Simon Jenner

From Suicide to Sassy - The Strange Rebirth of Classical Music 1945-2006

The savage suicide of classical music has been overrated. It’s a pretty rehabilitated animal now, and comes licking at you when members of the Berlin Phil or Birmingham Symphony pop round to schools and give some local backing to aspiring young composers. Small orchestras gig with rock stars and perform all sorts of backings, visit young people or are visited by them. There’s backing to rap music and a whole range of fusion music going on, mainly with members of orchestras, but chamber groups and soloists too. The BBC relay much of this, and clearly this isn’t the old case of rock stars and glam orchestrations from the guignol-laden rock opera 1970s – with glum violinists digging into their bows so they don’t need to dig into their pockets. They’re all musicians who listen to the stuff on their MP3s. None of these people were even born then. Just when the government thought it was safe to kill off music in schools and thus starve classical music of future audience and artists, the musicians are biting back, but gently. The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra started all this in the 1980s, when they were perceived as the weakest link when the then government wanted a sudden death (‘goodbye and thanks for all the niche’) to visit one of London’s four main orchestras (bar the BBC). Some weak link. It became the plank to save classical music in this country. And it’s been exported to Berlin, where Sir Simon Rattle, inspired by the RPO, has got the Berlin Phil bopping to the untermensch, the poor, the abandoned East. Everyone, even the union-bound U.S. orchestras, are doing it now.

So why was there a crisis in the first place, and why all the fuss that we’re regaining lost artistic ground? If you want to look at what happened to classical music, you could do one of two things. First, take a look at Rebel Without a Cause, and listen to the croony hits of 1953 before it, and the rock and roll of 1954-55 when it came out. You’ve got kids with disposable income and cars on the loose, not to mention flouncy dresses. They generated a far raunchier, far more immediate kind of pop music than the Eisenhower-inflected decade with croonings fit for the McCarthy witch-hunts. Rock was born of money, boredom, and emasculation from any politics. Sex and music – always in bed or leading each other on - were left. The energy that fed into that produced the greatest flowering of popular music, and the greatest genre since jazz, which was no longer cool by the Birth of the Cool (which was also 1954). The two and a half decades to 1980, and the death of punk, coincided with the death of classical music as the naturally dominant musical genre. But this was no ordinary death, some will say. It was suicide, and came at just the wrong moment, as suicide usually does.

If you add to that the fact that many educated music-lovers under sixty now passionately engage with the scholarly minutiae of pop music, not classical, and you can see that the whole shift in culture has become engrained. When the anoraks have departed for scholarly reasons, it’s time to get new kit. But there are caveats to enter, even here. The great age of pop has receded too, and no-one will be seriously arguing over nostalgic annotated re-digitalised versions of Brit-Pop. In about twenty years, this generation will be passing its interest on to a tabula rasa of taste. It has left its mark, though. World Music is here to stay, and is currently infinitely more respectfully listened to, assimilated and absorbed by classical composers than, say, its exotic and often decorative use over the 20th century. Pop in the 1960s, and the adventurousness of that generation that had the disposable income to create its own teen culture, has a lot to be thanked for. The impact of World Music on classical deserves a wholly different consideration than can be offered here, but is another, more stable reason for the re-positioning of the classical genre.

So the other pastime in seeking the strange death of contemporary classical music, would be to look at anything from Vienna from 1900-14: Egon Schiele to Karl Kraus, but above all where music led through Wagner to expressionism. Everybody loves Mahler - and Strauss’s extreme operas - now, but they were thought to be - rightly for the conservative Viennese, and conservative world - where it all went wrong. It led to Schoenberg. Scriabin, Stravinsky and Prokofiev might have intensified and barbarised the harmonic palate in Russia and Paris. But it only led to angular tunes and neo-classicism, the kind of thing you could play at smart Parisian gatherings without the riot that attended Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring in 1913. Debussy led another reaction, in France. But again, this has alienated no-one, and his, Ravel’s and the music of Les Six’s Music 9 which was a reaction to Debussy and Ravel) were rapidly assimilated. Pierre Boulez was right to say that Debussy’s piquant ballet Jeux, also of 1913, paved the way to his own music, but Jeux has been assimilated. No, as Constant Lambert said in 1934, all the bombs had been thrown before 1914.

This was in fact a time-delayed bomb. Schoenberg’s expressionism and that of his pupils Berg and Webern, didn’t catch on and was subordinate in popularity and influence to Stravinsky’s neo-classicism, which fully emerged in 1920 with Pulcinella (using 18th century music, partly by Pergolesi) but influenced by an austere wartime in Switzerland. Schoenberg himself, alarmed by where his expressionism was leading, devised by 1921 his own neo-classicism, but this was the 12-tone system, involving tone rows that had to be repeated in whatever way imaginable, but only when each note had been used up in turn. If that sounds tortuous, then it did to Schoenberg himself, who often relaxed this tonal serialism in later years, and even composed in different idioms when revising and extending old scores, or recomposing classical music. He would certainly have been a .little aghast at what happened around the time of his death in 1951: total, not tonal, serialism.

Still, it was the rediscovery of this method, in the late 1940s in that home of isms, Paris, that really changed the musical world. Just as the horror of 1914 had in a sense frozen the need to experiment, and like Picasso’s neo-classical post-war period, return to the human body, no longer celebrating the futurist machine (having just seen what it could do), 1945 changed things too. At the epicentre of Fascism and suffering from it lay France and Germany. Italy, Britain and other countries were a little further out, and Scandanavia further out still. As Stephen Johnson argues brilliantly in BBC Music Magazine, there was a desire to purge old associations., The older music, particularly romanticism from Wagner onwards, and even tonality, was tainted by association. Think film reels and fascism, the marching of the Legions in Respighi’s The Pines of Rome. A kind of post-war cleansing followed, particularly in Germany and France, where composers linked up under Pierre Boulez at Darmstadt. Other countries reacted more slowly, and were the first to react against this, as we shall see later. Some countries like Spain and Russia were frozen under dictatorships which had prevailed in Germany and Austria, stamping out anything modern. There were literally scores to settle there. And too, there was a sense of regeneration, the age of vast social engineering and socialist planning, the NHS and modernist building estates. The bomb shadowed everything but the technocratic age came with the music. The squeaky door noises, accompanying journeys into space with the theramin, were well-nigh symbiotic theme tunes to the song of our silver-suited selves. It’s just that we never got there, or got bored with the moon.

We got instead total serialism, where even musical intervals had to be repeated in a row. The Belgian composer who excited Darmstadt when he devised this, Goyvaerts, soon left in despair to become an airline pilot and only in 1975 to return, composing minimalist music! So the process of musical composition became more important to many, than the audient result. And the audiences.

That’s not the whole picture, of course. Quite apart from the more traditional, usually older composers, who went on but were cold-shouldered for two decades, there were other modernisms too. There isn’t the leisure here to go into all the different kinds of music being written, the exciting electronic experiments, that flowered with IRCAM in Paris. Or the ground-breaking musical world of Georg Ligeti with his floating atmospheric micro-music, one in fact called Atmospheres, or his piece for 100 metronomes. Most people know him because they’ve heard him in 2001, the choral Lux Aerterna. Or Iannis Xenakis’s music born of fighting the fascists and the British who had betrayed the newly democratic and left-wing Greece, and his time under Le Corbusier as an architect. These people sound like nothing on earth, but are earth.

But of course all this earnestly – and guiltily - sponsored music alienated audiences, especially those now tuning into the suddenly vibrant rock and pop. ‘Conducted Stockhausen? I’ve stepped in him’ said the venerable and venal Sir Thomas Beecham, speaking for a very large part of the musical world by 1960. Stockhausen said in the 1960s he’d love children to go to school whistling his work. He then went on with his electro-acoustic pieces, and micro-tonal intervals, often to bewitching effect (as in Mantras, 1970, for two pianos). But unless you’re Marvin the paranoid android, and dream electric sheep as you whistle, that kind of whistling is beyond even trained lips and will do no favours to your embouchure. At least Marvin could have slept the 10 million years he was left in a time warp.

This was the nadir of composer-audience alienation, and of course it stuck long after the composers themselves had abandoned such extreme positions. Just as it was the modernist architects who by 1949 had questioned high-rise buildings but were sidelined by ambitious councils and governments who wanted a quick fix, so it was that composers from the periphery at first, and then the increasingly querulous centres of Scandanvia and Britain,.who questioned the focus on sheer process. And it was firstly America, further out still which led the reaction. In fact apart from black jazz, America now produced its first indigenous white musical form, in its refutation of all that serialism had stood for after Schoenberg’s collegiate dissemination from his Hollywood retreat. Minimalism was born. It was fresh, endearing and then enraging, and limited. And it wasn’t a patch on jazz which really has influenced 20th century classical music. But it did signal the desire for a new aesthetic and hey, people liked it and bought the records.

Doubtless this was a national reaction, but that was only partly true. Many composers in Europe and throughout the world flirted with the technique developed by people like Terry Riley, Steve Reich and Philip Glass (once characterized as Flip Gloss).

In Poland Kristof Penderecki had been the most modernist composer in a land that just tolerated him and his compatriot Lutoslawski. But, like Goyvaerts, he suddenly did a volte-face after his music had developed as far as it could go. He twanged straight back into romanticism. He wasn’t alone. Scandanavia had always looked eclectically on modernism, and Britain too began to produce composers who began to audibly soften or develop in a crabbed way.

This wasn’t the way of the most consistently memorable of them, Harrison Birtwistle. But his exact contemporary Peter Maxwell Davies (born like several famous British composers in 1934, the year quite a few more died) and Richard Rodney Bennett, for instance, two years his junior certainly audibly softened over the years. There were still composers who rightly never compromised their own modernist gifts, born in the 1940s like Brian Ferneyhough (1943). This generation though, like Robin Holloway (1943), or Michael Finnissy (1946) embraced a modernist technique but romantic chords, as didthe tighly wrought and miniaturist Oliver Knussen (1952), also composer of children’s operas; and many others born through the 1950s like Knussen’s exact contemporary and friend the sparsely beautiful Simon Bainbridge, the subversive but melodic Judith Weir (1954), and despite protestations to the contrary, the punchy Steve Martland (1957), the obsessive and lyrical Simon Holt (1958), the modernist and utterly memorable George Benjamin and the jazz-inflected Mark Anthony Turnage (both 1960). Composers younger still used all sorts of fusion. And James Macmillan (1959) used a post-Shostakovitch expressionism to hurl forth his Catholic faith and Marxist beliefs. And was more commercially successful than any, and far more prolific, if uneven. Modernism wasn’t abandoned, as Julian Anderson and Thomas Ades (1971) have shown. And perhaps most of all, Rebecca Saunders, born like Anderson in 1967. But these composers, like Ferneyhough, and Richard Barrett (1959), have decamped to Germany, like France, the last bastion of traditional modernism.

There are a lot of very crunchy-chorded, sexy composers on the scene who write often accessible and frankly ephemeral music, once described as tafelmusik. Graham Fitkin (1963) and his brother Simon come to mind.
But these younger composers have turned up a lot of sheer theatrical talent, and this is where we can return to those orchestras playing with fusion and funk. Jocelyn Pook (1962), continuing that long line of viola players who are really composers or opera singers in disguise, and Jonathan Dove (1958), represent the best of this generation who turn to often public commission rather than say George Benjamin’s agonized six months retreats.

My money is still on Benjamin to produce some elided masterwork, tuneful despite himself; but there’s rather a lot of music to listen to before we can come to swallow it. We have to think what we mean by tunes. Over the centuries, these things change.

Listen to Medieval pop tunes, and come away with a fragile, mystical strangeness and another world entirely. But this century, like none before it, is concurrently assimilating all musics from all periods. That will change things; and what we think are tunes.

The point is, Stockhausen was right. It’s just that if you get to children at an early age they really are unbiased, and will whistle, well not Stockhausen exactly, but anything the human frame can play or exude, down to the fart of a bassoon.

If we‘d asked the children in the 1960s, they might have come up with a few suggestions. Their children are doing that now. Robert Worby at the BBC for instance has just written an article showing how to get your school piece performed. We’ve reconnected with the audience that matters, and it will grow up having already formed – just a bit - some of the music it is going to make, and plug into on the grandchild of the MP3.

Simon Jenner © 2008