“Can There Be Great Composers Anymore” from the Intercollegiate Studies Institute Journal

Can There be Great Composers Anymore?

Webster Young

In each nation of importance in Western music during the first half of the 20th century, there thrived three or four possibly “great” composers — candidates for greatness in fine art music.   In England Ralph Vaughan-Williams, Benjamin Britten, Gustav Holst, and William Walton loomed large on the national scene. In France, Ravel was still at work while the French Six arose — among them Poulenc, Honegger, and Milhaud, with Eric Satie as their mentor.  Igor Stravinsky was an expatriate in Paris.

Pre-Communist Russia had produced Rachmaninoff, who was active in Europe and America, and under Communism lived Shostakovich and Prokofieff. In Italy, Puccini was working on one of his greatest operas, Turandot, until his passing in 1923, and Mascagni’s work continued past the second world war.

In Germany, Richard Strauss was prolific, and Paul Hindemith was becoming an international figure. In Vienna, the expressionist avant-garde gained intellectual supremacy through Shoenberg, Berg, and Webern. In Spain, a late-blooming nationalism produced a school of composers that included Manuel De Falla, Enrique Granados, and Joaquin Turina.  Eastern Europe brought forth Bartok, Kodaly, and Janacek, and from Finland, Sibelius’s massive symphonic works began to conquer Europe and America. America also produced composers: Charles Ives, George Antheil, Aaron Copland, Samuel Barber, Roy Harris, and Howard Hanson.

The composers of the latter 20th Century, however, never rivalled in stature the composers of the first half of the century. Elliot Carter and Milton Babbitt did not become household names. Even less known have been the names of recent Pulitzer Prize winners.

It may be surprising to some that the above composers — whether from the first or second half of the century — all relate to one of the two parent schools of modern musical composition: the Parisian or the Viennese. The modern Parisian school grew out of Impressionism pioneered by Debussy in the late 1800’s, and the Viennese out of late German Romanticism pioneered by Wagner.  Some  composers who were not French by nationality owed a great deal to Paris in spirit — especially Stravinsky. The Spanish and American schools were trained in Paris, and the English, Italians, and Russians owed much to French music.

The French school was capable of many moods and forms — including the naive, cheerful, and humorous, and it did not abandon either melody or tonality. The Viennese style, on the other hand, proved restricted in terms of emotional expression and difficult for the creation of form. It abandoned tonality (being called “atonal”) and developed serialism (the twelve-tone system of Schoenberg) to deal with form and unity.

An extended explanation of atonality would be difficult for the reader who is not a musician. Put simply, atonality refers to music that lacks a sense of key, of musical centering, of a place to return to. Atonality can occur throughout a piece of music, or only in sections of the music. It creates a sense of disorientation and the perception that the music is nearly formless. To draw an analogy to painting, atonality in music is like abstractionism in art. The first reaction of many encountering it is that the atonal piece of music is “not music”.

Although the Viennese atonal  school at first seems inferior to the Parisian, the Viennese school appeared at the time to be the cutting edge in music. It had laid intellectual claim to being new and original. (Much the way cubism and abstraction in art did.) As such, the atonal musical style was adopted and developed by radical European philosophers of art who sought novelty at all costs.

Even though the influence of Paris was widespread and creative, it was the Viennese school that, for the latter 20th century — and especially in America —  became the heart of the avant-garde. It was atonality that led to almost everything of prominence, however unpopular, after the war. The atonal developments of Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern became the inspiration for a school in musical composition that still claims descendents in the present era. Every composer who uses atonal style today is directly indebted to the Viennese School, and this includes all avant-garde styles after 1950 except Minimalism. Elliot Carter, Milton Babbitt, Pierre Boulez, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Luigi Dallapicolla, John Cage, and George Crumb are in some way Viennese musical descendents.

The Viennese-born style produced an unbroken stream of musical influence until 1985 when, after the emergence of Minimalism (Steve Reich, Phillip Glass, John Adams) its usefulness was seriously questioned. At present, the atonal stream has re-surfaced in Post-Modernism and eclectic post-modern styles. Atonality is even present in the works of recent Pulitzer-Prize winning composers like Aaron Jay Kernis – another name few will know. Most descendants of the Viennese School alienated audiences and marginalized themselves in musical society. Today, new serious composition is followed by a miniscule  group of serious music lovers. The situation is  extreme and it has seemed for the last 40 years that there are no living composers who have a claim to greatness. This  appears to be the fact not only to laymen and connoisseurs of music, but also to professional musicians.

A notion has arisen in public that it is not possible for new great composers to appear and that the stream of Western serious music has played out. This assertion was the subject of a 1950’s book,  “The Agony of Modern Music” by  Henry Pleasants. It is now a popular explanation for the lack of great composers in recent decades.  It has been aired in passing by a number of prominent people in recent public forums. This author has heard it suggested by various musicians in two  Charlie Rose interviews.

There are a number of reasons given to support it — the chief is that the styles of modern music have become so individual that there can no longer be general movements in music — there can be only composers who are iconoclasts. Another reason given says that all the possibilities of harmony have now been tried, and nothing new is possible. A Pulitzer Prize winning composer thus stated in a TV interview that there will never be another Mozart.

The idea seems to be born out by the facts. Of the all the composers named here  belonging to the latter 20th Century, not one can be called a candidate for greatness — not even the most famous of them, like Phillip Glass. But looking at the first half of the century, there are possibly “major” great composers: Stravinsky, Ravel, Bartok, and Sibelius. Others may be called minor great composers: Mascagni, Granados, Rachmaninoff, Shostakovich, Schoenberg, Berg, Milhaud, and Barber.

What do we mean by greatness in music? Alfred Einstein, the musicologist and music historian (brother of Albert), stated decades ago in his book “Greatness in Music”, that there are three kinds:  historical , musical , and esoteric. Historical greatness is self explanatory: it is the stature a composer attains in the history telling of subsequent ages.

Musical greatness is a technical and artistic brilliance in compositional achievement being reflected in a body of works.  Esoteric greatness is that of composers who were both musically great, prolific, and historically great, but who subsided from the limelight in later epochs.  In this last group are the great composers of the Renaissance, like Palestrina  — believed to be the greatest composer of all time. The bulk of his hundreds of brilliant works are found only in libraries, while just a few are well known today.

Einstein does not extrapolate from his distinctions a method of looking for greatness in the current day of one’s musical era, but logic demonstrates that one cannot ask in regard to the composers of the present, “are any composers historically great?”  This is a contradiction in terms: history can not yet have accorded them greatness. Even sixty years (two generations) may not be enough time for a culture to make a final judgment on that (though it may be enough to get a sense of an emerging pantheon.)

Likewise, we cannot ask of a present day composer, “Does he have esoteric greatness?” This also is a contradiction. Realistically, then, one can only ask, “Are any composers musically (technically and artistically) great?”   

In this respect, the output of current composers can be tracked for technical and artistic brilliance,  and critics and musicians can try to determine how great is their musical achievement. If we determine that some current composers are musically great, then we can then ask, “Might they become historically great in future generations?”  This is how, using Einstein’s distinctions, we must state our query on musical greatness.   In the notion that no new great composers can arise, the greatness referred to must be, perforce, current musical brilliance that shows the potential for historical greatness. Using Einstein’s distinctions, the popular notion we examine here is really saying that ” no composer in the present day can become both musically brilliant and later historically great” — a very pessimistic view when put in these terms.

As we have already noted, the chief cause given by proponents of this notion is that individuality is so characteristic of modern music that no commonality of practice of in composition exists. Each composer is thus on his own and cannot refine previous techniques.

The term “common practice” is used by music theoreticians and pedagogues to denote past eras of musical composition in which the observer can find enough common material in the works of composers to extrapolate a method or practice by which they worked. This may be unconscious, but it can at least be found running through their works. To put this in simple terms, it means that in any given period of one or two decades,  composers could be found using the same chords, harmonies, and forms. It follows that during eras of “common practice” in music,  the practice can be seen to evolve, and this allows a history of music that is demonstrable in the facts of the evolution of music itself.

To give a concrete example, it is quite easy to show that the music of Gluck, Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven (to put them in chronological order) are the result of a common practice, each composer working with similar materials and sharing common methods. While they share most techniques, evolution is present as well, and thus Beethoven is somewhat different from Gluck. However, the common features of their practice were so great that, in today’s modernist atmosphere, they would all be accused of blatant theft of each others’ music. There was no such issue in their time — they were simply working in an era of common practice.

This matter of a common practice in music is crucial in the development of great composers. For one to understand what a great composer is, one must understand that his musical achievement is as much the result of a common practice as it is of personal genius. In other words, for all Mozart’s musical ability, his music would  be completely unrecognizable to us if it were not for the materials he took from those who went before him. His music would not have the form, the harmony, the shape of melody, and the embellishments it has without the common practice that he inherited. He did not invent most of the major features of his music. This cannot be stated too strongly: Mozart’s music would be utterly unrecognizable without the elements of music he inherited from his predecessors.

One of the advantages of a common practice is that it allows a line of composers to improve upon the work of their predecessors — just as in science, researchers build upon research done before.  Mozart could take the work of Gluck, Haydn, or the composers of the Mannheim School, and improve upon it slightly, having the advantage of objectivity and the energy of youth. The resulting music of Mozart is not, therefore, a quantum leap over Haydn or Gluck.  It is just enough of a refinement of form to make Mozart the high point of his era.

One must also note that a common practice does not develop in one generation.  One artist can not create — in a flash of inspiration — a new common practice. There is a building process that must go on.  A Mozart can only arrive on the scene as the culmination of a building process (and that is precisely what knowledgeable music historians and theorists say of him).   The best case for complete originality of device in Mozart might be made in regard to his piano concerti — but even here he builds on the past. His work is a brilliant culmination of what went before; he is the crown jewel (in the view of later generations) of a building process in musical style, and it is precisely because of the common practice surrounding him that he has become so.

As already noted, our era – a Modernist era — has not been one of a common practice in music; it has been one of individuality at all costs and of a resulting iconoclasm among composers. There has been little  refinement of methods under the regime of iconoclasm. Each composer, until very recently, has had to stand on his own and has had little chance to benefit by the work of another. Each  has been obliged to start a mini revolution  and to be novel in everything. To the extent that a composer was not novel, and to the extent that he used any material at all used by another composer,  he was thought to be unoriginal.

There has appeared to be — at least in public view — no common practice now evident in the works of composers.  Nonetheless, the lack of a common practice does not have to remain in place as a condition of our musical culture. The winds of change may be bringing in fairer times. There has been a movement afoot since the advent of Minimalism called “the New Tonality” and it has number of representatives gaining a reputation — especially John Taverner and Arvo Part.  There are also a number of composers in this vein who have not yet reached the limelight — and this author knows several personally. These composers are closer to a common practice than any in recent decades. They use materials that are not original with them, and do not strive for novelty at all costs. They appear to be both learning from those who went before them and not afraid to use musical materials that others have used.

Are these composers possibly new “great composers”, and do they disprove the notion we discuss here? Thus far it cannot be said, even though there are hints of a common practice developing,  that any of them are, in Einstein’s terms, musically great — that is, musically brilliant.  Pierre Boulez has characterized their music as “unimpressive”. Even though he is the natural enemy of the New Tonality — being of the Viennese brand of modernism    his opinion rings true, thus far. These new composers seem to be promising — and capable of some popularity — but not musically great. However, a final judgment must be reserved, because it is not likely that all their best works have been heard. The seeds of new greatness may be in this movement, and the question arises as to whether cultural conditions exist to let the seeds grow.

There are two conditions that will be crucial for allowing the growth of new greatness: the existence of a common practice and  the rise of a new music criticism to match. For a common practice to survive, a new criticism will have be developed to go with it, and the new criticism  would have to reject the tenets of Modernism. (We may as well use the simple term “modernism” rather than post-post modernism, for in reality, the “post-post” term is a tacit admission of the failure of Modernism to evolve into anything of substance.) As we have already seen — a common practice in music is by nature contrary to the iconoclasm Modernism has produced. It is precisely the tenets of Modernism that have caused the “impatient search for novelty at all costs” (Alexander Solzenitsyn’s phrase), and the resulting dearth of a common practice in music noted here. (The notion that there can be no new great composers is thus a self-fulfilling prophecy arising out of musical modernism.)

The reader will want to know what the tenets of this new criticism of music might be. If the seeds of a new common practice in music  — as represented by the composers mentioned above (and by some we may not yet know) — are present in today’s world, by what criteria shall we judge their work to be great, if not by the standards that are in place today?

Put very simply, the critical methods of Modernism___ can be replaced by the standards of neo-Classicism.  The tenets of neo-Classicism are well known in the fields of architecture and painting. Unfortunately, they are virtually unknown in the field of music.  In the Renaissance,  Alberti and Palladio took classical ideals from the Roman architect Vitruvius and from Greek musical theory of the Pythagorean school. The neo-Classical ideals of the architects could apply very well to music, but they have not been clearly articulated in the music conservatory — and much less considered as an option for present day music.

Modernism has been about revolution and novelty at all costs; neo-Classicism, for Palladio and Alberti and many others in subsequent ages, was about revival and the ancient ideals of beauty and harmony. All the important movements in music up until the Romantic period were neo-Classical revivals. When Mozart was writing music, there was a new awareness of Classicism in Europe. Later, even Romanticism had its neo-Classicists.  This has faded from view under the regime of Modernism — so much so that the following statement will seem unbelievable to most readers: Richard Wagner — the spiritual ancestor of the Viennese school of Modernism — considered himself one of the greatest neo-Classicists of all time and thought himself the chief exponent of Greek ideals in music.  Other Romantic composers, such as Brahms, were better known as being neo-Classical. Brahms built directly on the forms of the Beethoven, the great classicist.

It would take a book to fully describe neo-Classicism and we can only give a bare outline here. Classicism requires beauty and clarity of form, nobility of subject,  meaningfulness, and catharsis in a work of art. The theme or subject must be worthy — as Aristotle states in his writings on the hero in drama. Meaningfulness must be put in a clear form by the artist — and form must achieve beauty through an integration of the parts to the whole. Each of these points could furnish at least few chapters of a treatise.

Where music is concerned, the Humanist ideals in neo-Classicism are important. Art is for a human audience and therefore man is at the center of art. In music, this translates to the following: melody, vocal in quality, is at the heart of music. The voice — which carries one sustained line of melody at a time — is the most immediately identifiable human thing in music. This makes melody the highest goal in a neo-Classical framework — not innovations in form, style, or harmony (although an appropriate amount of innovation in these areas is welcome.) The greatest neo Classical composer will be a melodist, just as the greatest painter will portray the human figure. He will appeal to the human heart through beauty.

Further, Classicism requires the use of all its principles. The use of one is not enough. There are some abstract works of art — lacking in any clear meaning — that exercise the principle of beauty found in the integration of the parts to the whole. But meaningless beauty is not Classical.

Other forms of Modernism may use Classical principles on material that is consistently grotesque. This violates another requirement of Classicism — clarity. The Classical principle says: “Do not arouse the passions or disgust of the patron so that he may lose his concentration and perception of the art.” Classicism requires appropriateness of subject matter for technical  reasons. The obscene is mostly useless because its violence disturbs the perception of the total work of art. Classicism aims for the most complete participation (in consciousness of an art work) by the patron.

If in experiencing a modernist work, it causes the patron to step back and say “I do not know what the artist means, but it reminds me of such and such…”  the art has stopped his consciousness of the material itself and thrown him back on himself.  The message he gets is not the artist’s, but something of his own associations. Classicism demands that the meaning of the art be contained within the work itself — including the transformation of that meaning. The story and its moral must be present in the material, the “plastic form”, of the art — and in a suitable degree of beauty and clarity. It is this that allows the patron to learn and to gain something from his experience of art.

The question of how music achieves meaning is one that has disappeared from composition courses in the music schools — and has done so also partly because of Modernism. Much of modern art has been abstract, and it became vogue to say music could not have any meaning. Fortunately, earlier theories on meaning in music are still taught in music schools — but only as an esoteric sidelight of music history and musicology. Some knowledge on the meaning of music is nearly lost to the schools. In Mozart’s day, each tempo of music (the speed of rhythmic pulse) had a corresponding meaning in emotion that was tied to a part of life. Mozart was well aware of this. One musical speed, for example, corresponded to battle or anger, while another corresponded to introspection or melancholy. There were eight speeds identified in this way, corresponding to the number of the planets.

The fine art of musical composition has a significant number of areas where meaning is evoked. Some of these are:  speed, the character of musical meters (which are like the meters in poetry), harmonic “color”, the shapes created by musical lines, the character of the modes (scales), the kind of “texture” created by the overlapping of voices, overall musical forms, and more. Through all this, some forms of music may acquire a well-known, standard character or meaning —  as with the “Pastorale”. Like the landscape painting,  it is a musical description of a country scene. (Beethoven’s Pastorale Symphony, the Sixth, is a great example).

Also found in Classicism is the idea that art starts from Nature and builds from it. Classical art tends to imitate and idealize nature. This is very important for music because its fundamental materials are built upon what is called “the chord of Nature” and this aspect of music has been known since ancient Greek times. The reader may find an explanation of this phenomenon in most accounts of Pythagoras and his ideas about music. The departure from Nature — a characteristic of Modernism — has not worked well in music because the very building blocks of music are so close to what Nature dictates.

Classicism often leads back to the ancient fundamentals, and that is why the continual search for novelty found in Modernism has to be discarded. If music — even more than the other arts — must stay close to the fundamentals and close to Nature, how can it be asked, again and again, that new music be largely novel?

Neo-Classicist music criticism might differ from Modernist critiques in ____ several important ways. The Shibboleth of great originality would be discarded. The imprimatur of validity in a new work can no longer be given only because of novelty. Musical culture must begin to be unafraid of music that is strongly connected to the past or to other contemporary works. The worry about plagiarism and the shunning of the “derivative” could be cut back.

The music critic’s first criterion would not be “Is this work original?”, it would be,  “How beautiful and skilled is it?”  Where there is innovation in the work, the critic might ask, “What good purpose does this innovation serve?” “Does it serve beauty, clarity, meaningfulness, or catharsis (the goals of Classicism)?” Again, the critic might ask first,  “How is the message of this work made clear, while being beautifully put?” The critic’s assessment of novelty would be secondary.

This way, innovation would not be at all costs, and the highly skilled use of common materials acceptable. An audience or a critic would not permit themselves to be taken aback by something that sounds similar to another new work — or even an old work. The real question would concern the meanings and possibilities involved and the skill of presentation. The old would be acceptable as long as there is present with it a grain of the new. This new element might not seem novel, but might still be a seed of things to come, comprehensible to all as common material — something that could have meaning and be usable to other artists in a process of refining art towards a common and beautiful purpose, some valuable Human goal in art.

If an innovation is merely a form of diminution or destruction (as has been the case with many of the innovations of modern music) it has no weight in the neo-Classical framework. True innovation will most often take place one small step at a time, from composer to composer, because it will involve a building of forms, not the discarding of them.

Further, a neo-Classicist criticism would have to set the bar high in standards of quality, because to be viable, a new common practice would have to produce musical works that rival in beauty the great works of the past. This would mean that works of music using techniques that “anyone could do” — no matter how novel –would be unacceptable.  Otherwise, the music of the past will always dominate at the concert hall, undermining the economics of the music world of the present. Beethoven’s “Fur Elise” will always beat out Joe Smith sitting in silence at the piano, a la John Cage, or a John Doe rapping a feather on a bamboo tube. But someone writing a beautiful melody has the chance of being a real rival to Beethoven.

These tenets might serve a new music criticism. Under it a common practice could survive, and great composers arise. In the end, the notion that “there can be no more great composers” would prove to be an illusion created by Modernism demanding radical individualism.

Modernism and iconoclasm in music have by now shown themselves barren. The methods and ideals of the avant-garde, approaching 100 years in age, have produced little new or valuable in music in the last 50 years. The 100 year old avant-garde (a contradiction in terms)  has, in the process, alienated audiences and ruined the economics of new music.  As the Modernist fog (or the post-post Modernist non-fog)  clears, a common practice in music — like that of the New Tonality now developing — will be reborn and identified. If neo-Classical criticism can tone down the demand for novelty, permitting the use of common materials, composers will once again build upon the past and upon one another’s work, creating beautiful melody and form. Eventually, a genius will appear who, like Mozart, will owe everything to those who went before him.

(Webster Young, a published composer, has written musical opinion for Newsday, the National Catholic Register, and the Catholic Herald, London. He was twice invited by the Bush Administration to apply for directorship of the National Endowment for the Arts. His musical works are published through WebsterYoungLinks.com )

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