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Can There Be Great Composers Anymore?

July 8, 2017

In each nation of importance for Western music during the first half of the twentieth century, there thrived a handful of potentially "great" composers: authentic candidates for recognized greatness in fine art music. In England, Ralph Vaughn-Williams, Benjamin Britten, Gustav Holst, and William Walton loomed large. In France, Marice Ravel was still composing, while the "French Six" arose, among them Francis Poulenc, Arthur Honegger, and Darius Milhaud, with Eric Satie as their mentor. Igor Stravinsky was an expatriate in Paris.

 

Precommunist Russia had produced Sergei Rachmaninoff, who was then active in Europe and America, and under communism Dmitri Shostakovich and Sergey Prokofiev were at work. In Italy, Giacomo Puccini was working on one of his greatest operas, Turandot, until his death in 1923, and Pietro Mascagni's creative period continued past the Second World War. In Germany, Richard Strauss was prolific, and Paul Hindemith became an international figure. In Vienna, the expressionist avant-garde gained intellectual supremacy through Arnold Schoenberg, Alban Berg, and Anton Webern. In Spain, a late-blooming nationalism produced a school of composers that included Manuel De Falla, Enrique Granados, and Joaquin Turina. Eastern Europe brought forth Bela Bartok, Zoltan Kodaly, and Less Janacek. And from Finland, Jean Sibelius's massive symphonic works began to conquer Europe and America. In the same period America also produced significant musical talent: Charles Ives, George Antheil, Aaron Copland, Samuel Barber, Roy Harris and Howard Hanson.

 

Composers of fine art music who have appeared after 1950, however, have never rivaled in stature their counterparts of the first half of the century. Eliot Carter and Milton Babbitt did not become household names. Even less known have been the names of recent Pulitzer Prize winners. We seem to be experiencing a drought which has lasted two generations or more.

 

It will likely be surprising to those who are not professional musicians that the above composers, whether from the first or second half of the century, all relate to one of two parent schools of modern music composition: the Parisian and the Viennese. The modern Parisian school grew out of the impressionism pioneered by Claude Debussy in the nineteenth century, and the Viennese out of late German Romanticism pioneered by Wagner.Some composers who were not French by nationality owed a great deal to Paris in spirit, especially Stravinsky. The Spanish and American schools were trained in Paris, and the English, Italians and Russians, also owed much to French music.

 

The French school was capable of many moods and forms-naive, cheerful, and humorous-and it did not abandon melody or tonality. The Viennese style , on the other hand, proved restrive in terms of emotional expression and difficult for the creation of forms. It abandon tonality(being called "atonal") and developed serialism(the twelve tone system of Schoenberg ) to deal with form and unity.

 

An extended explanation of atonality would be difficult for a reader who is not a musician. Put simply, atonality refers to music that lacks a sense of key, of musical centering, of a place to return to. Atonality can occur throughout a piece of music or only in sections of the music. It creates a sense of disorientation and the preception that the music is nearly formless. To draw an analogy to painting, atonality in music is like abstractionism in art. The first reaction of many encountering it is that an atonal composition is "not music."

 

Although the Viennese atonal school now seems inferior to the Parisian, in its time it appeared to be the cutting edge in music. It had laid intellectual claim to being "new" and "original"- and therefore, "creative'(much the way cubism and abstraction in art did.) As such, the atonal style was adopted and developed by radical European philosophers of art who sought novelty above all else. Even though the influence of Paris was widespread, creative, and popular, it was the Viennese school that, for the later twentieth century- and especially in America- became the heart of the avant garde. It was atonality that led to almost everything of prominence, however unpopular with audiences, after 1945. The atonal development of Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern became the inspiration for a school of composition that still claims decedents to the present day. Every composer who uses atonal style today is directly indebted to the Viennese school, and this includes all avant-garde styles after the Second World War except minimalism. Elliot Carter, Milton Babbitt, Pierre Boulez, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Luigi Dallapiccola, John Cage, and George Crumb are all in some way Viennese musical descendants.

 

This Viennese-born style produced an unbroken and unchallenged stream of musical influence until 1985 when, after the emergence of minimalism(Steve Reich, Phillip Glass, John Adams) its value was seriouly questioned. Still, at present, the atonal stream has resurfaced in eclectic postmodern styles. Atonality is even present  in the works of recent Pulitzer Prize-winning composers like Aaron Jay Kernis-another name few will know. Most descendants of the Viennese school alienated audiences and marginalized classical music itself within the realm of high culture. Whereas before the Second World War large audiences of concert-goers eagerly anticipated new works by great composers of the time, today new composition is followed only by a miniscle group of serious music lovers. The situation is extreme and it has seemed for the last forty years or more that there are no living composers who have a claim to greatness. This appears to be the fact not only to laymen and connoisseurs of music, but also to professional musicians.

 

A notion has therefore arisen that it is just not possible for new great composers to appear-because the stream of Western serious music has simply played out. We do not find ourselves in a drought , relief from which may be just around the corner; rather, the drought-like condition of musical composition is a reflection of the fact that Western music has come to an end. This claim was already the subject of a book length treatment as early as 1955: The Agony of Modern Music by Henry Pleasants. It is now a widespread  explanation for the lack of great composers in recent decades. It has been aired in passing by a number of prominent figures in public forums; this author has heard it suggested by various musicians in two separate interviews with radio and television host Charlie Rose.

 

There are a number of reasons given to support this contention, the chief of which is that the styles of modern music have become so individual and idiosyncratic that there can no longer be general movements in music, and therefore no "influence" of one composer on another: there can only be iconoclasts. Another claim is that alll the possibilities of harmony have by now been tried, so nothing new is possible. A Pulitzer Prize- winning composer thus stated in a televised interview that there will never be another Mozart. And the contention that Western music has reached its end does seem to be born out by the facts. Of all of the composers from the second half of the twentieth century named here, not one can be called a candidate for greatness-not even the most famous of them, like Philip Glass.

 

Having come this far, a preliminary question that has not yet been addressed becomes apparent. What exactly do we mean by "greatness" in music? Alfred Einstein, the musicologist and music historian (possibly a distant cousin of Albert), Argued decades ago in Greatness in Music(1941) that this greatness is of three kinds:historical, musical, and esoteric. Historical greatness is self-explanatory: it is the stature a composer attains in the historical retelling of subsequent ages. Musical greatness is a technical and artistic brilliance in compositional achievement reflected in a body of works. Esoteric greatness is an attribute of composers who were musically great, prolific, and historically great, but who subsided from prominence in later epochs. In this last group are the great composers of the Renaissance like Palestrina, believed by some to be the greatest composer of all time. The vast majority of his hundreds of brilliant works are now found in libraries while only a handful are well known to audiences.

 

 

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