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.

To understand the frame of mind in which such challenges are made, we must remember that the disastrous first performance of The Rite of Spring (at which the members of the fashionable Jockey Club organized a riot of booing and hissing) was inaudible after the first few seconds. It is true that the high bassoon note that opens the ballet was a shock at the time, but it is clear that nobody was prepared to listen. Condemnation was decided in advance. (It seems not to be widely known that the second performance was a triumph: the work was listened to this time.) History continues to repeat itself: when Boulez began his stint as the principal conductor of the New York Philharmonic, he placed on one of his first programs the so-called “Postcard” Lieder of Alban Berg, songs for soprano which are short, delicate, and enchanting. Before five seconds had elapsed, a dozen or more old subscribers started to walk out noisily and ostentatiously. They did not need to listen; they knew in advance what they hated without ever having heard it.

It is perhaps not healthy or reasonable to develop a taste for absolutely everything. “I hate anything Egyptian,” Goethe once said at a dinner party, “and I’m glad: one must always have something to dislike.” Our limitations, however, are not a sign of moral or aesthetic superiority, as Lloyd Webber implies with his talk of dictators and his foolish claim that the avant-garde composer thinks “harmony” is a dirty word. I myself, for example, do not care for the music of Messiaen, and am put off by its air of unctuous piety: when I am feeling mean-spirited I even describe his opera as Saint Francis Walking on the Birds. But when I reflect that some of the finest musicians today, Peter Serkin among them, adore Messiaen, I realize that I, too, would learn to love his music if I decided to put my mind to it. The admirers of Messiaen are clearly right and I am wrong: what they hear in his work is really there.

The difficulty of contemporary music, and, in general, of a great deal of modern art and literature, is often foolishly ascribed to an attempt of the artist to direct his work entirely to professionals, to refuse to lower himself to the level of the mass public. On the contrary: composers, artists, and writers have always wanted popular success—but on their own terms. Webern once said that he hoped to hear the postman whistling a twelve-tone row as he delivered the mail, although he knew that this was a utopian dream. Music has indeed become less whistleable or hummable. I have heard friends whistle or hum tunes by George Gershwin and Harold Arlen, but I have never heard anyone whistle a tune by Andrew Lloyd Webber; perhaps I move in the wrong circles. In any case, I have not developed a theory that there is a conspiracy to force the works of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Stephen Sondheim on a helpless public to prevent the great musicals of Gershwin and Arlen from being revived.

However I recall having actually heard a twelve-tone row whistled often on the Princeton campus back in the late 1940s when the Princeton Chapel Choir performed Schoenberg’s Survivor from Warsaw with the New York Philharmonic. Dimitri Mitropoulos came to Princeton to rehearse the choral part, and started by telling the choir that he knew we hated the work but that we all had to suffer for the sake of modern music. The choir was astonished: as a matter of fact, no one hated the work, but the role of martyr modeled on Savonarola was congenial to Mitropoulos, and the difficulty of modern music had already been elevated from the status of a problem to a myth.

The difficulty of contemporary music is more serious than that of contemporary painting, largely because you can look at a picture in a few seconds but you have to sit through a work of music for as long as it takes. Composers have faced the problem for a long time. In 1939, when Schoenberg took refuge from Nazi Germany for a year in Barcelona, he refused to allow a performance of his Music for a Film Sequence that Webern proposed for a concert of the International Society for Contemporary Music. “I have lived here for some months, and I have made many friends. I play tennis with them,” he said. “What will they think of me when they hear this terrible music?”

There is a widespread misunderstanding about the taste of the public for classical music. It is not difficult music to which they object, but difficult music that is unfamiliar. The people who prefer to hear music that is easy to listen to are rarely the ones who are interested in what is called classical music, or who buy subscriptions year after year to orchestral and recital series. In fact, serious music lovers are not particularly attracted by easy music even if they hate some of the difficult music that may be thrust upon them. The proposal to bring the alienated audience back to contemporary music by programming works by composers who write in a nice, agreeable style is impractical. “Listener-friendly” music—to use the current term—may not inspire noisy protests, but it also arouses no enthusiasm. Julian Lloyd Webber proposes to bring back, for example, the music of Malcolm Arnold, a minor British composer who wrote the score to The Bridge on the River Kwai, and several serious orchestral works.

Perhaps the public would not mind sitting through a work by Arnold, but he inspires no passion except in a few English critics happy to find a native work that does not grate on their nerves with horrid dissonance. With Schoenberg or Boulez, who are still controversial, on the other hand, there may be a majority of music lovers who hope never to have to listen to their works, but there is also a significantly large minority that passionately wants to perform and hear them.2 The basic problem with Lloyd Webber’s proposal, therefore, is not so much that interesting and original composers generally do not want to write “listener- friendly” music; the true stumbling block is that few musicians have any passionate urge to play or hear that kind of music.


It is a fallacy common to administrators in the music business—record companies, symphony orchestras, concert societies—that the public yearns for listener-friendly music. All we can say is that the section of the public for whom music stopped with Tchaikovsky or Debussy does not want to hear any unfamiliar contemporary music at all, but if they have to sit through it, they prefer music that does not annoy them or to which they do not have to listen with any attention in order to grasp what is going on. The music of conservative modern composers, like Samuel Barber or Virgil Thomson (to name two who are safely dead), may not provoke outrage, but it has no more popular mass appeal than the most extravagant modernists.

Accompanying Paul Griffiths’s criticism of Lloyd Webber in The New York Times, a proposal similar to Lloyd Webber’s was made by Peter Gelb in an article unusually obtuse even for the head of a large record company like Sony. The headline read: “One Label’s Strategy: Make It New, but Make It Pay.” Like Lloyd Webber, Gelb has paranoid delusions of a conspiracy:

Attempts to commission or sched-ule accessible and emotionally stimulating new music were blocked by a cabal of atonal composers, academics and classical-music critics, who seemed to share one goal: to confine all new classical music to an elite intellectual exercise with limited audience appeal. By their rules, any new classical composition that enjoys commercial success is no good.

This implies that difficult avant-garde music was played more often in recent decades than more conservative modern works that were “easy” to listen to and more successful commercially. That, of course, is quite simply false.

As for Gelb’s “cabal” (the equivalent of Lloyd Webber’s “politburo”), it never existed.3 Conductors and solo performers program works they like to play. Critics campaign for works they think have not been given a fair hearing. On the rare occasions that a work unpopular with the public got performed by a major orchestra, it was almost always because the conductor passionately wanted to present it, sometimes against the advice of the orchestra’s administration. Since many of the “difficult” works were complex and unfamiliar to the orchestra, the conductor had to fight, often unsuccessfully, to get extra rehearsal time.

As with the Beethoven symphonies in the first half of the nineteenth century,4 the more complicated scores needed to be performed several times over the years for the musicians to arrive at a convincing, or even a clean, rendition. After an initial performance, however, few avant-garde scores have had a second chance with the same group of players until two decades or more had passed. The musicians never developed the necessary experience. Schoenberg once remarked: “My music is not modern, it is only badly played.” When Elliott Carter’s piano concerto was played for the first time by the Boston Symphony (with an excellent pianist, Jacob Lateiner, but a conductor who had no idea how to interpret the work), one of the members of the orchestra said to the composer, “The trouble with your music, Mr. Carter, is that it doesn’t make any sense unless one follows your indications for the dynamics.” Perhaps it was unreasonable in our time for the composer to expect his directions to be observed.

Since Sony is, after all, in the record business, Gelb’s problem is to decide what to record. He has cut down drastically on the standard classics: “Particularly in the case of symphonic repertory,” he writes, “it has become almost impossible to tell one modern performance on record from another.” I am sure that this is an accurate and sincere expression of Gelb’s perception. His policy seems sensible: if all performances sound alike to you, why bother to record a new one? What this confession hides, however, is the fact that with the backlog of old recordings that Sony inherited from CBS Records, remastering the old catalog on compact disks at cut-rate prices can keep Sony busy for several years.

Since the standard old classics are already in large supply, it becomes imperative to find new works. And these new works must not be difficult. “As a major record label,” Gelb insists, “we have an obligation to make recordings that are relevant.” What does “relevant” mean? Gelb explains. “To me relevance means that people actually listen to our recordings. It is neither commercially rewarding nor artistically relevant for us to make recordings that sell only a few thousand copies.” One thing should be made clear: it is perfectly possible to make a decent profit with a record that sells only a few thousand copies. Sometimes, indeed, it is more profitable to make lots of records that have only a moderate sale than to spend a fortune to produce and promote one blockbuster that sells a hundred thousand copies and loses money or barely breaks even.5 If publishers had refused any book that would initially sell only a few thousand copies, most of the world’s greatest masterpieces would never have been printed. A “relevant” recording, however, is simply one that sells in very large numbers. Relevant means not just profitable, but hugely profitable.

Sony wants to make money. That is not news, and it needs no apology. Why, then, the jargon word “relevant”? Because Gelb wants to enjoy artistic pretensions along with his profits. He wants, as he says, “to succeed in revitalizing the classical-record industry and classical music itself.” The ambitious revitalization of classical music is already underway: in a note to Gelb’s article, the Times informs us that “Sony Classical currently boasts the No. 1 best-selling album in the world, James Horner’s soundtrack for the film Titanic.”

In addition, Sony is commissioning new works that are sure to sell. The first example that Gelb proudly offers is the music for a Canadian film, The Red Violin, which is “about an 18th-century violin, varnished in the blood of a master violin-maker’s wife.” The violin piece derived from it is called the “Red Violin Chaconne.” This would sound immediately appealing even if the composer and performer (John Corigliano and Joshua Bell) were less distinguished. The other inspiration of Sony for its “revitalizing” classical music is the old gimmick of commissioning what are called “crossovers”—that is, combinations of classical and pop music. Gelb has teamed up Teresa Stratas and the “alternative pop chanteuse” P.J. Harvey in a Kurt Weill recording.

What is disarming about Gelb’s article is that he seems to have no idea how silly he sounds. Making a profit needs no apology, but Gelb wants to gild his profits with aesthetics. That is why he becomes so defensive: “Well, I am not afraid to admit that we are seeking success. We are seeking artistic and commercial success.” If he were serious about classical music, he would try to deal with the problem of finding an audience for it, instead of inventing substitutes. Indeed, the causes of our present difficulty can be laid right at the door of the recording industry.

Since the 1930s, records have gradually supplanted concerts and radio programs as our principal means of hearing music. Throughout these years, the record companies steadfastly refused to make records freely or cheaply available for the schools, so that generations have grown up with no contact early in life with classical music. If the recording industry had had the foresight and the business sense of the tobacco companies, and tried to build a future market for their classical product among children and teenagers, classical music would not feel itself under attack. Paul Griffiths was right in his Times article to claim that the only way to reinvigorate the state of classical music was through education: “We should resolve, most vitally, to encourage and enhance music in schools. Music teaches the ability to listen, which is fundamental to education.” But most of the directors of the record industry wanted a quick profit without having to work for it and with no thought of the years to come.

That is what “listener-friendly” music and Gelb’s crossovers represent, a quick profit. The music which has endured for centuries—and, we may add, the art and literature, too—was rarely easy at first. With few exceptions it met in the beginning with some incomprehension and even resentment. Throughout the centuries from Ockeghem and Josquin des Près to Beethoven and Stravinsky, the most dedicated amateurs of music have wanted their music to be difficult.

The most famous authors in Western culture are probably Dante and Shakespeare. The difficulty of reading Dante was formidable during his lifetime, and within a few years of his death Boccaccio gave public lectures in Florence to elucidate the Divine Comedy. It has not, I think, been sufficiently emphasized how hard it is to understand much of Shakespeare, both on the stage and in the library. Even for his contemporaries it must have been a challenge: he is considerably more complex than Kyd, Marlowe, and Middleton; even Jonson and Chapman are less formidable. The finest examples of that popular form, the nineteenth-century novel, make heavy demands upon the reader, and with some novelists, like Flaubert, the demands are outlandish (“We need a lexicon,” Sainte-Beuve complained in a review). Even Dickens is not an easy read, and the later novels are extremely tough.

In music, the initial difficulty of perception of the finest classical works is basic. Telemann is listener-friendly, and was considerably more popular than his contemporary Johann Sebastian Bach; by the end of the eighteenth century, however, he was almost completely forgotten, while Bach’s reputation has never ceased to grow. The minor Baroque composers have been revived and they provide period flavor, but the easier they are to appreciate, the less interesting they become in the long run. (One of the few concerts that I refused to sit out until the end was one devoted entirely to Albinoni, a composer largely interesting because he wrote a good theme that inspired a fugue by Bach.)

The most popular opera composer of the eighteenth century was Johann Hasse, whose bland, facile style has disappeared without trace from the repertory, while the tougher work of Gluck still survives. Mozart was considered difficult and even repulsive by his contemporaries (too many notes, too complex, too many ideas to follow); his easier and more popular contemporaries, Paisiello and Piccinni, are only musicological memories now. The difficulty of understanding Beethoven is well known: even at the end of the nineteenth century the late works were still contested, and the most famous piano teacher in Vienna, Leschetizky, advised his pupil Artur Schnabel not to play the last sonatas. In fact, I doubt if the enemies of contemporary music would sit through the Grosse Fuga if they did not know that Beethoven wrote it. Even as recently as the 1930s and 1940s, chamber music societies in smaller American cities would threaten to cancel concerts by the Budapest Quartet if they insisted on playing a late Beethoven quartet.

The opposition to Wagner is equally famous, but the innovations of Chopin and Schumann were also disliked and misunderstood. We may even say paradoxically that the greatness of these two composers, like that of Mozart, can only be understood historically when we realize how difficult they were, and how unacceptable at first hearing. Brahms, Mahler, Debussy, Richard Strauss, and the most important composers of the twentieth century were all initially resistant to easy listening. Perhaps the only major figures that won their audiences over at first hearing were Handel, Tchaikovsky, and the great figures of nineteenth-century Italian opera, Rossini, Donizetti, Verdi, and Puccini. (In fact, Tchaikovsky was more controversial than is sometimes realized, and Verdi in the latter part of his life also became a less accessible composer with Don Carlos, Otello, Falstaff, and the second version of Simon Boccanegra.) In some of the nineteenth- and twentieth-century music which presents few problems for the listener, however, complexity of thought is often replaced by difficulty of execution. The immense popularity of Rachmaninoff’s concertos is only partly due to the composer’s melodic eloquence and mastery of sonority: a great part of the success is due to our awareness of the extraordinary technical demands made upon the pianist.

We must conclude that, for the most part, what the public generally prefers is difficult music that forces us to listen with undivided concentration and attention. At least, that is what the small public deeply devoted to classical music demands, and it is also partly true even of the somewhat larger public that likes classical music, but whose attention span is not as great and whose interest is intermittent. The serious music that has survived demands an intensity of listening antipathetic to many people: that is why it is an art for a minority—not an elite, but a small although not insignificant number with a passionate interest, like that equally small sect, the lovers of poetry. This minority interest, however, is deeply antipathetic to the record industry.

The problem for contemporary music is double: it is true that it demands ever more intensive listening to arrive at an understanding. Boulez is more difficult than Rossini. There are historical reasons for this, of which the most important is the growing desire from the late eighteenth century on to eliminate purely conventional material such as arpeggios and scales and to make every detail take on a personal significance as if it were created expressly for the individual piece. This makes it harder to relax one’s attention while listening. However, the second part of the problem is more important: the replacement of the experience of live music by listening to records.

In the 1930s and 1940s, most lovers of classical music learned, at least in an elementary way, to play some instrument. The piano was the favored instrument, and it enables one to understand the entire texture of art music. This is no longer true: fewer young people learn to play, and the guitar has replaced the piano as the most popular medium. Learning to play was an essential part of building an audience for music, and it is not surprising that the public has grown smaller. If the public for baseball consisted principally of people who had never played the game, I doubt that it would be a popular sport. Most of the time, records have replaced live performance as the primary way of getting to know music.

Listening to records is a less gripping experience than hearing a concert or playing oneself. Walter Benjamin once wrote that the cinema was a medium for an audience in a state of distraction. He was wrong about the movies: real movie buffs sit toward the front of a theater and immerse themselves in the screen as if returning to the womb (perhaps the old custom of making out in the back rows of the movie theater was more widespread in Benjamin’s time). But if he was wrong about the movies, what he said applies perfectly to listening to records and to television. If beautifully played at a concert, the introduction to the last movement of Mozart’s Viola Quintet in G Minor can bring tears to my eyes, but I have never wept at a recording. With records, there is always the possibility of interrupting one’s listening by leaving the room for a moment6 or by conversation. It is true that many of the music lovers who depend chiefly on records have learned to recreate the intensity of the live performance by following the score or by listening in the dark, happily free from the rattling of programs and the coughs of the audience. Nevertheless, the concert coerces attention: the performance, with lowered lights and the demand of silence, cannot be interrupted or repeated, and must be seized at one hearing; the work has to be perceived as a whole, and we cannot go over some of the details again. This focuses attention in a way that is more difficult to achieve by listening to records, which tends to dilute and disperse the attention necessary for difficult music, in the same way that watching a video in a room at least partly lighted is less intense than seeing a film in a darkened theater.

The panaceas proposed by Lloyd Webber and Gelb are makeshifts, and take no account of the process of listening and appreciation. Easily accessible works may have a quick and immediate success, but they do nothing to restore the intensity of experience which is the foundation of serious music. I do not know what music of today will survive into the future. Great figures like Josquin and Monteverdi have been forgotten for centuries only to be revived. History teaches us, however, that it is the art that is tough and that resists immediate appreciation that has the best chance of enduring and of returning. We must do all we can to foster it, to beg composers to pay no heed to the pressures of the music business but to listen only to their own inspiration.


Who’s Afraid of the Avant-Garde?’: An Exchange June 25, 1998

  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.

  2. 2

    It is significant that when Pierre Boulez took over the New York Philharmonic and started to schedule many unfamiliar works, the subscriptions dropped from the 100 percent achieved under Leonard Bernstein, but that when he left a few years later, it had mounted back to over 95 percent—and, most important of all, the average age of the subscribers had fallen by ten years. And when Boulez initiated a two-week series at the end of the season called “Rug Concerts,” for which the seats in the parterre were removed and young people could sit on the floor (like the Prom Concerts in London), 1500 people were turned away every day seven days a week. After he left, there was an attempt to continue the project, but it failed. Young music lovers would come to hear Boulez if they could sit on the floor, but they would not buy a ticket to sit in a chair or come for a conductor less adventurous.

  3. 3

    Conspiracy theories are generally absurd. Some years ago a critic in The New York Times wrote that there was a conspiracy to prevent the music of Hans Pfitzner from being performed. I remember wondering how one could join such a splendid conspiracy. Of course, the simple truth, then as now, is that of the small number of people who were acquainted with the music of Pfitzner, many of them did not care for it.

  4. 4

    Berlioz reported that when Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony was first attempted in Paris, it made so little sense that the conductor rehearsed it every day for a year before performing it publicly; that must have been a rendition at least adequate. Only once have I heard a difficult modern work performed by an orchestra so familiar with every detail: the production of Berg’s Lulu complete for the first time in Paris directed by Boulez: after ten performances and more than forty recording sessions, the orchestra seemed to play by heart.

  5. 5

    When a producer at CBS Records pointed this out some years ago, he was taken to lunch by a vice-president who told him, “Don’t make waves. This company likes large numbers.”

  6. 6

    In the eighteenth century people attended the opera with similarly casual behavior. But at the more private performances of chamber music, the listening was already intense at that time, and the intensity was gradually transferred to the concert hall.