Preparing for the Future of Music

January 1, 1998

Just over three hundred years ago, a European man wrote to a friend to say that he had attended a concert the night before. He hadn't understood one note of it, he said, because there was no tenor. Can't you just imagine a letter written about 1950 in which someone wrote that she had attended a concert the night before but hadn't understood one note of it because there was no key?

We listen for what we have been taught to listen for. In the Renaissance era, listeners were taught to listen for the tenor, and composers were taught to compose for those listeners: to use the tenor as a sort of musical spine, without which no significant motion would be possible, and to compose, as it were, around the tenor. Even refer to it in the other voices and thus make the tenor the center not only of musical structure but of musical meaning.

But a musical cycle was in process, and music was getting more and more complicated. As marvelous as the style was, it got bigger and bigger and more and more complicated: at the end of the fifteenth century, four parts were the norm; by the middle of the sixteenth, five parts, then six, then (by the end of the century) eight; by then twelve and sixteen were not rare. In 1628 the dedication ceremony of the Salzburg Cathedral presented a Mass by Orqazio Benevoli, a Mass in 53 parts. I have heard its Kyrie: it was a half-hour long and sounded like musical spaghetti on a plate.

The rest of the century was, let us say, confused. Many composers came up with many new ways to make music, and, on the other hand, many people thought that the art of music was coming to an end. I'd love to go into all of the experiments that were going on, from programmatic structure (would you believe Marais' "Gall Bladder Operation," a descriptive sonata for viola da gamba?) to quarter-steps and even eighth-steps. We have swept that stuff under the historical rug and kept very little of it, saving some, judged by hindsight, that would have proven to have led to the future. Ah Hindsight! How clear thou art! The point is that in the 17th century confusion reigned: nobody knew what would come of it, or what the future of music would be, if, indeed, music would have a future.

And what did happen? Soon the cycle began again, with a style we now call Baroque, comparable to the old Gothic, a style seeking its means, its vocabulary. Then came a lovely period when means and meaning were equal; this was the Burgundian school of the fifteenth century and Classicism in the eighteenth. They were short periods, leading to the longest periods of all, when music would become self-conscious. The Renaissance and the Romantic periods named themselves, and each claimed itself to be the ultimate. Each thought itself the pinnacle, not just of its own cycle, but of all music, period, in all of history. They looked back at their predecessors and gave them names of opprobrium -- Gothic and Baroque both mean primitive, grotesque, unformed.

Like the Renaissance, Romanticism claimed to be IT; anything else was either a mistake or a primitive leading-up to THIS marvelous reality of MUSIC with a capital M-U-S-I-C.

And, incidentally, both periods proclaimed the domination of the male: huMANism in the 16th century and roMANticism in the 19th. In each case, women had made excellent strides in the century before, from Hildegarde et al in the Gothic era to Francesca Caccini, Elisabeth Jacquet de La Guerre, et al, in the Baroque. But they were sent back to base camp.

And alas, the music of Romanticism got more and more inflated, as Renaissance music had done. In the Classical era, a symphony might be eight to twelve minutes in length and require twelve to twenty players; and we know that Mozart, offered an orchestra of thirty-five players for the premiere of the Hafner symphony, said "no thanks!" -- he would rather cancel the concert than have his new work presented in such a ludicrous medium. But compare that with the symphonies and the orchestras of Anton Bruckner and Richard Strauss; I heard a performance of a Bruckner symphony in the fifties in Chicago that took more than an hour and a quarter; and Strauss's pit orchestra for Salome demanded one hundred and eight players. Imagine the soprano with nerve enough to sing against THAT!

The assault on one's seating equipment is almost as great as the assault on one's listening equipment.

This could not go on, any more than Benevoli's Mass could be expanded to Masses of sixty and seventy-five parts. The huge orchestra is too expensive, too unmanageable; and the overlong symphony cannot be taken in. My mother used to quote the oldie: "The mind can absorb only that which the seat can withstand."

The twentieth-century confusion and denial are sibling to the seventeenth-century confusion and denial. So is the worry that music has no future, the sense that there is simply no highway for the musical art to take.

But let us assume of a moment now that we are indeed part of that 300-year cycle recognizable in the history of music. If we do make that assumption, we will see that in another generation the future path of music will be found, and in two generations the world will know what that path is. Many of us will not be around to hear it, but our students will.

What then is our duty?

It seems clear to me. We must work toward an openness of mind that will enable our students to understand the coming of a new style and that will enable them to recognize it when it comes. Nobody can know what that new style will consist of, so we must not reject anything; we must welcome it all: secular and religious music; popular and concert music; American and foreign music-music from all over the world, not just the places we look to, over our shoulders, in admiration of the past. The early Baroque composers got rid of that tenor, as tenacious as it was (and those words ARE related). They really clobbered that tenor: they took it out of the music altogether; they even took it out of the notation and substituted a system of numbers indicating a type of sonority, which began to be more vital. This, by the eighteenth century, became tonality, and then tonality began to rule the roost, creating sonata form, for example.

At that point, theory books could be written about the new style; the first theory books of the Baroque appeared only in the 1750s, when the Baroque was virtually over. (Even American composers in the Classical period used Renaissance texts of music -- and William Billings put his tunes in the tenor.) And we are using theory books that present 19th-century music to our students, even at the end of the 20th; when will a new theory book appear -- in 2050?

And music was simple again; the complications of the end of the seventeenth century were gone. Vivaldi's musical basis operandi is SIMPLER than Benevoli's. I think that 20th-century complexity has turned off as many listeners as 17th-century complexity did; we just don't have the hindsight yet to sweep it under the rug. Some critics listen to the complexities instead of to the music; but that's their problem; it will not be the problem of the listeners.

I'd love to be specific about the music, but I can't. I am no musical tarot-card reader, any more than you are. The one thing I know is that I do not know; the one thing I can say for sure about the new style is that it won't be like the old one.

Nobody can say what it will be.

But I can be specific about attitude. Nothing, and I do mean nothing, rates less than an "Okay; maybe," and nothing rates more. We have to lead our students to the capacity to move, to shift, to be seaworthy; it won't be easy, but a flexibility of taking music in is their only path into the future. I think of Katharine Hepburn in Philip Barry's 1939 play, The Philadelphia Story, in deep admiration of the fluent mobility of her yacht, sighing, "My but she was yare!"

2475 Last modified on May 1, 2013
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