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The Musical Avant-Garde

The Concertgoer



"SO THE PIANIST, a lean young man with a strangle lunar light on his face, surveyed the piano, placed his hands on the keys--I always sit on the left to see his hands--and, unbelievable as it seems, simply sat there without motion or sound. Well, the audience regressed from expectation to uneasiness; then, in crescendo of frustration, through irritation--it was hot, the air fairly visible--rumor (Is he stricken? Sane? Obstinat?) anger, shouting, disgust, and finally mass departure. What is music coming to...?" Only to renewal. The pianist, by refusing to "play," gave rhetorical expression to one of the dramatic esthetics of musical avant-garde composer John Cage. Our matronly subscriber almost certainly goes to ten concerts, sits on the left, prefers the Steinway, adores podium gymnastics "if not excessive" (meaning horizontal and unconscious), parades at intermission. She listens with equal stolidity to Scheherezade and Mahler's Sixth Symphony, gazes transfixed at the flashing brass, and probably harbors an unbreakable, unreflective, reactionary, insensate detestation of all "modern music" which neither celebrates horses and streams, nor revels in unkept legions of defeaning brass. Henry James exquisitely captures this mood of pasteurized voraciousness:

There is an immense public, if public be the name, inarticulate, but abysmally absorbent.

Almost every piece since 1920, much less 1945, is considered perverse despoliation; to many it is satanic chaos, reprehensible and calumnious. Also ugly. It is hardly surprising that the usual concert season is an essay in archaeology. The result is that the new works of 1925 are despised, while the masterpieces of 1725 and 1825 are subjected to one last definitive violation. The audience is so sated with enervating performance of the acceptable masterworks that the Beethoven Fifth might as well be so much chloroform.

The typical audience is a group of innocent people collapsed into a cavern, some out of duty, some out of curiosity, a few out of vanity, sensuous lust, of sheer chance. To borrow an image from F. Scott Fitzgerald, the musical landscape is like the ears of Dr. T.J. Eckleberg poised over a valley of ash in which there rests a supine multitude, with a string quartet in the middle playing uneasily. Yet there precariously exists among these people a fund of instinctive love for art. The problem is that this regard, if it hasn't been ground to pieces by our throttling social injustices, or bred out by our mortuary suburbs, easily deteriorates into arch-conservative sentimentality. Someone has to periodically throw some sulphur on the public's idols by burying false gods and illuminating misunderstood ones.

ANY AVANT GARDE worthy of the appellation necessarily combines violence with recreation, but it seems that only the irreverence implicit in renovation is ever noticed by the tranquilly respiring keepers of art. The detractors of the avant-garde typically abuse it by denouncing its supposed vagaries, rather than intelligently approaching it as a source of pleasure. At the same time, a minority champions it to suffocation.

Ironically, just as the minority abandons it, the masses begin to fawn upon its fifty-year-old innovation for the wrong reasons. Beethoven, Berlioz, Wagner, and Schoenberg were regarded, with varying vehemence, as musical antichrists, Yet now that they are heard, with deadening frequency, they are widely caricatured as rebels or prophets, venerable and unapproachable. They are accorded all honors except the simple duty of critical listening. As Bernard Shaw's Saint Joan laments upon realizing that her belated 1910 canonization was due to a stupid society's mute guilt rather than its compassion: "Woe to him whom all men praise."

From Weber, who thought Beethoven ripe for the madhouse for spreading a dozen notes over five minutes in the opening of his Fourth Symphony; to Schoenberg, trying to convince Mahler that a melody could be produced by passing one note around among several instruments' to Cage, who celebrates the esthetic of the suggestive-mundane, music has been a dynamo house, even if it seems lethargic from the outside. Musical history seems like a cycle of vituperation and eulogy. At the present time the vituperation is peculiarly stubborn and the eulogy almost theocratic. We see the spectacle of older people grappling with techniques of 1900, while the young are assimilating contemporary radical experiments with unprecedented rapidity, paying little or no attention to their musical progenitors. As a result, the older audience surges deeper into the past, tenaciously clutching the "classics," while the younger audience repudiates that past with increasingly hysterical violence. We have reached a condition in which today's rather theatrical experiments are accepted but the genuinely difficult breakthroughs of fifty years past beggar all understanding. Remarkable enough, what is cavalierly called "modern music" is actually the simultaneous residence in the present of the old and older.


NO PERIOD in the arts has so mesmerized succeeding generations of artists, or so bewildered the public, as the years from 1882 to 1935 -- years of almost constant musical detonations. The main crisis was that the girdling shadow of the colossus Wagner had to be escaped. The entire community of Europe agonied in the punishing ascendency of the magnificent nineteenth century figures: Beethoven, Wagner, Brahms, Metternich, Bismarck, Darwin. Music was caught in a vortex of gigantic, lavish attempts at the final romantic masterpiece. Mahler's Eighth Symphony, Richard Strauss's Symphonia Domestica and Alpine Symphony, Schoenberg's Pelleas and Melisande and Gurre-Lieder, Scriabin's Poem of Ecstasy were all part of an increasingly grotesque effort to revitalize the nineteenth century musical syntax. Munificently colored cathedrals were raised upon the collapsing sands of lurid fin-de-siecle romanticism. Self-paralysis, excruciating self-examination, and creative resumption along new paths followed this cataract.

A moving symbol of this crisis is the trumpet's high A in the unfinished Mahler Tenth Symphony (1910), piercing through a savage discord. The orchestra is poised midway between the old and new. Mehler, a genius of almost supernatural penetration, had asked earlier:

On what dark subsoil our life is built!

Whence do we come? Where does the way out lead? Why do I believe myself free and yet am wedged into my character as into a prison? What is the purpose of suffering?

How can I understand cruelty and malice in the creation of a kind God?

Cultured, leisured Europe before the War was in the tightening grip of the pseudo-evangelical conviction of its irresistible ascendance toward eventual glory. Europe divided, in Shaw's terms, into Heartbreak House and Horseback Hall, the remorseless chamber of realistic understanding, and the palatial funhouse full of languishing multitudes. The world, Shaw writes, "idolized love but believed in cruelty." The War razed this fetid cathedral only to leave a desolate stone quarry. The post-war legacy of prostration, humiliation, and shattered faces demanded new artistic speech. Old men morosely questioned the value of their life's work. Young men felt helpless in the soul's prison of Europe. They had to free themselves from the Heldenlebens of the voluptuous past.

It was against such a stark panorama that Schoenberg, Berg, Webern, and Debussy, their earlier counterpart in the reformation of sensibility, labored to form a musical, syntax of more penetrating and living poetry. Richard Strauss's famous boast that he could set a glass of beer to music contrasts sharply with Debussy's later response to his world:

A blade of grass stirred from its sleep makes a really disquieting noise.

The crucial difference here is that Debussy's sensitivity leads not to sentimentality but to a more pungent commerce with the particulars of the sensible world. This reemergence of intense concern for the small things is a sign of artistic vitality. Compare the above with a line on an injured snail from Shakespeare's Venus and Adonis:

Whose tender horns being hit, Shrinks backwards in his shelly cave with pain.

The essence of Schoenberg, Debussy, Berg, and Webern was the acute, almost palpable response to the most minute patterns of life. They expressed this in a new voice of polychromatic sounds of momentary durations. The fluid immediacy of impresssonism and the starker psychology of expressionism began to lose their distinctiveness and prove permeable and complementary. The last magnificent statements of the musical expressionistic esthetic were Alban Berg's operas Wozzeck (1921) and Lulu (1935), and his Violin Concerto (1935), an elegy written upon the death on Mahler's daughter Manon. The neurasthenic romanticism of Mahler was transmuted in these works to a testament and a valedictory. The plasticity of musical idioms was clearly responding to a mellower comprehension of what had happened to man as a result of the conflagration. Composers were succeeding in speaking in the distorted world of Kafka and Wilfred Owen. Berg's works, directly descended from Mahler's Ninth Symphoney, perhaps the supreme symphonic masterpiece of the century, formed a melancholy Agnus Dei. A most moving expression of this mood of lachrymose serenity is found in "The Drinking Song of Earth's Sorrow" set by Mahler in his Das Lied von der Erde (1909):

Listen to the song of trouble,

The derisive laughter of the soul.

When trouble comes

The garden of the soul is laid waste.

Joy withers and dies, and the song.

Dark is life, is death.


AFTER THE DEATH of Berg in 1936 many composers began an impulsive dizzying concatenation of extreme experiments. Schoenberg himself continued writing masterworks until his death in continued writing masterworks until his death in 1951. The younger radicals seized upon his abstract serial period of the 1920's and upon the exceedingly astringent works of the meticulous Anton Webern astringent works of the meticulous Anton Webern (1883-1945), as their sources of inspiration. The genuinely revolutionary effect of the turn-of-the-century ferment, and the principle which has animated today's avant-garde, was that expressionism and impressionism were subsumed by a new language. Schoenberg had termed his achievement the "emancipation of dissonance." Insofar as the avant-garde moves toward the conclusion that music is the audible world itself, subject to its own capricious organization, the responsible avant-garde is esthetically atavistic. Ours is in reality a period of secondary musical change. The contemporary avant-garde is secondary because it prosecutes the logical implication of the earlier innovations. In the brief period from the symphonies of Mahler (beginning in 1885) to the symphony of Webern (c1923) the architecture, sonorities, and phychology of music were recreated. The only significant development since then have been Edgar Varese's employment of the daily persuasiveness of the city as part of his musical material; Olivier Messiaen's elegant experiments in multiple asymmetrical rhythms; and John Cage's interpretation of Webern's principle of the "music of silence" to mean that music fundamentally consists of random sounds within a formal background of silence. Schoenberg stated his fecund principle in 1932 as follows:

A piece does not create its formal appearance out of the logic of its own material; but, guided by the feeling for internal and external processes, in bringing these to expression, it supports itself and their logic and builds upon that.

Schoenberg's famous twelve-tone system liberated music, not from tonality as is commonly claimed, but, less ominously, from the ancient laws of harmony. His system represented not the loss of all order but the penetration to a simpler more elastic and potentially liberating order.

THERE HAS been an everlasting sad waste of energy in wrongly viewing twelve-tone music as satanic chaos perpetrated by diabolic madmen solely toward the death of music. It is true that the danger of Schoenberg's techniques is their elegant simplicity. In the hands of a master they can be a revelatory means to expression, while in the grip of an ordinary musical merchant they can depreciate into rococo pyrotechnics, vapid and uncommunicative. The calumny heaped upon Schoenberg is disgraceful. He sought not to create "modern" music but to allow music to speak her feelings in the modern war-blasted world. The bitterly ironic result of his lonely work or renewal was that his own works have been ignored while the refuse of his hack imitators has been sanctified in his name and thus established a tradition more constricting than that which be labored to break.

The radical post-war avant-grade split into those wishing to fulfill the logic of dense twelve-tone organization, represented by such composers as Milton Babbitt and Pierre Boulez, and those desiring to create music with the least possible constraints, represented by Cage and Stockhausen. The latter reacted against the old ghosts of Kingsor and Vienna, Wagner and Schoenberg himself. The new principle was that the legitimacy of music flows simply from the auditor's effort to feel sheer sounds. Music is the sensitized constancy of the world's masses. To borrow a term from language studies, music is mimetic; it imitates life as it strives to express it. In the music of chance, the craft of composition refers more to the preparation of the listener than to the formal organization of technical elements. The cry that chance music is anarchic is not obviously correct. There is no reason why chance music should be unidiomatic. The composer still has to choose the rules of the game, and choice is composition. Ideally, the effect of Cage's esthetic is to obliterate any distinction between the romantic notion of inspiration and drab exigencies of everyday life. Cage's music is in a sense everyone's music. It is the simplest possible realism.

But his leads into a problem. If music ultimately depends solely on the individual nervous system rather than patterns imposed by the composer, then music may reduce itself out of existence as an identifiable, separate art. The further extremity of Cage's esthetic of chance would eliminate Cage himself. The universality of the art would have been destroyed as well as all reasonable artistic communication, since that presupposes some conscious relation between at least two people. I suppose that the reason for anxiety over the death of music is that the avant-garde will lead unswervingly to solipsism, in which each sound in heard not in terms of itself, but in terms of oneself. In solipsistic art, there would be no style, only epiphanies. But the death of music seems impossible so long as there are sounds to be heard, minds to give them personal texture, and wills to give them meaning.


THE AVANT-GARDE spirit is in the most general sense a reaffirmation of the sanctity of irreverence. Precisely because its challenges are so dramatic on one level and yet so familiar on another, it draws strength from an inescapable tradition. Igor Stravinsky, almost certainly the century's greatest composer and one who moved independently of the orthodox avant-garde, more a less stated this tradition in his Poetics of Music:

Tonal elements become music only by virtue of their being organized, and such organization presupposes a conscious human act. Music is a will giving shape.

Stravinsky himself, as well as the other non avant-garde master, Bela Bartok, was able to come to intellectual terms with the esthetic crisis of post-romantic music. Each one of Stravinsky's works, especially Le Sacre du Printemps, Les Noces, Symphony of Psalms, Agon, and the new Requiem Canticles, represents a new solution in considerably more traditional terms to the problems of contemporary musical speech. If the avant -garde chooses to ignore his principle, if it is possible to ignore it, then renewal will have become chaotic.

The quality of the conscious human act is something about which we should concerned. The fundamental purpose of the avant-garde esthetics, reeducation of mind and reinvigoration of sense, is pertinent to all of the plastic arts. Because of the grim market character of our hourly entertainment, we are having to struggle simply to hang onto our pathetically shrinking vocabulary for art. The avant-garde's attitudes have not yet ossified into a Mr. Eliot's Sunday Morning Service. No calcine theosophy encircles it. It is healthy. It will remain healthy so long as it spurns pretensions to evangelicalism, insouciance, and absolute self-sufficiency. It is valuable only so long as it maintains both critical perspicacity and sensitivity to the deeper claims of humanity. Radical innovations should follow from personal expressive needs, and not from an hysterical desire to destroy the past. This is another way of saying that we can preserve, much less refine our sensibilities only so long as we are in dynamic possession of them. We lose something every time Nixon makes a speech, or a Vietnamese hamlet is secured, or a superhighway inaugurated, a tinderbox subdivision implanted. We gain something each time we walk around a garden, rediscover a color or notice a refraction, see a movie by Sternberg or Renoir, vivify a remembrance, or enjoy a great work of music. There is an intense beauty in moving among this America of sloths in the avantagarde's mood of incorruptible hostility.

The only certain value of an avant-garde is that it is a sign of fecundity. There apparently will be a long and agonizing interregnum between the act of separation and the new art which must inevitably follow. Hence the avant-garde deserves neither cultist celebration nor complacent denunciation. Someone in the future may conclude that it was purest fantasy, wantonness disguised as on act of faith. It may turn out to be only senescent romanticism. But we cannot envision that future. For the moment we might breathe and touch the things of our poor, sweaty, nervous present and consider that even a living illusion can be more valuable than a dead reality. The generic challenge to dullness is not an irritation but a moral obligation, not heroism but perhaps a duty of every life of any quality. To claim that the avant-garde as well as the musical art is irrelevant is to suffer from precisely the coldness which they seek to temper. It is the impossible balancing of the remains of inheritance and inheritors which lends a sturdy nobility to the labor of the modern voice of the avant-garde. In East Coker Eliot speaks of the disparity between the attempt at insight and the inevitable sense of failure:

That was a way of putting it--not very satisfactory.

A periphrastic study in a worn-out poetical fashion,

Leaving one still with the intolerable wrestle

With words and meanings. The poetry does not matter ...

There is, it seems to us

At best, only a limited value

In the knowledge derived from experience.

The knowledge imposes a pattern and falsifies,

For the pattern is new in every moment

And every moment is a new and shocking

Valuation of all we have been.

Every advance is a new kind of failure. But it will dissolve some of our crude responses in the lucid light of increased sensitivity. The poetry is in the gesture, the reciprocity of effort

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