Music's Tradition of Constant Change

Composer, conductor, and music critic of the New York HERALD TRIBUNE for fourteen years, VIRGIL THOMSONwas born in Kansas City, graduated from. Harvard, and came to his maturity in Paris, where he studied under Nadia Boulanger. He is probably best known in America for his opera FOUR SAINTS IN THREE ACTS and for his symphonies and concertos. A new book about him, VIRGIL THOMSON: HIS LIFE AND MUSIC,by Kathleen Hoover and John Cage, is to be published this month.


TRADITION” and “change,” as words, are so heavily weighted with hopes and fears that it is impossible to describe with them convincingly any moment of time in music’s history. Nevertheless, there have been periods so tranquil that one is tempted to believe no major change was taking place, while during others the evolutionary process was so rapid that, to the casual-minded, change rather than tradition might well seem to have been in the saddle.

Take the European nineteenth century, for instance, after the death of Beethoven. The transformation of musical techniques and expression through Weber, Mendelssohn, Chopin, Schumann, Berlioz, Wagner, Verdi, Moussorgsky, Franck, and Debussy was constant and continuous. At the same time, tradition — the Beethoven tradition — was the basis of musical pedagogy. And none of these composers, not even Debussy, though he complained a little about Beethoven, dreamed of dethroning him as the sun king. On the contrary, they all aspired to contribute to the tradition that had arrived through Beethoven at so splendid a maturity.

Naturally there were both radical and conservative temperaments around; there always are. Wagner publicized his own music as “the music of the future,” implying by this slogan that everybody else’s was of the past. And Brahms, with his own consent, was announced by Hanslick as the defender of the classical tradition against Wagner’s irresponsible practices. But both Wagner and Brahms were clearly out for inheriting Beethoven’s prestige.

A century later, it looks as if both were wrong about themselves too. Wagner’s music had its biggest “future” between 1890 and 1910, Since the latter date his popularity has declined steadily and by 75 percent. His orchestration procedures, however, his chromatic harmony, his German declamation, and his symphonico-dramatic textures are still studied in conservatories. Brahms, on the other hand, has enjoyed ever since his death in 1897 a rising incidence of performance, so that today he ranks at the box office second only to Beethoven himself.

There is really no equating the radical with the progressive and the conservative with the reactionary. Saint-Saens, a conservative type himself, strengthened French music by introducing from Germany the use of sonata form, whereas Richard Strauss, for all his apparent radicalism of style and subject, added very little that is usable today either to the German tradition or to modernism in general. All that one can be sure of, between 1827 and 1914, is that change was rapid and that tradition — the classical tradition of Haydn and Mozart and Beethoven — was firmly respected everywhere. Both tradition and change, indeed, were so strongly entrenched that their representatives could not afford not to cooperate. And this is how our century came to assume that the musical tradition creates by its own nature a climate of constant variation in no way destructive to the noble mountains of the past or erosive to the fertile valleys of the present. The truth of this belief is not demonstrable. But its widespread acceptance in our time has assured modern music a hearing and has tended, moreover, to associate the sacred concept “progressive” with any music that bears any aspect of technical novelty.

The fifty years that ended with Beethoven’s death were probably the first period in Western music’s whole history that produced a body of work clearly visible to the immediate heirs of it as a classical repertory. Music, for the first time ever, had become a major art. And if in the century succeeding, German music followed a normal pattern of decay through giganticism, loss of muscular tone, and general decalcification, Italy nevertheless enjoyed from Rossini through Puccini a rejuvenation of the opera, in Russia secular music was born and came to a striking maturity, and France, from Berlioz through Debussy, experienced a miracle. Germany herself, in her luxuriant decline, gave us Strauss and Schönberg. At the same time, Brazil, Spain, Bohemia, Scandinavia, Hungary, and North America began sending up shoots, it was a brilliant century, full of change and excitement, and everywhere solidly nourished on the masters. Creation has rarely been more active, pedagogy more powerful.

The speed of evolution accelerated, and the excitement of it all mounted till about 1914. Debussy, who had already given his major piano works, as well as his opera Pelléas et Mélisande and his symphonic poem La Mer, composed in 1913 his ballet Jeux and shortly thereafter his three sonatas. Indeed, the five years preceding World War I brought with them, like a last wave breaking on the Western beach, Stravinsky’s Firebird, Petrouchka, and The Rite of Spring; Schönberg’s completed Gurrelieder, Five Orchestral Pieces, and Pierrot Lunaire; Ravel’s Shéhérazade, Valses Nobles et Sentiment ales, and Daphnis et Chloë. Every one of these works was striking, original, and powerful in expression. Every one of them, moreover, brought to maturity some composing technique predictable from the classical syntax.

Debussy’s novel achievements were full freedom of form; verbal-musical amalgams more electric than those of Bach, Rameau, Mozart, Rossini, or even Schubert; and (shared with Schönberg and Stravinsky) a consistent 100 per cent dissonance saturation to delight the ears of Bach, who had so often provoked that experience mechanically through the use of organ mixture stops. Further achievements of the time included Stravinsky’s raising of rhythm to the rank of a major component in composition, Schönberg’s heightening of chromaticism to the confounding of all tonality, outlandish and wonderful loudnesses, and a pulverization of musical sound to the ultimate of delicacy.

All these achievements completed and crowned the classical repertory without in any way invalidating it. Indeed, it looks now as if Western music, that vast development which began with early Christian psalmody and which invented and perfected, one by one, the Gregorian chant, counterpoint, multiple metrics, harmony, a dozen wind and string instruments, the simultaneous, differentiated employment of all these in the lyric drama, the oratorio, the choreographicomusical narrative, and the extended instrumental forms, had come to an end. With the classical symphonists, the Western musical language was mature; in the work of the classical modernists it became free. And this last result, like all the others, was produced by classically trained musicians working within the framework of the classical tradition.

THAT tradition remains unshaken. Indeed it has lately been further buttressed by musicological studies. Nor have the contributions of modernism been discarded; they have become a part of our classical tradition. Nevertheless, music’s rate of evolution has slowed down noticeably since World War I. Of really powerful works produced in the last forty years I can name you only five: Igor Stravinsky’s L’Histoire du Soldat, Erik Satie’s Socratc, Honegger’s Pacific 231, Darius Milhaud’s La Création du Monde, and Alban Berg’s Wozzeck; and these were all written before 1926. I know nothing of comparable originality composed since then, except possibly some very short pieces by Anton Webern. The music of Sibelius and Bartok, though powerful on the expressive plane, does not seem, technically speaking, to have changed anything.

Today there is little active change going on. There is only tradition, and that tradition includes all the modernisms of yesteryear. The modernist branch of our tradition, now wholly official and more than a little pompous, possesses, as our tradition has always done, a diatonic and a chromatic style. Our century’s diatonic style, commonly referred to as neoclassicism, is an eclectic mixture of pre-World-War-I liberties with earlier, tighter syntaxes. Its practitioners dominate pedagogy, publishing, and performance. Twentieth-century chromaticism, as simplified about 1926 by Schönberg into a rule of thumb known as serial dodecaphony (or the twelve-tone row technique), marks the music of a smaller group that essays through a publicity at once pious and pugnacious to seize the positions of power now held by the neoclassic representatives. In neither camp is there much novelty of either expression or method; in both, rather, there is a sectarian adherence to certain parts of the Great Tradition, as if all of it were too much for anybody to live with.

There are those who maintain that the Western musical language, because it is now complete, must be scrapped. This is to argue that the English language, once it came to maturity in the plays of Shakespeare and in the King James version of the Bible, was thenceforth useless to literature. The contrary, of course, is true. And though any of civilization’s instruments may slowly decline in vigor after its first maturity, that decline is likely to be accompanied by a wider and wider utilization over many centuries.

Music as a language, though long may it live, will not, I fear, be evolving much more. There will not be another Beethoven, nor a Bach nor a Mozart nor even a Debussy, because our musical language is complete and its gamut explored. We can only codify it now. We can export it to Asia and Africa. We can also finish off some jobs worth doing at home and Jong put off. A conquest of the English language by opera is possibly, at this moment, imminent. The vast and fertile field of Spanish declamation has barely been touched. The continental opera itself awaits for its revival the perfection of a new recitative, viable for films and television. In general, for the West, constructive advance seems more urgent on the vocal than on the instrumental front. But there is still room for movement in every direction.

THE directions most encouraged today in Europe are rhythmic research and integral serialism. The former stems from American sources (Henry Cowell, Edgar Varese, Joint Cage) and from the pre-1914 Stravinsky. Its purest form (also mostly from America) is that of music for nontonal percussion instruments. The combination of rhythmic research with twelve-tone chromaticism has produced in Europe a twelve-tone music in which not only the tones themselves but also durations, pauses, loudnesses, instrumental colors, high and low pitches, methods of attack and release — every variable in music, in fact — are subjected to a systematic organization into ordered series. Complete organization of this kind is known as integral serialism, and its more celebrated practitioners are Pierre Boulez in France, Karlheinz Stockhausen in Germany, and Luigi Nono in Italy.

I find this music utterly charming in sound and refreshingly innocent in expression. There is nothing wrong with it except the publicity advanced in its favor that it is another “music of the future.” This pretension is absurd, because the idiom is not that novel; it is still a dialect of Bach and completely comprehensible to any classical musician. It is a game played with classical elements.

I doubt seriously whether there are unexploited devices available for starting a radically new musical tradition. I do believe, however, that success will not wholly pass by the rhythmic experimenters and the 100 per cent serialists. I can imagine them making lovely scores for all the better films about space travel, where their invigorating metrical asymmetries and their generally antiseptic and up-to-date sounds will give an effect much more appropriate than pathos. If this happens, they will have contributed to the still living tradition of musical impressionism — that is to say, of atmospheric evocation. And we shall all be very happy. For they are loyal workmen, and their music unquestionably has charm. My only dispute with these excellent friends and colleagues is that I simply cannot see them as subversive. I can just barely see them as late contributors to traditional modernism.

Now, modernism in music, to begin retracing my argument, is a concept from the late nineteenth century that urges an attitude of receptivity toward anything that may seem progressive either in syntax or in subject matter. It is an open-door policy regarding change, and the official representatives of tradition itself have not always been unfriendly toward it. In any case, modernism long ago won so many of its battles with reaction and won them so decisively that by the end of World War I they were sharing condominium in the conservatories.

Little by little, however, as the supply of musical novelty diminished, the encouragement of novelty was transformed from an open-door policy into a doctrinaire position. This position, as upheld in the magazines of musical modernism and in the programs of the contemporary music concerts, maintained that there could be no authentic or valuable composition that did not embody some technical novelty, the corollary being, of course, that any work which did embody a technical novelty was more valuable than one which did not.

To realize the absurdity of this position one has only to remember that music’s master builders, Bach and Mozart and Beethoven and even Wagner, were none of them research men. Awareness of this fact, as well as the increasing scarcity of novel devices, turned the young musicians of the post-World-War-I generation toward an exploitation of established modernism through the mass media — radio, films, and dance spectacles — and through oratoriolike grandes machines designed to divert a mass public by the mobilization of orchestras, soloists, choruses, and that most antimusical of all instruments, the speaking voice. These efforts have not produced masterpieces. But they have popularized, officialized, and standardized the modern vocabulary so effectively that it is very hard today to distinguish by the ear alone die work of one contemporary composer from that of another.

I do not wish to imply that no musical research today is valid and no expression authentic. But I do consider that both technical advance and expressivity have shown, since World War I, or at least since 1925, a decline in vigor. A parallel situation exists in both painting and poetry. We are living in a time of cultural recession. Politics, economic organization, and the arts of war appear to be on the move. The fine and applied arts, in this epoch of wide cultural distribution, are definitely conservative. This conservatism, at least in music and in painting, is based on a tradition of modernism once radical, now completely academic and official.

The modernist musical tradition has never denied its derivation from Beethoven and Bach. The classics of yesteryear are no less classical today. It is also clear, however, that musical evolution, which has been extremely active for two centuries, has for the time being lost its dynamism. The situation is no doubt temporary. All the arts are in a low part of their curve, because the world is up to something else. And one of the things it is up to is distributing its cultural produce to a world-wide market, it is enlarging and standardizing that market with a remarkable energy. And it has been possible to undertake such a standardization because we, the musicians, had already standardized, brought to completion, and officialized our whole tradition, classical and modern.

So what do we composers do now? There is only one thing possible: change the assumptions on which we operate. We shall have to forget for a time about novelty and change and tradition and all such great big wordy ideas. I propose to you that every composer has plenty of small ideas, technical and expressive ones, and that these ideas are all valid if sincerely and competently acted upon. It is better to work with the ideas one really has, however minor they may seem, than to try to follow an outworn line like modernism-at-any-price. Especially in a time when there are so few “modernistic” ideas available at any price. In other words, the tradition of constant change must be thrown overboard and freshness found through other preoccupations.

The standardization of compositional procedures is a fact; we cannot fight that. Anyway, we have produced it ourselves both knowingly and inevitably, through the intense and highly intellectual organization, over centuries, of our whole musical tradition, creative and executional. The standardization of audiences is also a fact; and though composers have contributed toward bringing it about, we are not wholly happy with the result. It is better for business than for creative advance. Our dilemma is that we believe in creative advance but are unable to make very much of it right now through technical innovation. Moreover, we are suspicious, as a source of inspiration, of mere expressivity; in our unconscious it lies uncomfortably close to commercial motivations and the relaxing of standards. So also for the tricky concept of sincerity.

We may well be reduced, all the same, to seeking innovation through expressivity, instead of expressivity through innovation, and to findingexpressivity through sincerity, though sincerity at its purest leads straight to anarchy and through anarchy to the destruction of both tradition and progress. It is my belief, regarding musical composition, that today only sincerity and anarchy are valid. There is no good line or bad line, no clearly progressive and no reactionary. We are not fighting from positions any longer, or among ourselves. We are fighting individually against the distributors and the standardizes. We are fighting for our lives and for music’s life, because all this vast distribution by phonograph and radio, this amplified inundation of the world with sure-fire classics and banal modernities, can kill the art of music. But till the sad day comes when nobody educated would be caught dead listening to music, it may just be possible to follow lor a while the best lesson in the whole classical tradition, which is that individual freedom is honorable, and to succeed by private pushes and private tinkerings in keeping the giant musical machine in some kind of motion. It will require the efforts of many people all over the world to counteract music’s present incipient sclerosis. And the time may be short. But I for one should hate to see the day when there will be music, music everywhere — and no surprise or spontaneity in any of it.