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The emperor has no clothes, part 2: A century of proof--great composers and the evolution of tonality

By Charlotte Cerminaro
web posted November 26, 2018

Part one here.

Proponents and composers of atonal music have claimed, for the past hundred years, that it was an inevitable course of evolution they were following, a “crisis of tonality” they had to solve. The dramatic changes that started to occur then, from technological advancement to geopolitical revolution, were reflected in music and art, a pattern repeated throughout history. Nineteenth century romanticism was undergoing metamorphosis to a form and future as yet unknown, in a strange symbiosis with the birth pangs of industrialization and globalization. It was at this juncture, however, that an intellectual schism developed across western civilization. It’s not clear whether this divergence was a cause or a response to the massive upheaval of that time--but it was the beginning of the institutionalization of relativism in all its forms.

The idea of relativism was not new. Philosophers and writers who espoused these ideas could be traced back hundreds of years. But it wasn't until Marx, Freud, Rousseau, Kant, Nietzsche and many others, that it was deemed a reasonable alternative to the enlightenment and rationalism of Judeo-Christian values and analytical thinking. This created the ideal breeding ground for ideas like nihilism, anti-theism, socialism, genocide, racism and, ironically, multiculturalism. So it was, out of institutionalized relativism and mediocrity, that atonal music was born. Here is where the schism began in art and music.


Composers entering this era had a difficult job. Some lived in countries that were undergoing revolution and war, many of them were under various levels of censorship. The new century brought with it a new style. Dissonance, extreme tension and edginess, larger orchestras with even greater dynamic possibilities and new technology were all being incorporated by the best composers. Stravinsky, Shostakovich, Mahler, Richard Strauss, Bartók and Britten were just a few of them. They increasingly used chromaticism, even 12-tone style, without resorting to atonality. But the extreme chromaticism introduced by the so-called “second Viennese school” (Schönberg, Webern and Berg) was seen as a green light for completely overstepping all tonal boundaries--including good taste.

Many atonal composers seem to have no real skills. Listening to a piece by Cowell, Varèse or Cage is torture enough; the realization that this random noise requires no discipline, no compositional talent and very little training, brings a despair comparable to that of the existentialists. A perfect example of these “musical skills” is John Cage’s piece titled, 4’33”. The musicians walk on stage, sit quietly and play nothing, for exactly 4 minutes and 33 seconds. Done. While the silence is preferable to Cage’s typical noise pollution, it further highlights the divergence, as if separated by a deep, impassable chasm.

The ultimate proof that this was not destined, nor a forced evolution, is a century of contrasting evidence. At the beginning of his career, composer Richard Strauss was toeing that line between tonal and atonal. Some of his earlier work, like the opera Elektra, is considered 12-tone music. It’s also dismal, dark, terrifying. Those closest to Strauss admitted he was frightened of his own work and, in a complete turnaround, put his considerable talent to the series of tone poems (Tondichtung) for which he was known best. In 1943, Hungarian composer Bela Bartók created a new genre, drawing inspiration from traditional sources rather than rejecting them. His Concerto for Orchestra is the archetype of a concerto where, instead of a soloist, the orchestra itself is the virtuoso--individuals, sections and groups. Bartók was heavily influenced by the music of Bach. The audible through-line across the centuries--preludes, fugues and chorales--bear witness and pay tribute.

There would not be room enough to mention every artist who successfully bridged this revolutionary time but I feel a significant gap would be left without the music of Gustav Mahler. I don't know of any composer today who wasn't influenced by him. He was a true innovator, mixing modalities, genres, slipping through time with ease. One of his greatest talents--weaving a few notes into a full melody, sustaining it and building it into a profound statement...full of warm, ardent power and intense beauty---was a talent shared by only a small handful of artists. Just the existence of composers like John Cage prove there's a “Confederacy of Dunces”. The abundance of true artistic skill and genius, a century's worth, once again begs the question: Why do modern music critics, composers, musicians, all of them--insist that their audience see what is clearly not there? The Emperor's New Clothes don’t exist and no one will tell him. ESR

Charlotte B. Cerminaro is a Juilliard-trained classical musician who, in addition to being a studio and orchestral musician, enjoys writing. © 2018




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