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Webern during the 1920’s kept refining his style into what Pierre Boulez calls “a new manner of musical being”. Webern, he says, “was the first to explore the possibilities of a dialectic of sound and silence”, with silences as integral parts of the rhythmic cells. Webern also evolved a new structure of pitches, rethinking “the very idea of polyphonic music on the basis of the principles of serial writing”.

Where Schoenberg and Berg could never discard romanticism, Webern was the one member of the so-called Second Viennese School who worked in pure tonal organization, rejecting completely the romantic rhetoric. It could be said that there was no rhetoric at all. So condensed was the writing that a piece might last only a few minutes, and every once in a while under a minute.

Boulez claims that in Webern’s mature works, between 1927 and 1934 (including the Symphony) “each sound becomes a phenomenon in itself, linked to the others … he aerates his positionings in time and space as well as in their instrumental context”. Instrumentation itself takes on a structural function.

The transition from serial music to totally organized music might have come earlier had not the Nazis and seven years of war intervened. Webern was forced to live in obscurity, doing editorial work for Universal Edition. He was accidentally shot and killed in Mittersill during the night of September 14, 1945, by a trigger-happy American soldier who was working on a black market case in which Webern’s son-in-law was involved.

(Harold C. Schonberg, The Lives of the Great Composers, Volume Two)

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Arnold Schoenberg’s fascination with numerology, and the fact that he was a superstitious bastard, led to his morbid obsession with the number 13. Born in 1874 on 13 September, he believed that the number 13 would also play a part in his death. Because the numerals seven and six add up to 13, Schoenberg was convinced that his 76th year would mark the end of his life. Checking the calendar for 1951, he saw to his horror that 13 July fell on a Friday. When that day came, he kept to his bed in an effort to reduce the chance of an accident. Shortly before midnight, his wife entered the bedroom to say good night and to reassure him that his fears had been foolish, whereupon, Schoenberg gasped the word “harmony” and expired.

The time of his death was 23:47, 13 minutes before midnight, on Friday 13 July, in his 76th year.

Well, he was a pupil of Arnold Schoenberg, the biggest fucking musical charlatan of the 20th century, so something must have rubbed off on him.

The word for Cage’s compositional practice is apparently, I’m told by various dullards who bother about these kind of things, “indeterminacy”, “aleatory” being a dirty European word (coined by loser Pierre Boulez) describing a European concept of having some chance elements inside a determined structure. (In this, it is not much different from any piece, ever, as there are always little things different in each performance of each piece. That goes for each playing of a fixed recording, too.)

Indeterminacy, on the other hand, is about finding ways to let go of control, finding ways to bypass one’s own tastes and desires (this goes for performers as well as composers, hence the distinction Cage always made between indeterminacy and improvisation). Aleatory basically leaves the whole Western art tradition intact, leaves the audience still in the position of admiring “works”. Indeterminacy, briefly, overturns the tradition, inviting the audience to take more responsibility for their enjoyment, inviting the audience to become more aware of, if not even enjoy, the sights and sounds of everyday life.

Superficially, they all seem similar, aleatory, improvisation, indeterminacy. But they really are all three quite distinct.

In conclusion, therefore, Arnold Schoenberg was an arse and John Cage was an arse.

Oh come on, seriously, how often do you think, “Where’s that John Cage tape I made in 1972 … I really want to listen to it now” or “Let’s put on Alfred Brendel’s recording of Schoenberg’s Piano Concerto and fuck like crazed weasels”?

(Taken from Arnold Schoenberg: Letters, ed. Erwin Stein, trans. Eithne Wilkins & Ernst Kaiser)

Vienna, 2 August, 1910

My dear Herr Direktor

I can scarcely tell you how awful it is for me to have to write this letter to you of all people. But you cannot imagine what impossible things I have tried, but also what possible ones, and it was all no use. I am really in a position of desperate need, otherwise I could never have brought myself to write this. And the fact that last year you offered me this does more to stop me than to encourage me.

The fact is that I have no money and have to pay the rent. It was doubtless very rash of me to take a larger flat when I was earning less. But there are many circumstances tending to excuse me, disappointments of hopes that were so near fulfilment that anyone would have counted on it, and such things. So I must beg you to lend me from 300 to 400 guilders. I shall quite certainly be able to pay it back next year when I am at the Conservatory.

I cannot tell you how unhappy it makes me to have to tarnish my relationship to you by bringing up such a matter. And I must say: I should not have done it on my own behalf; I can get over such a thing all right. But when one has a wife and children one is no longer the only person who counts.

May I ask you to telegraph letting me know whether you can grant my request. And – if it is not asking too much – if you can help me, if possible to telegraph the money or at least send it express.

I earnestly ask you not be angry. And I have only one wish: that your attitude to me will not be unfavourably influenced by this.

Hoping to have news soon,

I am, as ever, your devoted

Arnold Schönberg

(Originally published in the Grauniad on 7 April 1971)

Igor Stravinsky has died in New York at the age of 88. It was obvious half a century ago that his three early Diaghilev ballets – “Firebird”, “Petrushka” and “Rite of Spring” – were classics, but instead of resting on that unique achievement he ranged wider in search of new fields to conquer. He lived long enough to see his many stylistic experiments justified. In his eighties he remained more consistently creative than any other great composer before him, even Verdi. On his last visit to London he was tackled on his age. “Me? Old?” he snapped in mock irritation. “I just live. It is not my fault that I do not die.”

That was the characteristic of his eternally youthful approach to music and musicians. There was a chameleon quality in his ability to soak in influences from any and every source around him, even in Hollywood, where he lived during old age. Critics of the twenties and thirties saw in this characteristic a sign of declining powers, but what over the last generation has become more obvious was that his own personality triumphed unfailingly over any deliberate eclecticism. Even when he turned circle, and adopted serialism as a composition method (in his seventies) the results were always immediately recognisable for their unmistakable Stravinsky flavour.

History will probably decide that Igor Stravinsky was the most influential composer and also the greatest of the twentieth century thus far. Wagner in “Tristan and Isolde” may have foreshadowed the harmonic anarchy which would lead to Schoenberg’s twelve-note system and the whole world of serialism, but in “The Rite of Spring” Stravinsky liberated rhythm with such barbaric splendour that no musician from Debussy onwards (not even Mick Jagger dare we suggest) would have been quite the same without him.

In a sense Stravinsky was the first truly “modern” composer. He made a great deal of money out of music. He conducted most of his major works in the recording studio convinced that future generations would want to play them, and determined there should be none of the interpretative squabble which sometimes surround the great masters of past centuries. He was a gawky, birdlike figure on the rostrum, but a compelling one, as several generations of orchestral players and concertgoers in Britain remember. Almost to the last, he remained a cosmopolitan, a globe-trotter, and indeed some thought that his spiritual homelessness ever since the Russian Revolution was part of his musical essence.

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I think it is a fairly established view that although Schoenberg was the developer of serialism, others soon surpassed him as far as innovation goes, and Schoenberg is paradoxically one of the most influential and best known or notorious modern composers, yet his compositions are little known or played (but thoroughly analyzed scholarly). Personally I prefer his pre-serialist atonal expressionist period as in Pierrot Lunaire with the hilarious “Sprechgesang”. As far as serialism goes, I am more inclined to listen to Webern and Stravinsky, not to mention Stockhausen’s particular spatial electronic serialism and Ligeti’s micropolyphony, both somehow emerging from serialism.

Personally I think Schoenberg should have resisted the Germanic cultural impulse to systematize and bring “Ordnung” out of the Expressionist chaos.

I mean, I understand the impulse, but I remain somewhat sceptical of it. A composer of immense power like Karl Amadeus Hartmann evolved more out of the pre-dodecaphonic Schoenberg than from the “12-tone method”. So too did Alban Berg. Early Hindemith also shows the possibilities.

But allow me to contradict myself! I still like the Piano Concerto and the Violin Concerto is a fun work, not to mention Moses und Aron, and I can with difficulty agree that the 12-tone method allows you to sound Expressionist, and yet allow you to show some sense behind the sound.

The deeper question is: does it matter if you can show the sense behind the sound, if the finished product is … frankly … dull?

Pierre Boulez described him as an heroic failure. There’s a lot of truth in that description and it pretty much applies to Boulez the composer, too.

Unlike Boulez, however, Schoenberg was a very great man, a bona fide genius, and did something that absolutely had to be done. It took stupendous talent, courage, and strength of mind, and because of all this his life was blighted … such a very lonely path that met with incredulity and contempt.

His output is very mixed I think (I say that humbly) but there are magnificent things of the highest order.

Outside the music of the Second Viennese School, whose works are of course central, some other pieces are particularly special to me, though I don’t claim great things for all of them, necessarily. Here are just three of them.

Somewhere near the very top of the list come the three sets of Greek Lyrics by Dallapiccola, I think. Actually they are one of my favourite things in music full stop. Think of Webern’s concision and structural perfection and combine it with a delicate, refined Mediterranean lyricism (these are settings of ancient Greek poems). Few such exquisite pieces have come from any century and any style.

A surprise entry, really pretty obscure, is the Op. 15 Klavierstucke by Hanns Jelinek. I just love these works, though they aren’t at all barnstorming masterpieces. They were the first twelve-tone pieces I knew very well as a teenager, and are full of imagination, wit and fun. The work is divided into five books, each containing a number of pieces; Book I is four two-part inventions; Book II is five character pieces; Book III is three toccatas (including a Toccata Funebre for Berg, with some Wozzeck quotations); Book IV is three dance movements (including an utterly beautiful Sarabande, and a March clearly inspired by the Landsknecht number from Schoenberg’s male part songs) and Book V is a Suite in E major, including among other things a Bachian Prelude , a Siciliana which reminds me of Mozart a little, a jazzy Musette and an Epilogue which is an hommage to Debussy “d’un dodecaphoniste vienoise”. Each book uses the row in ever more advanced ways, until in Book V there is note repetition, free transposition and so on.

Forever linked to the Second Viennese composers in my mind will be Hugh Wood, who took a series of seminars on them when I was at Cambridge which I will never forget – truly moving occasions.

Hugh Wood is an archetypal northerner (he’s from Lancashire), bluff, down-to-earth, but he is at heart a late flourishing member of that set of post-Second Viennese composers that included Gerhard, Dallapiccola, Eisler and so on, and the eloquence and emotion with which he gave his last talk, on these three composers and their various fates, was particularly beautiful; and then he pulled out a bottle of champagne and we sat drinking, more or less, to these great musicians.

I love Wood’s three concerti, and particularly his Piano Concerto, which shows how much fun twelve-tone music can be, and is dedicated to gorgeous pouting Joanna MacGregor. It also has an admirably clear form. The first movement is springy, athletic and purely atonal. Its rhythmic vitality is infectious. The second movement, in complete contrast, is almost throughout vague, amorphous, delicate, utterly beautiful “late night” music. Gradually it takes shape, the contours and sonorities become clearer and the music is drawn ever-closer into the orbit of Sweet Lorraine, which is eventually quoted in sumptuous sound for just a few glorious seconds before a withdrawal is made. The movement is an attempt to bring together these two disparate worlds – it is for the most part a kind of twelve-tone rumba, almost, with the first movement’s vitality jazzed up a little. But there are tiny interludes, ever more magical ones, wonderfully orchestrated with soulful oboe or trumpet solos over pattering tom-toms, which although they only take up a few seconds in total, seem to contain the heart of this concerto.

A piece of music resembles in some respects a photograph album, displaying under changing circumstances the life of its basic idea – its basic motive.

(Arnold Schoenberg, Fundamentals of Musical Composition)

Here are some questions thrown at me by my young friend Melissa:

I think that many composers try to compose music that specifically and intentionally sounds “modern”. I wonder why they choose to do so. Isn’t it better to write music without trying to make it sound modern? What happened to purity of music and composition? Are they trying to copy the famous modern composers? Is it because they are incapable of finding their own distinctive style? Their music would be considered more “important” or “serious” because it sounds modern?

There could be many reasons but none of them seem convincing …

What would be the use of trying to sound like the old masters? Bach, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, etc., have already done their work far better than most could ever emulate. Therefore the only options for serious musicians are to strike out in new directions or to find another set of musical tools: Oriental or other Asian scales, African-influenced polyrhythms, asymmetric rhythms such as you find in Bulgaria, and so on. (I have yet to hear a composer successfully combine Native American and classical idioms, although I have heard of one in the early 20th century, not one I had ever heard of before.) Such music may offend a few new music diehards but it will secure future audiences who love not mere novelty, but music that is different than others have done, music that breaks old moulds and creates new ones.

I think it was Lutoslawski who said “I try to write the music that I’d like to hear”. For the most part, that’s what composers are doing.

Of course, if you’re a composer in the 21st century, you have a huge range of potential influences which will inflect your musical preferences and style. It’s hardly surprising if some of them are “modern” in nature. Some of them also aren’t, even for “modern” composers: I find it impossible to conceive of Carter finding his late style without Mozart and Haydn – they’re such a massive influence on it.

Speaking as a composer I can only say that I don’t try to make my music sound like anything other than what I want it to sound like. I don’t know any composers who would say otherwise.

The music a composer writes is simply the sum of all the music he’s ever listened to and enjoyed, hopefully with enough original ideas thrown in to give the resulting mix a distinctive stamp. So if I happen to enjoy modern music, I’m going to have to practice a lot of self-censorship to keep it out of the music I write.

I would add that even the music I don’t enjoy makes a contribution. This would make a good compositional exercise, and I can think of a few composers who ought to try it: take some piece of music that you don’t like. It doesn’t even have to be a modern piece, maybe Wagner or Schubert for instance. It just has to be something that you know a lot of musicians greatly admire but you don’t. Try to copy that music and change whatever it is about that music that you don’t like; make it so that some essential part of it is still there, but altered in such a way that it suits your temperament, altered in such a way that you can call it your own.

For instance, recently I found myself composing something with the spare textures of post-Webern serialism. Well, I hate post-Webern serialism, but somehow what I was writing called for that sound, so the task was to see how to achieve it and still own up to it as my music. I was pleased that the resulting music sounded so much like what I think of as “me” even though a listener will definitely say “R.A.D. you’ve been taking your Webern pills again”.

Miles Davis once said the only reason to write new music was to that you were dissatisfied with what currently exists. There is no possible artistic reason to write music today in the style of Mendelssohn or Brahms or Schoenberg. We already have Mendelssohn, Brahms & Schoenberg. A composer today has to meaningfully address the question of what it means to write new music in this tradition in 2010. The answer is not to throw out the last 100 years of composition (and “atonal” music is now that old). Composers must both acknowledge the tradition they inherit and not be bound by it. This is an increasingly difficult task for each generation of composers, as they have to digest and adapt to all that has come before them.

Black Dogs Defined

This is the best of me; for the rest, I ate, and drank, and slept, loved and hated, like another: my life was as the vapour and is not; but this I saw and knew; this, if anything of mine, is worth your memory.

(John Ruskin, Sesame and Lilies)

Whatever people say I am, that’s what I’m not.

(Alan Sillitoe, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning)

This is my letter to the world, that never wrote to me.

(Emily Dickinson, This is my letter to the world)

Safe upon the solid rock the ugly houses stand:
Come and see my shining palace built upon the sand!

(Edna St. Vincent Millay, Second Fig)

R.A.D. Stainforth

I was born before The Beatles’ first LP and brought up in the reeking slums of Jericho. I am in love with a woman called Hazel and in love with her daughter, also called Hazel, both of whom I met at Alcoholics Anonymous.

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