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 …

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Letters

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