Tuesday, May 24, 2011

A Discordant Century by George Jochnowitz

Guest Voices

This week's Guest Voice is Prof George Jochnowitz, who writes a masterful essay on the current state of modern music, and its powerful link to morality and esthetics. In particular, he says that the discordant (anti-tonal) music of the twentieth century, typified by Arnold Schoenberg,  has been, for the most part, a failure in esthetics, having by its very design an inability to reach the masses.

A few years ago, my wife and I subscribed to a chamber music series. No matter who was performing, the program followed the same canonical form: a quartet by Haydn, a modern work, the intermission, and a concluding piece of the romantic period. If the performers were not a string quartet but some other chamber group - for example, a quintet or an ensemble including a wind instrument - the first work on the program was by Mozart rather than Haydn, a sensible choice: Haydn's string quartets are better than Mozart's, but Mozart's other chamber pieces are better than Haydn's. What is significant, however, is the fact that whoever planned these concerts knew that the contemporary composition had to be in the middle. If the 20th-century piece came first, the audience would arrive late; if it concluded the concert, the audience would walk out after the intermission.

We did not renew our subscription. A 20th-century piece is the price you pay for going to a concert, and we were not willing to pay the price.

The schedulers were behaving rationally. They wanted to help modern composers and at the same time educate the audience. We all know that the music of the 20th century did not win a big audience. In the words of Kingsley Amis, quoted in Paul Fussell's The Anti-Egotist, "Twentieth-century music is like paedophilia. No matter how persuasively and persistently its champions urge their cause, it will never be accepted by the public at large, who will continue to regard it with incomprehension, outrage and repugnance."

Has there ever before been a period in which audiences specifically rejected the music of their own contemporaries? Probably not. In the late 19th century, however, music split into classical and popular. Classical music was directed to an ever narrower public. Perhaps that is why our own age is the only recorded period when we scorn the creations of our contemporaries. Our music is not designed to be liked at first hearing. We have to be maneuvered into listening to it by those who schedule concerts.

Paul Fussell, cited above, suggests a possible reason for this state of affairs in his discussion of Kingsley Amis's opposition to modernism. He says that "there is built into Modernism a hatred - and that is not too strong a word - of ordinary people . . . ." There was, however, a form of contemporary music that Kingsley Amis did not consider modernist: jazz. "Jazz was the music that mattered, not only contemporary, happening all the time, but immediately attractive, no sooner heard than delightedly responded to." Nevertheless, Amis changed his mind. He began to dislike jazz when it became intellectually respectable - when "it began to be studied in universities." At that point, jazz was taken away from the people; it became a tool of the enemy, the elite.

Universities are part of the problem. Courses in the history of music are based on the unstated assumption that innovation is good. Modern music - in effect - is described as part of a process of increasing sophistication and quality. Nobody exactly says this. If they stated this view openly, it would be challenged and shown to be false.

Jazz is 20th-century music. It developed together with other forms of contemporary music. It is indeed taught at universities. What happened is that with time it became less and less bound by the principle of tonality, thus making it more difficult and more acceptable to academics.

The greatest music the world has ever known is tonal. No one has successfully defined greatness, but whatever it is, it is recognizable. All societies and all times have music, and all have produced geniuses. But there is one particular music that arose in a particular place - Germany and Italy - and at a particular time - the 17th century. It lasted 300 years and completed its life span. It is the world's music. There is nothing else like it. It is comparable to ancient Greek drama, a privileged moment in history. This magic, wonderful music is the realization of a phenomenon known as tonality. A piece is in a particular key, and the melodies and harmonies of the music lead us to the tonic, the first note of the scale of the key the piece is in, the note which gives us the feeling that the musical phrase has reached its conclusion: the triad whose lowest note is the tonic note that necessarily is the last chord in the composition. In other words, the composition is going somewhere. We don't know what the route will be if we are unfamiliar with the piece, but the destination is - pre-destined.

Harmony and tonality are physical realities. Music is a series of pitches and combinations of pitches played in rhythmic patterns. Pitch is the way we hear frequency, the number of vibrations per second produced by a voice or a musical instrument. If we hear an A and a C-sharp at the same time, the combination sounds harmonious. We call the distance between these notes the interval of a third, in this case, a major third. When two notes are a major third from each other, the ratio of the vibrations is 4 to 5. The A string vibrates at 440 cycles per second and the C-sharp string at 550. (Not exactly. The tempered scale has changed this just a little bit.) C-sharp and E form a minor third, which also sounds harmonious. The ratio of vibrations is 5 to 6, E having a pitch of approximately 660. A minor third on top of a major third is called a major triad, one of the basic chords of Western music. The interval between the outer notes of the triad is called a fifth, and the ratio of the pitches is necessarily 2 to 3. In the case of a major triad formed by A, C-sharp and E, the outer notes, with pitches of 440 and 660, illustrate the 2 to 3 ratio.

Major and minor thirds, so typical of Western music, occurred in the music of the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance, and madrigals of the 16th century were likely to end on a tonic chord. There is no clear answer to the question of when the incidental harmonies that occurred in the polyphonic music of the 16th century, where each voice sang its own line, turned into the harmonic music of the 17th and 18th centuries, where the different musical lines were all moving together as melodies heading toward a conclusion: a tonic chord preceded by a dominant chord, the chord built on the fifth note of the scale. We have seen above that the first and fifth notes of the scale have pitches with vibrations per second in the ratio of 2 to 3. This sequence, for some unknown reason, produces a feeling of finality.

The ratio of pitches is a physical fact; the reason this ratio is satisfying cannot be explained. "Tonal motion is therefore always directed: it is always felt as motion toward or away from some state of tension or relaxation," says Neil M. Ribe, writing in the November 1987 issue of Commentary ("Atonal Music and Its Limits"). Atonal music, according to Ribe, replaces common sense with mathematical abstractions. Somehow, Ribe hasn't explained why atonality is hard to like. After all, a ratio of 2 to 3 is also a mathematical abstraction. Knowing the physics of tonality hasn't helped us. We know tonality is real but we do not know why a particular ratio of vibrations in a particular sequence should produce this effect. Arnold Schoenberg invented serial music, in which all twelve notes of the chromatic scale were used and none could be repeated until all had been played. He called it "emancipation of the dissonance" (see Ribe), but the dissonance could not be emancipated. The human brain accepts certain sequences as beautiful and rejects others as ugly. Schoenberg's mistake was his belief that harmony and tonality are cultural constructs. They aren't. The whole world prefers tonality.

Perhaps we can link the increased us of tonality and the consequent rise of Western music as we know it with the first opera, Jacopo Peri's Euridice, which premiered on February 9, 1600. A plot, according to Aristotle, should have a beginning, a middle, and an end. When music was linked to story, the music too needed a sense of direction, which tonality provided. It is interesting to note that the great plays of ancient Greece were performed to musical accompaniments that are lost. We love these plays, but they are merely librettos - incomplete without their music. Was the music that accompanied the plays of Sophocles tonal? Would the plays be more powerful if performed with this music? Would we admire the music today as we do the plays? We will never know.

Our own operas, unlike Greek drama, are loved primarily for their music. No one would care to see the silly plot of Schikaneder's The Magic Flute performed without Mozart's music. Richard Wagner, who revived the term "music drama," tried to create works where the importance of plot and music were equal. Yet even in the case of Wagner, we may enjoy listening to his music without seeing the opera, but we wouldn't choose to see dramas extolling the inherent beauty of stupidity, as Wagner's operas do, if they weren't accompanied by Wagner's music. If the development of music drama led to the increased use of tonality in music - and we cannot be sure that it did - the tonal music of the first 300 years of opera stands on its own, plot or no plot.

The 17th century was the childhood of Western music. It reached its adulthood in the 18th century, with a group of composers all born in 1685: Domenico Scarlatti, George Frideric Handel, and Johann Sebastian Bach. In Bach, the most conservative of the three, polyphonic music reached its culmination. Nevertheless, Bach could write compositions based on melody and harmony that belonged to his past and his future at the same time. The generation of 1685, and their contemporary, Antonio Vivaldi, changed the status of music, making it into something immortal, something loved and recognized everywhere. Scholars have analyzed the contrapuntal, harmonic and melodic structures of their works, but no one has ever understood its greatness.

Styles changed with Haydn and Mozart, but greatness remained. I remember when I first saw Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro. It was in 1952 or 53, and I was fifteen. I heard the aria "Dove sono," and I was overwhelmed by the beauty of its melody. I went home and tried to play it on the piano. It was very simple: a turn, C - D C B C, followed by another turn a third higher: E - F E D E. Child's play. What makes it so wonderful? Genius remains a mystery.

Style continued to change. Beethoven extended the idea of tonality by using many changes of key in his development sections. His symphonies were longer and his orchestration thicker than anything his audience had ever heard. Yet people went to hear his compositions. When Beethoven's works were premiered, the entire concert generally consisted of contemporary pieces, often all premieres by the same composer. Were audiences more tolerant of the new in those days? What a silly question. Tolerance hadn't been invented yet. People were willing to listen to new compositions because music wasn't ugly then. Occasionally an innovative piece got a bad review, but a year or so later, the audience had learned to love it.

Beethoven never earned enough money from his compositions. Nevertheless, we cannot conclude from this that he was unappreciated. His 9th Symphony, an innovative work, was received with great enthusiasm despite the fact that the composer netted only 420 florins from its premiere performance. At Beethoven's funeral, the crowds were enormous and soldiers had to be called to make way for the procession. We have all heard the story of how Mozart's body was unaccompanied to the grave, but according to Mozart in Vienna, a biography by Volkmar Braunbehrens, "accompanying the coffin to the gravesite was unusual at the time." Mozart's works were quite popular in his lifetime, and his opera The Marriage of Figaro was universally appreciated. In an era when most people were peasants and laborers, the rest of the population, the middle and upper classes, loved and admired serious music. It is hard to know how to compare the percentages of music lovers in different types of society, but we can be sure that Mozart and Beethoven were major cultural figures in a way that composers of classical music today can never be.

Wagner was perhaps the first composer who was really hard to get used to. His melodies were longer and often slower than what had come before. It was not always so clear where the melody was heading. Perhaps he was the first modernist. I will define a modernist creative artist as one who attempts to reshape and even recreate his audience. Instead of saying, "Try it. You'll like it," as Beethoven might have, the modernist says, "You won't like this, but if you're good and work hard, you can become one of my admirers." Instead of saying, "Lend me your ears," the modernist says, "Give me your ears - and your soul. I will give you better ones."

Mahler's 6th Symphony is a composition dating from 1904. It barely made it into the 20th century. I have always liked and admired the music of Mahler, a gifted composer, but when he got to the last movement of what could have been a great symphony, he went overboard. He wrote a movement that was too long and too bombastic. It was filled with false conclusions, where the audience thinks the piece is over and breathes a sigh of relief, only to find that there is more to come.

Did something major and irrevocable happen in 1904, between the composition of the third and fourth movements of Mahler's 6th Symphony? I think so. Mahler set the stage for Arnold Schoenberg and atonal music. Almost a century has passed, but it has never become popular. It is both outdated and too modern.
Klaus Tennstedt, a conductor famous for his interpretations of Mahler, died on January 11, 1998. His obituary in the New York Times, on January 13, quoted him as having said, "At least for traditional instruments, I believe that everything has already been composed." If that is the case, Schoenberg had no choice but to invent a new art form. As we know, he called it serial music, but a better name might have been anti-tonal music.

Tennstedt in effect recognized that the Western music that began in the 17th century had completed its life span. Perhaps Schoenberg agreed as well. He expected serial music to become popular. He never thought he was composing for academics only.

Kingsley Amis, as we saw above, hated modernism, which he identified with being studied in a university. Audiences hate modernism too. An audience owes a creator nothing. And nothing is what the creator generally receives. We all know stories about how Marcel Proust or James Joyce received multiple rejections. When Proust and Joyce became famous, the joke was on the publishers who had rejected them. But those who eventually get published are the exceptions. Most compositions are never performed; most books, never printed. It can happen that an unknown creative artist is recognized two or three centuries later; Antonio Vivaldi is an example. But usually, it doesn't happen, and the undiscovered artist remains undiscovered.

This is very sad. Nevertheless, the audience owes the creator nothing. Nobody should have to read through Finnegan's Wake, and indeed nobody does. T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land, with its (deliberately?) useless notes at the end, is a great work, but if we don't get very much past the wonderful first line, "April is the cruellest month," that is not our fault. If there is any fault at all, it is Eliot's. His poem sounds as if it was written in order to be studied at a university. Writers may choose to demand a great deal of attention and knowledge from readers, but readers need not give in to their demands.

20th-century artists did demand. By trying to reshape their listeners, they inevitably had an adversary relationship with their public. It was their privilege to bully their potential audience; they created as they felt they had to. Similarly, it is the privilege of audiences to ignore and reject what they find ugly.
In the case of 20th-century politics, totalitarianism echoed the demands of art. Just as thought reform was an explicit goal of Communist regimes, so taste reform was an implicit goal of modernist creators.

Totalitarian rulers and philosophers attempt to control not only society but the human soul itself. Music, for whatever reason, delights the soul, just as literature delights the mind. Greek drama, with its accompanying music, was roughly contemporary with Athenian democracy. It fizzled out when Plato's Republic appeared, which introduced the concept of a noble lie, to be accepted by the rulers and the community in general: ". . . all of you in this land are brothers; but the god who fashioned you mixed gold in the composition of those among you who are fit to rule, so that they are of the most precious quality; and he put silver in the Auxiliaries, and iron and brass in the craftsmen." Thought control with a vengeance!

Plato also would not have tolerated the manufacture of the flute or other instruments "capable of modulation into all the modes." He feared the enormous emotional power of music. Indeed, Ayatollah Khomeini, in his way an example of Plato's ideal of the Philosopher King, banned Western music from Iranian radio stations. During Chairman Mao's Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, most music and theater were prohibited, except the eight revolutionary operas selected by Jiang Qing, Mao's wife.

Music critics in general, and Anthony Tommassini of the New York Times in particular, are interested in taste reform. They want us to find contemporary music beautiful. But was it meant to be beautiful? Music, art, poetry, novels, cities, roadsides - everywhere there are new forms of ugliness. Architecture is the one art that has not succumbed to the uglification of our era. Architecture must fill a practical purpose; buildings must stand and be usable, which means that architects are not free to hate the public. That is why the Guggenheim Museum is a better work of art than the paintings displayed in it. But what is a better work of art? There is often a consensus on the answer, but a consensus is not the same thing as a criterion. We all judge art, all the time. Many of us, perhaps most of us, have felt that 20th-century art is ugly, but few of us, if any, can explain what we mean.

Even though our new buildings are beautiful, our new cities are not. Modern architecture has bad manners; new buildings violate the unity and tone of their neighboring communities. Our roadsides are hideous. Our suburbs, even when affluent, are drab. We know that it is too late to build a Venice or a Washington. New York, Chicago, and Hong Kong have succeeded in incorporating new structures into pre-existing plans; perhaps they are more beautiful than ever. On the other hand, cities that have been reinvented in our own time - Tokyo, Warsaw, Beijing - look like overbuilt suburbs. They too are modernist.

Intelligence is beautiful, and human beings used to be intelligent. The 20th century gave us television. In New York City, there is no serious television news program in the late evening. The 10 O'Clock News is a euphemism. It should be called the Ten O'Clock Murders. Instead of news, we see reporters interviewing the next of kin of victims: "And what are your thoughts as you watch the blood oozing from your child's body?" We are becoming stupider every day.

The 20th-century gave us more and better restaurants than we had before. Food is not only delicious but beautiful to look at. Unfortunately, the 20th-century has deprived us of this pleasure. Restaurants are dark. We can't see our food; we can't read our menus. Light is provided by candles, which flicker and provide uneven light, very unpleasant in a dark room.

Even the human body has been uglified. People are beautiful. Yet our current fashions are changing this. Piercing and tattooing are completing the work started by Mahler in 1904.

Yet that is only half the picture. There are lots of great pieces that everyone knows and loves: Debussy's "Images," Ravel's "Bolero," Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue," Khachaturian's "Sabre Dance," Orff's "Carmina Burana," to name just a few. There have been musical comedies, movie scores, and several rich periods of popular music, including rock and roll. Both rock and roll and early rock music are based on simple melody lines and regular alternation of tonic and dominant chords. At least one piece, "A Lover's Concerto," by a group called The Toys, is based on a Bach minuet.

Movie scores are not music drama but rather incidental music. Beethoven wrote music to accompany The Ruins of Athens, a forgotten work whose name would not even be known were it not for Beethoven's score. Schubert did the same for Rosamunde. Mendelssohn's A Midsummer Night's Dream is as well known as the play, by Shakespeare, no less. More recently, we have had Virgil Thomson's film score Louisiana Story, one of his beloved works. Which brings us to Erich Korngold.

Korngold (1897-1957), the subject of a biography by Brendan G. Carroll, was a child prodigy who devoted much of his career to what he called the "symphonic film score." A review of the book by Jay Nordlinger in the January 12, 1998, issue of The Weekly Standard tells us that at the age of 50, Korngold felt he had to leave Hollywood in order "to aim for the Pantheon of the masters," in other words, to write music that can be "studied in universities." It is both unfortunate and puzzling that serious musicians feel they have to separate themselves from popular art forms such as film, especially when we remember that movies can be as modernist and demanding as Schoenberg's serialism.

Music written to be performed in the concert hall may well have run its course. What will the music of the 21st century sound like? Terry Teachout, in the December 1997 issue of Commentary, writes of a new generation of American composers "influenced neither by serialism nor by minimalism but by the music of the long-unfashionable tonal modernists." I fear these tonal modernists will continue to be unfashionable. Tonal or atonal, minimalist or maximalist, listening to contemporary works has been identified with duty. Yet I am convinced that genius lives. Human creativity will find a new home for itself.

The important question is not esthetic but moral. Despite the Holocaust, the Chinese famine of 1959-61, and the slaughter in Rwanda, I am not ready to say that the 20th century was the least moral of centuries. It gave us emergency 911 service, open-heart surgery, and an increasing awareness of the complexity of the human soul. The 20th century failed esthetically, but the results are not yet in on morality.

George Jochnowitz was born in New York City, in 1937.  He became aware of different regional pronunciations when he was six, and he could consciously switch accents as a child. He got his Ph.D. in linguistics from Columbia University and taught linguistics at the College of Staten Island, CUNY.  His area of specialization was Jewish languages, in particular, Judeo-Italian dialects.  As part of a faculty-exchange agreement with Hebei University in Baoding, China, he was in China during the Tiananmen Massacre. He can be reached at george@jochnowitz.net.

Copyright ©2011. George Jochnowitz. All Rights Reserved. A version of this essay appeared in Gravitas, Winter 1998. It is an except from The Blessed Human Race. This post can be found on George Jochnowitz.  It is  republished here with the author's permission. 


  1. This article boldly states what many may privately think, yet be hesitant to delineate. Much of twentieth century classical music is simply too hard or dissonant to sit through. Luckily that, in my opinion, Jazz enters the scene about the same time that "classical music" takes a nose dive.

    -Joe, NYC.

  2. Joe,

    Thank you for your comment. I hesitate to listen to modern classical music.


All comments ought to reflect the post in question. All comments are moderated; and inappropriate comments, including those that attack persons, those that use profanity and those that are hateful, will not be tolerated. So, keep it on target, clean and thoughtful. This is not a forum for personal vendettas or to create a toxic environment. The chief idea is to engage, to discuss and to critique issues. Doing so within acceptable norms will make the process more rewarding and healthy for everyone. Accordingly, anonymous comments will not be posted.