Personal Reflections

Aesthetics of Music in the 20th Century


The demise of Viennese serialism at the close of the 20th century was an important turning point in the history of Western music. It had begun experimentally, theoretically as “twelve note music”,  or “atonality”, put forward in the early 1900s by the Second Viennese School of Schoenberg, Berg and Webern. It soon spread worldwide, sweeping through Europe and America between the wars, gaining many adherents , dividing others, with Schoenberg’s insistence on the philosophic syllogism that “tonality was dead“.  Later serialism began to be perceived as a passing trend, if a long-lasting one in the Austro-German musical tradition, which turned out to be more or less coeval with the century itself. Berg died in 1935, Webern in 1945, Schoenberg in 1951. After 1945, with the rise in the discovery of electronic music and the new digital technology, whose chief exponents were Boulez, Stockhausen and other European and American electronic   and avant – garde   composers, and with the   back–up of German and American electronic studios and radio stations, and   other public facilities such as IRCAM, the research studio founded and directed by Boulez at the Pompidou Centre in Paris, serialism grew incrementally with the irresistible force of a flood tide.  At its core lay the acceptance of the supposition   that “tonality was dead”, and Western composers and musicians responded to   this negative   creative tradition  by becoming divided   aesthetically, between those who could accept the “total serialism” of Boulez, with the total elimination of tonality which followed from that, and those who could not. The division was fundamental and worldwide; it was philosophical, logical, cultural and scientific, and it remained, as Leonard Bernstein put it, “The Unanswered Question” until the close of the 20th century.

Gradually, the tide of serialism began to ebb and by the 1990s it had ceased to be as powerful a creative force as it once had been. It came to be perceived not as a continuation and evolution of the Western classical tradition, as Schoenberg saw it, nor, as Webern described it, The Path to the New Music (Der Weg zur neuen Musik), but more as what it was, an   unproven,   suppositional premise, and a negative creative tradition, which if pursued to its logical conclusion would lead to the subversion of the materia musica itself, and the destruction of the source of music’s power. The philosophic rationale of the “total serialism” of the Second Viennese School, and the fundamental datum underlying the work of Boulez at IRCAM, made the  elimination of tonality not so much a theoretical proposition to be tested, but   a goal to be achieved. This logical fallacy, known in law as petitio principii, by which a conclusion is taken for granted in a premise, was a concept  directly opposed, and quite foreign, to the structural integrity of music, demonstrated so definitively in the classical/harmonic tradition of the First Viennese School of Haydn , Mozart and Beethoven. Indeed the work of Beethoven achieved nothing less than the apotheosis of tonality.

Tonality is to music what words are to language.  Music is the tonal art. Therefore to say that “ tonality was dead” was to say that music itself was dead, and that   words had ceased to have meaning.  We know this is not so. The power to communicate in words once discovered is not forgotten, and is seen to be stronger when people share  a common language. So when musicians, composers and performers, share a common musical language, the power to communicate is also stronger; a living tradition of musical communication is thereby brought into being, and music becomes truly a unifying force. The historian A. J. P. Taylor, echoing the visionary concept of the great German poet Goethe, once   defined Europe as those countries united by a common music, based on the diatonic scale. Indeed music’s power to unify, and to bring together people and nations divided along political, ethnic or cultural lines, led in the twentieth century to the creation of two new and positive musical traditions. Both indeed happened as a result of conflict and division, which they outlived; they proved to be the counterpart of that negative tradition of serialism, which did not survive the century.

The first such positive creative tradition was jazz, which was born in the Southern states of America at the opening of the twentieth century. Over some three centuries, until the abolition of slavery in the mid–nineteenth century, more than ten million native Africans had been shipped across the Atlantic from Africa; roughly the population of Great Britain as it was in 1800. Suffering every degradation, and denied every freedom, they nevertheless retained the characteristics of their race. Hidden deep in the collective memory, music brought   solace in adversity,   a common search for cultural identity in a strange and hostile land. Instinctive   and untutored it may have been, yet a rich harvest was soon reaped in the Spiritual, and  the Blues. Ragtime and Jazz were  later instrumental developments of these  vocal   styles. Their nature was folk art, and   the great names of jazz were performer/composers, united with their audience in a   bond of common sentiment. The improvisatory style that characterised the jazz musician   gave him   a freedom and power  of   expression   which was the   counterpart to that   very lack of freedom which was his everyday  lot . Hence derived the unique vitality of jazz. The advance of jazz to its present position of influence in American music, hence in world music, is one of the most remarkable stories of our age. Through all its developments up to the present, it is the black American performer/composer who has consistently maintained the artistic initiative. Jazz remains his creation, a living tradition.

A second positive, creative  tradition, born at the close of the twentieth century out of racial and political   divisions, which it transcended, was the vision of a Jewish musician, born in Argentina, the world renowned pianist and conductor Daniel Barenboim. He founded the West- Eastern Divan Orchestra in 1999 in Weimar, because that city had been designated Europe’s cultural capital. His vision was truly Utopian, and was shared by the Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, Edward Said, who as well as writer, teacher, and well informed musical critic, was also a Palestinian Arab by birth, and close friend and colleague of Daniel Barenboim. The orchestra they founded brought together young musicians from both sides of the Arab/Israeli conflict in the Middle East; from Palestine, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, as well as from Andalucia and further afield in Europe. During the summer months each year an equal number of Jewish and Arab musicians were invited to attend a   musical   workshop in Seville. Under Barenboim’s creative direction they were to rehearse and make music together, to study and discuss together the great classics of Western music, and to examine together the political and cultural problems dividing their countries; and finally, when ready and fully prepared as an orchestra, they gave a series of concerts under their virtuoso conductor. In the five years since the founding of the orchestra, concerts were  given in Germany, Spain, France, the United Kingdom, Switzerland and the United States. In 2003 the first concert in an Arab country was given in Rabat, Morocco. In 2005 the first concert was given in   Palestine, in the Palace of Culture, Ramallah on the West Bank.

In addition to the political/ racial  conflicts endemic in  the cultures   of the 20th century, a seemingly intractable problem was the musical/aesthetic division in   Western music brought about by “total serialism”. The Boulez principle of seeking to eliminate tonality from the process of musical composition, was opposed in every respect to   the classical principle, whose chief exponent was Beethoven, of using tonality  as the prime   creative source of music itself; the source of colour and variety in the harmony, of movement and structure in the melody, of sequence in the rhythm. The two principles, the one a negation, the other an assertion of tonality, are incompatible and  cannot co-exist in the same art- form.

In the summer of 2012, as part of the BBC Promenade Concerts in London’s Royal Albert Hall, Daniel Barenboim conducted the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra in  performances of the complete cycle of all the Beethoven symphonies. In five concerts spread over eight days, two symphonies were performed in each of four concerts. The ninth ‘Choral’ symphony was performed at the final concert. The occasion was the celebration of the Olympic Games, which were held that year in London.   The final concert, at which the Choral Symphony was performed, coincided on the same day with the closing ceremony of the games, when the public mood was one of great festivity and enthusiasm, in  celebration of the best of human achievement, in music and the arts as well as in sport.

Beethoven’s symphonies were not the only music performed by the West – Eastern Divan Orchestra. In each of their concerts, between the Beethoven symphonies, electronic works by Boulez were performed. Barenboim  conducted those sections allotted to the orchestra, while the electronic sections  were pre–recorded   playbacks. Thus in the same concert, performed by the same musicians, music composed on the Beethoven principle of tonality was heard at the same time as music composed on the Boulez principle that tonality was dead. The listener, by hearing and comparing the sound of each, was able to judge aesthetically which of the two methods made music more successfully, and communicated through music more completely.


Three Last Works


1   The Well-Tempered Pianist Op.77


The 24 preludes which make up  The Well-Tempered Pianist are studies in tonality. The 7-note scale round which they are formed is constructed identically on each of the twelve degrees of the chromatic  scale, in both major and minor modes. It was in this way that, early in the 18th century, J.S.Bach had formulated the 7-note diatonic scale when composing   the 48 Preludes and Fugues that make up Das Wohltemperierte Klavier. The new scale differs from that in so far as it consists of the six notes of the whole – tone scale, which Debussy introduced into Western music early in the 20th century ,  with the addition of the perfect fourth. Thus the twelve semitones that fall within the octave are divided equally into two tetrachords, which differ only in their leading note, and whose bass notes are set apart by the interval of the tritone.

This interval, known to the ancient Greeks, which medieval theorists described as the devil in music, diabolus in musica, lies midway between the fourth and fifth degrees, the subdominant and dominant, of the diatonic scale, yet possesses the tonal   characteristics of neither. Nevertheless, it exercised the strongest pull in determining the music’s tonality, whether vertically through the harmony or horizontally through the melody. This interval is now made the matrix of a new scale of extended tonality.   

This scale evolved from The Manger Throne (1959) through to its  complete formulation for The Well-Tempered Pianist (2010).   The successive stages of   composition of these works, and three day-long recording sessions in which each piece was honed, were conducted   like an ongoing  scientific experiment, with a predetermined unanimity of purpose, and a common aesthetic aim between composer, performer and producer. Only when the correct musical data were in place at each stage, and each  test had proved successful to the  satisfaction of all the participants, would they proceed to the next stage. A creative momentum thus  built up, as success at each stage indicated the way forward to the next stage. The final stage, the release of the   recording, was marked by a house concert in December 2010, at which Charles Matthews performed groups of two or three of  the new preludes, interspersed with preludes by Bach and Chopin, to an invited audience and   their guests, all of whom received a copy of the new CD of The Well-Tempered Pianist .


2     Romance for Violoncello and String Orchestra, Op.51


The  opportunities which such a creative momentum would open up were very soon made clear, when Charles Matthews asked “Have you anything for strings ?” Every year he directed an international summer school for young string players, at the Festival of San Lorenzo de El Escorial, Madrid, and he was looking for new works to feature in the 2011 festival. Routh proposed two, Suite for String Orchestra, Op.50, and Romance for Cello and String Orchestra, Op.51 . The former had been written for the  Royal Academy orchestra   (RAM Da Capo, 1993; the latter had been a commission from Christopher Bunting in 1989, which he intended to perform with the students of the Royal College of Music and the Yehudi Menuhin School, where he taught.

The early stages of composition of Romance  were soon completed, and Bunting had  edited the solo part, when illness prevented his proposed idea from reaching completion. He died unexpectedly in 2005; but the work done already was not to be wasted, and Romance  was premiered  by Charles Matthews in the Teatro Auditorio, San Lorenzo, in July 2011 as part of the XXXIII International Course of Musica Matisse. The soloist was the cello coach on the course, the young  Welsh cellist Kathryn Price.   As well as Romance,  Suite for String Orchestra was also featured under the same creative impulse, in celebration of traditional English court dances of the 16th and 17th centuries. Both these performances took place on the initiative of Charles Matthews, in the wake of his recording of The Well-Tempered Pianist. In the meantime a new work for orchestra was also to follow without delay.


3          Symphony 3, Op.79


The extended scale had the power to impose a new tonal order over the 24 Preludes.   The contrapuntal and harmonic movement of the parts led to the opening up of fresh areas of tonality.  Indeed The Well-Tempered Pianist could only be followed up by one path, which was indicated by the example of Bach himself. When he composed Das Wohltemperierte Klavier, the first book of 24 Preludes and Fugues was published in 1722. This was followed up many years later with the second book of 24 Preludes and Fugues, which were on a larger scale and more developed than the first. So the complete work that has come down to us is 48 Preludes and Fugues.

In the case of The Well-Tempered Pianist, the  preludes were followed up by another such work based on the same architectural structure, but on a larger scale and using more resources. The preludes were for a single player, and a solo instrument; a private statement of musical expressivity and virtuosity.  The new work would be a symphony for full  orchestra, and 100 players. The preludes were a few minutes in duration, and monothematic. Each of the three movements  of the new work would be of symphonic proportions, and would be based on the material of one of the  preludes, would  transform it, add to it, develop it, and turn it into a public expression of orchestral virtuosity,  to be shared by many.

Prelude V, Vivace (92), of The Well-Tempered Pianist generated the first movement, Vivace (88), of Symphony 3. To this was added a second theme as well as symphonic development.

Prelude XXII,  Largo elegiaco, was the source of the fuller treatment of the elegiac second movement.

The third movement finale of the Symphony, Rondo Vivace, is the full orchestral version of the final movement, La Volta,  of the Suite for String Orchestra.


Prelude V 1Symphony 3



Francis Routh signature

Francis Routh

May 2015