Paroles Tiseés [Woven Words] (1965)

By Bernard Jacobson

Written for the concert Music of the 1960s, performed on January 17, 1999 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

Chopin died in 1849. For more than one hundred years after that, despite a glorious creative tradition going back to the polyphonic masters of the sixteenth century, composition in Poland was something of a backwater. There were figures of middling rank, like Moniuszko, Wieniawski, and Paderewski, and then Szymanowski, born in 1882, won something like a worldwide reputation. But it was with the birth of Witold Lutoslawski in 1913, and of Andrzej Panufnik one year and Krzysztof Penderecki and Henryk Górecki twenty years later, that the picture changed radically. Along with many compatriots of lesser but still substantial success, these four men–Panufnik in self-imposed exile and the other three surviving at home through first Nazi and then Communist dictatorships–made Polish music again what it had not been since Chopin’s day: an art from which the composers of the wider world take as much in example and inspiration as they contribute to it.

If a “Polish School” with a widely diffused international influence really exists, we need nevertheless to remember that its representatives, though they sometimes use techniques with a recognizable family likeness, differ crucially in aesthetic. One aspect of the difference lies in the variety of foreign influences to which they in their turn have responded. Górecki has stayed the closest to home both biographically and in the spirit of his music. Panufnik found in himself a deep affinity for the music and, even more, for the poetry of his adopted country, England. Penderecki’s choice of subjects and the elemental darkness and brooding psychological intensity with which he renders them speak of an unmistakably Austro-Germanic expressionist taste.

In sharp contrast, Lutoslawski sounds in his fine artistic bones more French than anything else. There are, to be sure, other strands in the fabric of his style. These include occasional twelve-tone serial elements, akin to those developed by Schoenberg, but used, Lutoslawski remarked, “for quite different purposes.” He was influenced, like all his Polish colleagues, by Iannis Xenakis’s exploitation of glissando, “clouds” of sonority, and multiple subdivision of orchestral texture. And an encounter in 1961 with the music of John Cage, Lutoslawski acknowledged, “ignited a powder keg in me. In fifteen minutes, I had an insight into new possibilities open to me by incorporating into my music Cage’s ideas.” Most of the works he wrote between then and his death in 1994 incorporated what are known as “aleatoric” techniques–the term alludes to the throw of dice, and denotes chance elements in music; again, however, Cage’s essentially mystical and non-Western aim of eliminating the composer’s personality as a factor in shaping the listener’s experience differs fundamentally from Lutoslawski’s belief in a “clear delineation of duties between composers and performers”:

“I write out everything very precisely, even in the so-called aleatoric sections. The only difference is that the players are not supposed to coordinate their parts with each other and in these sections there is no common division of time.”

But alongside all of these varied stylistic sources, a more profound sense of artistic community associates Lutoslawski with older composers who either were French or were more French than German in their musical sympathies. “Everything I write,” he observed, “lacks any connection with the Viennese tradition (Schoenberg, Webern). I feel much more linked with the line Debussy–Stravinsky–Bartók–Varèse.” And if this is true of his musical preferences in general, it is still more strikingly true of the taste evinced by his choice of texts for vocal music. Of his five most important works for voice or voices and orchestra, four–the exception being the Five Songs to texts by Kazimiera Ilakowicz–are settings of twentieth-century French poets: Henri Michaux in the choral-orchestral Trois Poèmes, Jean-François Chabrun in Paroles tissées, and Robert Desnos in Les Espaces du sommeil and Chantefleurs et Chantefables.

In part this predilection is simply linguistic:

“I like particularly French sung, above all because of its nasal sounds that give pleasure to my ear, a pleasure that is purely in sound. It is because of these that French songs sound different from poems sung in any other language, because of the large number of vowels, but above all nasal vowels. Similarly the tonic accent on the last syllable determines a certain way of rhythmic writing.”

Beyond such considerations of sonority and technique, the fact that the three French poets Lutoslawski chose for setting were all surrealists is not coincidental. It harmonizes rather with his most passionately held views about the nature of musical communication. If we agree, he said,

“that music can signify anything extramusical, we should also recognize that we must consider music to be an art of many values. Man has, nevertheless, one single soul and events lived through must have some influence on him. If many has a psyche, then the world of sounds, while keeping its autonomy, is a function of this psyche.”

The psyche, as its -ology has taught us, operates with particular freedom and fertility in dreams. And artistically speaking the world of dreams is the world of surrealism.

It is the combination of apparently hard-edged words with the infinite suggestive power of dream logic that is particularly germane to Paroles tissées (Woven Words). In 1965, seeking a subject for a work commissioned by the English tenor Peter Pears, Lutos awski found what he wanted in Chabrun’s Quatre tapisseries pour la châtelaine de Vergy, “four tapestries” that memorialize the doomed guilty love of the medieval Lady of Vergy and the Duke of Burgundy. Each of the “tapestries” that constitute the poem has its own individual expressive tone, but a set of basic words and phrases is obsessively repeated and reordered: “shadow,” “wonders,” “a cat lost in wonder,” “the cry of the juggler and of the quail/of the partridge of the chimney-sweep/of the dead tree of the captured beasts.” In the end, the poet tells us, all these redoubled cries “will never put to sleep this song of pain/that others have repeated others will repeat it.” And the tale is marvelously enriched by Lutoslawski’s hypersensitive vocal line, supported by an orchestra of percussion, harp, piano, and 13 strings, its texture alternating moments of strict notation with stretches of an aleatoric flexibility that itself mirrors the elusive evanescence of dreams. His setting, the composer admitted, was “false, since I wrote music for a story that does not exist in Chabrun’s text”; but he found his justification in Debussy’s observation that “music begins where the words end.” As in poetry itself, so in music, imaginative suggestion is a far more potent means than bald statement toward achieving Lutoslawski’s purpose:

“I would like to find people who in the depths of their souls feel the same way as I do… They are the people who are closest to me, even if I do not know them personally. I regard creative activity as a kind of soul-fishing, and the ‘catch’ is the best medicine for loneliness, that most human of sufferings.”

Preghiere [Prayer] (1962)

By Bernard Jacobson

Written for the concert Music of the 1960s, performed on January 17, 1999 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

Good things, as everybody knows, come in threes. The whimsical but affectionate birthday dedication of Alban Berg’s Chamber Concerto to his teacher Arnold Schoenberg allusively hints that such good things include twelve-tone serialist composers: in this case Schoenberg, Berg himself, and Anton Webern. One of the other composers on today’s program, Luciano Berio, is the survivor from what is often thought of as a later Italian triumvirate of serialists or post-serialists, the two deceased members of which were Bruno Maderna and Luigi Nono. Born two decades earlier, Luigi Dallapiccola (1904-1975) was the first Italian composer of major stature to adopt serial techniques, but he belongs to no easily identifiable group, whether of three or of any other number. For Dallapiccola was very definitely a cat who walked by himself.

In its origins, twelve-tone serialism (or dodecaphony) was a phenomenon in the Austro-German tradition. So were the classical and romantic styles of symphonic composition. The tradition of Italian music in the classical and high romantic periods was, by contrast, overwhelmingly vocal in its interests. It was only with two composers of the two generations preceding Dallapiccola’s–Giuseppe Martucci (born 1856) and Ottorino Respighi (born 1879)–that Italy began for the first time since the baroque period to take a strong interest in, and make a strong contribution, to purely orchestral music.

Dallapiccola’s output ranges from such impressive stage works as Volo di notte (Night Flight, after Saint-Exupéry), Il prigioniero, Job, and Ulisse to a highly accomplished series of purely orchestral and instrumental pieces. But it is probably in the choral music, including the compelling Canti di prigionia, and in more than a dozen works for solo voice with orchestra or instrumental ensemble that his most characteristic and at the same time most recognizably Italian voice can be heard. The instrumental parts in these compositions often exploit twelve-tone methods to create complex, even dense, textures. The vocal writing, on the other hand, is quintessentially Italian in its unabashedly lyrical response to poetic texts, and in its avoidance of the tortured, angular character that makes much of the Austro-German dodecaphonic repertoire so problematical a minefield for singers and listeners alike.

Both voice and orchestra in Preghiere (Prayers) are given lines as sharply characterized as any in, for example, Webern’s vocal-instrumental works. But in comparison with Webern’s much imitated fragmentation of texture, the wider, more sustained spans of Dallapiccola’s writing allow the moods evoked by the text–moods ranging from quiet travail to violent outbursts of protest–more time to establish themselves. The result, paradoxically, is a far greater overall variety of expression; for emotionally speaking nothing is more static than continuous flux. The nature of the texts set in Preghiere’s three movements is prevailingly dark–not for nothing is “Oscura” the very first word of the first Prayer–but there is always an inner gentleness in Dallapiccola’s artistic make-up that allows him to range further on the sanguine side of the expressive spectrum than his more tormented Austrian predecessors’ prevailing Weltschmerz ever permitted them to wander. It is worth observing, moreover, that Dallapiccola rarely takes the obvious or expectable course in his treatment of the text. The lines near the end of the second Prayer that speak of souls and bodies worthy of the morning dew, of love, of flowers and the music of birds–lines that from a less subtle creator might well have drawn a conventionally ecstatic response–prompt Dallapiccola instead to a setting that dramatizes not so much the beauty of such blessings as the desolation humanity suffers from their loss.

Commissioned by the Committee for Arts and Lectures of the University of California at Berkeley, Preghiere is dedicated “to the Department of Music in gratitude and friendship, and was first performed at Berkeley on November 10, 1962, when Edgar Jones was the baritone soloist and Gerhard Samuel conducted. The work is scored for a chamber orchestra of nine woodwinds, horn, trumpet, celesta, piano, vibraphone, xylorimba, and solo string quintet.

The humanistic inclinations of the composer and specifically of Preghiere are aptly stressed in some of the comments Dallapiccola provided for the work’s first recording in the 1970s:

“In each of my creative periods, starting as early as that of the Tre laudi, a religious note has been struck. . . . However, I have always chosen texts that have been the outcome of human experience. I have progressed from Mary Queen of Scots to Severinus Boethius, and later to Sebastiano Castellio and a fragment from Exodus. The most ambitious text until recently was that [of] Saint Augustine, which concludes the Canti di liberazione. And there was the fiery, burning Jacopone da Todi.

A few years ago I was visited by Murilo Mendes, the Brazilian poet, who teaches at Rome University. I recorded this visit briefly in my diary, commenting: ‘Découverte d’un frère’ [‘Discovery of a brother’]. I actually wrote this in French, recalling as I did that it was in those and no other terms that a biographer of Baudelaire’s had commented on the latter’s discovery of Edgar Allan Poe. What was it about Murilo Mendes that had impressed me so very particularly? His mystical humanism. Among his aphorisms, one seems to be especially inspired and remarkable: ‘It is difficult to be a Christian without first having been a pagan or a Jew.’ Through Murilo Mendes I was two years later afforded contact with the adamantine style of the 13th chapter of the first Epistle to the Corinthians. . . . Anybody who is familiar with my creative activity as a whole . . . has probably noticed how often events of international politics have run parallel to what I was writing at the time. This is a sign that I have never yielded to the myth of the ivory tower and that I have above all wanted to be a human being. May I be allowed to recall in this connection that the manuscript of the Preghiere shows a date in the margin: ‘Berkeley, 21 October 1962.’ It was a Sunday: that Sunday on which President Kennedy made the speech on television that ushered in the week that will go down in history as ‘Cuban Week.’”

Carter, Berio, and the “Events” of 1968

By David Schiff

Written for the concert Music of the 1960s, performed on January 17, 1999 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

Anyone looking for the musical Zeitgeist of the 1960s (the long 1960s, which extended from Kennedy’s election through Nixon’s resignation) would turn first to the popular songs of that decade, then to jazz and the movies–and might ignore classical music altogether. “We Shall Overcome,” “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “Dancing in the Street,” “The Sound of Silence,” “Respect,” “All You Need Is Love,” “Satisfaction,” “Say it Loud”–just to mention those titles immediately invokes the Civil Rights movement, the Free Speech movement, the Watts riots, SDS, the summer of love, the Chicago convention, Attica, Kent State, and a numbing series of assassinations. Classical music seemed out of touch with the riptide of history. The avant-garde movements of the 1950s, abstract painting, absurdist drama and atonal music may have sewn the seeds of the coming revolution, but in the face of actual events advanced music in particular seemed apolitical and obscure. The 1950s’ avant-garde, piously devoted to the ideals of high art, made revolution from the top down; the politics of the 1960s came up from the streets. With the possible exception of Terry Riley’s In C, no piece of classical music served as an anthem of the period the way Rhapsody in Blue did in the 1920s or Fanfare for the Common Man did in the 1940s, and the work that tried to capture the age most directly, Bernstein’s Mass, met with, and continues to have, a very mixed reception. But classical works often reveal their relevance slowly, as their historical context becomes clearer, and as they begin to be well performed which often takes may years after their premieres. Today Berio’s Sinfonia and Carter’s Concerto for Orchestra, both commissioned for the 125th Anniversary of the New York Philharmonic, are just emerging as powerful representations of their time.

Because the two works and their composers seem to be so different in character, I would like to point out their similarities.

Vanguard roots. Both Carter and Berio were shaped by the hothouse world of the European post-Webern avant-garde, though both also maintained an individuality of national background and temperament. Carter had already built his own advanced style around 1950 by rejecting neo-classicism and re-exploring the ideas of the American ultra-modernists; Ives, Cowell, Crawford and Nancarrow. His String Quartet No.2 (1959) and Double Concerto (1961) fused American ultramodernist ideas with some of the latest developments in Europe, especially the primacy of rhythm and percussion, the possibilities of stereophony, and the development of new kinds of musical textures. Berio, seventeen years younger than Carter, was closer in style to the concerns of the vanguard leaders, Stockhausen and Boulex, but quite early his music revealed his theatrical sensibility abetted by the extraordinary performance presence of Cathy Berberian, the American singer to whom Berio was married at the time. Where Carter’s use of his own means of tonal organization rather than serialism distanced him from the vanguard consensus, the hard core also dismissed such works of Berio as Circles (1960) and Epifanie (1961), both written for Berberian, as updated Puccini. Their individualism, however, allowed both composers to react to the events of the late 60s when the abstract language of the post-Webern school had become exhausted.

Transatlanticism. The Italian Berio, spent much of the 1960s in America, teaching at Mills College and Juilliard, but with residencies in Paris and Berlin as well. The American Carter spent much of the 1960s in Europe (in fact he led a transatlantic existence from early boyhood) , composing his Piano Concerto in Berlin and the Concerto for Orchestra in Italy. Berio’s score contains English text for performance by the American-style scat singing of the Belgian Swingle Singers; Carter’s score is based on a French poem about America.

The events. Both Berio’s Sinfonia and Carters’s Concerto for Orchestra explicitly reflect political events of the late 60s, although neither composer presented their works as agitprop and both situated their politics within rigorously modernist structures. The second movement of the Berio is an homage to Martin Luther King, written in 1967 before Dr. King was murdered, which uses the sounds of his name as a source of timbre, while the third movement quotes revolutionary graffiti from the Paris student uprising of May 1968; these quotes, however, are scattered amongst other words derived from Samuel Beckett. Carter presents American events of the late 1960s in a similarly masked way. He has written that the Concerto was based on the poem “Vents”, a Whitmanesque vision of winds sweeping across the American continent by the French poet St. John Perse. The French text allowed Carter to give his own gloss on “Blowin’in the Wind” with a musical depiction of the disintegration of old forms and arrival of new forces with vivid tone colors that at least one critic at the time dubbed “psychedelic.” At the center of the Concerto, morevoer, a lone prophet, speaking through the sound of a solo tuba, articulates a dream which seems to release the surging energy that drives the piece to its conclusion; Dr. King seems present here as well.

Symphonic ghosts. Both works are haunted by the spirit of symphonies past. Berio builds his astonishing third movement on the third movement of Mahler’s symphony No. 2, which seems to be played from beginning to end (Berio has written that the Mahler is like a river which flows underground and then suddenly comes to the surface) while musical and verbal fragments are piled on top with great acuity and wit–listen for the interchanges between Der Rosenkavalier and La valse, and between early and late Stravinsky. Although Berio has described this movement in sturcturalist terms, its Mahlerian ghost imposes its own agenda; it seems no accident that the homage to Dr. King is followed by a movement that Mahler based on his own song, “St. Anthony’s Fish-sermon,” where the saint, ignored by mankind, preaches to the fish, who are just as incorrigible as humans. Carter’s Concerto has its own familiar spirit, the Third Symphony of Roy Harris, the archetypical Great American Symphony of the thirties. We hear Harris in the pious cellos of the first movement, the woodwind arabesques of the second, the dramatic timpani solos of the third and the brass chorales of the fourth–though Carter pulverizes all of these images and treats them with a subversive humor. The dialogue of European modernism and an older vocabulary of Americana recalls the WPA roots of abstract expressionism.

Cinematic techniques. The third movement of Berio’s Sinfonia and all of Carter’s Concerto present the events of the late 1960s with the musical equivalent of cinematic montage with constant jump cuts. Both present the “contemporary” in an image of complex multi-layered disorder, which, however, is controlled by underlying structural principles. In Berio’s case the idea of “structure” is explicitly invoked through text from the structuralist anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss. The music wants to de-familiarize sounds , whether they are the syllables of Dr. King’s name or the musical and literary quotations, to reveal an underlying structural pattern of binary oppositions akin to the structural diagrams in Levi-Strauss’s writings. In the Carter, a huge rhythmic pattern based on four simultaneous pulses establishes structural control over a flickering series of brief episodes. In their evocative gestures and dramatic manipulation of musical references, both composers seem to be looking toward a post-modernist, post-structuralist view of events, and yet refuse to cross into the terrain of free-floating signifiers.

Leonard Bernstein. Both works were commissioned by the New York Philharmonic and are dedicated to its Music Director Leonard Bernstein, and both contain homages to Bernstein. Berio’s interest in Mahler’s Symphony #2 sprang from hearing Bernstein’s recording. The Americana elements in Carter’s Concerto connect the work with the Copland-Harris-Schuman line which Bernstein championed, and Bernstein’s recording of the Concerto brings out this aspect of the work more clearly than those by Oliver Knussen and Michael Gielen, although these more recent recordings are more accurate technically. Bernstein did not conduct the Berio with the Philharmonic–the composer did– and never recorded it. His successor, Pierre Boulez, would champion both the Berio and the Carter. Bernstein, who never recorded any music by Schoenberg, Webern or Varese, programmed avant-garde works at the Philharmonic in the 1964-65 season, but made no effort to hide his mixed feelings. His own works at the time, Mass and the Harvard Lectures, rejected the vanguard in favor of tonality (which Bernstein defended with his own brand of structuralism, derived from the linguistics of Noam Chomsky) and a new (or at least revived) romanticisim. Whether Bernstein’s position was anti-modern or post-modern (and whether any of these terms stands up to scrutiny) is for historians to decide. But both the Sinfonia and the Concerto for Orchestra owe their existence to Bernstein’s commissions, and to some extent, his spirit as well.

Music of the 1960s

By Leon Botstein

Written for the concert Music of the 1960s, performed on January 17, 1999 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

Since the eighteenth century, it has been customary for scholars and critics to try to understand history in terms of discrete periods about which large generalizations may be made– the Age of Enlightenment, the Gilded Age, the Roaring Twenties, etc. Such periodization is a dangerous enterprise. The telling details of the past are often subsumed, and the complexities and cross-currents of life are obscured by the reductive effort to render the chaotic coherent. Too often, we characterize the past in general terms which are germane to our attempt to explain our own times. As the German writer Friedrich Schlegel aptly observed, historians are often prophets in retrospect.

When we look back at the 1960s from our present perspective at the end of the century, we tend to explain that turbulent decade using evidence which we believe was decisive to the historical participants of the time. We instantly envision, as David Schiff rightly points out, a limited number of scenes from what time has judged to be the most memorable phenomena: student protest, the Viet Nam war, the civil rights movement, generation gaps, sexual liberation, the Beatles, the counter-culture. The 1960s, especially for those who actually lived through them, seems to have been an utterly unprecedented historical era–a watershed comprised of pivotal moments of social change and revolution. But how do we judge this watershed? Among the most important assessments at the time was a tract called The Greening of America (1970) by Charles Reich, a utopian mishmash of predictions, none of which have turned out to be accurate and which are now buried as mere memory as is the book itself. This is not to say that the decade’s euphoria and enthusiasms did not leave their permanent residue on manners, mores, and beliefs. But a confident belief in the positive revolutionary consequences of 1960s’ culture is no more convincing than the tiresome neo-conservative argument of a perfect world in the 1950’s, ruined by the subsequent decade. The modern agenda of cultural conservatism is very much driven by the tacit acceptance of the view that the 1960s were indeed a transformative decade whose influence must be reversed in order to restore American culture to health.

As the distinctiveness (or lack thereof) and legacy (if there is one) of the 1960s continues to be debated as myth and as history, there is little doubt that whatever revision takes place, the visual and musical symbols of that decade are fixed in our memories. But as the meaning of these symbols are contested by accounts that now search for continuities from the 1950s to the 1960s, and as we currently struggle over values, religion, and politics, we may do well to ask what the concert music of that period can tell us . If indeed there is a consistency that lies below the surface of all this apparent revolution, what does the orchestral music of that era reveal that the dominant popular culture, or journalism, or emblematic clichés and video clips can not?

Our first instinct might be to say that the music on this program represents how marginal concert music became at that time, when it was eclipsed by popular music and culture. The 1960s, however, was a remarkably vibrant time for concert music. It saw the triumph of American artists such as Leonard Bernstein and Isaac Stern, who were in their prime, while at the same time, the older pre-war generation of European masters were still active. The long-playing record and new stereophonic technology captured a larger mass-audience than ever before. No doubt there were rumblings about the obsolescence of the orchestra and acoustic concerts as old-fashioned, but the debate about the future of music was a debate about something vital and ongoing–not a nostalgic or conservative quarrel about a dying art form in need of resuscitation.

The composers on today’s program believed that writing concert music in the high art tradition was an important task with clear political and cultural overtones. All of these composers lived through the debates over modernism in music of the mid-twentieth century, when lines were sharply drawn. For them, disciplined modernism was an unequivocal resistance to fascism and tyranny. Today, some revisionists would like us to see hidden affinities between Schoenberg (and his advocates) and autocracy, rigidity, and inhuman abstraction. But during the 1960s, the complex and revolutionary sounding modernism evident in much of today’s music, was highly regarded and respected. Even Aaron Copland and Igor Stravinsky found themselves drawn to a more aggressive modernism during this decade. For them, modernist music embodied a progressive, triumphant reply to the charges of degeneracy and disfigurement of beauty articulated at length by followers of Hitler and Stalin. The 1960s, after all, were close in time (indeed, closer than we are to the 1960s) to the 1948 Zhdanov decrees (Stalin’s condemnation of modernism) and the cultural politics of Nazi Germany. The historical memories of this afternoon’s composers encompassed an earlier, very different time from the decade in which they produced their greatest works. This is especially true of Luigi Dallapiccola, who witnessed the close collaboration of conservative Italian composers with Mussolini.

In Europe, the political and aesthetic radicalism of post-1945 clearly expressed a desire to cleanse Europe of its past evils, the mass destruction of World War II. In America, this link between politics and art was not as clear and convincing. One reason that modernism–even as represented by Elliott Carter–seems stronger in Europe than in the United States is because American audiences did not necessarily hear in twentieth-century modernism the same echoes of liberation and spiritual freedom. They did not as urgently perceive the necessity for a break from the tempting and dangerous connotations of post-Wagnerian Romanticism. Modernism to American ears seemed arbitrary, obscure, and alienating in its highbrow complexity and incomprehensibility. American audiences’ response to 1960s concert music revealed that the historically powerful connection between progressive art and progressive politics was in the American consciousness tenuous at best. In contrast, for Witold Lutoslawski, modernism was a sign of the victory of Polish national identity over Stalinist domination. Modernism in Polish music flourished after the successful confrontation between Gomulka and the Soviets in 1956. Poland became the scene of the most progressive art-making in the visual and performing arts within the Soviet block and a powerful link between east and west. His music may have struck some American hearers as cerebral and abstract, but for him detachment was hardly the point.

The turning of the tide which marks the end of modernism’s moment in the center stage of the twentieth century is audible in Luciano Berio’s self-conscious Sinfonia, even though it is entirely contemporaneous with Elliott Carter’s magisterial revelation of the power of modernism in his Concerto. All these works are not just about music, but explicitly about politics and history. Far from being abstract or cerebral, they have an intense commitment, and it is precisely the emotional intensity, economy, and elegance of the music that can be appreciated without anxiety thirty years later. A conventional bit of wisdom inherited from Samuel Johnson–that artistic greatness is a test of the ages–is perhaps most true for music which in its own time was acknowledged, respected, but not entirely loved. What the music on this program tells us about the 1960s, which rock music, television shows, political events, and the familiar icons do not, is the enormous and ironic debt the 1960s had to the very past it was trying to wipe out, to the power of historical continuities as opposed to ephemeral surface changes. All the innovations we are prone to recall about the 1960s were dependent on and played out within a context of powerful and convincing modernist enthusiasm, not only in music but in painting, literature, poetry, and architecture. History is not about victors but about the restoration of memory.

Future generations may, when they write about the 1960s, begin to recognize the traditions audible in today’s concert as characteristic of a decade whose revolution was founded on the knowledge that the inventive imagination can offer a critical response to the past that does not descend into nostalgia. The 1960s were about the confidence to change, destroy, build anew–to clean house so to speak. Whether that actually happened or not is irrelevant. But the confidence is diametrically opposed to the nostalgia and insecurity that marks our current adulation of idealized moments in the past, rife with sentiments which suggest that the past is better than the present and that the future will be worse, and that the best we can do particularly in music is be pale imitators of glorious days gone by. The composers of this program fought the politics of the past through the notion that the art associated with it needed to be set aside and a more just present needed to be created which possessed its own unique aesthetic signature. They believed that the musicians of their own day were in a position to improve on past traditions. Our current sensibilities seem strikingly different and quite the reverse. At the end of the century, culture seems more than comfortable with evocative sentimentality. The modernist composers on today’s program struggled to replace sentimental reflection with action, and offer their listeners the sense of elation that accompanies a transcendence of familiar expectations and complacency.

Music of the 1960s

01/17/1999 at 08:00 PM – Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center

    Concert Notes