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…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.