Tuesday, November 27, 2007

World's Foremost Expert On Stravinsky [The Truest Post-Webernian?] Considers Alex Ross's "The Rest Is Noise" And Admires What He Reads

..."In Paul Griffiths's "Concise History of Modern Music" (1978), modern music begins with the delicious flute solo that opens Claude Debussy's "Prelude a l'apres-midi d'un faune" (1894), just as for Griffiths the theories of Boulez (who first touted the idea of Debussy as founding father of modernism) are the key to music since World War II. But Ross makes light, not to say fun, of the "pseudoscientific mentality" of the Darmstadt summer schools in Germany, where Boulez and Karlheinz Stockhausen held court in the early '50s, "researching" ever more cerebral ways of writing music. Instead of Debussy, he opens 20th-century music with the Austrian premiere in Graz in 1906 of Richard Strauss's "Salome," a work subsequently admired for its daring and also hated for its vulgarity. [Similarly, Ross appears to end his history in ca. 2006; with significant early 21st c. works by "European" Georg Friedrich Haas ("in vain") and "American" Osvaldo Golijov ("Ayre" and "Oceana".]

From there Ross tracks through the next 100 years with a strong eye to cultural and political, as well as aesthetic, currents. After "Salome" he passes logically to the disintegration of traditional tonality in Debussy and Schoenberg (a pair not commonly wedded [This is not really true. Previously, musicologists of late 19th c./early modernist classical music have pointed to Schoenberg's "Transfigured Night" allegedly deriving from "Tristan and Isolde"; and Debussy's "Nocturnes" allegedly deriving from "Parsifal" -- modernist works from 1899 and 1897, respectively, I believe]), a chapter that links the violent folksiness of Igor Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring" with '20s jazz, another on the line of American music from the experimentalist Charles Ives to the jazz master Duke Ellington, and a whole chapter on Jean Sibelius, a composer routinely despised by right-thinking modernists but treated here as a radical who happened to prefer a transparent tonal language at a time when atonality was the essential style in progressive circles.... Finally, a brilliantly eclectic study of music since the war debouches in a survey of bebop, rock and minimalism, provocatively titled (after John Cage) "Beethoven Was Wrong."

Thus Ross declines to approve any of the doctrinaire positions of a century riven by battles of style and system. He discounts nothing on principle. So Stockhausen is here, but so are Benjamin Britten and bebop, Miles Davis as well as Olivier Messiaen. Behind all this, I suspect, is a reluctance to see the history of something whose outcomes are as yet unclear in any but an objective light. But, equally, the approach is fed by taste, experience and, to some extent, locale. As a New York critic, Ross is in a strong position to sample and assess every kind of music; at the same time there is an automatic American bias that is no doubt more apparent to a European like me. So such composers as Ralph Vaughan Williams, Gustav Holst, Henri Dutilleux, Hans Werner Henze and one or two others who might be expected to figure in a revisionist history of the last century are more or less ignored in favor of Americans such as Virgil Thomson and Carl Ruggles, who, from this side of the ocean, may now seem irretrievably minor.

Ross is ... writing a history whose American focus becomes more significant the more one inclines to ridicule the aesthetic infighting [Stockhausen v. Henze; Lachenmann v. Rihm?] that has plagued [Western and Central] European music since the last world war. After all, the intellectual gridlock in France and Germany was loosened by Cage and broken finally by American minimalists such as Steve Reich, Terry Riley and Philip Glass. Whatever one thinks of these composers' music, its contemporary influence is impossible to deny, its future significance an open book [O.K.] which, to his credit, Ross doesn't attempt to close.

This is the best general study of a complex history too often claimed by academic specialists on the one hand and candid populists on the other." ...

Stephen Walsh* "Outside the Boxes: A History of Modern Music That Does Not Respect Convention" Washington Post Book Review November 25, 2007

* Professor of music at Cardiff University, Wales, a music critic for the London Independent and author of a two-volume biography of Stravinsky

Igor Stravinsky -- who appears to have studied, in the late 1940s to mid-1960s -- Anton Webern's late, J.S. Bach-inspired Cantatas Opp. 29, 31 [and the fragment for 32], as well as the triadic atonality of Josquin des Prez --more deeply than the infighting -- and "totalizing" -- Pierre Boulez, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Luigi Nono, Iannis Xenakis, and John Cage.

Stravinsky was Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov's star pupil in Saint Petersburg in the years leading up to 1906, and he didn't feel the need to begin from scratch in 1946 -- as did many of the "leading" European and Japanese (and British) composers and artists.

Photo credit: Via geocities.com. With thanks.


Today is a find your own links day.


Post a Comment

<< Home