On Music – Colin Wilson

from ‘Modern Music – The Problem’ (Part One)

The essence of the ‘Modernist’ controversy was stated in the 1880s by Max Nordau in his book Degeneration; since then it has turned up in various forms, sometimes modestly, as in Haggin’s chapter on modern music in his Musical Companion, sometimes thoroughly aggressively, as in Henry Pleasants’s Death of a Music. As Mr Pleasants’s book is the most recent, I may as well take it as the starting-point.

death of a musicModern music, says Mr Pleasants, has edged itself into a cul-de-sac; it has become intellectualized to an extent where it is meaningless to the general listener. And it may well be that the musical historian of the future will see jazz as the vital musical tradition of the twentieth century. Why do we snobbishly insist that a symphony must be a more important form of music than a Broadway musical, when the musical may be artistically vital and the symphony arid and formal? Is it not time that we faced the decadence of our serious music, and stopped looking down on jazz and popular music?

It is difficult not to feel at least some partial agreement with Mr Pleasants. The ‘modernists’ argue that all important artworks are ahead of their time, and that Schoenberg, Webern, and Boulez will one day be as acceptable in the concert hall as Bach is today. They may point out that contemporary critics accused Eliot of a kind of deliberate practical joke in offering The Waste Land as poetry, while nowadays any college student can appreciate its emotional force. But, as Mr Pleasants points out, Wozzeck, Pierrot Lunaire, and The Rite of Spring sound as strange today as they did fifty years ago; they have not been assimilated in the same way.

And yet it seems to me that this kind of arguing fails, to some extent, to grasp the essential root of the matter. We cannot argue as if popularity in the concert hall were the only criterion of value. Artistic experience is related in a curious way to the personality of the spectator. One might say that it affords an escape from personality, a broadening of the personality. Men can mature only by allowing themselves natural expression; the emotions have to be taught to flow. The inner being has to be kept in motion. In the same way, a woman might feel that she must have a child if her personality is to find its natural expression. But there is an obvious difference. In becoming a mother, a woman has allowed a certain part of her personality its fullest expression; having a dozen children will not necessarily enlarge it further. But the fulfilment brought about by certain artistic experiences has no clear limitation. A youth may discover that the music of Wagner brings about an inner release, an expansion of his personality; but that is not to say that he will not find still greater release in Schoenberg or Bartók.

schonberg1rWe do not yet know enough about the psychology of personality to know whether it could go on developing indefinitely, or whether it has a certain limit of expansion analogous to the blooming of a flower. The artistic career of such men as Yeats and Gide seems to indicate that there are no true limits. But since it is impossible to know how far a personality is capable of development, it is equally impossible to make rules about whether various forms of art are valid or not. It may be true that Pierrot Lunaire remains an intellectual rather than a musical experience. But then, it is possible to imagine a person for whom its strange sounds create an experience that he could find nowhere else in music.

In short, the point that is generally overlooked in arguments about modern music is the question of the psychology of the kind of people who enjoy it. Both the attackers and defenders write as if music had an absolute value, to which Schoenberg either conforms or does not conform. This is like assuming that everyone who professes to be a Roman Catholic has carefully thought out his beliefs, and weighed them against the claims of Buddhism and Mohammedanism. In fact we know that, ideally speaking, religion and philosophy ought to be concerned only with ‘truth’. And yet we only have to hear a convinced Catholic arguing with a convinced Communist to know that the emotional needs of the personality play an important part in a man’s conception of ‘truth’. The true philosopher is not discouraged by this; he attempts to allow for his emotional prejudices. But the philosopher has the advantage of being able to appeal to the laws of logic. The logic of art is an altogether more difficult matter, since art is essentially an appeal to the personality rather than to the reason.

It must therefore be conceded that for certain people the rarified atmosphere of ‘modern music’ is pleasant to breathe. To some extent, then, modern music is justified. But it might be contended that previous revolutions in music – from modal polyphony to diatonic harmony, from classicism to romanticism – were natural evolutions of public taste. Wagner may at first have sounded odd to the admirers of Bellini, but it did not take too long for the general public to find the new music assimilable. Is it ever likely that the general public will follow the admirers of Schoenberg, or come to accept Boulez’s Marteau Sans Maître at a concert, sandwiched between the Beethoven Fifth Symphony and Debussy’s La Mer?

Conceding that the answer is ‘probably not’, might it yet be contended that serial music is the central musical tradition of the twentieth century, whether the public accepts it or not? After all, no one denies that the theory of relativity is a natural development in physics, even though the general public does not understand it.

Again, this seems to be missing the point. Music is not eventually judged by how it says things, but by what it says. Beethoven seemed a difficult composer to the general public of his day, and his late quartets are still as ‘difficult’ for the average listener as any Schoenberg; but the manifest importance of what he had to say carried the day. The proof that the public responds to what is being said can be found in Alban Berg, whose only ‘popular’ works are Wozzeck and the Violin Concerto, both clearly driven by a powerful emotion. The Chamber Concerto or the Altenberg Songs say nothing of comparable importance, and are seldom heard.

The emphasis in all the discussions seems to have got misplaced. Composers who have defended their right to compose ‘difficult’ music include Schoenberg, Copland, Roger Sessions, and Hindemith. If any of these men were obviously of the stature of Beethoven, there would be no argument; the works themselves would carry the day.

Where Schoenberg is concerned, the unpopularity is very clearly a matter of content as well as form. The artists of the early nineteenth century tended to be ‘popular’ in that they spoke of unifying emotions, of the brotherhood of man. The late nineteenth century – the era of ‘decadence’ – cultivated a kind of artistic solipsism, and the idea of individualism was sometimes carried to an absurd point of selfishness, as in Lautreamont, who seemed to believe that a man would be justified in murdering a baby if it gave him pleasure. Far from feeling universal brotherhood, the ‘decadent’ poet tended to make no secret of his contempt for his reader, the ‘hypocrite lecteur’. So it was hardly surprising if most readers responded with coolness to the work of these artists. Now Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern most emphatically belong to this tradition. Berg set Baudelaire poems in Der Wein; Schoenberg and Webern both set Stefan George. The strange, solipsistic world of decadence is always present in Schoenberg’s music. In the Gurrielieder, Verklärte Nacht, Pelléas and Mélisande, the First Chamber Symphony, and the First String Quartet, it is open and undisguised. It is still obviously present in the choice of text of the George songs (op. 15), Pierrot Lunaire, Erwartung, Die Glückliche Hand, and Herzgewächse. An unkind listener might still detect it in the over-dramatized self-pity of the Survivor from Warsaw (which has always seemed to me Schoenberg’s one total artistic flop). Schoenberg’s admirers claim that Moses and Aaron reveals a greater Schoenberg, preoccupied with the universal issues of man and God; but again, one observes that the centre of the opera is the dance about the golden calf, and Schoenberg’s text dwells on the lust and violence with an obvious satisfaction that recalls Oscar Wilde. (People eat raw meat, a youth is murdered, four naked virgins are sacrificed, then men strip women and possess them on the altar; Schoenberg spares no details in describing the orgy.)  Moreover, when Schoenberg returned in later life to writing ‘tonal’ works – the Second Chamber Symphony and the Suite for String Orchestra (1936) – they sound as if they had been written thirty years earlier. (The Second Chamber Symphony was, in fact, begun in 1906.) The idiom is still that of Verklärte Nacht. Finally, we have the curious fact that Schoenberg never expressed any kind of dissatisfaction with his earlier music. Most critics have seen in this only evidence of his iron consistency, his recognition that his development had proceeded according to a rigorous musical logic. But when one considers his lifelong failure to escape the romanticism of his youth, it seems equally plausible that his development after 1908 was a technical development only, concealing an inability to develop in a more fundamental sense. The curious rigidity of Schoenberg’s personality, his lack of humour and the unwavering hatred with which he regarded anyone who was even lukewarm towards his music, tends to reinforce this probability.

chamber musicThe comparison with James Joyce affords some interesting parallels. Both began by writing in a naïve and romantic idiom; both showed a curious innocence in their total self-preoccupation. Both suffered a number of early snubs, and developed a formidable intellectualism to cover the over-sensitivity. Joyce also refused to ‘disown’ his early work – the poems Chamber Music (1907) reveal an unexpected strain of Irish sentimentality – and the later Pomes Penyeach show that Joyce was writing exactly the same kind of poetry twenty years later, although the achievement of Ulysses came between the two volumes. Acquaintances who knew Joyce in his later years have all remarked on a certain naïve element in his personality: the childish sense of humour, the constant dwelling on the past, which seemed to indicate that, in a certain way, he never grew up. His stature as an intellectual was considerable, since he had forced it on himself as Shem the Penman in Finnegans Wake shows that he still saw himself in exactly the same light as thirty years earlier , when he wrote Stephen Hero; pride and self-pity are still the leading traits of his character. One might also observe that the sexual perversion and violence that erupt in Ulysses and Finnegans Wake bring to mind the central scene of Moses and Aaron; the same perverted romanticism is apparent.

All this is not intended to minimize the achievement of either Joyce or Schoenberg. The achievement remains; but it must be recognized that it was largely an achievement of will, not the true development of the whole human being that we find, for example, in Beethoven. One must recognize this in order to see the music of Schoenberg in perspective. It is something that one would not realize from reading books about Schoenberg, or listening to the kind of discussion of him that is presented on the Third Programme: for example, a recent (December 1963) discussion of Pierrot Lunaire between Hans Keller and Egon Wellesz that seemed to be based on the assumption that Schoenberg is the only interesting composer of the twentieth century.

The parallel with Joyce raises a further question. Joyce’s influence in literature has been equal to Schoenberg’s in music; and yet, in a certain sense, his work is a dead end. No one can continue it, and one might perhaps be forgiven for suggesting that Joyce himself never really continued the work began with Ulysses. Finnegans Wake is an elaborate game rather than a living work of literature. Joyce’s influence was not fundamental and seminal; no one could say, as Dostoevsky said of Gogol’s Overcoat, that a whole literature came out of it. Joyce’s technical influence is present in Döblin‘s Alexanderplatz, Berlin, in Wolfe’s novels, even in Graham Greene of the 1930s; but only in the most superficial sense.

In the perspective of another half-century, Schoenberg may well be seen in the same light. His language has obviously exercised an enormous influence; but how profound is this influence? Has it, like Gogol’s Overcoat or Schiller’s Robbers, really created a new kind of sensibility, a new ‘world outlook’ that will continue to bear fruit?

For a new language to exercise a genuinely profound influence, it must be an integral part of a new sensibility, a break with old patterns of feeling as well as of expression. The language of Wordsworth and Coleridge was such a breakaway from the sensibility of the age of Pope: hence its seminal influence on the nineteenth century. But, as we have already pointed out, Schoenberg’s ‘feeling’ is a continuation of the ‘feeling’ of Wagner and teuton symbolMahler; he might be regarded as the last fruits of their line of Teutonic romanticism, rather as Delius could be described as the ultimate expression of the French school of musical impressionism. Delius has exercised no influence comparable with Schoenberg’s because his technical procedures had less to offer; but it may well be that, in many other ways, he is Schoenberg’s musical equivalent.

The only way in which the listener can judge this is, of course, by ear. And the difficulty of Schoenberg’s musical language may make it difficult to reach any conclusion. Berg’s musical language is easier to come to terms with. It presents initial difficulties in the more formal works, but the listener can have no difficulty in recognizing the relationship between the Violin Concerto or the D Minor Interlude of Wozzeck and the world of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony. And yet Schoenberg’s language is not so inaccessible, as soon as one has an inkling of what he is ‘saying’. Getting to know Schoenberg’s music is like getting to know a person whose haughty and abrupt manner conceals shyness and a desire to be liked. The listener is advised to begin with the Verklärte Nacht, the two Chamber Symphonies and the 1936 Suite for String Orchestra; after these, the transition to the Violin Concerto and Piano Concerto should prove both interesting and pleasant. The language of the Violin Concerto may seem strange at first, but the opening cadences make it clear that this is a romantic concerto wearing a false moustache. There is none of the harsh feeling of torn silk that one gets from Stravinsky’s Violin Concerto. In fact, Schoenberg’s concerto is in many ways reminiscent of Berg’s, allowing that Berg’s feeling is tragic, while Schoenberg’s is only dreamily romantic, somewhat after the manner of Verklärte Nacht. The Piano Concerto is equally easy to get to know. One critic described it as ‘Brahmsian’, and in fact much of the orchestration has a curiously Brahmsian sound. A great deal of the concerto sounds as if someone had accidentally played a tape of a Brahms concerto backwards.

Part of Schoenberg’s difficulty in finding wider appreciation is undoubtedly due to the excessive claims made for him by admirers who seem determined that admiration for him shall be confined to a small clique. Hence we have Hans Keller writing (on a Schoenberg sleeve note): ‘The sole trouble about Schoenberg is that he is the first composer of supreme greatness who is more talked about than played. This is our age’s fault, not his, and if he is the least played and most talked about, that may only go to show that he is the greatest of them all.’ The uninitiated listener is thus prepared for tremendous messages of Olympian profundity; and if Schoenberg is the ‘greatest of them all’ composers of ‘supreme greatness’, then this profundity must, at the very least, be equal to that of the late Beethoven quartets. These absurdly excessive claims only tend to conceal from the listener the fundamentally simple romanticism of Schoenberg’s music; they seem, in fact, designed to increase its inaccessibility.

schoenberg2Schoenberg has been accused of many things including deliberate faking – musical confidence trickery. But the worst that can fairly be alleged against him is that the complexity of his musical language is not true complexity – the complexity that is the attempt to communicate a complex emotion. (Eliot once made the same point against Milton, citing Henry James as an example of ‘true complexity’.) Moreover, it would be unfair to say that Schoenberg tries to pretend to be profounder than he is. Irritation at the cliché-ridden nature of one’s language is a legitimate reason for trying to change it. The linguistic complexity of Mallarmé, Valéry, Joyce, and Dylan Thomas is of this kind. No one can blame an artist for making what he has to say as interesting as possible. It is true that the greatest artists have never had need to resort to linguistic fireworks for their own sake, and that extreme preoccupation with technique is usually a sign of a certain dilettantism. But it might be said in Schoenberg’s favour that he is a German, and the Germans have a tradition of making heavy weather of self-expression. No one claims Kant or Hegel were fakes because they did not express themselves as clearly as Hume or Descartes.

The other composers who are mentioned in attacks on ‘modern music’ (I continue to write ‘modern music’ in inverted commas, meaning ‘difficult modern music’) are Stravinsky, Hindemith, and Webern. Thirty years ago Bartók was usually mentioned as well, but time has shown that his music has a far wider appeal than that of the others.

webernWebern is the easiest to justify. He is a musical contemplative who never set out to be popular. He practised music with the same mystical devotion that Flaubert and James practised writing. The most essential Webern works are very short, and for small numbers of instruments; it is typical that many should regard the Piano Variations, op. 27, as his masterpiece. One cannot conceive of Webern writing an opera; even the songs (many to Stefan George poems) strike one as ‘impure’ Webern.

He sits above music like a hermit on a mountain-top; or perhaps a better simile would be a great chess player looking down on a chess board. At long intervals he reaches down and makes a single move. Webern reminds us of a line of Yeats:

Like a long-legged fly
His mind walks upon silence.

It is pointless to include a musician like Webern in an attack on modern music, because he seems to have almost no interest in communication: he plays music like a game of patience.

Hindemith is a totally different matter, and the objections raised against him by Constant Lambert in 1933 still hold good today. It is slightly difficult to understand why Hindemith should be regarded as one of the three colossi of modern music (the other two being Schoenberg and Stravinsky) if men like Poulenc, Milhaud, and Honegger are to be regarded (rightly, in my opinion) as minor composers. The sheer quantity of his musical output is impressive; but so is Milhaud’s; he owes much of his reputation to his teaching, but so does Milhaud. One can only assume that his fashionable creed of ‘classicism’ and his German  seriousness recommend him to people who are irritated by Milhaud’s Gallic frivolity.

W. J Turner has an interesting passage about Bach that applies, in many essentials, to Hindemith. ‘Bach had arrived at the point of being able to sit down at any minute of any day and compose what had all the superficial appearance of being a masterpiece. It is possible that even Bach himself did not , and it is abundantly clear to me that in all his large-size works, there are huge chunks of stuff to which inspiration is the last word that one could apply.’ Haggin, who quotes this, goes on to remark that he agrees with it, and that he has also come to find only certain passages ‘moving’.

The word ‘moving’ causes one to pause for reflection. Modern Bach enthusiasts often claim that what they like about Bach is that he is not moving – that he was aiming for something quite different, a kind of mathematical perfection. And it is as well to remember at this point what Constant Lambert said of this idea that emotional and romantic music is a ‘late and decadent excrescence’. ‘Music, far from being abstract, is… naturally emotional… The romantic and emotional nature of music is latent in its origins.’ (Music Ho! Penguin edition.) And elsewhere he points out that ‘classical music has little sense of horror about it, not because classical composers despised such an appeal to the nerves, but because they were unable to achieve it.’ Bach may strike us as unemotional if we have been listening to Wagner; it is doubtful if he saw himself in this light.

paul-hindemith-06Now Hindemith appears to be suffering from the mistaken notion that Lambert exposed in Music Ho! – that there was a time when music was a kind of abstract exercise, meant to appeal to the mind alone. This is the kind of music that he writes. Listening to Hindemith is often like listening to Bach in the sense that there are often long periods in which very little seems to be happening. The consequence is that when Hindemith wishes to be moving and impressive – as in the climactic passage of his opera The Harmony of the World, where the music has to suggest music of the spheres – he has forgotten how, and the result is totally unexpressive.

There seems to be a kind of fallacy in Hindemith’s music. It may be that Lambert is right when he suggests that the whole idea of Gebrauchsmusik (utility music for everyday purposes) is a misunderstanding of the nature of music, since ‘there is no regular demand for musical material as there is for writing material or boxes of matches; there is only a demand for something which creates its own demand – a good piece of music…’ One can see that, in Hindemith’s early days, the unexpressive quality of his music must have contrasted piquantly with the violence or satire of his chosen subjects, as in Murder, Hope of Women, Das Nusch-Nuschi (which has a chorus sung by monkeys), and Cardillac, based on a Hoffmann story about a jeweller who murders his customers because he cannot bear to part with his work. It was this Hindemith who exercised a dubious influence on the young Kurt Weill – dubious because the Hindemithian passages of Mahagonny are the dreariest in the score – and who was regarded as the enfant terrible of his generation. But in the ‘respectable’ later Hindemith there are only occasional flashes of beauty or power to sweeten the pill. Gebrauchsmusik has been translated ‘bread and butter music’, but Hindemith’s later music better deserves to be called ‘bread and water music’! As with Schoenberg, one feels that his music must be understood as an attempt to escape a romantic heritage; but Hindemith’s method of escape is altogether less interesting than Schoenberg’s. In his best works, Schoenberg scrambles his language, but does not betray the emotion he wants to convey. Hindemith deliberately turned his back on his romantic heritage for many years, and wrote what Haggin describes as ‘harmonically sour and emotionally dry works’. Later he allowed a certain romantic element back into his music, but it only served to underline the mechanicalness of long passages of textbook variations. Works like the 1940 Symphony in E flat and the ‘Harmony of the World’ Symphony begin with purposeful-sounding fanfares that promise an interesting musical journey; but within minutes the traveller is in the old musical desert, with miles of flat, bare country on either side.

Part of the trouble is Hindemith’s unwillingness to write anything that sounds as if it has a definite key. But unlike the music of Schoenberg and Berg, which has a harsh, mountainous quality, Hindemith’s music moves along so uneventfully for much of the time that the ear feels that it ought to have a key. The consequence is that the ear often feels a kind of embarrassment, as if in the presence of some disability, like a stutter or a tendency to sing slightly off-key.

The truth is that, whether Hindemith likes it or not, he is by temperament a romantic composer, and romantic music must have a feeling of a key centre. The most effective moments in some of his works – the opera Mathis der Maler (not the symphony, which tends to aridity), the 1939 Violin Concerto, the 1937  Symphonic Dances, the ballet Nobilissima Visione, the Concert Music for Brass and Piano, op. 49 – have a strong feeling of tonality. (This need of romantic music for a key centre can be seen even more clearly in Kurt Weill’s Mahagonny; at its best – the scene in the ‘Do-what-you-like’ bar, the chorus ‘Rasch Jungens, hé!’ – it is romantic, tonal, and has a sense of musical economy and drive; when it is being avant garde in the manner of Hindemith, as in the long passage following the Benares song, it loses direction and drifts.)

Like Schoenberg and Bartók, Hindemith has achieved one of the few individual styles of the twentieth century; any piece of his music identifies itself in a matter of seconds; but it is the dubious individuality of the club bore, whose voice sends everyone scurrying for magazines to hide behind. It is a pity that the man who could achieve the bizarre effects of Cardillac and the sense of weight and sincerity of Mathis der Maler should have chosen to be identified with Gebrauchsmusik written according to a Bachian formula, and should become best known to concert audiences for the comparatively trivial Metamorphoses on a Theme of Weber.



colin-wilsonBorn in 1931, Colin Wilson was a highly prolific British writer of creative and critical prose, writing 150 books over 50 years, and covering subjects of philosophy, literature, mysticism, the occult, religion, science fiction, spirituality, crime, and studies in consciousness. He is arguably best known for his first book ‘The Outsider’, for his philosophic amendments to popular European existentialism, and for his compendiums on the occult. He died in December of last year. This essay was first published in ‘Brandy of the Damned’ (1963) and later as ‘Colin Wilson on Music’ (1967). It was re-published by Foruli Limited in July. (A second part is forthcoming).





About thefiendjournal

I was born in Blackpool, England and am currently based in Lancashire. Poems have been published in magazines in the U.K, Ireland, France, New Zealand, Canada, U.S.A and South Korea. A pamphlet; "MMV", was published in 2008. Hundreds of poems have been written in draft form, and multiple books are being planned and edited for future release. As well as editing 'The Fiend' I translate, paint and dabble in photography (images of which have occasionally been used here).
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