The Rambler :: blog

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

ArtsJournal: PostClassic 

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Following up on his earlier short post on the over-importance of 12-tone/serial music in the teaching of 20th-century music history, Kyle Gann has written a a substantial, balanced contribution to the subject. The crucial point that he makes is that he is not asking for a fundamentalist expunging of 12-tone music from the history books and the classrooms. Rather, what is needed is a new, more historically honest approach to the music and its context. For 15 years before World War II, serialism was the second most important musical movement in European composition (neo-classicism, in terms of its reach, breadth, and quality of works was possibly the most important), and for about a decade after the war, it was the most vocally outspoken movement, producing half a dozen genuine masterpieces, and a handful of notorious bugbears. Now, like Kyle, I love a number of serial works - Gruppen, Il canto sospeso, Webern's Concerto, op.24, etc - but that love has less to do with the system itself than the new sound possibilities that the application of a radical system like serialism opens up.

Read Kyle's post, he talks a lot of sense. What I wanted to add was a little of my own experience in teaching serialism. For the last five years I've taught one quarter of a module on early 20th-century music. My chosen topic is music and national identity, so there are lectures on Bartók, Szymanowski, American experimentalism, and the last lecture - which I gave yesterday - is a speculative account of the neo-classicism vs expressionism/serialism story in terms of competing French and German national identity. The idea behind the course is largely to tackle some of the questions Kyle mentions - the fact that important composers like Partch, Szymanowski, Ives, Bartók (Bartók, fercryinoutloud!) all-too easily slip through the cracks of conventional 20th-century music history. I wanted to make sure that my students got a chance to hear some of this music before they left the course, and taking a national angle seemed a useful way of structuring that. The interesting thing about this angle from the point of view of serialism is that it immediately becomes one issue among many. Put into a national context with those two marvellous Schoenberg quotations
Today I have discovered something that will ensure the supremacy of German music for the next hundred years.
and the even more damning, but much less famous
Peace after the First World War granted political independence to nations which culturally were far from ready for it. Nevertheless even small nations of six to ten million people expected to be regarded as cultural units, nations whose national characteristics expressed themselves in many ways: in their applied arts, weaving, ceramics, painting, singing and playing and, finally, even composing music
, and the canonic place of serialism does start to taste a bit funny. The patronising tone of that opening, to his 1947 essay 'Folkloristic Symphonies', leaves me breathless - hopefully after a couple of hours in the company of Szymanowski's piano works and Bartó'k's string quartets some of my students feel similarly affronted. Yes, limp patriotic, 'folkloristic' music deserves its place in the footnotes of music history, but few composers knew that better than those occupants of 'culturally unready' nations, Bartók and Szymanowski themselves.

So, anyhoo, my last class is a deliberate attempt to get my students to think properly about some of the canonic music history they've been taught thus far in the course by my colleagues, and to be aware that there is always more than one way to tell a story. That's why I spend time covering, once again, Debussy, Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Berg, in a new, national context.

Except that, for the first time, because of a staff reorganisation, none of this year's current crop of students have been taught serialism. What used to occupy four full lectures (a quarter of what is a compulsory module) has simply disappeared off the curriculum, replaced by four lectures on Russian music under Stalin. This is quite surprising, and it's a new experience to be faced with a room of 60 undergraduates who don't know what a tone row is, much less a hexachordal interversion. Needless to say it threw my final lecture somewhat, as half of its point relied on a gentle undermining of Schoenberg's position as the father of 20th-century music. For students who've yet to encounter serialism in their classes this looks a little daft, so I was forced into a swift rewrite, and a few minutes on the rudiments of serialism, and the place Schoenberg had ordained for it at the head of the German musical thrust into the future. All of which seemed a little silly in retrospect.

Sadly this year is the last that I'll be teaching this module as the whole course is being reorganised at the end of the year, so I'll never really come to terms with teaching within a serial-free 20th-century course. Shame.

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