representative of the music-loving---or rather
>#potentially# music-loving---public.  More typical are some friends of
>mine who listen to serious music but grimace---one of them actually
>donned earplugs at a concert---at the first sign of what used to called
>the avant garde.  Yet these individuals do NOT necessarily grimace at,
>let's say, John Adams or Aaron Jay Kernis or Jennifer Higdon.  Give
>composers like them and listeners like my friend until 2030, and we
>will see what develops.

All of this is based on a very slippery definition of "audience." Most
people can't stand to listen to Mozart.  So the person who contends the
unviability of dodecaphony then changes his definition of audience to
something like "me and all intelligent people like me." If you're going
to deny some people the franchise, you'd better have a good reason.
Otherwise, give up your notions of "winning people back."

Now, I have no vested interest in dodecaphony.  I like *all* the composers
(or at least some of their works) Jon mentions, on both sides of the
apparent divide.  I say there is no divide, at least not on the basis
of tonality vs.  not, especially since most people can't distinguish
between atonality, dodecaphony, and highly dissonant tonality.  Most
professionals can't do this.  I suspect people are reacting negatively
to something else, perhaps the lack of contrast that Hoffman postulates.
But tonality, though a major source of structural contrast through
modulation, is only one method of contrast.  There are many others.

Finally (at last!), either do the work it takes or stop complaining.
You don't give much creedence to the average mall rat's opinion of
classical music as he or she is driven from loitering stations by
Vivaldi and Mozart.  You're probably right, but why?  Because they
haven't invested the time and effort to understand this stuff.  They
paint all classical music with the same brush -- Bo-ring.  They can make
no distinctions between good and bad.  None of their friends (that they
know about) likes it.  Sounds familiar.

Steve Schwartz

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