7. 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.

Who but the composer knows better what aesthetic discoveries and insights have gone into the creative impulse of his own compositions? Uniquely among the Arts, it seems that music has more than one aesthetic standpoint from which it may be approached by any who would fully understand its working and its origin.

Three of our seven 20th century composers have given us their own personal and invaluable clues as to its nature, by quoting their common source which lies in the enquiring minds of the classical Greek scientists and philosophers of the 5th/4th centuries BC. It was Aristotle who invented the word “aesthesis”, the underlying idea behind our use of “aesthetics”. Busoni referred to it as “the empyrean of the eternal harmony”; Stravinsky called it “the creative impulse”; I call it “absolute tonality”, or, more simply, “tonality”. Each description defines one of the fundamental principles or standards summed up in Aristotle’s original word “aesthesis”, which was the spiritual source from which music itself springs. The other fundamental principle or standard, which was complementary to “aesthesis”, was called by the Greeks “poesis”, and was the practical source of the actual sounds of music. The first, the spiritual source of music, has come to be associated with the evolution and growth of musical cultures over the years, and the discovery by creative composers of different musical structures and art-forms. The second, the practical source of music, has come to be associated with the performance of music and the invention of musical instruments which make musical sounds. In our day the word “poesis” has come to mean “poetry”.

What discipline but aesthetics, the science of music, can better explain the composer’s artistic principles to the listener, who is hearing new musical sounds for the first time? “Philosophy begins in wonder,” said Aristotle in his “Poetics”. So the creative purpose underlying a composer’s idiom is explained by informed contributors to what was a new label for British Music in the 20th Century, British Musical Heritage.

Under this title a collection of 21 CDs were produced as an adjunct to Redcliffe Concerts under the title of Redcliffe Recordings. These are listed at Appendix A, together with the original programme notes (which can be accessed by clicking on the CD image). These programme notes are intended to introduce a fresh generation of listeners to a new aesthetic in respect of each composer’s uniqueness.

8. Three Last works

We regret to advise that Francis Routh died peacefully on 27th November 2021
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