Neo-Baroque music – Webster Young Interview


in the FORM of an INTERVIEW

with W. A. YOUNG  on his music and its style

(The interviewer)  —“You describe this piece of yours as “Neo-Baroque”, which means you are saying it is in a modern version of a Baroque style. Yet…  to me it sounds exactly like Baroque music.

W.Y.: “This music has many features that would never have appeared in the Baroque period. My music has not only major differences in technique from Baroque period music, but also has musical features that would only appear  in 20th century music.

    Forgive me for examples that only musicians will understand… my music dispenses completely with secondary dominants used to establish a new key. Chromaticism does not appear at all in the form in which it appears in Baroque music. In my music most themes established in a key are clearly in one of the modes, and not simply in the major-minor system. It uses harmonic and contrapuntal material, within the modes, such as pedal tones consisting of more than one note, with these not on the dominant or tonic.

Int: “You are saying that there are not only differences in important compositional methods, but also the inclusion of some materials that could only be from the 20th Century?    

W.Y.:  “Yes. My music uses form, phrase, counterpoint, and melodic development as they appear in the Baroque — but my counterpoint breaks the rules as they appear in Baroque practice, and 20th century features are present.

Int.: “But then why does the music sound so much like just a copy of Baroque music?

W.Y.: “There is more than one reason for this appearance to some listeners.  For one thing — and I am  proud of this — what I have done works so well that you don’t notice it,  using the diatonic modes and their techniques as I do.  In other words, my compositional technique creates an integrated and harmonious composition and one has to listen very carefully to identify the modern techniques present.

Int. And yet the music sounds as if it ignores 20th century technique — how can that be?

W.Y. I think I have found a way to integrate some well chosen modern techniques into a framework of melody and form. It all works together well and the listener doesn’t notice how it is put together. To me this is a great virtue.

Int. Still, it doesn’t sound modern at all. Are there any completely original innovations in this music?

W.Y. There are. My music represents the first time that fully modal music has been set in aria and sonata forms in a way that redefines sonata form and at the same time elaborates on modal form.

Int. What does that mean, in less technical terms?

W.Y Well…  My way opens up new possibilities within form. The innovations have to do with the melodies or themes and their use in terms of keys and modes in the form.

Int. So the music is new in terms of the whole form?

W.Y. It is a redefinition of form.

To give one example… in sonata form, if you have an opening theme in C major, it comes back at the end in C major, and it is sometimes preceded by a false return in F major, coming before the true return. . In my music, I might have, for example,  an opening theme that is in C lydian, and it may return with a false return in G major (because in terms of sharps and flats G major is the same as C lydian!), and then have the full return in C Mixolydian.  This simple change to the key scheme in a sonata form raises many interesting questions and can be considered both an innovation and modern.

I might add that doing this is only made possible and workable through other features of the music — among these is the elimination of chromaticism as it was used from Bach to Wagner.

Int. But is that the only new thing about it?

Wy. No. There is another new thing going on and I would call that the attempt to sift and codify modern technique into rules.

Int. What does that mean, exactly?

Wy Well… There are many techniques of composition that are called modern. Not all of them are worthwhile, especially in the same piece . I have sifted through many modern techniques to see what is useful in them — not just for me personally, but for the future of music. Some of them must be thrown away for good. Then I try to see if there is a specific place in a specific form where a truly useful modern technique always functions best.  This to me is a  codification of a technique, a finding of its best use. This is how most true musical evolution takes place — how new styles are developed.

Forgive me if I give an an example that probably only musicians will understand. We know that polytonality has been a modern technique since the impressionist period. I find that for me, the only polytonal passages that are really useful stay within one key. (Otherwise, for me, they take the music out of the diatonic modes, and backwards, into the chromatic music of the failed past.) This is my sifting. Since polytonal passages seem to be static, and always seem to emphasize certain pitches, then it is logical that they might be used best in those places that need to emphasize a pitch or one tonal area. Well… that is precisely what the cadential sections do in a sonata, after the statement of the second theme. They try to re-affirm the new key. Knowing this fact, I might in my own music  try to use polytonality in that very way, to prove the idea of where polytonality really belongs in a sonata.  

Int. But what use is such a style if after all this it doesn’t sound new?

W.Y. Well, what sounds new is a somewhat subjective judgement — — a society may have a prejudice as to what sounds new. Many observers of art in our society are not able to notice something new unless it is jolting, shocking, or radical in some degree. They are looking for some component of the artistic material itself to stand out as new. But what if a truly new style depended upon being harmonious  upon having all the “parts integrated to the whole” as in Aristotle’s definition of art that is pleasing? The chances are that it would not be recognized as new in our society.

Int. You mean that a style that is beautiful and harmonious throughout would have a hard time being seen as new in today’s atmosphere?

W.Y. Yes, exactly.

Int. Well, this being granted — that your style is new, and simply hard to recognize as such, because it is harmonious  — what is the purpose of such a style — which might seem bland to many people?

W.Y. My style achieves many aesthetic goals that the modern cannot and allows for a more flourishing creativity in form.

Int. What aesthetic goals are not achieved by other modern styles?

W.Y. Several. Modern music has been criticized as being too limited in both expression and form. It tends to express only various degrees of horror, anger, or the surreal. Very rarely does completely modern music express deeply tender or noble emotions — in itself. (That is, purely as music, and not by dramatic association with a context which is supposed to be tender — such as a love scene.)

The problem of form in Modern music has also already been identified. A lot of modern music will ramble on in a kind of perpetual recitative and is incapable of other forms. Returning to true tonality and modality allows the rebirth and re-definition of every form that has ever been.

And… for another thing it makes complete tonal and vocal style melody possible again. To me this is a supreme goal — to return neoclassical melody to music. There is a lot I could say about this — and I have written an essay on this subject (identifying vocal melody as the most human element in music).

Int. You are thus claiming that your possibly bland style — that is, not jolting in any way, but beautiful and harmonious — is capable of creating many more forms than any existing modern style?

W.Y. Yes. The advantages of my style are very great – even though some might at first perceive it as bland.

Int. But have you proven this richness in form to be a reality?

W.Y. Yes I have.  I have written in almost every form and been able to flesh out ideas that reach the most sophisticated achievements in formal terms. Furthermore — I think the greatest formal achievement of all – not only for myself but for any composer — is the creation of long, beautiful, and undistorted melodies, and I have done this in most of my work.

Int. You have called yourself a melodist before. But in some cases you have been criticized for coming close to what is called “stealing” a melody or parts of a melody. What do you say to this?

W.Y. Well, first of all, I think a fair assessment of my work will show that very few of my melodies raise this issue. However, I am aware that some of them do raise the issue. My aria “The Lady Brett” from “The Sun Also Rises” definitely echoes Puccini’s “Quando M’en Vo”. But if you make a close examination of it, it does not really follow Puccini as closely as it first appears. In fact, not even the first two notes of the melodies are the same. Nor are the first rhythms the same. What is alike is a general pattern of scalar descent in the major mode, using similar chords.   I continue this general descent — with no rhythms or sequences of notes the same — to new chords not in Puccini. So how much is it alike, really?

Those melodies of mine that do echo some other great melody — if I have allowed them to stay in my catalogue — it is because I think that they are not really too close. If something of mine is really too close — I throw it away. I don’t mind doing so because I have written thousands of themes and melodies that are truly original. So if I have created something too close to another composer’s great work — and I am unconscious of the fact, and it is pointed out to me — I am ready to throw it away.

However, there is another side to this issue which I would like to bring up. I like what Handel said when he was  accused of melodic plagiarism — which happened often.  He set out to be a prolific melodist (as I have done). His answer was very good and partly comical — in my opinion. When someone said, “That melody sounds like that other composer’s melody.” He would say, “Yes. But I know better what to do with it.”

Int. Granting all that you say — and granting that the current music criticism is not able to recognize the new in a style that is harmonius — how can critics assess a style such as yours — one that does not sound modern — even though it is; one that may sound like other music — but is not; one that is neo classical but sounds like a copy?

W.Y. That is a very important question. I think the emphasis of music criticism would need to shift if music like mine were recognized. I think criticism would return to an older pattern which was concerned with the skill of the artist, the effect of the work on the listener, and the acceptability of the aesthetics of the work. Originality would be just one element of several in this kind of criticism. Skill and consummate craft would be as high  on the list as everything else.

Int. In other words, the critic would be asking how great was the skill of the creator as much as anything else?

W.Y. Exactly. This was the attitude of critics until the modern period. But let me add that Beauty — as an ideal in art — and Nature — as a continual reference point in the search for beauty, would have to return to the art world. These terms would have to do so without the sophistic arguments that surround them today.

Int. You mean that people argue too much over what beauty is?

W.Y.  Yes. In the new criticism, when thinking of Beauty, we would not ask in the next breath — “But what is beauty?”   We would think “Only a fool doesn’t know what beauty is.” In this respect I am advocating a humanistic approach to the subject of Beauty. Most people don’t need a critic to tell them if a woman is beautiful; and most people know when music is not  beautiful.

Int. Haven’t other composers experimented with the modes and sonata forms in the same way you have?

W.Y. I am quite sure that no one has done before what I have done — in the way I have done it.

W.Y.  I have dispensed with chromaticism as it was developed from Bach to Wagner, and this makes my modal exploration farther reaching than Brahms or Debussy, even though they had brilliant success trying to reconcile the modes with chromatic technique.

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