Look to the boxoffice; the theater was meant to be full.
Giuseppe Verdi to a young composer upset about the critics’ reaction to his compositions.
The music discussed here is that of Western Europe which is typically called classical music. I’ll include opera and related vocal music under the same rubric. While largely the child of Italy and Germany it spread both east and west. Eventually every European country produced masters. Russia was particularly proficient in its production of composers and performers of the first rank, though most of the great music in this style came from Germany. Opera was an exception being both invented and perfected in Italy. The masterpieces in these genres kept accumulating until the beginning of the 20th century, but then petered out. Why classical music as a living art producing new masterpieces at regular intervals died is my subject.
I think we are hardwired for beauty. While much of what I’m about to state could be applied to literature and the visual arts, I’ll stick to music. Virtually all the great music written in the classical tradition is tonal. I mean by this music that is written in a specific key based on an octave that contains 12 notes. Music theorists distinguish between keys and tonality, but I will avoid that distinction. Thus, there are 12 major and 12 minor keys that virtually all of the Western music written between 1600 to 1910 used. For a complete discussion of the theoretical underpinnings of tonality see the article just linked. My thesis is that none of these distinctions matter to an audience and that music that loses its audience dies.
The year 1910 given above is pivotal because it marks the beginning of an epoch during which classical composers lost interest in their audience and began to write music intended to picque the intellect and taste of other musicians. The last operas that were universally embraced by audiences were written by Giacomo Puccini and Richard Strauss (there are a few exceptions) in the first quarter of the 20th century. Instrumental music held on a little longer . The last master of the quartet and the symphony, Dmitri Shostakovich, died in 1975. Instrumental music in the classical style and opera continue to be written today; they just fail to find a wide audience, or even a narrow one.
I believe that the music of Bach, Palestrina, and their descendents literally hits a nerve in human consciousness that for whatever reason was constructed to respond to tonal music. As musical inventiveness evolved over the ensuing centuries the boundaries of tonal music were stretched but never completely abandoned until around 1910 – see below.
While each culture has its own musical tradition, Western music seems to take root wherever it goes. If it weren’t the wrong way around the woke would accuse Japan, China, Argentina, etc of cultural appropriation. Beethoven and Verdi seem universal. I believe that our musical taste has a boundary at the edge of tonality and that once that line is crossed the audience is left behind. Our intellect is sufficient to depart from tonality, but our emotions are not. The failure to make this distinction is, in my view, the main cause of the separation of the professional composer from his amateur audience.
Popular music continues to thrive, as it is intended for its audience. There’s no sense of obligation thrust on its listeners insisting that they must like the music regardless of how little it appeals to them. Classical music, on the other hand, reached a point where only musicians and scholars cared for the new music. This approach is best characterized by the Second Viennese School. This group of musicians was headed by Arnold Schönberg. Other prominent members were Alban Berg and Anton Webern.
Schönberg invented the 12 tone technique, also called atonality or serial composition. He was also a great theorist and teacher. Accordingly, his technique was embraced by many musicians, but mostly rejected by listeners. In my opinion, it is the single biggest reason that classical music moved from a vibrant art form to museum status over the course of the 20th century. Museums are what our modern concert halls and opera houses have become. They play the same masterpieces over and over again to an ever graying audience. The young mostly go elsewhere to hear new music written in a different tradition that meets their needs. Museums are a vital part of human existence, but they also can become graveyards for art.
Atonal music is no longer as intellectually fashionable as it was during the last century, but nothing in the classical tradition that has succeeded it has restored classical and operatic acceptance close to what they were a little over a century ago. A brief tour d’horizon illustrates how classical music and opera reached a dead end.
Joseph Haydn was the father of both the string quartet and the symphony. Though an employee of a nobleman for most of his adult life, his music achieved widespread popularity and served as an inspiration for symphonic composers for the century that followed his death in 1809. His final symphony, #104, was first performed in London under the composer’s direction. It was a success and Haydn wrote that he made 4000 guilden (which he considered and immense figure) for the evening’s work. Haydn’s symphonies typically have a minuet and trio as the third of their four movements. Haydn 104 3rd movt
Mozart wrote his symphonies in the same style as did Haydn. Beethoven both changed the way symphonies were written and reached creative heights never surpassed and rarely equalled. He replaced the minuet and trio with a more muscular scherzo. Gustav Mahler thought he was the end of the symphonic tradition started by Haydn more than a century earlier. He wasn’t. Shostakovich was the last symphonic master.
Mahler’s Symphony #7 is full of ambiguous tonality. It’s an example of progressive tonality, a technique he had previously used. “Progressive tonality is the music compositional practice whereby a piece of music does not finish in the key in which it began, but instead ‘progresses’ to an ending in a different key or tonality. To avoid misunderstanding, it should be stressed that in this connection ‘different key’ means a different tonic, rather than merely a change to a different mode.” [Quotation from link above.] While Mahler knew Schönberg well and thought highly of him and his compositions, the older composer’s music never abandons tonality. The Scherzo from the 7th Symphony is an example of how far the musical distance travelled in the century of so after Haydn. Mahler’s instructions are “Shadowy. Flowing but not too fast.”
In opera tonality first began to shift in the 1850s. Consider these two preludes written within a few years of each other. The Prelude to Act 1 of Verdi’s La Traviata treads no new musical ground. Indeed, the same could be said of all of Verdi’s operas. Musicologists found little in the Italian’s work of interest until he produced Otello and Falstaff. His influence on composition is virtually non existent. There is no pro or anti Verdi school. All he had going for him, and still does today, was the audience which could not get enough of his music. Eventually the experts were forced to come around and concede the exalted position in music that he now occupies.
Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde was a landmark in the development of Western music. From the first few bars of the Prelude tonality is threatened. The first chord resolves to a dissonant chord.
Wagner’s influence on culture in general and music in particular was immense. Every musician who followed him had to contend with his compositions and extra musical thinking. Tristan’s place in the operatic repertory is secure. Yet Traviata is performed about three times as often worldwide than is Tristan. Verdi’s instinct that the only critic that mattered over the long haul has repeatedly proven correct.
Richard Strauss after initially rejecting Wagner’s idiom took it up and drove farther than anyone previous to him had imagined. His two single act operas, Salome and Elektra, stretch tonality into Gordian Knot rubber band. Still melody and tonality are preserved. The final scene of Elektra depicts Chrysothemis and Elektra praise of their brother’s revenge murder of their mother. Then Elektra begins to dance. As she reaches the climax of her dance, she falls dead to the ground. Horrified, Chrysothemis calls for Orest, but to no avail.
Though Strauss employed dissonance and fluid tonality the opera remains, just barely, inside the comfort zone of a modern listener. It is part of the standard operatic repertory, but even Strauss was shocked by what he had done. His next opera was a deliberate retreat from modernism. It also was by far the most popular he ever wrote – Der Rosenkavalier. If you can write something as beautiful as the opera’s final trio, there’s no need for noise, cacophony, and uncertain tonality. Strauss knew the worth of what he had created and asked for the trio to be performed at his funeral. Accordingly, it was played under Georg Solti’s direction.
A true atonal opera had to wait for Alban Berg. Wozzeck is based on the drama Woyzeck, which the German playwright Georg Büchner left incomplete at his death. The composer constructed the libretto from fragments of Büchner’s unfinished play. Three acts, each with five scenes. The story is a realistic depiction of the brutal life of a soldier and his mistress who has borne him a son. Every character leads a lunatic life filled with cruelty and ugliness. The opera not only abandons tonality it also makes almost exclusive use of Sprechgesang. It also uses classical forms like suite, fugue, passacaglia – each scene use one form. This device is invisible to an average listener, though it impresses musicians.
Berg was the only composer who could manage to write atonal music that might bring an average concert or operagoer into the hall. He started the work in 1914. It was interrupted by World War I. After he was discharged from military service, he completed the opera in 1921. The horror of his experience during the war coats the entire opera. First performed in 1925, it was so scandalous that it made a lot of money for its composer. It reached the Met in 1959. I was at the first performance.
Karl Bohm conducted Hermann Uhde, Eleanor Steber, and Kurt Baum in an English translation of the libretto. I hardly understood a word. I had listened to a recording of the opera before the Met production and knew what to expect. I actually enjoyed it. I didn’t see it again until earlier this year when the Met did it as part of their HD series. Sixty one years between shows must be a record for patience. I think I can handle the opera every six decades. The original Met run of five performances did not do well at the box office. Below are videos of the opera’s final two scenes. First a brief description of each scene.
Scene 4 (Invention on a Hexachord)
Having returned to the murder scene, Wozzeck becomes obsessed with the thought that the knife he killed Marie with will incriminate him, and throws it into the pond. When the blood-red moon appears again, Wozzeck, fearing that he has not thrown the knife far enough from shore and also wanting to wash away the blood staining his clothing and hands, wades into the pond and drowns. The Captain and the Doctor, passing by, hear Wozzeck moaning and rush off in fright.
Interlude (Invention on a Key (D minor)).This interlude leads to the finale.
Scene 5 (Invention on an Eighth-Note moto perpetuo, quasi toccata)
The next morning, children are playing in the sunshine. The news spreads that Marie’s body has been found, and they all run off to see, except for Marie’s son, who after an oblivious moment, follows after the others.
Wozzeck is a sport, a strange isolated work of genius. Nothing significant followed it. Even Berg’s second opera Lulu is not on a par with his first one. It’s too long and unfortunately he didn’t live to finish it. Had he lived he doubtless would have revised and reshaped the score. As an example to other and lesser composers it was disastrous, leading opera down the path to irrelevance.
Schönberg fled Europe to avoid religious persecution and almost certain death at the hands of the Nazis; he ended up in Los Angeles. His fame and scholarly excellence landed him teaching positions at both UCLA and USC. These appointments generated enough money for him to lead a comfortable life in Southern California. He became s US citizen in 1941. The following year he wrote his Piano Concerto. It is an atonal work based on one 12 tone row. The work is highly thought of by numerous musicians, but it’s not performed very often. It consists of four movements played without interruption. Here’s the first half of the concerto played by Mitsuko Uchida who is devoted to the piece – audiences seem less so. It’s an interesting composition that is worth an occasional listen.
Dmitri Shostakovich wrote his Piano Concerto #2 in 1957 for his son Maxim’s 19th birthday. He intended it to be a light hearted piece which he didn’t take too seriously. It’s in F Major. When asked why he didn’t write atonal music, Shostakovich replied that there was still a lot to say in C Major. The concerto’s third movement is played by its composer. He takes the allegro at such a fast pace that the Moscow orchestra accompanying him has difficulty keeping up. The great composer was an equally great pianist. Unfortunately, he did not record very often. The concerto has proven to be quite popular and is regularly played. Another example of the audience being the final arbiter of musical worth.
Classical music and opera went wrong about 100 years ago by consciously deciding to force feed its audiences material they did not wish to ingest. Shostakovich with some help from a few others kept the genre alive for a while. But after the Russian died, nothing equal to his routine work has appeared. The departure of Puccini and Strauss left opera bereft of works that engaged a wide public. European art music, for want of a better term, seems to have committed cultural suicide – a phenomenon that other Western institutions are now facing. The fatal shots were fired by those who knew the most about music – ie, intellectuals and experts. The best these now obsolete forms can hope for is museum status. But a ticket to an art museum doesn’t cost $360 – the Met’s top ticket price.