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The Music of the Beatles

I’m taking the time for a number of things
That weren’t important yesterday.
—from Fixing a Hole

I never go to classical concerts any more and I don’t know anyone who does. It’s hard still to care whether some virtuoso tonight will perform the Moonlight Sonata a bit better or a bit worse than another virtuoso performed it last night. But I do often attend what used to be called avant-garde recitals, though seldom with delight, and inevitably I look around and wonder: what am I doing here? Where are the poets and painters and even the composers themselves who used to flock to these things? Well, perhaps what I am doing here is a duty, keeping an ear on my profession so as to justify the joys of resentment, to steal an idea or two, or just to show charity toward some friend on the program. But I learn less and less. Meanwhile the absent artists are at home playing records; they are reacting again, finally, to something they no longer find at concerts.

Reacting to what? Why, to the Beatles, of course, whose arrival I believe is one of the most healthy events in music since 1950. What occurred around 1950 will be the starting concern of this brief essay, an essay with a primarily musical approach. Most of the literary copy devoted to the Beatles extols the timely daring of the group’s lyrics while skirting the essential quality, the music. Poetry may be the egg from which the nightingale is hatched, though in the last analysis that nightingale must come first.

My “musical approach” will be that of what once was termed long-hair composer, somewhat disillusioned, nourished at the conservatory yet exposed all his life (as is any American, of necessity) to jazz. It will not pretend to a total appraisal, only to the fact that I and my colleagues have been happily torn from a long nap by the energy of rock, principally as embodied in the Beatles. Naturally I’ve grown curious about their energy. What are its origins? What need does it fill? Why should the Beatles—who seem to be the best of a good thing, who are, in my view, far superior to all the other groups who pretend to copy them, but who nevertheless are mostly American and perpetuating what once was an essentially American thing—why should the Beatles have erupted from Liverpool? Could it be true, as Nat Hentoff suggests, that they “turned millions of America adolescents on to what had been here hurting all the time…but the young here never did want it raw so they absorbed it through the British filter”? Do the Beatles hurt indeed? Are they really so new? Does their attraction, whether of pain or pleasure, stem from their words—or even from what’s called their sound—or from their tunes? Those are the questions, more or less in order, that I’d like to examine.

AROUND 1940, after a rather dim puberty, American music grew up. Cut off from Europe, composers began producing an identifiably native product. By the war’s end we had cultivated a group worthy of export. Symphonies of all shapes were being ground out; new operas were being performed in Mid-western towns; and vocal soloists were everywhere making themselves heard. On one side were Sinatra, Horne, and Holiday, stylists of a high order, wonderfully performing material of little musical interest (when not derived from Gershwin or Porter) and dim literary content. On the other side were specialized concert singers—Frijsh, Fairbank, and Tangeman—who, though vocally uneven, helped to create a new style by persuading certain youngish composers to make singable songs based on texts of quality.

BY 1950 the export of American music was well under way. But we soon realized that no one abroad cared much. Jazz, of course, had always been an attraction in the Europe that dismissed American “serious” music as not very serious; Europe, after all, was also reawakening after the war. But that awakening was mainly concerned with the past, namely with the dodecaphonic system which in America had atrophied, and in Germany had been forgotten since the war. This device (no, not a device but a way of thinking) was being revitalized not in Germany where it had all begun, but in France. By 1950 Pierre Boulez virtually single-handedly had cleared the path and set the tone that music would follow for the next decade. America took the cue, allowing her newfound individuality to dissolve into what ultimately became the bandwagon of International Academicism.

This turn of events surprised no one more than the composers themselves. Although Copland and Thomson, after Satie, had been reacting in the Twenties against the complicated romantic Teuton soup in which music had wallowed for centuries, in the Fifties complex systems were revived, literally with a vengeance, by certain middle-aged composers (Elliott Carter, Milton Babbitt, Arthur Berger, etc.) whom fame had by-passed during the Forties, and by the young in general; while the randomness of Dada was reanimated by John Cage, Copland, on the other hand, became engaged in serial formality, this time with a straight face, as though intimidated by those deadly serious composers half his age.

These “serious” youngsters, in keeping with the times, were understandably more geared to the practical concerns of science than to “superfluous” considerations of self-expression. When they wrote for the human voice (which they did less and less often) it was treated not as an interpreter of poetry—nor even necessarily of words—but as a mechanism, often electronically revamped. Verse itself was no longer married to the music, or even framed by the music, but was illustrated through the music. There was little use left for live singers.

Live singers themselves, at least those of formal training, weren’t interested anyway. Modern music was too difficult. Besides it had no audience any longer, nor did the classical song recital so beloved in the already distant years of Teyte and Lehmann. Young singers were lured away from lieder, from la mélodie, from the American “art song,” until not one specialist remained. They had all been seduced by the big money and chance of celebrity of grand opera. Even today the few exceptional singers are mostly European: Schwarzkopf, Souzay, Fischer-Dieskau. Even the accurate Bethany Beardslee certainly makes no money, while her excellent West Coast counterpart, Marni Nixon, now does movie dubbing and musical comedy. But most modern song specialists have awful voices and give vanity concerts for invited guests.

Elsewhere the Progressive, or Cool, jazz of Brubeck and Kenton and Mulligan was developing, a rarefied expression that had nothing to do with song or dance. The Hit Parade was defunct, Negro stylists out of jobs, and the vulgar vocalists of college bands in low esteem. Song was out.

Meanwhile the wall separating so-called classical from so-called jazz was crumbling, as each division sought some-how to join with and rejuvenate the other. Yet the need for “communication,” so widely lamented today, seemed to be satisfied less through music—any music—than through other outlets, particularly movies. Movies, in becoming accepted as a fine art, turned out to be the one medium which could depict most articulately the inarticulateness of today, even to intellectuals; whereas the intellectualization of music had ironically alienated the intellectual and has not much interested anyone else.

Myself and a handful of song-writing friends (Paul Bowles, Daniel Pinkham, William Flanagan, David Diamond) who began in the Forties I consider as having come in at the end, as having attempted an irrelevant resuscitation of a creature with sleeping sickness. Most of us have written depressingly few songs lately, and those few emerged less from driving need than from ever-rarer commissions extended by die-hard specialists. Since there’s little money, publication, recording, performance, or even concern for songs, our enthusiasm for that most gently urgent of mediums has been, alas, pretty much dampened.

But if the once thriving Art of Song has lain dormant since the war, indications now show it restirring throughout the world—which is not the same world that put it to bed. When it fully awakens, its composition and interpretation will be of a quite different order and for a quite different public.

Since big-time vocalists like Leontyne Price are, for economic reasons, no longer principally occupied with miniature forms, and since “serious” composers like Stockhausen are, for scientific reasons, no longer principally occupied with human utterances (of which singing is the most primitive and hence the most expressive), and since a master like Stravinsky has never been famous for his solo vocal works, the artful tradition of great song has been transferred to the Beatles and their offshoots. Their music was already sprouting a decade ago through such innocent male sex symbols as Presley in America and Johnny Hallyday in France, both of whom were caricatured by the English in a movie called Expresso Bongo, a precursor of Privilege, about a none-too-bright rock singer. These young soloists (still functioning and making lots of money) were the parents of more sophisticated, more committed, soloists like Dylan and Donovan, who in turn spawned a horde of masculine offspring including twins (Simon & Garfunkel, the most cultured), quintuplets (Country Joe & The Fish, the most exotic), sextuplets (The Association, the most nostalgic), even septuplets (Mothers of Invention, the most madly satirical). With much less frequency were born female descendents such as Janis Ian or Bobbie Gentry (each of whom has produced one, and only one, good song) and the trio of Supremes. Unlike their “grandparents,” all of these groups, plus some twenty other fairly good ones, write much of their own material, thus combining the traditions of twelfth-century troubadours, sixteenth-century madrigalists, and eighteenth-century musical artisans, who were always composer-performers—in short, combining all sung expression (except opera) as it was before the twentieth century.

For this expression one must now employ (as I have been doing here) the straightforward word song, as opposed to the misleading lieder which applies just to German repertory, or the pretentious art song which no longer applies to anything. (The only disignation in English that ever really distinguished “serious art song” from what used to be named “pop tune” was “recital song.”) Since pop tunes, as once performed by such singers as Billie Holiday and the Big Bands during an epoch not simply dormant but dead, are heard not only in nightclubs and theaters but in recitals and concerts, and since those tunes are as good as—if not better than—most “serious” songs being composed today, the best cover-all term is simply song. The only sub-categories are good and bad. Curiously, it is not through the suave innovations of our sophisticated composers that music is regaining its health, but from the old-fashioned lung exercise of gangs of kids.

That the best of these gangs should have come from England is unimportant; they could have come from Arkansas. The Beatles’ world is just another part of an International Academicism wherein the question is to be better rather than different. It seems to me that their attraction has little to do with “what had here been hurting” (as Hentoff implied), but on the contrary with enjoyment.

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