What You Need to Know About Modern American Music

This and next month, I want to talk about modern American music because I have been listening to new releases in the stellar Naxos American Classics series, as well as to some other new CDs of American music. Curiously, the one thing of which I may be sure is that very few readers will have heard of many of the composers I will cover.
Why is that? I think it is result of what happened to music in the 20th century. The January issue of Gramophone magazine alludes to this problem in a debate titled “Why Is New Music Ignored?” Three participants try to divine why so much modern music is unknown. Their speculations are really quite amusing, as they largely tiptoe around the reason modern music lost its audience.
One participant did get close to the answer by referring to “the problem of language.” He said of a musical piece by Harrison Birtwistle, “I have no idea what to say about it. If I heard the piece again I’d probably forget that I heard it the first time. There’s something about the lack of memorability if you remove all the obvious prompts that make music memorable — like melody, harmony, rhythm.” Yes, I would think so. It’s like saying that it is hard to remember the taste of wine made without grapes; the “obvious prompt” of the grape is missing.
Some, such as the composer participating in the Gramophone debate, feel “liberated” by this loss of “prompts,” with the result that “‘retro’ structures and melodies feel suffocating” to them. Oh, dear, asphyxiated by a tune? If someone wants to be liberated from melody, harmony, and rhythm, why not become a basket weaver or an investment banker? Another participant piously reacted to the complaint about the loss of language by saying that the problem of “how you memorise something if there isn’t a melody — is partly about our having lost the educational moment to understand that journey.”
In other words, it’s the audience’s fault, or the fault of those who should have educated the poor peasants in the audience. But why should the audience bother to understand the “journey” of those who chose to discard a comprehensible language in which to address them? How about composers understanding the journey of audiences — out of the concert hall? Did composers seize upon that educational moment to come to their senses?
In fact, as the Naxos series demonstrates, many did and have. Not soon enough, however, to keep the audience’s interest — so deep has been the alienation produced by the regularly administered drubbings of new atonal music given in concert halls. Thus it will be news to many that a large number of composers turned against the ideology of amnesia, better known as serialism, and returned to the basics of music — no one more so than George Rochberg, on whose role and music I will focus this month. Some others never left the basics in the first place. They were simply ignored for most of the second half of the 20th century. They were not the serial sinners; they were the sinned against. We are only now slowly getting to know who these composers were and are, as the hold of the amnesiacs was finally broken and this music is now being heard.

Though he was first in their thrall, George Rochberg (1918-2005) helped to break the hold of the amnesiacs. One of the most significant new Naxos CDs is the release of Rochberg’s First Symphony (Naxos 8.559214), an amazingly ambitious and bold work that is so strong it helps me to understand why Rochberg could not have been held under the serialist spell for long. It is given a galvanizing performance by the Saarbrucken Radio Symphony Orchestra, under Christopher Lyndon-Gee. This is the team Naxos assembled to record all of Rochberg’s six symphonies, and they have already given stellar renditions of the Fifth (8.559115) and Second (8.559182), along with the great Violin Concerto (8.559129), with violinist Peter Sheppard Skaerved.
This project is so important because Rochberg was at the very center of the seminal controversies affecting modern music. Understand Rochberg’s music, and you understand the struggle within and against modernity. His was an inside job, which is why he was so resented. He became the darling of the avant garde with his highly praised Second Symphony, which was written serially, according to the doctrines of Arnold Schöenberg, who famously declared himself “cured of the delusion that the aim of art is beauty.” However, Rochberg turned against serialism and returned to tonality in his Concord Quartets, which created a scandal. One angry young critic wrote an article with the title, “Can Modernity Survive George Rochberg?” It turns out it couldn’t. That’s how important he was.{mospagebreak}
This was not an easy journey for Rochberg. It involved a great deal of thought, passion, and suffering, which included coping with his young son’s death from cancer. Thanks to Naxos, we can begin to listen to Rochberg’s journey as he fought his way through to the realization that, as he once told me, “serialism is the denial of memory” and to his re-embrace of beauty as a source of transcendent continuity.
Rochberg was a profound thinker with a poetic gift of expression in his writing, as well as his music. His music speaks for itself and needs no outside explication, but his writings reveal the depth of his understanding of what he was doing and the reasons for it. As he wrote in the introduction to his brilliant collection of essays, The Aesthetics of Survival, he became repulsed by “the sheer mindlessness and unrestrained vanity of egotism that add up to ‘the forgetting of being.’” And so he declared, “The artist’s project is to express the fire in the mind, to make, as Robert Browning said, beautiful things that ‘have lain burningly on the Divine Hand.’” That is what I hear in his passionate music. That is what I encountered in his person. That is why he became a hero to me, and why I treasured my brief acquaintance with him.

We now have a new source for Rochberg’s thoughts in Eagle Minds: Selected Correspondence of Istvan Anhalt and George Rochberg, 1961-2005, published by the Wilfrid Laurier University Press, under the editorship of Alan M. Gillmor. Rochberg maintained his correspondence for a long period with his Canadian composer-friend Anhalt, who did not embrace the same views — which is what makes the conversation interesting. I have nothing but praise for this endeavor; it is the kind of exchange of which civilization is made.
As the above quotes demonstrate, Rochberg was very eloquent when he composed his thoughts for publication. In his correspondence, we see a more spontaneous kind of expression, but one equally revealing. Here are a few enticing samples from the more than 400 pages of letters:

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1961: I must confess am growing tired of hearing music defined as Varese defines it as “organized sound.” That’s like saying that the world is “organized matter” or some such nonsense.

Music today is more than sounds and sound manipulation, at least for me. It is a way of reaching the ineffable or exorcising the Devil . . . . Schoenberg has no real value as far as I’m concerned merely as the basis of the 12-tone method.

1965: The end of the 19th century Romantic posture, the vertical man, who thinks he is unique enough to blot out the sun. I for one am utterly fed up with art and artists based on such unholy premises.

1970: Happy to be able to think harmonically and rhythmically as though it were the most natural thing in the world. I passed the stage of writing tonally from a sense of irony to simply writing it . . . . My recent listening experience confirms that contemporary music is a limited palette of essentially neurotic, constricted gestures. All of it perfectly true — but only of certain kinds of experience — the worst ones (alienation, trauma, nihilistic-destructive withdrawal, etc.).

1971: I’m presently obsessed with the need to write genuinely tonal music with all the attendant aspects of melody, accompaniment, etc. It’s like breathing clean air again.

1984: What is fascinating though is how the human mind in this century insists in ever-increasing degrees of intensity in stripping every possible layer of “natural” meaning from human experience and taking “knowledge” (so-called) even farther and farther away from life as we experience it to some oxygen-free zone of abstraction . . . I see a wild dance going on that most of humanity is partaking in; and I see the intellectuals distancing themselves as much as possible from this mad dancing. As music is part of the dance, and a very big part at that, I prefer to be there myself.

1985: It does not follow that if a work of art symbolically or actually “represents” or tries to represent the terrors of the contemporary world, that it a) is telling the “truth”; b) is by virtue of that effort to tell the truth, a piece of art; c) is automatically protected from a justifiable critical view of what it is in itself as an attempt to make art. . . . For me, while the chaotic horrors of our day are all too real, I’m not convinced they are “subject matter” for art unless their rawness is transfigured, transformed through the power of an intense artistic mind and nature.
I enjoy these letters in anticipation of the appearance of Rochberg’s memoirs, Five Lines, Four Spaces, which is forthcoming from the University of Illinois Press. I read several chapters in manuscript and I know this book will be priceless to anyone wanting to understand what happened in the 20th-century world of music.
However, we now can listen to what was going on with Rochberg immediately after World War II, when he composed his Symphony No. 1. There are very few first symphonies that can come close to the scope and tumultuous drive of this more than one-hour-long work. It is extraordinary in every way. It is not easy music; it represents Rochberg’s notion of what he called “hard romanticism,” which can be harrowing at times and quite dissonant. The opening is riveting. It begins with a highly arresting figure — the sounding of an alarm in several rising notes — followed by pounding staccato chords. The symphony also contains music of great elegiac beauty and poignant reflection. It is dedicated: “To my Mother, in Memoriam.”
It is close to unbelievable that the Naxos CD is the first full performance of the score, which was truncated for its first performance in 1958 by Eugene Ormandy. The removal of the second movement is especially puzzling; it has to be some of the finest Night Music composed outside of Bartók. Why was it removed?
The primary influence here, however, is Stravinsky, especially in the last movement, which bristles with Rite of Spring rhythms. The influence is expressed in the form of overt homage, not dependence; it is not as if Rochberg doesn’t have ideas of his own. This is a very fecund work, bursting at the seams with intensity, energy, and striking ideas. It is in every sense a harbinger of the greatness Rochberg would achieve in his Fifth Symphony and in other works we have yet to hear, but can now hope to, thanks to Naxos. This series is the best way I can imagine of encountering and understanding the “problem of language” that engulfed modern classical music, and how it was overcome.

Robert R. Reilly is the music critic for www.InsideCatholic.com. E-mail him at [email protected].


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