From the Last Century

By Leon Botstein

Written for the concert From the Last Century, performed on Oct 10, 2001 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

In keeping with this orchestra’s mission, first articulated by Leopold Stokowski, the American Symphony Orchestra seeks to challenge in its programming our conventional definition and appreciation of the concert repertory. The ASO does this in many ways, most especially by reviving certain unjustly forgotten works as well as composers from the past and by reconfiguring the context in which we hear works with which we are already quite familiar. In looking at a musical work’s relation to other forms of life such as politics, visual arts, literature, and history, we try to change the way we hear and think about music. In an era when most if not all of the concert audience can become familiar with music through recording, the live concert must assume new roles. One of them is to expand the range of mainstream musical expectations and inspire the audience to reflect on how music works and how it is a part of culture and history.

Tonight, in the season’s opening concert, we take a look at a century that has confused and troubled a large segment of the traditional audience for concerts. The exploration of the twentieth century as history is exciting since it is still such a new task. Each member of audience has had some direct experience with the musical currents of the twentieth century as new music. The intensity of the conflicts about the new music of the recent past, as well as about the shifts and countercurrents in style still linger. As the history of the twentieth century begins to be written, old scores are being settled as the achievements and dominant character of twentieth-century music are assessed and revised. Despite the all embracing and welcoming pluralism of the present moment, the modernism of half a century ago is frequently derided and attacked for its presumed share of responsibility in alienating the old audience and failing to attract a new one, thereby placing the great concert traditions of music at risk.

One senses already that there has been somewhat of an overreaction. That is the proposition that tonight’s concert explores. All of the works represented here are by mid-century composers influenced in one way or another by radical notions associated with twentieth-century musical modernism. It has often been said that modernism, a dominant movement that came of age in the early and mid twentieth century, was too abstract, difficult and cold. It was too arrogant and too intent on either scandalizing or ignoring the audience. It has been accused of disregard for any tradition or context around it. But now that modernism is no longer very modern, we have a new perspective from which to determine the truth of this view. As with any movement, the great and the mediocre flourish side by side. For every measure of music written by J.S. Bach, there are thousands of boring measures of Baroque music that sound sort of like his music. The situation is even more extreme when one compares Mozart to run-of-the-mill classical music or Mahler to many of his post-Wagnerian contemporaries. No doubt there was a lot of forgettable but competent modernist music. But before we throw the proverbial baby out with the bath water, we need to take a look at a group of composers and their music who may never have been given a real chance and now deserve a rehearing.

Each of the composers on tonight’s program wrote music with an intensity and a sense of necessity that are remarkable. From our new “Monday morning” vantage, we can gain a new appreciation of their voices, where they came from, and what they accomplished. For example, each of these composers fashioned an audible originality. Yet they actually were also strongly influenced by their immediate predecessors the founding modernists, particularly those of the second Viennese school, including Arnold Schoenberg, Alban Berg, and Anton von Webern. They did not find themselves drawn to modernism for mere stylistic or careerist reasons. The high point of modernism-from the late 1920s to the mid 1960s-occurred at a time when aesthetic choices were matters of fundamental social, political and ethical principle. Art meant more than entertainment. Gerhard studied with Schoenberg and Hartmann traveled to Vienna to take lessons from Webern. Luigi Dallapiccola dedicated Piccola musica notturna to Hermann Scherchen, a noted champion of radical modernism and a staunch anti-Fascist. Goffredo Petrassi is along with Dallapiccola one of the leading figures of the twentieth-century Italian avant-garde. His music is particularly admired by the leading living exponent of American musical modernism, Elliott Carter.

In a larger sense, the attraction these composers had to the modernist revolution reveals the connection each of them had to their environments. They all shared the conviction that musical expression in the twentieth century had to be adequate to the spirit of the times and therefore progressive. Their idea of progression was firmly grounded in an acute sensitivity to two contemporary stimuli. The first of these stimuli may be understood as the political and cultural realities of modernity. For artists born around the turn of the century, the political and cultural impetus behind any definition of musical style or means of expression was located in the trauma of World War I and in the reconfiguration of Europe in the aftermath of the Versailles Treaty. The emergence of Fascism and the enormous allure of Socialism and Communism coincided with deep uncertainties about the future of democracy and economic security. The Great Depression only further complicated a period of time in which an entire range of political engagement from ideological pacifism to virulent and aggressive nationalism constituted a definitive feature of the environment in which any artist worked. The modernists’ rejection of a surface Romantic expressiveness in music, their strong distaste for sentimentality and the bland, escapist sensibility of Puccini’s imitators and other traditional, conservative forms of music were political and ideological declarations against the tastes and culture of the corrupt society that had almost destroyed Europe.

When one considers the historical era not only in which these four composers came of age, but the years themselves in which the pieces on tonight’s program were written, the intense engagement of their music with the events of the past century becomes even plainer. With the exception of Dallapiccola’s work, all were composed during the 1940s. Two of them-the Coro di Morti and the Symphonic Hymns-speak directly to the horrific realities of World War II. But of all these composers, it is Dallapiccola, Italy’s most distinguished post-war, avant-garde figure, who be can most closely associated in his life and music with the political causes of freedom and justice. For him, as for the others on this program modernism in music went hand in hand with resistance to injustice and dictatorship. While Petrassi’s war time composition was performed close to the date of its creation, Hartmann’s, like much of his output, was a courageous, surreptitious expression of rage and despair that could and would only be heard in public many years later after the defeat of the Third Reich.

The second stimulus in the search for progressive expression in music derived from within the history of music itself. Since the days of Wagner, composers increasingly saw themselves as trapped in the shadow of history. They came to view their own achievements generationally; they were heirs to a lineage and legacy to which their own contemporaries in the concert audience were wedded. Such a view necessarily makes history a heavy burden, and young composers not surprisingly quickly developed a sense of the exhaustion of past models; they sought to create something new. But the conscious search for originality in an overt rejection of inherited models is really only a displaced reference to the past. Indeed, evocations of the history of music abound among the works on tonight’s program. Much of Gerhard’s Violin Concerto carries on a dialogue with previous violin concerti. Alongside quotations from Schoenberg, the startling virtuosity of the violin writing is an ironic encomium to the clichés and achievements of standard violin technique so familiar to concert-goers. Dallapiccola’s affectionate reference is obviously to Mozart. Petrassi evokes the tradition of Italian madrigal, while Hartmann looks back to Haydn and the traditions of Baroque composition.

It is the privilege of twenty-first century listeners to be able to leave the stereotypes of debate about twentieth-century modernism behind. As time passes and the context and legacy of these composers continue to crystallize, we can deepen our appreciation and newfound perception of their rich and thorough affection for musical tradition, and their sometimes personally risky engagement with the political and cultural events that surrounded them. It is time to rediscover the music of unfairly overlooked twentieth- century masters; the allure of the concert repertoire will only be enhanced. If contemporary audiences have come to love Shostakovich because of the riveting interaction of sound, allusion and emotion in his music, then the music of Petrassi, Gerhard, Dallapiccola and Hartmann should win new advocates in a new generation. These remarkable composers and their music remind us that the final word on twentieth-century modernism has not yet been uttered. As time passes they will be seen to share with Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Mahler, and Debussy an allegiance to the creation of complex musical forms as an indispensable part of the human capacity to seek redemption and express hope.