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Who’s Afraid of the Avant-Garde?


Who’s afraid of the avant-garde? Julian Lloyd Webber, for one. A well-known British cellist, he is the brother of the much better known Andrew Lloyd Webber, composer of the successful pop musicals Jesus Christ Superstar and Cats. He gave a speech in February at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, attacking what he called “the new führers of the classical music establishment.” It received surprisingly generous coverage: a reprint of the speech in The Daily Telegraph in London (February 7), a sensible answer in The New York Times (Sunday, March 22) from Paul Griffiths, and a long interview in the Independent (in London, February 2) with the headline “STOP THE DICTATORS OF MODERN MUSIC.”

I should have thought that the modernist style in music was no longer a threat, but if it is still frightening, then this attack is an encouraging sign that modernism is alive and in good health. The earliest figures, of course, are now long dead and have entered the pantheon: Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Berg, Webern, Bartók are an unquestioned part of our musical heritage. The most radical revolutionary masters of the generations that followed—Pierre Boulez, Elliott Carter, Luciano Berio, Karl-Heinz Stockhausen, Sir Harrison Birtwhistle, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, Milton Babbitt—are aging and respectable members of society. Pierre Boulez, indeed, is almost a public institution. It is, I suspect, this respectability that terrifies Lloyd Webber. Forty years ago, it used to be feared that these young Turks were out to destroy classical music: they have turned out to be admirers of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, Schumann, Verdi, Wagner, and Debussy (if not always of Rachmaninoff and Puccini). What the enemies of modernism cannot accept is the way the avant-garde have taken possession of the mainstream of the great Western tradition.

Nevertheless, with all the devotion and passionate enthusiasm that these composers can inspire, it is true they have not won the hearts of a mass audience. Not even the early generation is fully accepted by the general public with the exception of Stravinsky—and in his case only the early Russian ballets are truly popular, while the neoclassic and later atonal works remain appreciated mostly by connoisseurs. Lloyd Webber’s contention is that the decline in public interest in classical music in general is mainly due to the modernist composers, who pigheadedly have refused to compose the kind of music the public would like, and to their allies in the musical establishment, which has mercilessly forced their works on a helpless public.

The absurdity of this thesis was recognized immediately, and Paul Griffiths’s article is headed “Don’t Blame Modernists for the Empty Seats.” He writes:

Moreover, the idea that these composers, or any others, had the power to turn people off Beethoven is laughable. On the contrary, classical composition has remained deeply attached to its roots: veneration of the past, not dismissal, has been its hallmark. And any listener who has had a bad experience with new music would surely be more, not less, likely to rush back to the “Eroica” Symphony and the “Waldstein” Sonata.

This is the eminently judicious and reasonable response. What is worth taking seriously, however, is not Lloyd Webber’s claims, but the bizarre language in which they are couched, and the reason for the strange inflation of his obviously ludicrous speech by the press.

A few sentences from Lloyd Webber should give us a taste of his language and logic:

Composers who had pursued a logical development of the music of the great masters [these, of course, for Lloyd Webber, are decidedly not the modernists] were increasingly disparaged and derided by the new führers of the classical music establishment, for whom tonality and harmony had become dirty words. I am not necessarily criticising that style [why ever not?], but it cannot be good for music to strait-jacket its composers. In the years after the war, Western classical music created a pernicious politburo which proved every bit as effective as its counterpart in the East. In America, composers like Aaron Copland and Samuel Barber found themselves dismissed as dated. In Germany, Berthold Goldschmidt couldn’t even get a hearing.

The vocabulary—“führers,” “politburo”—is considerably more interesting than the absurd propositions: Goldschmidt had difficulty in getting a hearing in his native Germany after the war principally because he emigrated to England in 1935 and became a British citizen; both Copland and Barber, however, were performed from 1945 to 1975 with much greater frequency in the United States than any of the more “radical” composers like Elliott Carter or Roger Sessions. Lloyd Webber makes it seem as if it were easy to hear the works of modernist composers during this period, as if the public could not escape their dread dissonances. Of course, just the opposite is true. In addition, Lloyd Webber’s style betrays his intellectual confu-sion: I have never met any admirer of avant-garde music for whom “harmony” was a dirty word, but the combination smear of “führer” and “politburo” makes a nice balance between Nazi and Communist.

Lloyd Webber’s rancor may be international, but its expression has a peculiarly British aspect, and recalls the protests launched against Sir William Glock when he took over the direction of music at the BBC in the 1950s and opened it to the most interesting recent musical developments. At the time, the BBC Symphony was in a terrible state, with an incompetent musical director (I played a Mozart concerto with him at the Cheltenham Festival, so I had some experience) and a concertmaster who systematically sabotaged performances of difficult contemporary music. The famous Prom concerts in the summer at the Albert Hall had fallen from the high standard set at the beginning of the century by Sir Hamilton Harty, and had become a largely undistinguished set of programs of popular warhorses.

Glock (not yet Sir William), a fine musician and an excellent pianist who had studied with Schnabel, was the editor of Score, at that time the most important magazine in the world dealing with contemporary music. He transformed the Prom concerts into one of the most distinguished festivals of music in Europe. “We have a public of three thousand every night, and nobody knows why they come,” he said to me. “We’re going to change the programs and see what happens.” In addition to the usual Tchaikovsky, Beethoven, and Gilbert and Sullivan, there were now performances of Mozart’s wonderful unfinished opera Zaïde, the Berlioz Requiem, and Stockhausen’s Gruppen, with many other unfamiliar old and modern works. (The Stockhausen work attracted only 2500 listeners, but Glock seemed pleased enough with that.) The BBC orchestra was revitalized with the appointment of Antal Dorati and then Pierre Boulez as chief conductors, and a series of broadcast chamber music concerts was created (the Thursday Invitation Concerts) which combined classical works and avant-garde contemporary pieces with music from the medieval and Renaissance periods.

The BBC has enormous power in British culture, and musical London was transformed by Glock in a year or so from an uninteresting backwater into one of the great centers of music, receptive to works of all kinds. Glock’s policies raised an outcry, however, and he was attacked in Parliament in terms exactly like those used by Lloyd Webber. “Gauleiter Glock” he was dubbed, as if he were terrorizing honest music lovers, forcing them to listen to an art against all British tradition. What was resented, in fact, was not the programming of contemporary music (one can always turn off the radio, after all) but the new prestige and acceptance accorded to it. Some of the staff at the BBC were paradoxically indignant: they complained that people acted as if Glock had introduced contemporary music for the first time to the BBC, and ignored all the performances they had previously organized over the years. The new respect paid to new music was the point, however. I am not sure if much more contemporary music was really played after Glock’s arrival at the BBC than before, but he had found a way of calling attention to it, investing it with a new prestige. He sent the BBC orchestra on a tour of America in which it played six programs of difficult twentieth-century music in three weeks in Carnegie Hall under Dorati and Boulez, something no American orchestra at the time would have been able to equal. That was the true beginning of Boulez’s dazzling international career as a conductor; a few years later he was to become the director of the New York Philharmonic.

Gauleiter, Führer, Politburo—these revealing expressions are the symptoms of irrational resentment.1 The irrationality springs not simply from a distaste for a style we cannot understand or appreciate, but from an unacknowledged or unconscious distress at being shut out from the comprehension of something that we dimly feel we ought to be able to admire. That is the reason so much of the criticism of the past can seem wildly irrelevant. In his time, Beethoven’s works were called, literally, sexual monstrosities by his enemies. The works of Wagner and Schoenberg as well were also improbably classed as sexual perversions. Whistler’s paintings were described as an insulting fraud by Ruskin.

Typical of this irrational reaction is the belief that a work we do not understand must be devoid of all meaning. This leads to a paranoia like Lloyd Webber’s, the claim that there is some kind of conspiracy to impose a fraud on the public. Ned Rorem, for instance, has written that nobody really likes the music of Elliott Carter: they only pretend to like it; his many admirers must therefore be lying. This truly loony statement is a characteristic expression of resentment, of hatred for an art that one does not understand—or, rather, for an art that one is unwilling to understand.

Taste is, after all, a matter of will, of moral and social decisions. To take a famous example from the modernist tradition in literature, we are assured that Joyce’s Ulysses is a difficult masterpiece, and we try to read it, determined, perhaps, to prove our cultural superiority by our appreciation. After the initial repugnance for much of the book experienced by a great many readers, most of us succeed in the end in deriving great pleasure from all of it. Similarly, in the history of music from Bach to the present, by repeated listening we have learned to love the music that has at first puzzled and even repelled us. There is, however, always the megalomaniac critic or amateur who is convinced—and glories in that conviction—that he is the innocent little boy who sees that the emperor has no clothes.

Nothing is more comic than the resentment of contemporary art, the self-righteous indignation aroused by its difficulty. I remember once being invited to lecture in Cincinnati on the music of Pierre Boulez and Elliott Carter. In the question period afterward, a woman posed what she evidently conceived not as a question but as an aggressive and defiant challenge: “Mr. Rosen, don’t you think the composer has a responsibility to write music that the public can understand?” On such occasions I normally reply politely to all questions, no matter how foolish, but this time I answered that the question did not seem to me interesting but that the obvious resentment that inspired it was very significant indeed.

  1. 1

    Lloyd Webber may have a more personal reason for hating the modern style. His father gave up writing music just as the English musical scene was opened up by Sir William Glock to all the latest international movements. He writes:

    A composer like my father stood no chance…. Although his early works pushed at the boundaries of tonality, his roots were firmly based in the romanticism of Richard Strauss and Rachmaninov—composers whose music was adored by audiences but increasingly dismissed by the “politburo.” My father found it an impossible climate to write in and ceased composing almost completely in the early Fifties—his spirit disillusioned and broken at the age of thirty-eight.

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