How long does a style of music have to be unpopular before we conclude that it's probably going to remain unpopular forever? Years? Decades? Apparently, for fans of at least one kind of music, not even a century is enough. And for some of these fans, the audience is mostly to blame for the music's lack of popularity, not the composers or performers. That was at least my reaction over the weekend of a re-reading of "Why do we hate modern classical music?," a 2010 article by Alex Ross, critic for The New Yorker and author of "The Rest is Noise," one of the best-received books on classical music of recent years. I like Ross's writings quite a bit, thus it was quite sad for me to see that he, too, had succumbed to the dreaded malady that's long plagued the critical establishment: blame-the-audience disease.
The style of music in question is atonality, the style (really a bunch of styles) of music pioneered a little over a hundred years ago by Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg. Thanks to Schoenberg, his disciples (especially Alban Berg and Anton Webern), their disciples and disciples' disciples (Pierre Boulez, Hans Werner Henze and many others), and so forth, atonal music and its offshoots (e.g., twelve-tone, serial) became one of the most prevalent composing styles of the 20th century. To put it very simply, atonal refers to music in which there is no tonal center, no "do" (as in "do, re, mi"), no "tonic" (as in the note the music returns to at the end), no "scale" (as in major, minor, modal, pentatonic, etc.). The notes of the music may still have some relationship to each other, and may still form melodies, harmonies and patterns. Yet without a tonal center to ground the music in, many listeners will find it difficult to follow the music's flow, and to discern its shape. Without the expectation that a dissonance (the simultaneous sounding of notes that clash with each other) will resolve into a consonance (the simultaneous sounding of notes that sound sweet together), the music will be robbed of its normal mileposts and resting places, and its expressive range will be narrowed down to disorientation, anxiety and other unpleasant sensations.
At least that has been the reaction of many listeners, probably most. I have no access to good audience data on this (does anyone?), but can still make an educated guess that this is so. How? Well, name for me an atonal work that has become a big audience favorite. I know, I know — lots of great works don't become favorites, lots of maybe not-so-great ones do, and besides, that's not the best way to judge a work's quality. But don't you think that a century of a style as prevalent as atonality would have produced at least one bona fide hit? And I'm not talking about works of historical importance, major artistic quality or a strong minority following. Or even those I like. But...one hit? One? Please? Go ahead; try me. I say it can't be done, at least to my satisfaction. And I think that says a lot, especially since other works and styles that were contentious in their time, from Stravinsky'sRite of Spring to minimalism, have caught on with a broader public..
You know, when the millennial odometer flipped over and we could finally be rid of the 20th century, I hoped that atonality, in all its myriad forms, could be consigned to the past, taking its place in the history book alongside such dead styles as Biedermeier, Rococo and Ars Nova. Sure, some atonal works would survive on their merits. But we would no longer have to treat it like living music, and allow ourselves to be guilted into putting up with it if we didn't really like it. Alas, it was not to be, or at least not yet. There are still those in the musical community, including composers, performers and critics, willing to use atonal music as the club to beat us over the head with for our doltish resistance to their obviously superior tastes. And oh, do they ever come up with logical-sounding reasons why the development of atonality was just the most natural thing in the world. And why our inability to like it is because of the conditioning of our narrow-minded culture. Never mind that they can't name a single other music from anywhere or any time in the world that doesn't have some kind of tonal center — atonality was part of the inevitable march of historical progress, and any composer who doesn't agree is an irrelevance. Yes, one of my UConn music professors in the mid-70s said just that. Reminds you of a couple of other discredited but tenacious 20th-century ideologies, doesn't it?
Look, I don't want to sink to this level and lash out at all of musical modernism just because of one style and its most extreme adherents. Nor am I calling for an outright ban on the programming of atonal works, though they might not be best served by placement on mainstream programs. There are reasons why this music came about, and its a crucial part of the history of its times. And there are authentic masterworks in the style, at least from its first generation. (In my opinion, just about all the masterpieces are by Alban Berg, but that's just me.) But it's way too late in the day to be "shocked, shocked" that another atonal work provoked some small portion of an audience to walk out. And neither will I sit idely by as another critic insults the audience as he comes up with another set of condescending excuses for why they don't like the same music he does.
I'll do a deeper refutation of Ross's article in a later post, but you don't have to wait until then to let me have it for this post. Comment away!
(Illustrations, left to right: Arnold Schoenberg's self-portrait, Schoenberg's painting of Alban Berg, Max Oppenheimer's painting of Anton Webern)