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Sour Notes

A Concise History of Avant-Garde Music: From Debussy to Boulez

by Paul Griffiths
Oxford University Press, 216 pp., $6.95 (paper)

The illustrations in The Concise History of Avant-Garde Music include several 1950s and 1960s score pages that, considered as graphic art, compete favorably with the stage designs by Picasso, Leger, and others. Thus the blocks and ziggurats of an electronic piece by Ligeti may be compared, as a composition, to the cones of a Boccioni cover, and perhaps the book’s most impressive picture in this sense is Stockhausen’s Refrain, with its concentric arcs and transparent oblong diameter. The visual attractions of this music are an important compensation, moreover, since the sound cannot be imagined from the notation, and since Mr. Griffiths’s text is unhelpful, a gamma-minus term paper, crammed with meaningless statements,* ineptly written, inaptly titled—more than half of the book is devoted to modern classics from the 1890s through the 1920s—and never redeemed by novelties of perspective or musical percipience.

The Concise History demands attention, nevertheless, beyond a Nader-type consumer warning, for the reason that the author is a ubiquitous reviewer for the London Times, as well as, which is alarming, the editor of “all the articles on twentieth-century music” in the perpetually forthcoming sixth edition of Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians. In view of these credentials, and of the need for a popular survey of contemporary musical modes, the publishers may be pardoned for commissioning the book from Mr. Griffiths. But how could they accept it, or read further than the chapter on the Prélude à “L’après-midi d’un faune,” which is his starting point?

In the Prélude…Debussy had opened the paths of modern music—the abandonment of traditional tonality, the development of new rhythmic complexity, the recognition of color as an essential,…the exploration of deeper mental processes….

But the Prélude does not abandon tonality; complexity was not the object of Debussy’s developments in rhythm; color had been recognized “as an essential” long before the Prélude; and Debussy’s exploration of “mental processes”—if that is what he did—was surely not “deeper” than Beethoven’s. In the next sentence Mr. Griffiths says that Debussy’s influence was “limited, if widespread,” which is a contradiction in terms.

The commentary is not more reliable on other founding fathers of the modern movement. “Only in his songs and in the Gurrelieder did [Schoenberg] rest [?] on lyricism,” Mr. Griffiths remarks, forgetting Verklaerte Nacht, Pelleas, and the Second Chamber Symphony, to name only three examples of the most sustained “lyricism” in the whole repertory of instrumental music. Turning to Le Sacre du printemps, he declares that “the measurement of time has ceased to be in terms of bars,” that the “opening bassoon solo…destroys the regulation of the barline,” and that other passages are “syncopated against the metre indicated by the barring.” In actuality, harmonic and orchestral changes emphasize the measurement by bars more strongly than ever before, barlines are established in the bassoon solo by the respective entrances of a horn and clarinets, and a meter cannot be “syncopated against” but only a beat.

The three-quarters of a century that Mr. Griffiths attempts to cover are marked by diversity and radical change greater than that occurring in any comparable span in music history. He approaches this multifariousness by tagging composers of the first generation as, and thereby reducing them to, Expressionists, Neoclassicists, or Nationalists. Janacek, for instance, receives a paragraph as the originator of a Czech “national operatic style,” as if the individuating features of his best pieces—the Glagolitic Mass, for one, which is not mentioned in the discussion of religious music—constituted an idiom that anyone else could borrow. (Szymanowski is totally ignored, perhaps because his Król Roger, one of the few successful modern operas, is not “Polish” in the sense that Janacek’s Jenufa is “Czech.”)

The main obstacles to reading Mr. Griffiths’s History are his nebulous terminology and, to give him the benefit of the doubt, his habit of not saying what he means. Thus he writes that Les Noces employs a “cell technique,” and that its composer “settled on a paring down to the constructivist sound of four pianos and percussion.” But in what does this technique consist, and what are “constructivist” sounds? What, too, is “Artaudesque” about Boulez’s second sonata, and in what ways does the piece succeed in “taking on Beethoven’s ‘Hammerklavier’ “?

The basic principle of serialism is simply stated,” Mr. Griffiths continues, and his readers will make an effort to follow him, partly because of the promise of concrete information, but also because the book’s dust jacket says that he wrote the entry on the subject in the new Grove’s. Simply stated, then,

The twelve notes of the chromatic scale are arranged in a fixed order, the series, which can be used to generate melodies and harmonies, and which remains binding for a whole work. The series is thus a sort of hidden theme.

But “can be used to generate” is misleading, since all melodic and harmonic constructions must derive from the series. Furthermore, many compositions use more than one series, and, at least in Schoenberg’s music, a series is not “a sort of hidden theme,” but an overt one. Mr. Griffiths goes on to explain that

the whole series may be inverted; and it may be reversed. By these means the composer is provided with a whole range of forms of the series….

But this omits the retrograde-inversion form, which provides a substantial part of that range (and which is occasionally found in the fifteenth-century treatment—notably by Obrecht—of the cantus firmus, where the “hidden theme” notion is not inapposite).

As an example of the problems in disentangling Mr. Griffiths’s intended statements from his actual ones, he refers to Honegger as “a rather unconvincing member of Les Six,” but probably means “unconvinced,” since Mr. Griffiths then claims, untenably, that “the harmonic richness” of Honegger’s “churning symphonic” works “comes close to that of Schoenberg, even if their driving rhythms remain a legacy of Baroque imitation.” An affinity with Schoenberg could signify discontent with the French group, of course, but the remainder of the sentence is a nonsequitur—a “driving rhythm” would not necessarily have any bearing on the harmony—as well as inexplicable in itself unless “imitation” is interpreted as counterfeit, or neoclassic, and not as referring to canonic devices.

For simpler examples of Mr. Griffiths’s confused intentions, he writes that “quarter-tones were among the eccentric phenomena explored by Ives,” meaning, no doubt, that the composer was regarded as eccentric for employing these intervals which, as “phenomena,” are neither eccentric nor conventional. Mr. Griffiths writes that “Berg based his opera on the…play by Georg Büchner, which shows an inadequate central character.” But the character is one of the great creations of the theater; his inadequacy is only within the social system of the play. Two paragraphs later, Mr. Griffiths says that “Polytonality was used…[in the] ballet Petrushka, where the torn hopelessness of the main character is represented by the simultaneous sounding of C major and its opposite pole, F sharp major, and it became the principal distinguishing mark of the copious output of Darius Milhaud.” Whether “it” refers to “torn hopelessness” (hopelessly torn?) or to C major and F sharp major combined, Milhaud’s music cannot be distinguished either by this emotion or these tonal polarities.

Yet Mr. Griffiths is only slightly less puzzling when he seems to be saying what he apparently does mean. “The old counterpoint had been revived in Pierrot lunaire,” he writes, but can he point to a single passage of this counterpoint in the music of any older composer? And, “Berg’s [Wozzeck] differs from Schoenberg’s [Erwartung] in its direct references back to tonality, and these allow the events and attitudes to be suffused with the composer’s sympathy.” Apparently Griffiths believes that atonal music is powerless to convey its composer’s sympathy and that none can be found in, for instance, The Survivor of Warsaw. Finally, what is the reader to make of the statement that Webern’s “concentration on minutiae could be seen as presaging music in which each note was separately composed…”? Is there any other way of writing music and are not all notes composed separately?

On almost every page, The Concise History of Avant-Garde Music testifies to the urgent necessity of establishing standards in music criticism.

Letters

To Criticize the Critic November 9, 1978

  1. *

    The book also contains a great many simple errors of fact, such as the wrong date for Hindemith’s death, the misclassification of Perséphone as a ballet, and a listing of the instruments in Pierrot lunaire that omits three of the required eight.

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