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the war on music

12 august 2022

As opposed to his more general and appreciative For the Love of Music, John Mauceri's War on Music is a polemic … well, I guess one could gather that from the titles alone. But the books share a common theme of non-judgmental love for the music one loves – even if that music happens to be tonal, classically structured, and conventionally orchestrated.

One front of the war that Mauceri identifies is that writers on classical music, for the past 75 years, have insisted that their contemporaries, in order to merit esteem, must be relentlessly avant-garde, pushing the envelopes of tonality, rhythm, and even concepts like "instrument" and "voice." (Alex Ross summed up this era in The Rest is Noise.) One problem is that audiences don't like much of this avant-garde music.

To illustrate via opera … because while I know almost nothing about opera, I know more about opera than any other kind of classical music. In 1860, or 1880, or 1900, when you went to a production of a new opera – a world or a local premiere – you had a non-zero expectation that the opera you saw would enter the general repertory. At least for a while. Repertories can't grow indefinitely, and some works drop out of them. But some became permanent, and others have a good run before expiring.

Since the second world war, though, your expectation is that a new opera will vanish forever once premiered. (Oddly, that is what audiences for new opera in the 17th and 18th centuries also expected.) There are exceptions. 1951 saw the premieres of Menotti's Amahl and the Night Visitors, Stravinsky's Rake's Progress, and Britten's Billy Budd. But none of those are Barber of Seville-level staples. And that was 1951. With the exception of a few pieces by Britten and Poulenc, no durable works among Wikipedia's prominent operas came later, and none at all in the 21st century.

What happened to the classical repertory? Because the same pattern obtained in instrumental music; pressed to name a great symphony or concerto or quartet from the last 75 years, you probably can't unless you are an academic musicologist. Mauceri argues that numerous factors led to this collapse in canonization.

One was the imperative of modernism itself. Unless a work "made it new," to paraphrase Ezra Pound, it was intellectually and aesthetically reactionary. Paradoxically, then, since there is always something newer than new, postmodern music dates with terrible swiftness. Something could sound astonishing in 1952 but be passé by 1955.

Or perhaps never sound astonishing at all, really. In visual arts, in literature, individual styles proliferated under modernism. "Le talent est plus singulier, plus imprévisible," Philippe Costamagna says of 20th-century painting; and indeed a Matisse or a Dali or a Pollock is instantly recognizable as its creator's.

But Mauceri argues that nearly the opposite is true of music. Once form broke down in modern and postmodern music, it all started to sound the same. When nothing has tonality or rhythm or conventional form, nothing sounds distinctive; it's all a kind of semi-organized noise. Only the strongest voices, Philip Glass for instance, exhibit a kind of "brand," except to specialists. And ironically, Glass is the great minimalist, and minimalisms in every art form strive for a certain indistinguishability.

Aesthetic imperatives were compounded by political dynamics. Nazis, Italian fascists, and Soviet Communists had all enlisted music in their totalitarian ambitions. All three regimes hated modernism for modernism's sake, mandating that music, like other arts, help shape the state and deliver good wholesome values, nationalist or internationalist as the case might be. (Compare what the Donald Trump administration tried to do for architecture in America.) After the second world war, composers who had tried to serve or at least co-exist with totalitarian ambitions – Carl Orff; Italian opera writers like Mascagni and Zandonai; Prokofiev and Shostakovich – were suspect at best. Though their work could sometimes be read ironically. Is Shostakovich's patriotic Soviet music in earnest, or does it ironize Stalinism? Music is so abstract, says Mauceri, that it can be hard to tell; and thus there is always a way to hear Shostakovich as independent of Stalin.

In his book Aftermath, Harald Jähner has recently shown how the CIA and other shadowy Western propagandists supported abstract, avant-garde visual art after the second world war, on the assumption that the more abstract the artist, the less their work represented totalitarianism. Something of the same dynamic applied in music, Mauceri claims. Promoters like Nicolas Nabokov, funded by American propagandists, promoted modernist music whose formlessness was a sort of guarantee of ideological purity. The result was that contradiction in terms, an orthodoxy of officially-promoted rebelliousness.

There was also a certain amount of blaming the audience, according to Mauceri. Twelve-tone music, and the more radical explorations of composer-critics like Pierre Boulez, dominated postwar musical orthodoxy, but left audiences cold. Audiences opted for established classics over new music because they simply didn't like new music: even Boulez made his living by conducting Debussy, Bruckner, and especially Wagner. Composers faced with this popular indifference wound their avant-gardism even tighter and scorned popular figures like Gian Carlo Menotti who tried to write new music that people actually liked. Critics took refuge in the idea that listeners who preferred older music were reactionary, Philistine, tone-deaf, or simply unwashed.

Ironically, composers who actively fled oppression in Europe, many of them Jews, were also discarded in postwar reappraisals. They became too popular – they wrote for the movies. Erich Korngold, Max Steiner, Dmitri Tiomkin, and Miklós Rósza established the way that talking pictures were supposed to sound, the entire concept of an musical accompaniment to drama that had its roots in earlier melodrama and opera but fashioned an original aural landscape for the 20th century. Many millions of people heard this music and responded emotionally to it. Classical conductors (with the notable exception of Mauceri himself) rejected it, and continue to reject the notion that "movie music" could be part of a serious artistic repertory.

Composers, meanwhile, have been channeled in two directions. Either join the academic establishment, attend solemn premieres of your envelope-pushing compositions, and then become resigned to never hearing them live again – or write for the movies, TV, and video games. In the latter case you will make money and have your work heard, but at the cost of any respect you might gain for serious art.

Two of the most beloved and well-compensated postwar composers, says Mauceri, tried to have it both ways: Ennio Morricone and John Williams. Both wrote tunes for dramas that stick in the ear and sway the heart as vividly as anything by Verdi or Wagner. But both also wrote in academic modes, sorting their talent into popular and highbrow compartments. Such doubleness of vision seems imperative if one is to reach a wide audience and retain critical respect.

But, Mauceri argues, it doesn't have to be that way. Italian opera did not have to run aground during the Fascist years; works that are not in themselves ideologically composed could be recovered. Symphonic music that listeners actually like remained possible throughout the period he writes about, much of it in the movies but some the product of independent spirits like Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein (who of course took their lumps from critics as being too oriented toward the popular, towards radio, TV, and in Bernstein's case musical theater).

Mauceri argues especially for the recuperation of Korngold, Paul Hindemith, Kurt Weill, and, oddly enough, Arnold Schoenberg. Schoenberg's is an interesting case that demonstrates much of Mauceri's contention. On the one hand, his early discordant music established a paradigm for the postmodern 20th century, and is revered by academics to this day. But Schoenberg long outlived his young-rebel phase, settling in the United States and returning to far more lyrical, tonal modes of writing. Lovely stuff, says Mauceri, but since it does not fit the narrative of continuous technical evolution, it might as well have been movie music (Schoenberg actually settled in Los Angeles, but did not compose for films).

I mostly agree, though I might resist Mauceri's contention that cutting-edge music is mostly unpleasant. (To be fair, even he would say that that's an overgeneralization, maybe more about criticism than music itself.) In the 2010s, before COVID brought things to a halt, I heard quite a bit of new opera in Dallas and especially at the Fort Worth Opera, which became quite an incubator for contemporary opera during the stewardship of Darren K. Woods. Some of these shows misfired, but others, like Kevin Puts' Silent Night and David Little's JFK, were exciting (partly because unrepeatable) theater experiences. And heard in isolation, any piece of discordant music can be lovely. Anton Webern, cited by Mauceri as an austere icon of atonal composition, wrote music that is strange, distant, but often very affecting in its alienation. It sometimes strikes me that Webern's music would work well in movies – perhaps because I was terrified, in my teens, by The Exorcist, which uses Webern's eerie Five Pieces for Orchestra to great effect.

Mauceri, John. The War on Music: Reclaiming the twentieth century. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2022.