30 March 2004
The drones of academe
The ever-Curmudgeonly Francis W. Porretto is not overly fond of some 20th-century repertoire:
There's a great deal of "classical" music that most of us can only endure, and then only under duress.
Why? Because it has no integrating themes. It's complex for the sake of being complex. Its elements don't resolve to unifying statements that make overall sense. It's not dissonant or dysphonious; it's simply bad.
Actually, I've always suspected that there is one underlying theme in all of this dry, academic, uncompelling stuff: the urge to produce the sort of music which induces foundations and other benefactors to write checks.
And this, of course, becomes a self-replicating phenomenon in no time at all. If somebody comes up with a piece for three violas and a cello that sounds like Webern on Quaaludes and manages to get a sizable grant, you can expect half a dozen more such works to be premiered to yawning audiences in the next few years. Although sometimes, admittedly, it takes more than that:
He who scores symphonies that require a hundred performers playing twenty different instruments can often pass complex obscurity off as genuine artistic insight. He can tell the dissenter from his genius that the fault lies not in the work, but in the listener's underdeveloped tastes and capacity for appreciation.
In time, this gambit gave us Arnold Schönberg and John Cage. If you don't know who they are, consider yourself blessed.
I discovered both these composers when I was in my early twenties. No, they're not especially accessible, and yes, there are times when I think they come across as willfully obtuse. But I've acquired recordings of some of their works for my collection, and haven't regretted it. Besides, even exponents of sheerest tonality can get on my nerves: Olivier Messiaen and his damnable bird calls tempt me to bring out the artillery.
Even among the pieces we think of as Basic Repertoire, there's plenty of room for argument. Thirty-odd years ago, there was a panel discussion during halftime um, between the acts of the Saturday Met radio broadcasts in which Tony Randall, a frequent participant in such panels, was hit with the question: "Is there a masterpiece you really can't stand?" A two-edged sword, this, since you have to admit to the work's exalted status even as you rip it to shreds. Randall thought about it, then 'fessed up: he really didn't like The Magic Flute.
I've thought about this on and off, and there are a few pieces that are legitimately regarded as great that nevertheless set my teeth on edge, perhaps due to extreme overexposure: I can probably go the rest of my life without hearing Saint-Saëns' Organ Symphony again, and I can certainly make it to 2012 without another hearing of Tchaikovsky's 1812. Still, there's a reason these works made it into the Basic Repertoire in the first place, and if a young person approached me and expressed a desire to become more familiar with classical music, it's probably not too likely I'd start the process with Pierrot lunaire even though I do have it on hand.