R.I.P. Milwaukee

Not so long ago, Tom Strini of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel attempted something admirable—to give concertgoers a brief rundown of musical history so that they wouldn’t be intimidated by the average concert program’s historical baggage. He gives us a few sentences about the main developments of each era, puts them in perspective (via extra-musical events), then lists a few composers of note. Sounds great. Sure. Fine. He even gives us a smart sounding quip so that during intermission (you know, after the Rachmaninov and before the Brahms) we too can hobnob with the white-haired snobs with ease. Presto! I’m an expert. Thanks Strini.

Unfortunately, he runs a red light and his good-natured manual gets blindsided by a hazardous materials rig. And again, the modernists get burned.


RIP. Poor fellow. Lived only 63 years. Didn’t like him much, though.

In intellectual circles, the tonal system, like God, is dead.

God is dead in intellectual circles. Like the tonal system. Dead. Both of them. They’re both dead. In intellectual circles.

Pulsation and consonance die with it.

With...? The tonal system or God? In intellectual circles: four dead. Six, if you count God as three.

Composers seize on a new intellectual framework (Serialism) or rely on intuition (Impressionism, Expressionism).

Serialist: (bursts into board room) Put your hands up! This is a robbery! We’re taking all the serialism.
Board Member: That seems unfair. What does that leave us?
Serialist: Intuition.

Schoenberg dreams up Serialism in 1911.

1923, jerk. If you really want to have a debate, you'd lose, because it's 1923. Not 1911. When he dreams it up. In 1911, which is wrong. Because it's 1923. Jerk.

This brainy, chilly approach becomes the only intellectually respectable method in Western art music until the 1970’s.

Key figures: Babbitt, Berg, Schoenberg, Webern, (Serialism); Debussy, Satie, Ravel (Impressionism); Bartok, Shostakovich, Stravinsky, Varese (Expressionism); Barber, Copland, Sibelius, Walton, Vaughn Williams (contrarian Neo-Romantics).

Wow. Seriously, come to think of it, I can’t name one piece from 1911 to 1974 that has tonality, pulsation or consonance. I can’t even name one that has religious overtones. Jesus, he’s right! Modernism did kill God.

Babbitt (mostly twelve-tone)
A Solo Requiem (1977)
From the Psalter (2002)

Schoenberg (half twelve-tone)
Kol Nidre (1938)
Prelude to “Genesis” (1945)
Psalm 130 “De Profundis” (1950)
Modern Psalm (1950, unfinished)
Moses und Aaron (1930/32, unfinished)

Webern (two-thirds twelve-tone)
Op. 15, Five Sacred Songs (1917-22)
Op. 16, Five Canons on Latin Texts (1923-24)
Op. 18, Three Songs (1925)

Debussy (tonal)
The Martyrdom of Saint Sebastien (1911)

Ravel (tonal)
Saint Francois d’Assise (1909-10, lost)

Stravinky (tonal, more often than not)
The Flood (1962)
Credo (1932)
Symphony of Psalms (1930, rev. 1948)
Ave Maria (1934)
Babel (1944)
Mass (1944-48)
Canticum Sacrum (1955)
A Sermon, a Narrative, a Prayer (1961)
Abraham and Issac (1963)
Introitus (1965)
Requiem Canticles (1966)

Varese (not tonal)
La Procession de Verges (1955)

Barber (mostly tonal)
Prayers of Kierkegaard (1954)
Wondrous Love: Variations on a Shape-note Hymn (1958)
God’s Grandeur (1938)

William Walton (completely tonal)
Te Deum (1961)
Gloria (1961)
Anglican service music, including Missa Brevis and Jubilate Deo (1972)
Set me as a seal upon thine heart (1938)
Cantico del sole (1974)

Vaughn Williams (completely tonal)
The Pilgrim’s Progress (1909-51)
Job, a masque for dancing (1930)
Mass in G minor (1922)
Sancta Civitas (1923-25)
Te Deum (1928)
Benedicte (1929)
Magnificat (1932)
Dona Nobis Pacem (1936)
Festival Te Deum (1937)
Hodie (1954)

Remember, Strini doesn’t cite Ives or Messaien, whose entire catalogues are filled with God music! But he does cite Walton, Vaughn Williams and Barber?!? I’m not an expert here, but, I don’t think just anyone gets knighted by the queen, or buried in Westminster Abbey, or wins two Pulitzer Prizes (at least while alive, anyway) by writing music with an unaccepted method.

And now, perspective...


In intellectual circles, the tonal system, like God is dead. Pulsation and consonance die with it. Composers seize on a new intellectual framework (Serialism) or rely on intuition (Impressionism, Expressionism). Schoenberg dreams up Serialism in 1911. This brainy, chilly approach becomes the only intellectually respectable method in Western art music until the 1970s.

Key figures: Babbitt, Berg, Schoenberg, Webern, (Serialism); Debussy, Satie, Ravel (Impressionism); Bartok, Shostakovich, Stravinsky, Varese (Expressionism); Barber, Copland, Sibelius, Walton, Vaughn Williams (contrarian Neo-Romantics).

To sum up Strini’s viewpoint: Modernism consists of intellectuals concerned with intellectual compositional systems, so much so that other composers were silenced, like God, who were not intellectuals. They used intuition instead.

Or put another way: Serialism killed everything anyone ever liked about music.

Or another: Schoenberg, and everyone else who bought into his load of crap, is the devil, because he killed God.

Or another: Intellect—bad.

Let me just say this, that serialism is merely a technique to achieve one’s compositional goal. Nothing more, nothing less. In fact, serialism is sudoku. Simple. A technique. A puzzle. It has very little to do with the outcome, or sound. Christ! Schoenberg’s music, to some (including me), sounds Romantic in nature. This stems from an organizational principle he borrowed from Brahms (a Romantic composer), “developing variation” (a technique). Impressionism and Expressionism, on the other hand, are philosophical movements. Philosophical goddamned movements are not wedded to particular techniques but have a generally similar outcome.

Fuck these writers who think that serialism, or Schoenberg, ruined it for the rest. Webern was relatively unknown during his lifetime. Schoenberg struggled to get performances; he was more of a teacher. Berg, the other in that holy trinity, was the only one to get some notoriety (for a partial performance of Wozzeck). Boulez is known more as a conductor (only a few pieces have made into the history books). Babbitt is a relative hermit. Carter is finally getting some recognition (he’s 100 years old). Who’s even heard of Wolpe, Krenek, Martino, Searle, Sessions or Wourinen? On the flip side, who hasn’t heard of Berstein, Copland, Barber, Hindemith, Vaughn Williams, Holst, Gershwin and Orff? Hipocracy, see?

For that matter, what about all of the other techniques that popped up between “1911 and 1974’? Micropolyphony, microtonality, set-theory, spectral music, indeterminate music, chance, Eastern-influenced, electronic music, etc.? Do they get to participate, Strini? Don't feed me (or anyone else for that matter) this stupid bullshit about how Schoenberg and his "disciples" turned gasoline into goat piss. Tonality, or pretty music, or accessible music, or whatever you want to call it, never really died. It survived. It won awards. People listened. So, that "ivory tower" turns out to be nothing more than an attempt to hide your ignorance. The irony is that you never had to like "atonal" music in the first place. By constructing an "intellectual" wall, you cut yourself off from logical argument, rationalization, objectivity, etc.

For better or worse, as I see it, there is only one common element that binds everyone from this period: a freedom to stay the same or change. Some stayed the same, and some changed (experimented). Schoenberg, to his credit, was merely the straw that stirred the glass. Or, if you prefer, Debussy (whose most famous works were written well before 1911). Change happens.

Grand Finale:

Smart remark: “Modernism had two general streams, one essentially French, sunny and sensual. The other was essentially German, dark and ascetic. It took 60 years, but the French, for once, won.”

“Modernist” American Composers not cited, making this statement utterly absurd:

Charles Ives
Herny Cowell
Harry Partch
Ruth Crawford Seeger
Goerge Antheil
Walter Piston
Amy Beach
Leonard Bernstein
John Cage
Elliot Carter
Lou Harrison
Alan Hovhaness
Roger Sessions
Ralph Shapey
James Tenney
Morton Feldman
Earle Brown
Christian Wolff
Cornelius Cardew
Mario Davidovsky
Lukas Foss
Roy Harris
Ben Johnston
Gian Carlo Menotti (Italian-born)
Conlon Nancarrow (lived in Mexico)
Vincent Persichetti
Gunther Schuller
Joseph Schwantner
Virgil Thompson
Carl Ruggles
William Schuman

Other Nationalities:

Zoltan Kodaly (Hungarian)
Gyorgy Ligeti (Hungarian)
Luciano Berio (Italian)
Luigi Dallapiccola (Italian)
Carlos Chavez (Mexican)
Manuel de Falla (Spanish)
Witold Luoslawski (Polish)
Krzysztof Penderecki (Polish)
Luigi Nono (Italian)
Iannis Xenakis (Romanian-Greek)
Sergei Prokofiev (Russian)
Benjamin Britten (English)
Michael Tippet (English)

etc., etc., etc.

So, if you go up to one of the aged white-haired orchestra patrons and repeated Strini’s wity ice-breaker as if you were an expert...


RIP. Poor fellow. Only thirty-four years old. What a shame. And to go like that. Shoulda seen it coming. Didn’t like him much, though.


Empiricus said...

By the way, Schoenberg called himself an Expressionist. And Satie was closely related to DaDaism. Strini. You jerk.

Sator Arepo said...

Excellent post, sir. However, Fuck Joseph Schwantner.

Sator Arepo, Tenet Opera Rotas

Aaron said...

Well, I'd never heard of Strini, poor bastard, but now I've laughed at him (and with you). So his work wasn't wasted.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your championing of modernist classical/art/whatever-it-is music. I suffer from the same malady I read between the lines (and also, actually in the lines) of your posts - that is, the exhaustion of defending experimental composers and other artists from the knee-jerk purists and traditionalists. It's dead tiresome trying to explain how Cage and Schoenberg can be beautiful, even kind of naively so, rather than the overly intellectual rapists of art they are often made out to be.

Anonymous said...

Actually, I kinda like Schoenberg. I really like Berg. I also like your blog, even if you did pick on me once. You guys are pretty funny.--Strini