Twentieth Century and Contemporary Music

The music of our own time matches in high degree the chaos and uncertainty, the violence and adventure, the collapse of consensus, and the fascination with new technology and new sounds and rancid commercialism that defines our era overall. Add the return to improvisation in the rise of jazz, a recognition of non-European sounds and traditions, and a growing role for women as performers and composers both, and we find a musical century like none other. Honoring Yeats, our center did not hold.

Almost unbelievably, even the idea of repetition for its own sake became somehow acceptable, presumably offering a "stability" otherwise unfound. "Knock knock," went the knowing joke, "Who's there?" "Knock knock." "Who's there?" "Knock knock." "Who's there?" "Knock knock." "Who's there?" "Knock knock." "Who's there?" "Knock knock." "Who's there?" "Phillip Glass."

At the beginning of the twentieth century, the new science of recorded sound was just coming into being. By its end, most every cultured home on the planet had a radio, television, video, CDs, DVDs, and computers. In 1900, performance was still largely unchained in the popular imagination, the purely regional sounds of orchestras and singers and artists held sway, and the only proof of a given musical event lay in the uneven and choosy memory of people who claimed to have been there. By century's close, recordings had forever altered this landscape. Corrections and edits and retakes, the very idea of perfection and immortality, the creation of jet-driven international standards -- all this had altered profoundly our concept of standards and performance practices and authenticity.

Whether or not our music was any the better for these technologies remains a difficult and (thank you, Charles Ives) unanswered question.

If Wagner and Mahler and Richard Strauss had taken tonality and gigantism as far as it could go, the twentieth century would see where new systems, and new organizing principles, might lead.

We begin with Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971). His great ballet suites ('Petrouchka', 'Firebird' and -- above all - 'Rite of Spring') changed forever our notions of rhythm and color and energy in music. Although he was first considered as simply a talented successor to his teacher Rimsky-Korsakov in St Petersburg, Stravinsky's role and place in twentieth century music became, quite simply, equal to that of Bach or Beethoven in theirs. Given a career-building boost by the legendary Alexander Siloti, who introduced him to Diaghilev, the composer went on to write in virtually every field of musical endeavor. Those wishing to sample his career will read the essay in New Grove 2000; those wanting to examine it more thoroughly will read Stephen Walsh's recent biography, or Richard Taruskin's magnificent Stravinsky and the Russian Traditions. Beyond the most famous recordings (and there are many), one must also recommend listening to Stravinsky as a pianist. The self-expression of his own hand will speak much to his ideas of pulse and drive, as will several surviving films of his own conducting.

And we also begin with Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1950), Stravinsky's alleged rival and certain counter-weight. Schoenberg was the beneficiary of a classical Viennese musical education and recognized, earlier than any other, that the traditional systems of tonality were exhausted. The antique veins of gold had been played out.

Instead of these dead methods, Schoenberg came to insist, we must explore and imagine wholly new procedures, and thus give re-birth to music. He came to create "serial" (or dodecaphonic, or 12-tone, or tone-row) procedures, organizing musical sounds in new and arbitrary ways. Schoenberg's own Op 25, his Piano Suite, offers a clear path into this music. No less worthy is Schoenberg's romantic 'Transfigured Night', a masterpiece which may help open the ear to his later and extraordinary'Pierrot Lunaire' and 'Gurre-Lieder'.

Arnold Schoenberg remains, for many, a hard sell and this remains a terrible problem. In a way, he left a larger school and many more disciples than ever Stravinsky could have hoped. (If Schoenberg envied Stravinsky's public acclaim, Stravinsky envied Schoenberg's private followers.) Although purely serial procedures dead-ended in academe and music written for a dwindling-vortex of few and fewer listeners, its brilliance of analysis also freed our music in vital ways that are only now being fully measured. So too stands the work of Schoenberg's extraordinary pupils in the Second Viennese School (as it came to be called), the great Alban Berg (1885-1935) and Anton Webern (1885-1945). Berg's voice may be heard at its finest in his Violin Concerto, and in his opera 'Wozzeck'. Webern's Symphony for Small Orchestra, andString Quartet Op 28, are among his most admirable achievements.

Across the century we also find brilliant work of significantly regional or national genesis. Ravel and Debussy, Elgar and Vaughan Williams, Bartok and Janacek, De Falla and Ginastera, Lutaslawski and Penderecki, Berio and Dallapicolla, Boulez and his circle, Prokofiev and Shostakovich are all composers of such burning voice and excellence that their music bounded well beyond any borders. In our country, recognition must be given to Charles Ives (born the same year as Schoenberg), Aaron Copland, Elliott Carter, and the three Georges: Crumb, Rochberg, and Gershwin-if-only-he-had-lived.

Let me mention two others: Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) and Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992). (I do so knowing that, even now, you will be urging, "But what about...?" Agreed. The list could be enormous, but this essay has a word limit. Sorry.)

Britten was an amazing prodigy who matured to give us music of inspired beauty and depth and pain. Among Britten's dozen masterworks must rank his 'Peter Grimes', perhaps the greatest tonal opera of the twentieth century. Listen to its 'Four Sea Interludes' as a suite, and then move into the harrowing revelation and self-denial of the opera as a whole, and you will discover why so many people are so moved by this music.

Messiaen was a very different composer, exploring in both a public and private language the message of the Catholic Church he so adored and transcended. Add to that language the call of birds, the radiance of the organ, a personal gift of synesthesia (in his case, the interchangeability of sight and sound), a meticulous rhetoric in rhythm, and one is inevitably led to his symphonic masterwork, the ten-movement 'Turangalila'. Start with Messiaen's 'Banquet Celeste' for solo organ, move to his 'Chronochromie' and then be ready for the astonishing tour de force of 'Turangalila'. Being performed by the San Francisco Symphony in April of 2002, this "invisible opera" acquaints you with much that is most rich and alluring in the music of his genius, and our time.

In Messiaen (and a hundred worthy others) we also find the steady advance of fascinating and artificial sounds. From the experiments of Theremin and Martenot in the post-World War I era, to the musique concrète of post-World War II France, and on to early work at the Columbia and Bell and RCA labs and the breakthroughs of Robert Moog and IRCAM at Paris and CCRMA at Stanford, much of the story of our music has to do with these often stunning and curious new instruments and effects.

But, for us, there is even more to the sound of the 20th century. It has to do with proximity.

Part of the reward of being a member of our audience is that these discoveries are offered, regularly and afresh, at almost every concert. We hear them in real time, often led or spoken of by their own composers, and played by people who know their music intimately and now.

It is our honor to be present at first hearing, and privilege to tell our children that we moved beyond music-as-mausoleum. We helped give birth to the music of our own time and selves.