Wednesday, 15 January 2014

The BBC asks 'Who Killed Classical Music?' It will, if it carries on like this...

I am grateful – I think! – to Will Robin (his excellent blog may be found by clicking here) for having drawn to my attention the following programme description. Though I can make no comment whatsoever on the programme itself, given that it has yet to be broadcast, BBC Radio 4 should be thoroughly ashamed of itself for having published these words:

The Composer Gabriel Prokofiev (grandson of Sergei Prokofiev) looks at the increasing disconnection between classical music and its audience. How did composers such as Schoenberg kill off 20th century classical music for all but a small elite audience?

Until the early 20th century, each composer of classical music developed his own style built on the traditions of previous composers. Then Arnold Schoenberg changed all this, by devising 'Serialism' where melodies were no longer allowed.

In the 1950s, composers such as Pierre Boulez created 'Total Serialism'. Every aspect of a piece of music - rhythms and loudness as well as notes - was rigidly controlled by a fixed formula.

And the sense of composers being remote from their audience was exacerbated by the elevation of musical performance to a kind of ritual.

But even at a time when Serialism gripped major parts of the classical music establishment, music that was overtly emotional was still being written by composers such as Shostakovich and Prokofiev in Russia. Ironically, in these countries, the State continued to support classical music, whereas in more liberal regimes in Europe it retreated to the intellectual margins.

Now the Serialist experiment has been largely abandoned and a whole new generation of composers - including Gabriel himself - is embracing popular culture, just as composers used to in the past when folk music or dance music were a major source of inspiration.

So has the death of classical music been exaggerated? Will it find new homes and new means of expression to attract the audiences of the future?

With contributions from Arnold Whittall, Stephen Johnson, Alexander Goehr, David Matthews, Ivan Hewett and Tansy Davies.

I have neither the time nor the inclination to take on all of these absurd claims, which may well bear little relation to the programme itself, but here are just a few comments:
How did composers such as Schoenberg kill off 20th century classical music for all but a small elite audience?’ When did this happen. The last time I looked – not so very long ago – 20th-century music was attracting large and hungry audiences. Consider, for instance, the Southbank Centre’s Rest is Noise festival. I certainly know many people – and, loyal to my friends though I might be, I do not necessarily call them ‘elite’, whatever that might mean – who go out of their way to seek out opportunities to hear Schoenberg’s music. I might even be one of those ‘small elite’ people myself, I suppose.
Until the early 20th century, each composer of classical music developed his own style built on the traditions of previous composers.’ Unlike, presumably, our bogeyman, Arnold Schoenberg, perhaps a composer more weighed down by tradition than any composer other than Brahms?
‘Then Arnold Schoenberg changed all this, by devising 'Serialism' where melodies were no longer allowed.’ WHAT?????!!!!! How did Schoenberg ‘change’ this, and under what authority? Why would anyone have listened, even if he had announced such a bizarre prohibition? In what sense did he ‘devise’ something called ‘Serialism’? And where do its founding principles claim that ‘melodies … [are] no longer allowed'? As anyone holding the slightest acquaintance with Schoenberg’s music would know, its alleged ‘difficulty’ lies far more in a well-nigh Mozartian, intense profusion of melody than in its absence, let alone its mysterious prohibition. As for Lulu, that legendary, melody-less opera… Or Il prigioniero, or Pli selon pli, or indeed just about anything… This may well be the most idiotic sentence I have ever read; I can scarcely imagine my reaction, had an undergraduate written it in an essay I had set.
I really cannot be bothered with the rest of this nonsense, though should probably direct a fatwa at the originator of the claim that ‘music that was overtly emotional was still being written by composers such as Shostakovich and Prokofiev’, as though Schoenberg’s were not; again, it may even be its hyper-Romanticism that offers a problem to some listeners. The claim that the state did not support music in the West is too preposterous for words; for instance, where on earth did all of those German studios come from? Dance music not an inspiration in music pervaded by the waltz, the Ländler, the rebirth of the Baroque suite, etc.? Enough!
It is difficult to believe that many, if any, of those contributing to this programme would agree with a single word contained in this trailer. In which case, should not alarm bells have rung? As a Twitter friend remarked, should not BBC Radio 4 have contacted colleagues on Radio 3 for some factual input?


The Wagnerian said...

They might have also wanted to refer to their colleagues over at Radio 1 and 5 where the influence of Schoenberg, Berg, and those coming after, can clearly be found in "rock" and "Pop" music, especially in the so called "indie" and "college" "scenes" - although in very different forms.

Considering some of the nonsense BBC Radio and TV broadcast about Wagner last year I think this twoddle should come as little surprise.

Zhdanov said...

Most lovers of classical music hate contemporary classical music but are so browbeaten that they dare not speak out. That's not a healthy art-form.

Sator Arepo said...

I think it is just Gabriel Prokofiev blaming his own commercial lack of success on Schoenberg. It's always perversely gratifying to put a name and face to the person who is supposedly the ring leader of a conspiracy holding you back.

Schoenberg and Berg actually wrote some of the most beautiful melodies throughout their careers. On listening to Hilary Hahn's Schoenberg-Sibelius coupling it struck me that the Schoenberg has the more memorable tunes in it.

Mark Berry said...

I'd actually be very surprised if these words had anything to do with Gabriel Prokofiev, who has always struck me as an interesting, thoughtful person. And yes, I'd rather listen to the Schoenberg concerto two hundred times in succession than that of Sibelius even once again.

Unknown said...

Schoenberg & Boulez have been largely an irrelevance - important only to those who had pre-determined that the music of the C20th would be a continuation of the Franco-Germanic continuum they discerned in the C19th. That classical music should be the exclusive property of France and Germany.

Who were the great and influential composers of the C20th? Janacek, Lutoslawski, Prokofiev (Snr), Shostakovich, Schnittke, Ives, Penderecki, Sallinen, Britten, Tippett, Messiaen, Barber, Bernstein. Influence of Schoenberg = 0.

How saddening it is for people like you to read this list of *successful* composers.

Kurt Weill realised Schoenberg was a charlatan at the time. He realised that dodecaphony was the highway to nowhere - and dumped it, quite rightly.

How terribly unfair to Ab, that we use it less than F#!! Let us legislate for fairness to all notes! Haaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaahahahahahhahaha!!!!

Then there is Stravinsky - perhaps the seminal composer of the C20th, whose music goes into a terminal tailspin as soon as he succumbs to the blackmail of having to write 12-tone dross.

But despite the trash written by your dear friend TRJ, it *is* a tiny cult - a priesthood of self-anointed worthies, each as mediocre as the next. Huddled in the basement at Schott's to cheer each other on, in audiences sometimes reaching a dozen (including the composer's mum, and the page-turner to bump up numbers).

Keep kidding yourself, buddy. Keep whining that no-one comes to your sad and pathetic concerts.

Meanwhile the Royal Opera House and the Coliseum are packed out for Birtwistle, Britten and Adams.

Guess why?????

Mark Berry said...

It always comes as such a surprise when the most abusive, intellectually-challenged responses come from those who post anonymously. Who would have thought it?

Rameau said...

There's always that argumentation with those people:
-Nobody likes it [Schoenberg, Boulez...] anyway.
-Hey, I do!
-Oh, then you're faking it/you're a snob/you're nuts/you're just a tiny elite while I belong to the real people/etc.

I suppose you know France's intelligentsia blamed itself by inviting Karol Beffa as visiting professor to the Collège de France, who invited in turn his friend Jérôme Ducros (whom you may know as pianist, but we all discovered he was a composer too) to attack everything modern in music - even Kurtag was too much for him. So the BBC is not alone here.

Mark Berry said...

Rameau, I didn't know about that debacle: I must look into it. What infuriates me about this nonsense from the BBC is not attacking Schoenberg, Boulez, or anyone else - though surely one's time is far better spent pointing to something one admires than attempting to knock down something one does not. It is that the attack is full of falsehoods: not differences of opinion or judgement, but downright lies. There is no conceivable reading of the following words which would treat them as dubious judgement rather than utter falsehood: 'Until the early 20th century, each composer of classical music developed his own style built on the traditions of previous composers. Then Arnold Schoenberg changed all this, by devising "Serialism" where melodies were no longer allowed.'

Christian Hoskins said...

Unknown’s contribution is the most amusing thing I’ve read all day. Shostakovich and Messiaen are undoubtedly great and influential composers. But Sallinen? Barber?? When was the last time Covent Garden performed ‘Vanessa’?

Schoenberg’s influence can be heard cascading down through the decades of the twentieth century and into the present day. Britten was influenced by Schoenberg (via Berg) of course, and even Leonard Bernstein composed a song using serial techniques (‘The Pennycandystore Behind the El’).

By the 1940s, Hollywood composers such as Roy Webb and David Raksin were using Schoenbergian dissonances and klangfarben techniques to add atmosphere to their film noir soundtracks. Scott Bradley’s score for the 1943 Tom and Jerry film “Puttin’ On the Dog” even uses a twelve note row. Benjamin Frankel’s 1961 score for the Hammer Horror film “Curse of the Werewolf” is serial. The irony is that Schoenberg’s influence on music has become so ingrained that we hardly notice it.