In the course I teach on modernism, students are often stirred and surprised by the radical departures from convention in the modern music they hear in a series of ‘YouTube’ excerpts which I assign (and which I’ll present in a few posts here). Their responses are a more accepting version of the responses of early audiences to the most radical early examples of such music. Famously, there was a riot at the first performance in 1913 of Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring,” and by 1918, Schoenberg had founded the Society for the Private Performance of Music as a venue for the elite contingent of the initiated to listen to his and his students’ demanding atonal music.
Of course, the novels of Virginia Woolf I've been discussing in recent posts are also quite difficult works of art; in many respects, her modern novels 'select their own society' of readers – literary, intellectual, and critical “free-thinkers.” (Woolf’s challenging work reminds us that Bloomsbury was an elite existing more or less on the edge of society and comprised of avant-garde artists, vanguard reformists, bohemian writers, feminists, homosexuals, Jews, etc. The challenging “post-impressionist” art they celebrated and created reflects those roots in a sort of outsider “aristocracy” – as E. M. Forster wrote – “of the sensitive, the considerate, and the plucky.”)
Similarly, the classical music composed in the first three decades of the twentieth century sharply challenged its listeners. This spiky and difficult music often contains dissonant harmony, off-centered angular rhythm, and new structure. In the next few posts (as in the course I teach), I'll try at least to suggest some of the main features of modern music. I also try to evoke the achievements of this difficult music in both my 1994 critical study Fullness of Dissonance: Modern Fiction and the Aesthetics of Music and in my 2004 work Hungry Generations: a novel, about musicians and composers in Los Angeles in the wake of the Nazi occupation of Europe. And music and musicians are the topic of at least some of the fiction in my 2011 collection Acts of Terror and Contrition: A Nuclear Fable.
The composers I’ll explore too briefly in these posts are Wagner, Mahler, Debussy, Ravel, Stravinsky, Schoenberg, and Bartok.
Wagner’s break from customary musical practice involves a pervasive chromaticism: it is an opening up of melody, etc., to all twelve of the half-tones in a scale [i.e., on the piano all twelve keys, both black and white, within an octave between say C and C]. This “fullness of dissonance” - this destabilizing enlargement of the harmonic field - is a precedent for radical artistic innovation which Thomas Mann (in his essay on the composer) sees as the subversive breakthrough and model of freed experiment for all the arts in modernity. The opening melody of “Tristan und Isolde” offers an example. (Here’s a link to Barenboim conducting the Prelude, on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RZNHPwS4vmU&feature=related .) The melody's reach up, then down, then searching further up the scale does not achieve a resolution until after several slightly changing repititions; we are made to experience an emotional yearning and instability rendering Isolde’s ultimately mortal passion for Tristan. The passage's flux and flow of chromatic dissonance enact the ravaging yet creative power of the restless, unceasing passion of the lovers (who, according to Wagner, inhabit a sort of Schopenhauerian world of the will).
Wagner’s other break with convention involves the use of such a phrase as a recurrent marker – a leitmotif – embodying Isolde’s emotion; the structure of Wagner’s unfolding “arias” and all the movements of the opera are based on the deployment and interplay of such motifs. It is as if previous ordering forms in classical music and particularly opera had become moribund, in Wagner's view, and required the new ideas about form his "art work of the future" enacts. The climax of the opera is Isolde’s beautiful “Liebestod” or ‘love-death’ with its own characteristic leitmotif, which forms the basis of a powerful aria of immense yearning and orgiastic passion, as multiple repetitions of the melody move through the chromatic scale. (Here is a YouTube version – listen at least from the 3 minute point to the end: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j8enypX74hU&NR=1.) Baudelaire describes the listener’s sensation here as experiencing the “joy…of letting myself be penetrated and invaded, in a truly sensual delight resembling that of rising the air or revolving in the sea.” (Here's an Amazon link to Barenboim conducting all of the opera - Wagner - Tristan und Isolde.)
Wagner’s rendering of the experience of a ‘love-death’ partly echoes the role of death for modernsm, plus something more; there is death's emdodiment of mystery, yet of a pervasive sense of spiritual mobidity in modernity, also of absolute experience beyond reason, and of the haunting result of spiritual extremity, the risk of severing the bonds to community. In the face of these multiple ambitions of Wagner's music, Nietzsche “contra Wagner” emphasizes, however, another sort of death enacted by what he heard as the manipulative “embrace” of such music (which he yet calls "indispensible" here, a view "The Birth of Tragedy" demonstrates). In Bayreuth, which was built for the Wagnerian operatic "rites," he observed in Wagner’s listeners not truly a death of the ordinary self and an entry into an alternative life, but rather a “disease,” a “self-extinction,” and “a fear-repulsing narrowness and…hebetation” – all of this where Wagner would have his listener “yield himself” to the “wonder” of “the human heart,” which “encompasses” and “reconciles” him to existence as he experiences the “ultimate completeness” of the “highest collective art work.” The “all-embracing” theater, mythic drama, poetry, and above all beautiful music created by Wagner’s operas aim to constitute a total work of art: a “Gesamtkunstwerk.” Nietzsche, of course, rendered his own encompassing "myths" (Apollo and Dionysus and Zarathustra and, finally, himself), yet his fiercest objections to Wagner involve the "all-embracing" gigantism in the composer's use of "Aryan" myths (and also, Nietzsche interestingly complains, to the composer's "descending" to "antisemitism"). So once again we encounter a powerful and spiritually risk-taking gigantism in modernity. Wagner's proto-modern "gigantism" finds its apotheosis in the mythic nature of his imagination and in the resulting "magnification" of the structures, themes, and characters in "Tristan und Isolde" and in the "Ring" cycle. (Here's an Amazon link to the Nietzsche texts: The Birth of Tragedy and The Case of Wagner.) I'll later try further to explore Wagner's significance, beyond this sketchy account.
I'll turn in my next posts to Mahler (and the issue of Wagner's influence), the relatively minimalist (!) Debussy, and Ravel, and then to Stravinsky and Schoenberg.
My newly completed novel is The Fall of the Berlin Wall, about what happened to characters from my Hungry Generations fifteen years later; it's about musicians and particularly the intense, irrepressible daughter of the legendary pianist at the center of the previous novel. My 2015 novel, The Ash Tree, was published by West of West Books in conjunction with the April 24, 2015 centenary of the Armenian genocide; it's about an Armenian-American family and the sweep of their history in the twentieth century - particularly from the points of view of two women in the family.
There are three other novels of mine, One is Pathological States, about a physician's family in L.A. in 1962, which is as yet unpublished. Another is Hungry Generations, about a young composer's friendship in L.A. with the family of a virtuoso pianist, published on demand by iUniverse. A Burnt Offering - a fable (a rewriting and expansion of my earlier Acts of Terror and Contrition - a nuclear fable) is my political novella about Israel and its reactions to the possibility of a war with Iran (with the fear that it will be a nuclear war).
[These blog posts are, of course, copyrighted.]
[These blog posts are, of course, copyrighted.]