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How modern is the modern listener?

A Survivor's Guide to 20th century music


<< Continued from yesterday

And then, of course, there's Schoenberg, Berg and Webern. Do you really ever pay attention to anything later than Verklärte Nacht? Can you really offer corporate clients tickets to Lulu, even if it is at Glyndebourne? And have you ever really managed to follow a tone-row in Webern from the beginning right to the end of the piece?

It's an embarrassment to us - me included - that we are up in the front of so many modern things, but trailing decades behind in our music. Sometimes we blame the composers (or William Glock). Sometimes we blame ourselves (and William Glock). Sometimes we simply give in and confess to having failed (but at least we still listen to some Jazz, as if that conferred some status of honorary modernism upon us after all).

It's a curious position for many of us. Just because we know and love Mozart doesn't give us a qualification as an antiques expert, which would somehow excuse us from bothering with anything more recent. Music is so various in complexion, yet essentially still one. And to 'love music' (but not, say, Henze) involves us in some deep, deep contradiction. To justify it we are sometimes driven to take up the craziest of all indefensible positions: rather than admit that we are at a loss with some music, some composers, we say: 'Ah, but is it really music after all?' That's rather like saying that 'Yes, of course, I like furniture (who wouldn't?), but there's really only ever been one maker of chairs and if it isn't by Sheraton it hardly classes as a chair at all.'

But perhaps the situation is not that bad after all. Perhaps we don't need to be forced into choosing a position offered by the two extremes: ourselves as failures or the twentieth century as a mistake. Perhaps it's possible to have reservations - serious reservations - about modern music, and still be up there and running for the future. Over the next three articles there follows an eccentric (perhaps), but fast-track graduation course in making your peace with the music of our time and in sweeping the house clean for the next millennium.

Copyright © Peter Dale, August 2nd 1999

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