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Reasons for the collapse of Modernism

Michael Sahl
Michael Sahl

Michael Sahl

In architecture, the great moments were discoveries about how to span great spaces, e.g. when Brunelleschi went up inside the dome of the Parthenon, and appropriated what he learned in making the Duomo of Firenze. In music the great strides of classical music were in the spanning of time. Now, technically, time can be covered simply by going on longer. Sometimes, in popular or folk music, you just play more tunes, or you play the same tune for hours. Or, as in variations IV of Cage, you just go on for hours and at some point you stop. That is not what I mean. What I mean is to create a living period of time, in which one travels, or adventures, or wonders. and in some sense comes out wrong or right. This also means that there is an awareness of some kind all the way through that we are going somewhere or are somewhere or are lost.

And there always seems to be a moment when an imaginary pilot’s voice says- Ladies and gentleman, we are now making our descent into Los Angeles International Airport. Please extinguish all cigarettes and put your trays and seat-backs in the upright position. To me perhaps the most impressive of these spans is Tristan and Isolde, which, despite its great length, (and numerous dull places) keeps the attention or the hope of the listener going until the various spiralings that lead to the end.

Here is a situation in which music does not perform the whole task, because the suspense or apprehension of the story leans in the same direction, full of false resolutions, hopes, and crashes. So this is an impure, but impressive example. The symphonies of Mahler often achieve this for while, with a tendency to break down in the last movements (maybe not #6). Of course, Beethoven comes out as the all-time champion of keeping you going right to the end, and Tchaikovsky is right up there as well, as is Bach.

At any rate, with the dawn of modernism came a different feeling about time. Time was seen as a moment or a succession of moments. The frankest of the exponents of the new time were Webern, who did not attempt to extend beyond the instantaneous, and perhaps John Cage, who denied the whole business, and asserted the right to have no ‘shape’ in the time. Even with the Schoenberg Five Orchestra Pieces of the Stravinsky Sacre de Printemps, the sensational, even cataclysmic moments are the true matter of the piece, with the idea of sequence or spanning really set aside, so that when you ask a class of students to listen to them, they are always lost, no matter how revolutionary or exciting the “sounds” are.

So modernism, even going back to La Mer, seems to represent an art of sounds and moments, and this may be what those artists meant by their hatred of Romanticism. Nevertheless, to return to my beginning, classical music conquered the world by creating expanses of time, IN WHICH one could go on ‘a trip’ to use the language of the sixties, become totally lost,leave the world behind, as if one is picked up by a storm (or a kiss) and whirled about, then finally set down again. And precisely here is drawn the issue, both technically and ideationally, about Romanticism.

If you want sequence, you cannot purify so totally that there can be no personal fantasy-language. That fantasy-language enters in along with the technical elements- harmony, tonality, phrase, large rhythm, that create a sequence. When I was a student, Schubert was the goat, and was set on mercilessly by my teachers for his foursquare phrases. But was it not also for the quality of emotion and sentiment that those phrases gave access to? And all the original chromaticism (which was OK) could not drive away the regular, relentless procession of phase and cadence.

All musical history was looked at as an eschatological preparation for twelve-tone music. Anything that looked forward was good, and anything that didn’t was to be ignored or pitied.