Classical Music 101b: There's Nothing to Worry About

The question that remains, and which I shall attempt to answer, is "What happened to classical music?"
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The question that remains, and which I shall attempt to answer, is "What happened to classical music?"

That is both easy and hard to explain. The easy part is that the great traditions of Western classical music continued throughout the 20th century and seemingly will as long as music is composed. It is however unlikely that you will hear a broad representation of it in the concert halls dedicated to classical music. Equally unlikely is that you will read much about the totality of 20th century symphonic music in books about classical music, or indeed, in the various news media that review and assess music.

Beautiful, passionate, complex and beloved orchestral music -- thousands of hours of it -- was written during the 20th century -- and much of it for the movies. Of course, not just for the movies, but in general, that is where you will find what you will not find in the concert hall. Unlike the concert world, the producers and directors of movies have had no preconceived limits on what constitutes an overriding and appropriate style for their medium and thus the legacy of music composed for films runs a wide gamut of complexity and design.

It should be said right up front that not all film music can stand on its own and like many genres of music, not all film music is symphonic. And like thousands of forgotten symphonies and operas from former centuries, not all film music is built to last.

However, if you are looking for the continuity of Mahler, Debussy, Beethoven, Strauss, Stravinsky and above all, Wagner, you will find it in film scores. Many composers went in an entirely different direction. That group was seen in the post-World War II / Cold War era as appropriately representing the New Western World, one that offered total freedom of expression (and what the Communist world would also not allow -- the "formulistic," "experimental," and non-tonal music). But that is not the whole story. Other composers in the Western world produced its antagonist: the brilliant and big-hearted dramatic music that people came to call "Hollywood" music, though it is actually just music -- the kind that was taught in every conservatory in the world until the 1960s. The 1960s was when the anti-tonal composers and their brilliant apologists took firm control of many conservatories along with the commissioning organizations, the award-giving institutions and the Western government-supported classical radio stations of Europe. Tonal music was simply defined out of the universe of music in the world of Western classical music, even though it represented its history and its traditions. (You are asking why. And there is no single answer to that. For the moment, we can say that the answer, which is extremely complicated, has much to do with the war that never seems to have ended -- World War II -- and the cultural war that is still being waged. That discussion awaits yet another blog, or, indeed, a book.)

If blog posts were an audio medium, we could hear the 20th century as a wildly disparate musical world, one that admitted multiple esthetics. It is safe to say that because of recordings and World Music studies, and for the first time in history, composers could access and be inspired by music from every culture in the world, as well as hundreds of years of music from Western culture's past. And while most people use the phrases "contemporary music," or "new music" to mean the music of advancing experimentalism, there was another new music -- the heartbreaking adagios, stirring marches, uplifting crescendos, new sounds and vistas for the ears, music of deep faith, music of tragedy and music to make one laugh -- that stayed within the traditions of an ever-evolving art form. This is music composed for symphony orchestra by men whose names were Rozsa, Korngold, Waxman, Steiner, North and many others. You may have never heard of them. Or you say "but that's movie music and I have been told it isn't really music of any value." But, as a response to Alex Ross' important book about listening to the 20th century called, The Rest is Noise, one could say, "No. The rest is beautiful music."

For those who remain doubtful, perhaps it is time to listen and consider, freeing oneself of the received esthetic evaluations made by those who had multiple reasons for their opinions, some of which were not esthetic at all.

In the early days of sound films, starting in the 1930s, the composers were, without exception, the Wunderkinder of Europe and as highly trained as any classical composers of the past. They showed astonishing talent at an early age and, what is frequently forgotten, they comprised a small minority of musicians who succeeded in perhaps the most difficult artistic environment imaginable -- composing dramatic music for many bosses, the ultimate one being the general public. They worked with no job security whatsoever. They never got a grant from the arts council. They did not have tenure at a university. They had been trained in Europe's greatest conservatories, and their mentors included Mahler, Strauss, Busoni and Glazunov.

In the first half of the 20th century, the training ground moved to America, not only because of the enormous need for great musicians in the USA, but also because of the general awareness that American conservatories had become the best in the world. The great American-trained film composers, John Williams, Elmer Bernstein, Jerry Goldsmith, Nino Rota, Bernard Herrmann and Alex North all studied at Juilliard, Curtis and/or USC. Each of them fully understood, and were capable of composing, the experimental "other" classical music -- the music that was getting all the attention, the commissions, the awards and the column inches, even as it left the symphony audience skeptical if not hostile. It is therefore not surprising that Bernard Herrmann's non-tonal score to Psycho from 1960 used many of the techniques employed by Stravinsky, Schoenberg and Webern. Nor was it particularly unusual that Jerry Goldmsith was able to write a brilliant atonal score to Planet of the Apes (1968), and then compose the sweepingly tonal score to Star Trek -- The Motion Picture a few years later. However, the fundamental principles expressed by the Greeks held true in the orchestral compositions for film, much to the annoyance and derision of the avant-garde and its passionate and articulate apologists.

Is one kind of music "better" than the other? This is for each of us to determine. I would suggest that the experimental composers continued to create exciting and provocative music that fed the system much as the "discovery" of the Javanese Gamelan became part of the vocabulary of Debussy and Ravel in the late 19th century and American Ragtime inspired Shostakovich and Stravinsky in the 1920s. It is doubtful that John Williams' brilliant score to A.I. Artificial Intelligence could exist without Philip Glass and Steve Reich. Or for that matter, that his magnificent music to Close Encounters of a Third Kind could have been as startlingly evocative without the experimental music of Ligeti and Penderecki.

This is not about stealing, by the way. Bach was accused of stealing from Buxtehude and Verdi was apparently stealing from himself when he was not robbing his tunes from Mercadante. Nico Muhly's opera Two Boys, heard at the Metropolitan Opera this season, could not exist without Philip Glass and Benjamin Britten. And Britten's Peter Grimes could not exist without Porgy and Bess, which could not exist without Wozzeck and Carmen. The reader can come to his/her own conclusion about influence vs. stealing.

One more question needs answering. What happened to the audience for classical music in the 21st century? That will follow in a few days.

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