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The state of 20th Century music in San Diego

Neglected, rejected, and misunderstood

A performance of Schoenberg’s First Chamber Symphony, by Maestro Eros’s San Diego Symphony Chamber Orchestra, had to be prefaced by a plea from the conductor to listen to the music without prejudice.
  • A performance of Schoenberg’s First Chamber Symphony, by Maestro Eros’s San Diego Symphony Chamber Orchestra, had to be prefaced by a plea from the conductor to listen to the music without prejudice.

The music of the 20th Century constitutes one of the richest periods in musical history. For variety of expressive means, for inventiveness, for ingenuity in the handling of old forms and the discovery of new ones, for range of emotional communication, and for sheer creative energy, it is the equal of any comparable body of music in the past. But 20th Century music suffers from a number of circumstances that music of the Renaissance, or the Baroque, or the Classical, or the Romantic periods did not have to contend with. Performances of modern works are relatively infrequent; support for such performances is weak; and the general reaction of audiences continues to range from indifference to hostility. In all these respects, the situation of modern music in San Diego is typical, and there are few signs that things will soon be getting better.

The alienation of the audience from “contemporary” music had already begun in the time of Beethoven, and such composers as Berlioz and Wagner suffered severely from it. But what characterized this alienation in the 19th Century was the swiftness with which it was ordinarily overcome. The innovations of Romanticism or of Wagnerian music-drama might provoke instant hostility, but within less than a generation the offending composers had become classics, and audiences accepted them with the same sense of comfortable familiarity they felt when listening to more conventional music. When the musical revolutions of the early 20th Century provoked riots and scandals — the chief culprits being Stravinsky, Schoenberg, and Bartok — it was to be expected that the furor would soon die out, and that within 20 years or so audiences would have become as used to The Rite of Spring or Pierrot Lunaire as they were to the symphonies of Brahms. But this did not prove to be the case. In the great urban musical centers, Stravinsky did achieve a certain measure of popularity on concert programs, especially when his music became less dissonant and more “classical”; but most of Schoenberg’s compositions have retained their full power to make audiences hate them, a full 50 or 60 years after their first performances, and that is as true in New York, London or Paris as it is in a city like San Diego. As for the even more provocative works of such 20th Century masters as Varese or Webern, it is to be doubted whether they will ever be absorbed into the musical experiences of the average concert-goer, no matter how much time is given for their radically new idioms to become familiar.

In San Diego, where the major musical organizations rely for their financial support almost entirely on the favor of their audiences, the result of this continuing lack of public sympathy for the music of our century has been an extreme caution on the part of conductors and managers in programming anything more modern than Richard Strauss. Peter Eros, conductor of the San Diego Symphony, has a great liking for the masterworks of 20th Century music and has been bold enough to perform them now and then. Yet on each occasion there have been threatening grumbles from that crucial sector of the audience that pays the symphony’s bills, both through subscriptions and by means of personal contributions. Bartok’s Miraculous Mandarin, 50 years old and full of melody, exciting rhythm, and dazzling orchestral effects, started driving symphony subscribers to the doors by its hundredth bar. A performance of Schoenberg’s perfectly benign First Chamber Symphony, by Maestro Eros’s short-lived San Diego Symphony Chamber Orchestra, had to be prefaced by a plea from the conductor to listen to the music without prejudice, and the audience was disgruntled nevertheless. There was even some discontent last summer with the amount of Aaron Copland programmed by Charles Ketcham (the Symphony’s able assistant conductor) at the Aztec Bowl — and this was not the “modernist,” jazzy Copland of the Symphonic Ode or the Piano Concerto, or the mildly daunting 12-tone Copland of Inscape and Connotations, but the Copland of Fanfare for the Common Man, a work about as cacophonous as “God Bless America.” What will happen next season, when Maestro Eros has made the audacious decision to conduct The Rite of Spring? Will the Paris riots of 1913 be repeated at the San Diego Civic Theater?

I am by no means blaming audiences for their dislike of much 20th Century music (though I do blame listeners who allow their preset conviction that modern music is ugly to interfere with their enjoyment of Fanfare for the Common Man). Tastes differ, and every concert-goer is entitled to his own likes and dislikes. What I am pointing out is the effect this general dislike has on the musical life of our community. Those of us who enjoy the great classics of our own century get little chance to hear them in live performance; and those who are perhaps skeptical but nevertheless willing to change their minds are given scarcely any exposure to music they might eventually come to love. I don’t propose to explain how this state of affairs has come about — whether it is due to failures in the educational system, or problems in the way the arts are financed, or ignorant audiences, or grave cultural dislocations, or some inherently alienating quality in the music itself. But I cannot believe the art of music is in a healthy condition when, after a half-century or more, some of the art’s greatest masterpieces continue to appeal only to coterie audiences.

Up to this point I have been speaking of the “classics” of 20th Century music, works as far behind us in time as Beethoven’s last symphonies were when Wagner was composing his last operas. The situation of truly contemporary music — that is, music being composed right now — is somewhat different, though no less problem-ridden. If the audience for Stravinsky and Varese in San Diego is small, the audience for Boulez, Stockhausen, Nono, and their contemporaries is almost nonexistent, consisting mainly of local musicians, composers, and music students, themselves involved in the performance or composition of contemporary music. Here we are dealing with a music far more alien to the sensibilities of the average concert-goer than the most extreme experiments of a Schoenberg or Webern. When an objective history of 20th Century music comes to be written, it may well turn out that the decisive revolution occurred not between 1910 and 1925, but rather in the 1950s and 60s--that Stravinsky, Bartok, Schoenberg, Prokofiev, Copland, even Webern, all belong fundamentally to the smoothly developing tradition of Western music, and that it is only with such works as Boulez’s Structures (1952-61) or Stockhausen’s Gesang der Juenglinge (1956) that something really new and unassimilable has been introduced into the art. It is arguable that the presuppositions of much of this new music have virtually nothing to do with the ideas and methods underlying Western music from the 12th Century to about 1950, that a perfect familiarity with Stravinsky and Schoenberg (not to mention Bach and Beethoven) will not prepare one in the least for understanding Stockhausen or Pousseur, that in order to relate to these contemporary works every audience must start from scratch and learn an entirely new language. Aleatoric compositions in which the structure of the piece depends on variable choices of the performers, works composed entirely by the manipulation of electronic sounds on tape, dramatic vocal pieces made up of screams, giggles, and stuttered consonants — compared with all of this, Webern is scarcely distinguishable from Mozart.

Consequently, the latest avant-garde music makes immense demands on listeners, who (even with all the good will in the world) cannot rely on any previous musical experience to orient themselves in what is in its essence a totally new world. Few listeners in San Diego seem willing or able to respond to these demands; so that, for example, a recent free concert of avant-garde music at UCSD, exquisitely performed under the direction of Bernard Rands, drew a crowd that scarcely filled a quarter of the Mandeville Auditorium. But even those music lovers who were sufficiently hardy to take a chance on Maderna and Erickson were frustrated in their efforts to understand and enjoy this music by one of the unfortunate circumstances of new-music performance: the fact that these difficult pieces, in unfamiliar styles, are played only once, so that if you sneeze and miss a few bars you will probably never in your life have a chance to find out what happened during that interval.

Of course, sneezing is not the problem. The problem is that works of this sort demand repeated, attentive listening, and that a single live performance often can do no more than tease a listener’s curiosity. Even a classical symphony — an unfamiliar symphony by Haydn, for example — does not yield its full meaning on a first hearing, even if the listener is completely conversant with the classical style. How much more inadequate, then, is a single performance of a piece which creates not only its own statement but its own language as well, a piece which offers us no overt hints as to how it is put together, where its articulations lie, where it is going, or what it intends to communicate. A few of the UCSD contemporary music concerts this past year have made a gesture at repeating a work a few days or weeks later, but the works that most demand this kind of treatment (for example, Berio’s elaborate and challenging Passaggio) have not been accorded it. Program notes at such concerts are almost always inadequate, either vague and philosophical or ridden with jargon, and in any case of little help in letting the concert-goer know what to listen for. Surely, the only sensible and practical way to treat a new and difficult work is to admit its difficulties and the unlikelihood of the audience’s understanding it unaided, and to analyze it in detail, right there on the spot. Ideally, the piece ought to be performed once, then analyzed by the conductor (or the composer, if he is available), and then played through again in its entirety. If much avant-garde music tends to leave even sympathetic audiences feeling totally at sea, at least part of the blame is due to composers and conductors who loftily insist that the music must speak for itself--and this is as true in San Diego as it is elsewhere.

The 20th Century classics have, by and large, not found full acceptance with the majority of music lovers. The music of the present moment tends to be so difficult, and so alien to tradition, that the very small audiences attracted to it nevertheless rarely have much understanding of what they are listening to. But it is a third category of 20th Century music that suffers most from the conditions of composing, performing, and listening peculiar to our age. I am referring to that great mass of 20th Century music which is neither the work of one of the undeniable masters, nor the very latest production of the avant-garde, music which is not overly difficult to understand and enjoy, but which, because it is characterized by neither absolute greatness nor absolute newness, practically never gets performed at all. The quality of this music is often very high, the workmanship and the inspiration make much of it eminently worthy of being heard, and heard often; but there is no fashion of concert programming that allows performers to pay any attention to it. When — I don’t speak only of San Diego — do we ever get a chance to hear live performances of the works of Ernst Toch, Vittorio Rieti, Vaclav Nelhybel, Peter Mennin, Roger Sessions, William Schuman, Roy Harris, Ben Weber, Quincy Porter, David Diamond, Walter Piston, Ross Lee Finney, Arnold Bax, E.J. Moeran, Douglas Lilburn, Michael Tippett, Frank Martin, Marius Constant, Serge Nigg, Daniel-Lesur, Luigi Dallapiccola, Hans Pfitzner, Klaus Egge, Alan Petterson, Heinrich Sutermeister, Ferenc Szabo, Karl Amadeus Hartmann, etc., etc.? It is as if these composers had never existed.

When a performing group generally associated with the “classics” decides to do a 20th Century work, the choice is made among the masterpieces or among the most recent compositions of the most recent composers; that there is anything in between, in quality or in time, is something concert programs would never make one aware of. Hence, the Juilliard Quartet, on its frequent visits to San Diego, will play (on the one hand) one of the quartets of Bartok or Schoenberg, or (on the other hand) some wretched thing commissioned by them from Mario Davidovsky and hot off the press; but it would never cross their minds to play a well-made, interesting, relatively conservative quartet composed in 1953 by William Bergsma. They feel they have an obligation to perform some of the music that is being composed today, but when it turns into the music of yesterday (as it will by tomorrow), they feel justified in ignoring it unless it is a masterwork. Yet the Juilliard takes its responsibility towards modern music far more seriously than some of our local organizations, who consider themselves very daring when they program late Dvorak. The consequence is that crowds of deserving composers and piles of wonderful music are shoveled into the waste bin of musical history, and audiences are deprived of a rich and varied experience of the music of their own time.

Such, more or less, is the state of 20th Century music in San Diego — or at least of live performances of it. Our classical radio stations do provide a few nourishing tidbits for music-lovers hungry for modern music. Peter Hamlin’s excellent programs of contemporary music (along with informative interviews) on KPBS, and the surprisingly extensive programming on KFSD of Vaughan-Williams, Bax, and others of their school (the result of J.D. Steyers’ wonderfully idiosyncratic passion for modern British music). There are indeed occasional live performances of lesser known 20th Century works; conductor John Garvey has been particularly enterprising in this respect, giving us (though spread out over the years) Varese, William Schuman, even Hans Werner Henze. But beyond this, if you want to learn about and experience the full richness of 20th Century music, you will have to become an assiduous record-collector — which is perhaps not the worst way to become acquainted with music that demands so many hearings before it will yield its secrets and its delights.

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