Whistle Shoenberg while you work

The Sydney Morning Herald publish a response from "publisher and social commentator" Richard Walsh to an article they published last week (originally from The Guardian), in which the standard claim that modernism had killed modern classical music was made. Even by the Herald's standards, it's a bad piece.
When did serious concert music die, asked Martin Kettle in his jeremiad against modernism... his considered answer seems to be 1948... Apparently modern music isn't very popular and, he hints, not very good.

Not surprisingly, this is an argument that can also be levelled at modern literature and art - they aren't all that popular and there is more than the odd iconoclast who reckons they aren't much good.

Oh come now. That sort of accusation is often made against modern art, but not very often against modern literature - and when it is, it's to nowhere near the same degree. Martin Amis may be sometimes accused of not turning out rattling good yarns, but no-one says he can't turn out an entertaining, well-crafted sentence.
But the much more interesting question is why modern literature and art can survive reasonably comfortably in a fairly uncomprehending world while contemporary music struggles. Which may have more to do with the underlying economics of these cultural forms and the fact that those who enjoy any kind of serious music are older, and therefore by nature more conservative.
The underlying economics, eh? Wonder if we'll get any explanation of what this means?

And why does the fact that serious music fans are older and therefore more conservative mean that modern music struggles to survive? It can't be a hip pocket problem - older people and their high disposable incomes are supposed to be the reason why fossilized rock bands like the Rolling Stones still rake in hundreds of millions a year.

Is the idea supposed to be that because serious music fans are older and thus more conservative they're less likely to enjoy experimental modern music? But then the argument would make no sense. It would amount to this:

(1) The only people who are remotely interested in serious music are older people. The great majority of young people aren't interested in serious music (let alone modernist music).

(2) But because the great majority of these older people are conservative (precisely because they are older), they aren't interested in modernist music either.

The obvious conclusion to draw from (1) and (2) is this:

(3) Almost everyone has no interest in modernist music.

In which case Walsh's hints about it all being the fault of serious music fans being older and therefore more conservative are irrelevant. Anyway, modernism's been around for decades now, so what's the conservatism of old people got to do with it? If anyone should like it, it should be them.
Kettle fails to mention that much of the music that people of his ilk enjoy today has emerged from a trough of unpopularity. Beethoven was regarded as a wild revolutionary and died in straitened circumstances, as did Vivaldi, whose ubiquitous Four Seasons was barely played even 50 years ago. Most people are aware that Carmen was booed off the Paris stage and was originally regarded as obscure and erudite... It is woefully ignorant to assert that when a cultural movement does not meet instant acclaim it will never find a widely appreciative response.
Woefully ignorant Guardian writer! The poor man doesn't even know that some great art was unpopular for a time!

Actually, Kettle never said that unless a cultural movement has instant success, it will never have a big audience. But fifty years of audience indifference is nevertheless a good indicator, although you wouldn't know that from Walsh's one-sided diet of examples. (He goes on to mention Shakespeare and the Impressionists, neglecting the thousands of artistic movements that had fifty years of audience indifference followed by hundreds more). Is he seriously suggesting that fifty years of boredom is no guide to the future at all? Will errand boys be whistling Schoenberg's twelve-tone symphonies one day after all?

(And it's a bit rich for a man who thinks that "wild revolutionaries who died in straitened circumstances" is an adequate description of the life of Beethoven and Vivaldi and the reception of their music to use the phrase "woefully ignorant".)
Kettle laments that opera as a popular art form died with Puccini's unfinished Turandot. He would no doubt be amazed to learn how regularly the Australian Opera stages works by Britten, Janacek and Richard Strauss, which play to hugely enthusiastic audiences.
Well, actually, what Kettle said was that Italian opera died in 1928. And unless Britten, Janacek and Strauss have had posthumous Italian nationality conferred on them, I don't think they qualify.

And I don't think Kettle would be that amazed to find that Britten and Strauss's operas are well-received these days, seeing as he wrote that Strauss wrote possibly the last great piece of classical music in 1948, just before he died (and probably doesn't count as a modernist by his standards), and seeing as he implied that Britten was an exception to his "no good modern composers" claim right at the start of his article. (Janacek is something of an exception, yes - although as he died in 1928, he's not really that much of an exception.)
But he also fails to recognise that opera's problems lie not with modern composers and their new-fangled ideas, but with the fact that it is a hybrid artform and that theatre evolved greatly in the 20th century, making conventional opera seem hilariously melodramatic.
So let me get this straight. Conventional opera is unpopular mainly because it looks silly on stage compared to the modern theatre. But it's the old-fashoned, melodramatic operas that get the biggest audiences. Modernist opera, despite having had more access to modern theatrical techniques, hardly attracts anyone. So how can the lack of popular appeal of modernist music be anything to do with looking melodramatic on stage?
Whatever decline opera has suffered has been more than compensated for by the rise of musical theatre as an art form and by the contributions of composers such as Kurt Weill and Stephen Sondheim, as well as the more popular Bernstein, Gershwin, Lloyd Webber and others.
But it's precisely Kettle's point that modernism drove away audiences to popular, commercial music!
The really sad thing is that the economics of modern publishing allow the plotless Salman Rushdies and Garcia Marquezes to live in relative luxury. Modern abstract artists, with a bit of luck, can become squillionaires... one dare not ask about the earnings of a Henryk Gorecki or Arvo Part, whose sublime music surely will resonate in the ears of countless generations to come.
There goes those economics again, "allowing" people to live in luxury. Nothing to do with the fact that however pretentious Rushdie and Marquez are, their books do actually sell. No, apparently they're getting away with something, because this economics thing "allows" them to. And Walsh finds it inconvenient to mention the tens of thousands of authors who don't live in luxury, or even make more than a few hundred a year from their books, which sell in tiny quantities. Nor does he mention that the vast majority of abstract artists don't make much money, let alone squillions, and many that do manage to make ends meet do so only because we already help them out with public funding.

Couldn't be that he's leading up to a funding pitch, could it?
It is pitiful enough that such geniuses must tolerate so great an inequity without loading them up with Kettle's prattle as well [my italics].
Looks like he is, then...
Australia's contemporary musicians, who are experiencing a fabulously fertile period at the moment, are forced to eke out precarious livelihoods, dependent on intermittent commissions from our fine orchestras and ensembles, plus those from enlightened film, theatre and ballet companies. They deserve both respect and greater financial support [my italics].
Who forced them to eke out their livings this way? Did the government single them out as children, and tell them they had to become composers, and that they wouldn't be allowed to do anything else?

Why not write the pragaraph this way?
Australia's contemporary musicians choose to work in a field that is highly competitive and where work is sporadic (a fact that they have always been aware of), and as a result they don't make quite as much as the rest of their upper-middle class friends. They already receive a great deal of their money through public funding, but they feel that they are entitled to a whole lot more. In return the taxpayer will get either of two results. If we're lucky, we'll get a reasonably good and tuneful piece of classical music that a tiny number of well-off people will want to listen to (and any such performances will themselves be subsidized by taxpayers). If we're unlucky we'll get a dire, tuneless, modernist dirge that symbolizes American hegemony that even less people will want to listen to.
Update: Pomposity abounds in responses in The Guardian's letter's pages:
The 20th-century was a period of unprecedented global insanity: two world wars, Auschwitz, Hiroshima, Soviet Russia, Maoist China. Looking back it seems miraculous that we survived. And how would we have preferred our composers to respond? With denial?
Er, how about with some enjoyable music?

And apparently it's all relative anyway:
Those brought up in a harmonic tradition find dissonance hard to swallow. Yet there is nothing inherently more attractive in the classical idea of tonality; the proof of that is how little other musical traditions bear in common with western notions of harmony. It's a matter of educating your palate to appreciate the unfamiliar.
But the fact that there is some elasticity in our musical apprecation doesn't mean it's infinitely elastic, and it doesn't mean that our palettes can be "educated" to appreciate anything. Otherwise, why couldn't we educate our palates to appreciate random electronic squeals as wonderful music? Why wouldn't this be as inherently attractive as Bach? (And to think some people deny that such simple-minded relativism really exists).

Finally, if you can stand the "trendy vicar" writing style, a modern composer named John Woolrich responds here:
Martin Kettle is afraid of those unknown bits of the old maps that said "here be monsters".
Or, perhaps, Martin Kettle has actually visited the area and found a lot of monstrous old bores?

(They're not all monstrous old bores, of course - and I quite like a bit of modernist music myself - but a lot of them are).

Cross-posted at Blithering Bunny.

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