Jeff Dunn replies to me:
>Accusing Tchaikovsky of not writing many hummable tunes is like chiding
>Wagner for having too few Vallkyries. How many Valkyries does Elliot
Lots! Especially in the music of the Thirties and early Forties.
>Yes, there is great melodic writing since WW2, but hummable tunes are
>proportionally rarer than in previous eras.
I guess my point was that "hummable tunes" are not all that frequent
post-Haydn, not just in 20th-century music. And, of course, Renaissance
sacred music influenced by the Flemish masters (just about all Renaissance
sacred music) has few hummable tunes. It doesn't mean that the music
What bothers me about this criterion, I guess, is that it reminds me so
much of the aesthetics of Rococo, galante, and classicism, which elevated
melody at the expense of everything else. Bach, for example, was
criticized by the Leipzig worthies for not writing decent tunes.
>There is nothing wrong with a hummable tune, even in today's music, if
>you care about your audience. True, you don't have to care to make great
>art, but many great artists have cared and do care. The more successful
>artists have something that grabs listeners immediately, and goads them
>into relistening to find the deeper substance.
I don't disagree with any of this. Indeed, I love a great tune. But
it's not the only thing about music that grabs me, and I suspect it's
not the only thing that grabs most listeners. Vaughan Williams, certainly
capable of writing great tunes, doesn't have a lot of them in the Fourth
Symphony. Does he need them?
I suspect we're really talking about feelings of coherence and memorability.
I've been listening to a lot of Robert Simpson lately. I can't recall
one great tune, but I sure can remember much about the man's symphonies.
Furthermore, I can keep one symphony straight from another. Same with
his string quartets.
AND let's talk about contemporary tunes. I don't think Schoenfeld,
Ewazen, Golijov, Adams, and Rosner (okay, that's stretching to call his
music "contemporary") have anything to apologize for. What about someone
like Macmillan or Burgon in England?
Tunes come about when simple song, particularly vernacular song, is
valued. Vaughan Williams, Prokofiev, Bartok, Copland, and even Orff
all tried to say something about folk traditions. Poulenc took off from
music-hall AND folk music. Britten was more about art song. Anyway,
the results speak for themselves.
I suspect that composers are not that interested in song right now. The
song tradition has been co-opted by commercial forces, and, furthermore,
the structures of most of these songs are simple to the point of idiocy.
It's been a while since we had a songwriter of Harold Arlen's caliber.
Gillian Welch, a writer I admire, and Sheryl Crow, who channels the
spirit of pop like nobody's business, nevertheless seem to me caught by
nostalgia, rather than by something truly alive and pertinent to today.
What can a composer do with song that hasn't already been done?
Your point about the disconnect between contemporary composer and audience
is certainly one I agree with. It's hard to argue against, in fact.
But we both know that even a "popular" classical composer can't make a
living from his work. So the question becomes, why *should* the composer
connect with a public so indifferent to his survival? He's paying, after
all, for the time it takes to create, with almost no hope of return.
Why shouldn't he write what he wants? I strongly doubt that a composer
who does indeed care about catchy tunes, has the talent to create them,
and the skill to work them into a convincing extended structure would
catch on any more than Boulez. I say this because there are indeed such
composers out there and none of them make a living or, for that matter,
get much of a hearing.
I'm sure someone out there is thinking "John Williams." But Williams's
concert music is his indulgence. Very little of it is as accessible as
his movie scores.
It's hard to fault composers as a group, at least for me. I blame an
indifferent, incurious public, caught up in a Morgana le Fay web of past
glories, abetted by technology, to the extent that it has lost touch for
the previous 80 years at least with living music. It likes what it likes
and what it already knows. Too many in it look on art as "relaxation."
To many creators, art is a way to stir things up and to challenge. I'm
not saying it can't be done with tunes, but outside of maybe harnessing
the power of rock, I don't see how right now. In the meantime, I'm going
with what's actually out there, seeing the good in it as much as I can.
And, yeah, that does mean Elliott Carter, among others.