Romantic Longings

IN THE l960s two serious composers did something analogous, in the opinion of the music world, to reinventing the wheel: they returned to conventional harmony. George Rochberg, who had been for years a committed serialise wrote, “I found (serialism’s] palette of constant chromaticism increasingly constricting [and could not] accept any longer the limited range of gestures that always seemed to channel the music into some form or other of expressionism.” David Del Tredici, then a graduate student at Princeton—that sacred preserve of Milton Babbitt and the academic serialists—similarly rebelled against the institutionalized rigidity of the twelvetone avant-garde. His response was flamboyantly romantic: he composed a series of works based on Alice in Wonderland that grew less dissonant and ever more lush. Fellow composers were appalled. They acted as if what he was doing were “more than eccentric,” Del Tredici later said. “It was somehow wrong—decadent, even immoral.”

Few composers have rebelled so dramatically in the intervening years. In light of what has happened since the 1960s, however, Rochberg and Del Tredici hardly seem eccentric, much less immoral. Music—and musical taste— has been changing. The change is evident in the Mahler mania that has swept concert halls. It is evident in the revival of operatic trifles by Jules Massenet and by the all-but-forgotten composer Riccardo Zandonai, whose medieval thriller Francesca da Rimini was staged last year by the Metropolitan Opera in a production that resembled an overripe PreRaphaelite painting. And, most important, it is evident in contemporary music. Tonics and dominants, both outlawed for years, flourish. Operas and symphonic-scale works abound, after years of short, compressed pieces. Composers are eager to communicate; their music has a new expansiveness and sense of release. Even Pierre Boulez, the celebrated figurehead of the European avant-garde, has recently argued for music that is “more ornate, richer in texture, more contrasted—a kind of enrichment of [serialism’s] language.”

What, exactly, is happening? In the past two years the New York Philharmonic has staged two important new music festivals, Horizons ‘83 and Horizons ‘84, to address this question. Jacob Druckman, the composer-in-residence with the orchestra and the artistic director of the festivals, has a provocative answer: a return to romanticism is under way. “Since 1968, a New Romanticism?” was the theme of Horizons ‘83. “The New Romanticism—A Broader View” was that of Horizons ‘84. From the welter of new works performed at the festivals, two conclusions can be drawn. First, in quantity, variety, and adventurousness—if not in quality—today’s new music rivals the upsurge of the “old” Romanticism, in the last century. People forget, Druckman said in one program essay, that Romantic music encompassed styles as different as those of Berlioz, Brahms, Wagner, Schubert, and Rachmaninoff. Second, as the response to the new works at the festivals proved, audiences and critics alike want to believe in neo-romanticism—audiences because they have never appreciated much beyond nineteenth-century music, and critics because they are eager to define the new spirit and to impose some order on the chaos of competing styles.

A hunger for definitions is understandable, of course. (Besides, arguing definitions is often easier than listening to music.) But it is not, in this case, particularly helpful. It is hard enough to define nineteenth-century Romanticism, let alone a movement as nebulous as this one. As Groves Dictionary of Music points out, nineteenth-century Romantic music was fraught with contradictions: “ambitions for the future mingling with dreams of the past; a determination to overthrow coupled with nostalgia for the rejected world of order and balance; fervent brotherhood yet the exaltation of the individual; proud selfconsciousness yet the sense of acute isolation; the assertion of Man yet an ache for the lost God.” The romantic and the rational have coexisted in every musical period, including Romanticism, and the best music has combined both. Far better, then, to relax, to acknowledge that what’s going on is difficult to define, and to listen to what the music itself has to say—from the increasingly expressive music of some entrenched academic serialists to the strange sonic galaxies of computer music to the exuberant tonality of second-generation “minimalist” composers.

THE EAGERLY PROCLAIMED new romanticism is the emotional counter to what is perceived as years of intellectual aridity. For seventy-five years music has been in an almost continual state of modernist experimentation. The revolt began in the early decades of the century, when Schoenberg ventured beyond the chromaticism of Wagner and Debussy into the atonal realm. Out of that came his, and modern music’s, great leap into the void—the unhinging of music from harmony. But by sweeping away the old absolutes, Schoenberg left composers in a vacuum. Where could new rules be found to act with and react against? Schoenberg’s solution was a new “scale”—the twelve-note series, or tone row. To the more radical generation coming up behind him, however, Schoenberg’s serial music was marred by its deliberate conservatism, its looking back to the great symphonic tradition and to the Classical form. After the Second World War, Pierre Boulez and Karlheinz Stockhausen in Europe, and Milton Babbitt in America, proclaimed the annihilation of the past. “Schoenberg is dead,” announced Boulez.

Taking as their starting point Webern’s pointillistic compositions, so concentrated that each note stood out in stark contrast to the last, the serialists subjected not only pitch but also rhythm and dynamics to rigid formulas. They enlisted the aid of newly emerging electronic-music studios to increase the control still further. The “total serialists” pulverized the musical line and split the beat so fine that both often turned to dust.

Ironically, the first attacks on the serial academy came from music every bit as intellectual. John Cage, the composer, philosopher, and “inventor of genius,” as Schoenberg called him, led the way in the 1950s. Against the serialists’ total control he posited the idea of total freedom or chance, and he countered their intricately structured rows with highly abstract music that explored silence as much as notes. The preoccupation with form over content continued in the “minimal” works of Philip Glass and Steve Reich that began to emerge from New York’s SoHo in the early 1970s. Strongly influenced by the grids of such minimalist artists as Sol Lewitt and Carl André and by the repetitive forms of Indian and African music, they were spare, stripped-down works, whose “cells” of notes circled and repeated in endless hypnotic patterns.

By successfully challenging the academic establishment, Cage and the renegade “downtown" composers showed that there could be musical life after serialism. The cracks in the onceindomitable front became fissures, and soon a host of new composers and styles poured through. The old modernist certainties—the elevation of intellect over emotion, the medium over the message—no longer appeared so certain. Modernism as a sleek, unswerving train whirring into the future came to seem as much a thing of the past as the Twentieth Century Limited. As the rebellious sixties generation came of age, much of the “alternative" music attracted a wider audience and became established. At the same time, the new avant-garde music, influenced by the anti-elitist spirit of the time and the ascendancy of rock-androll, became increasingly rich and accessible. In the late 1970s and early 1980s “minimal” music grew by symphonic leaps and harmonic bounds, Laurie Anderson became a star, and computer music made it into the movies. Now, as various works performed at Horizons ‘83 and ‘84 demonstrate, music from one end of the spectrum to the other reflects the new expressivity, the new romanticism, call it what you will.

TAKE THE “ROMANCING” of serial music, the music that audiences love to hate. There has never been anything very lyrical in serialism’s bony body—understandably so, given the extreme restrictions of the form. Without conventional harmonies on which to hang a melody, serial music has progressed in nervous, sporadic outbursts of seemingly unrelated notes. What’s more, with only an invisible tone row for underpinning, instead of the contrasting themes of nineteenth-century music, serial compositions often lack architectural coherence. Yet serialism and the lyrical need not be mutually exclusive. One of the best “academic" works performed at Horizons ‘84, Bamboula Squared, by the Pulitzer Prize-winning composer charles Wuorinen, sets out to be more natural—and succeeds. Full of sustained orchestral lines and vigorous rhythms, it surges along in a tightly knit interplay of orchestra and tape. An orchestral sforzando is followed by a dazzling shower of recorded sounds from the speakers, which resembles a player piano gone berserk. Strings play a keening melody; brass choruses join electronic sounds in a tempest of quadraphonic proportions. At the end the forces join jubilantly in a rousing C-octave unison. Wuorinen included in the program a reference to the complex, computer-generated numerical models he used to compose Bamboula Squared. But that rigor is not obtrusive; one walks away exhilarated from a work that is neatly squared yet bursting with fun.

The evocative tone-painting works of George Crumb similarly point to a rapprochement between academy and audience. Crumb’s acknowledged influences are Debussy, Bartok, and Webern— spanning, significantly, the Romantic and the highly rational. One can hear traces of them all, filtered through his own highly expressive voice. Like Debussy, whose shimmering soundscapes were one form of Romanticism, Crumb has a talent for writing works so fragile and gossamer-thin that they seem to take place in a dream. At the same time, however, they have the driving rhythms of Bartók and the concision of Webern. A Haunted Landscape, which was given its world premiere at Horizons '84 and which will soon be released on New World records, is an evocatively named case in point. It begins with a low, ghostly B-flat pedal point that sets the stage for the strange beauties to follow and that continues throughout. Brief outbursts from woodwinds and percussion and sharp staccato exclamations from an amplified piano blend in a rising mist of tones and overtones. Fragments of sound surge and eddy around the orchestra, sometimes huge and grand, at other times barely echoing from the beyond. A Haunted Landscape ends as it began, with the stealthy tread of the B-flat, receding into the moonlit, mystical landscape from whence it came.

At the far extreme from such tone paintings the computer world continues to generate music of surpassing strangeness. Here—for example, in the wildly inventive electronic compositions of such intergalactic voyagers as Morton Subotnick—the romance lies in sonic adventuring. In the past many of the less-inspired computer works amounted to little more than special effects; they lacked structure or cohesiveness. Now a number of talented composers are creating music that is well ordered as well as inventive. Much of it stays close enough to conventional tones and harmonies to sound “human” and moving, and has a satisfying line. The New York composer Laurie Spiegel, for one, writes richly romantic music that would not have sounded out of place at a nineteenthcentury soiree—except that it is electronically generated. Music for Dance, whose first movement was performed at Horizons ‘84, combines the hypnotic feeling of Eastern music with a gentle, old-fashioned air and recognizable A-BA structure. Its harmonies circle over and around and then forward in a stately twentieth-century minuet.

A decade ago few composers would have dreamed of writing a tonal fantasy opera like Oliver Knussen’s Where the Wild Things Are, which was given its first complete performance in the United States at Horizons ‘84. Where the Wild Things Are is a forty-minute chamber opera based on Maurice Sendak’s delightfully spooky children’s book, and a work that invites instant comparison with Ravel’s L’Enfant et les sortilèges. Knussen, a thirty-two-year-old British composer, is not afraid of tonality. Along with many other composers—most notably, perhaps, Germany’s Hans Werner Henze and Britain’s Peter Maxwell Davies—he incorporates elements of conventional harmony and outright quotations from past music. Where the Wild Things Are sparkles with references to Mussorgsky, Debussy, and Ravel, and with Knussen’s own comic invention. Best of all are a wonderfully witty moment when the wild things, momentarily subdued by the little tyrant Max, whimper in chorus, and a parody of a barbershop quartet near the end, sung by the abandoned creatures as homesick Max sails away. Their ever-so-slightly off-key harmonies are sung comically straight-faced.

No festival devoted to neo-romanticism could ignore the atmospheric, noholds-barred romanticism of the minimalist composers. In the eight years since the 1976 premiere of Einstein on the Beach at the Metropolitan Opera House, which brought Glass’s music to widespread attention, the minimalists have become the hit-parade composers of the classical world. (Music by Glass opened the Olympic Games last summer, in Los Angeles.) Nowhere is the ongoing enrichment of the form more appealing than in the works of a group of talented young West Coast minimalists, among them John Adams. In Adams’s music the sense of expansive, circular sound—of time slowed down—is retained. But the patterns that overlap and evolve are varied and sophisticated. In Grand Pianola Music, a brash, bannerwaving piece that was performed at Horizons ‘83, the effect is of scene fading cinematically into scene: the delicate, flute-flecked opening section, which evokes an Impressionist landscape; the serene glow of the middle, shot through with Coplandesque harmonies and overtones of a vanishing America; the surging piano chords and heart-on-thesleeve sentiment of the end.

The signs that point to change, then, are in place. But the change is hardly assured. For every Charles Wuorinen there are dozens of serial composers who have turned a deaf ear to the new sounds. Post-Webern works untouched by the higher invention of a Boulez or a Babbitt or an Elliott Carter continue to weigh down many “uptown” concerts. Audiences have yet to be won over. One of the sadder aspects of the two Horizons festivals, as Edward Rothstein pointed out in The New Republic, was an abysmal decline in attendance—from roughly 70 percent capacity at Avery Fisher Hall the first year to something less than 20 percent at some concerts of the second. Many concertgoers, attracted by the romantic labeling, probably found the works not sweet enough for palates sated by late Romantic saccharin. The contemporary music that is most likely to appeal to them is the most derivative and, often, the weakest.

It remains to be seen just how worthwhile the new direction in music will prove to be. Does the “return to romanticism” augur a brave new era, one successfully bridging the past and the future? Or is it simply a pandering to the past, as Boulez and other militant explorers of the past four decades charge? Inevitably, any new music that looks back as well as forward, if only in spirit, will be accused of being derivative. And the second-rate music hiding behind the rubric doesn’t help: romanticism without some rigor, after all, is as likely to produce bad music as rationalism without any romance. Yet there are reasons to hope. For one thing, composers today are working with rhythms and sounds— whether generated by a computer or by a Balinese gamelan—not available to nineteenth-century composers. For another, this music simply does not sound much like nineteenth-century Romanticism. The new music awaits a great composer—a consummate assimilator, perhaps, who will turn the sounds in the air into his own—to make all the questions seem irrelevant. □