DAVID ARDITTI reacts to PETER DALE's crash course
and the author replies
I wish to congratulate Peter Dale on his excellent 'Survivors'
Guide to 20th Century Music': witty, balanced, thoughtful and thought-provoking.
It is full of acute observations entertainingly expressed, such as 'one
of the trajectories of music history sees it moving from the status of precious
Orphic mystery to social pollutant'.
I too have been puzzled by the type of 'composing workshop' he describes,
where there is plenty of invention and skill on offer, and irony, quirkiness
and wit aplenty, but that strange deliberate avoidance of simple beauty,
imposed as an unspoken rule, as if the young composers were frightened to
be thought fools if they wrote a triad down. It reminds me of something
Tovey wrote in a different context: 'When this despising of normal beauty
penetrates into the schoolroom, it hinders the progress of young people
who may develop into something much more valuable than the transmitters
of fashions.' Certainly, I do not observe this 'despising of normal beauty'
to be natural to children when they first try their hands at composition,
but it seems to be pretty much ingrained into students who have been taught
composition at university for any length of time. It's like an instrumentalist
being deliberately trained to avoid good tone. And it doesn't occur in genres
outside serious 'classical' music: jazzmen and other composers in popular
forms do not show a phobia for a reasonable amount of consonant harmony.
Dale makes a good case to argue that a) there is more to music than melody,
and anyway, b) there is as much melody in 20th century music in total as
there has been in that of any century of the past. While a) is certainly
true, I am less convinced of his evidence for b). Gershwin is called in
to service, I think, in a similar way that recently concert promoters and
record companies have begun to re-define the musical theatre works of the
mid-century: Rogers, Kern, etc., as being 'classical music', perhaps because
of the lack of popular appeal of the actual serious music of the period.
Perhaps Gershwin is classical, there is always going to be a debate about
the definition of that term at the edges, certainly some of his music is
quite serious, though the same could be said of Scott Joplin, who also produced
more of the 20th century's memorable melodies than most. I would also draw
attention to the distribution of Dale's 'melodic' music within the century:
it nearly all dates from the first half. It may be that more recent music
of quality has not yet filtered through the sea of publicity and hype of
the indifferent to achieve the fame that it ultimately will; we shall have
'Irony has been one of the great achievements of modernist music - rarely
comfortable or comforting - but honest and true to ourselves in the way
that so much self-indulgent music of the past, with its postures of the
heroic, the romantic, the achieving against the odds, and so on, never was.'
That is one way of looking at it, I suppose. Another way would be to consider
that the great Victorian ethos in all the arts was that they should strive
to improve mankind and the individual by elevating him above his ordinary,
commonplace rut and enable him to achieve a vision of something grander
and greater than ordinary life. The 20th century reversed that completely
and substituted the new credo that 'art must reflect life' (why was never
completely explained). On this view, artists only tried to reflect real
life in all its unsatisfactoriness and discord and lost the desire to elevate.
The quasi-moral claim of the arts to 'improve' people became a discredited
notion; in Keatsian terms, artists abandoned the 'Beauty is truth; truth,
beauty' axiom. Some would claim there was truly moral implication to all
this, point to the 'unspeakable barbarity' of much of the political history
of the century that Dale also mentions, and draw an analogy. Some I have read on the web actually believe there to be
a causal link, though I would doubt that. Certainly the above description
does not apply uniformly to all 20th century music, and many counter-examples
of 20th century 'uplifting' music can be found in Dale's list. But I think
the point broadly holds some water.
These are some points that occur to me in response to Peter Dale's very
enjoyable series of essays.
Copyright © David Arditti,
September 7th 1999
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