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.