“An Atrophy of Musical Creation in Our Time?” “Music after Modernism” by Samuel Lipman; “Opus Est: Six Composers from Northern Europe” by Paul Rapoport.

by Walter Simmons


MUSIC AFTER MODERNISM by Samuel Lipman. 256 pp. New York: Basic Books, Inc., 1979, $11.95.

OPUS EST: Six Composers from Northern Europe by Paul Rapoport. 200 pp. New York: Taplinger Publishing Co., 1979, $11.95.

Each of these books casts a significant reflection on today’s classical music crisis. This crisis may be summed up thus: over the past several decades, despite technological developments that have made accessible a greater variety of music than ever before, the overwhelming majority of performed repertoire is composed of a relative handful of works from the past. For an enormous number of complex reasons, hardly any music written since World War II has succeeded in winning favor among soloists, ensembles, or audiences. The mutually interacting causes and effects of this have included: alienation and resentment between living composers and others of the music world; ossification of the repertoire into a self-contained, finite curriculum; a shift of perspective towards that repertoire as an obstacle course for the performer, and thus primarily a means of judging one performer versus another; transformation of a profound, deeply meaningful art form into a glorified athletic contest built around the ephemeral preeminence of one or another interchangeable, slickly packaged “star” who, while rigorously trained for the contest, is abysmally ignorant of its vestigial artistic roots; division of the music world into two largely unrelated factions–the first, built around showmanship and the second, devoted to the scholarly analysis of remote details, largely removed from music’s basis in expression and communication and directed more toward the self-serving defense of music as sufficiently objective and esoteric to justify it as a legitimate field of academic study.

Many–far too many–are content to participate in this disintegration. Audiences have become accustomed to the familiar repertoire, and are lazy and timid about new musical experiences. Critics feel that they are making a sufficient contribution by comparing one conductor’s Beethoven with another’s–or his 1975 recording with his 1965 recording of the same piece. Performers seem content to regurgitate this “hit parade” endlessly, and appear blind to their own redundancy. And, of course, record companies exploit this system, capitalizing on the sophisticated techniques of hype that work so well in pop music. But for those who expect more from a serious art form, for those who realize that today’s passive reverence of the “great masters” is based on a trivialization of those values upon which that music’s greatness rests, the present situation appears to foreshadow the imminent dissolution of music as an art form of any cultural importance.

Samuel Lipman, pianist and music critic for Commentary, is one of those who shares this anxiety, and it is this thread that unifies this collection of essays on diverse subjects and musical figures, published originally as separate pieces. The first section, “The Music,” includes articles dealing with Wagner and his coterie, assessments of Schoenberg, Stravinsky, and Copland, and the musico-sociological implications of the towering position of Mahler today. The second section, “The Performers,” discusses the pedagogical legacy descending from the pianism of the Lhevinnes, the careers of Horowitz and Menuhin, and even questions the ultimate importance of interpretive distinctions in matters of performance. A final group of essays deals with miscellaneous subjects such as the packaging of Nyiregyházi and the value of competitions for young virtuosos.

Most of these short essays consist of light, informative overviews of the subjects, clearly addressed to the reader of modest musical background, followed by rather tentative discussions of some of the more serious implications suggested by the subjects. Unfortunately, limitations of space prohibit my giving a step-by-step analysis of each point, but the final import of these essays reveals a serious concern with the crisis outlined above. Lipman sees the crux of the problem, to which he returns repeatedly, as the “atrophy of musical creation in our time.”

However, Lipman’s analysis of the problem is weakened by a serious misunderstanding, and it is a misunderstanding endemic to most musicians who have relied for their training and education on conservatories and universities, and whose thoughts are shaped by simplistic media like the New York Times. This serious error is the assumption that “modern music” refers to a generally unified style or “sound”–a style usually said to derive from the dual influences of the international serial movement, personified by Pierre Boulez, for example, and the neo-Dada nihilism personified by John Cage. It is true that the “avant-garde” represented by these two schools of thought (often unsympathetic to each other) combined in a truly totalitarian effort to deny legitimacy to music that failed to conform to its precepts. And the public, in its ignorance, indifference, and fear of being unfashionable, was gullible enough to swallow pronouncements such as that of Stockhausen’s colleague Herbert Eimert in Die Reihe, quoted by Lipman: “There is little to choose between ‘advanced’ expressionist music and the stagnant bourgeois reaction to it; today, either music exists as it is in the vanguard, or it does not exist at all. This is not a ‘totalitarian’ alternative; it is the simple truth.” There were obligatory attempts to understand and appreciate this music, which systematically flouted and often ridiculed the conventions of musical syntax as they had been evolving for centuries. What is more exemplary of this than a traditional institution like the New York Philharmonic hiring as its music director Pierre Boulez, who openly refused to present any 20th-century music that failed to fit his rigid dogmas! But few people are willing to be masochists indefinitely, so most simply dismissed modern music altogether as not worth the effort.

However, during the time this power structure was foisting its exclusive definitions on the international public, a true musical explosion was occurring–one that actually had been growing since World War I. For just as serialism was being represented as the “inevitable” direction for music, literally dozens of alternative directions were springing up, all over the world. Some of these alternatives were more “traditional,” i.e., palatable to conventional tastes, and some were more aggressive and challenging; some directions were clearly related to earlier and/or current influences, while others were limited to single individuals; some of these composers like Shostakovich, Britten, and Barber, won a certain amount of fame and attention, but these were truly the tiny tip of the proverbial iceberg, as the vast majority, including many of absolutely first-rate quality, have remained quite unknown. The important, point is that, in fact, there is such extraordinary richness and diversity among 20th-century music that there is absolutely no supportable stylistic generalization that can be made about it. Samuel Lipman, sensitive and well-intentioned, demonstrates his ignorance when, for example, he characterizes American music today as ranging from “Elliot Carter on the (musical) Right to John Cage and his followers on the (musical and political) Left”–a gamut that does not begin to account for composers like Lee Hoiby, John Corigliano, Arnold Rosner, Nicolas Flagello, Steve Reich, Thomas Pasatieri, Philip Glass, and Carlisle Floyd, to draw some names from the post-1925 generation alone. It is clear that Lipman’s conclusions about contemporary music are based on a very narrow, skewed familiarity.

My contention is that among the music lying outside the simplified definitions and boundaries is much that would provide just the stimulating infusion that serious music so desperately needs today, the absence of which Lipman bemoans in hopeless bewilderment. To some extent the complexion of the music profession, which today tends to attract complacent types comfortable with inheriting and transmitting unexamined verities, will have to change. What is needed are people for whom exploration in search of an infinite number of “great” works is an exciting venture, not a chore to avoid.

The conventional point of view and the middle-brow media go hand in hand, however, so that Lipman’s book was given a lengthy critique in the New York Times Book Review, in which the reviewer echoed the problem and wrung his hands. But Paul Rapoport’s Opus Est was not reviewed in the New York Times, and Rapoport, who is on the faculty of McMaster University in Canada (and is one of Fanfare’s regular critics), is a member of the small but, I think, growing body of writers about music whose thoughts reflect a real awareness of the music of the past 60 or 70 years. The title Opus Est is intended to be translated “not only there is artistic achievement but also there is a need and there is a requirement.“To demonstrate this, Rapoport has selected six Northern European composers: Matthijs Vermeulen, Vagn Holmboe, Havergal Brian, Allan Pettersson, Fartein Valen, and Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji. These composers have been largely ignored, although several of them have begun recently to win enthusiastic followings, especially Brian and Pettersson, partly due to the efforts of Rapoport and others. (Lipman, incidentally, never even mentions these two composers. One wonders if he has ever heard their names!) For the most part, the composers Rapoport discusses represent a middle ground, in that their music is largely free of overt, obvious derivation from past styles, yet is mostly rooted in some form of tonality, and shows enough affinity with the gestures of traditional symphonic music to be comprehensible on at least a basic aural level. All six of these composers view their music with the utmost seriousness, have fashioned uncompromisingly individual ways of conveying their messages, and have suffered severely for their independence.

Whether these six composers are an ideal choice is beside the point. There are so many books to be written, and so many composers about whom to write, that Rapoport’s is as good a choice as any. Each composer is introduced through an analysis of one major work, preceded by some general comments, and followed by extremely useful bibliographic and discographic information. Of great value also are the introduction and conclusion, which raise many important questions and challenge many conventional assumptions. For example, Rapoport questions the importance of “influence” as a measure of a composer’s stature, and notes that many factors other than a composer’s intrinsic merit are active in determining his degree of “influence.” Perhaps most important, he challenges the homily that “time will tell”–that the music that becomes recognized is ultimately the most worthy of recognition. It is important that this convenient crutch for the lazy mind be confronted for what it is, and that the truth be faced that fame and recognition are merely an accidental consequence of political, economic, sociological, geographical, psychological, and personal factors. In fact, in the case of the six composers discussed here, as in the case of many others one could name, a paradoxical result of the brutal and painful disregard they were forced to endure was the development of neurotically perverse self-destructive personal traits that acted further to ensure their obscurity: for example, the ban imposed for 40 years by Sorabji on all performance of his music.

Unfortunately, Rapoport’s treatment of the individual composers suffers from several weaknesses. For one, he does not take sufficient pains to convey the “sound,” or initial impact, of the composer’s music. (An exception is the chapter on Allan Pettersson, and it is perhaps for this reason that that chapter seemed the most satisfying one.) For many reasons, one assumes that this book is addressed primarily to those who are unfamiliar with the music of these six composers, and that it is an attempt to generate interest among those readers. To this end, a fair amount of descriptive background is essential. True, Rapoport offers a modicum of interesting biographical information, but at least as important is a sense of the “flavor” of the music. A summary of the composer’s technical proclivities is inadequate, because a particular technique can produce many different musical results, and it is the latter that will or will not draw new listeners to a composer. For example, Rapoport offers a fairly elaborate discussion of the significance of metamorphosis in Holmboe’s music. But this discussion communicates nothing of the dynamism and propulsive intensity that have attracted listeners to Holmboe’s music. The matter of metamorphosis is likely to be of interest only to those already convinced of the music’s value, and now ready to take a more serious look. If Rapoport wants to address that reader as well, fine–but he should not ignore the non-initiate if he is concerned with engendering interest in the music. One of the truths of musical commentary is that technical analysis can never prove a composer’s “greatness,” although once one is convinced of it, technical analysis can provide much valuable insight. But to present this sort of analysis as a means of introduction to a composer really does the composer and the reader a disservice. And despite the pressure on a “scholar” to rely on “objective” data, music makes most of its impact in affective, non-objective ways, and I believe most readers prefer and benefit more from “subjective” commentary that invites and prepares them to share a holistic musical experience.

Another problem of misjudgment is the large amount of space devoted in two chapters, those on Brian and on Valen, to discrepancies between existing sources on the composers. When one considers that, as Rapoport himself concedes, “the number of people who know [Brian’s Gothic Symphony] well may still be no more than a dozen,” one cannot help but question whether it wouldn’t have been wiser to devote that space to information of greater interest to those likely to read the book.

Still, there is much informative and fascinating reading here. Each of the six is an extraordinary individual, and each brief recounting sheds some light on the inner and outer world of the composer in this century. Most of all, each composer offers a unique musical world-view through his music; perhaps readers who turn to this book will be inspired to seek out the music.

We need many more books and articles to draw attention to the limitless wealth of top-quality 20th-century music that has been languishing in neglect for decades, not to mention the fine music being written up to this minute. Those fortunate enough to have discovered these treasures must offer some inducement to the many who have become jaded and disgusted with the pompous, precious, sanctimonious circus that the society surrounding classical music has become.