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A sequel

A Survivor's Guide to 20th century music

DAVID ARDITTI reacts to PETER DALE's crash course
and the author replies

David Arditti:

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 to see.

'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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