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How modern is the modern listener?

A Survivor's Guide to 20th century music


In one incontrovertible sense at least, you dear reader, are right up the vanguard of the march of progress. You are reading this through the medium of the information highway, the broad fast-lane into the next century. Discreet applause (nothing rowdy). You are as modern as can be. You are geared up for the future and ready to run. Congratulations.

But you've got no quarrel with the past either. You still use books. You still wield a pen here and there. You jet to Toronto one day but you cycle to work the next. You spend more time in front of a screen but less time in front of a television. You can still talk, walk, laugh and cry, and you still use some of the time you save to linger over a cloud shape in the sky. You worry in the best modern way about modern problems, but you still sleep soundly at night. All is well; all is as it should be. You are the right person, in the right frame of mind, at the right time, You are a fully paid-up modern.

Or are you?

What about music? Are you OK with Birtwistle? Has Boulez changed your life? Does Berio rub shoulders with Beecham and does Milton Babbitt charm like Max Bruch? Does Darmstadt rival Bayreuth in the firmament of your musical life?

Where do you really stand with respect to 20th century music and are you really ready for the next millennium? Should you be bashful if you aren't? Do you need a crash course to bring you up to date so that you're ready - 'Been there; done that. Now what's next?' Or do you ever so reasonably say: 'Well ..... yes ..... but music is above and beyond progress, you know. What Brahms said yesterday is still news tomorrow. And what about Hildegard of Bingen anyway?' Or do you appeal to perspective: 'Twelve-tone music has had its day. Oh yes, it's as old hat as pressure cookers. We've moved on from there (and here a sigh of relief). The cutting edge is The New Romanticism actually.'

Can you really cope with late Britten or, if you're honest, do you still prefer the Frank Bridge Variations or, if pushed (hard?), the War Requiem? Do you really love Bartok Quartets as much as the Concerto for Orchestra? Given a choice between Peter Grimes and La Bohème, which would you go for? Can you name any piece by Ligeti? Have you ever listened to John Cage for longer than 4 minutes 32 seconds? Would you open the door to Thomas Adès without a letter of introduction from Ralph Vaughan Williams? Do you whisper a prayer of thanks now that Maxwell Davies is back in the fold - the Strathclyde Concertos are OK and you'll never have to turn off the Fox-trot for Orchestra ever again? Do you congratulate yourself that you've got beyond Rachmaninov 2 and into the much grittier 3 and 4? 'Visionary music, this. The art of the Future', - or so the puff on the record sleeve reassuringly tells you. And do you take a patronising view of those antedeluvians who haven't yet weened themselves off Sibelius 5 and discovered instead the stark 'modernism' of Tapiola and the one-movement Symphony in C?

Copyright © Peter Dale, August 1st 1999

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