In October, Roger Scruton visited the belly of the musical beast, in Germany, to deliver a lecture against atonal composition. It was as if the superhero of classical architecture, Henry Hope Reed, arose from his grave to address the celebrants at the Pritzker Prize awards ceremony. I’m sure Scruton must wonder whether his audience – at the Donaueschingen Festival, the most prestigious celebration of contemporary music, founded in 1921 – was suitably chastened.
“The Music of the Future” is a long essay but of interest to those with architectural concerns. Many aspects of the shift of classical music toward its 20th century atonal flim-flammery resemble the movement, over the same period, of architecture from its emphasis on new methods to bring greater virtuosity to the creation of beauty in building to an emphasis, instead, on novelty, innovation, the avant-garde and the Zeitgeist. Thinking about the history of building as one reads Scruton’s thoughts on music generates a deeper understanding of architecture and its curious history. Here is one among many very interesting passages:
Thomas Mann wrote a great novel about this, Doktor Faustus, meditating on the fate of Germany in the last century. Mann takes the tradition of tonal music as both a significant part of our civilisation, and a symbol of its ultimate meaning. Music is the Faustian art par excellence, the defiant assertion of the human voice in a cosmos of unknowable silence. Mann therefore connects the death of the old musical language with the death of European civilisation. And he re-imagines the invention of twelve-tone serialism as a kind of demonic response to the ensuing sense of loss. Music is to be annihilated, re-made as the negation of itself. The composer Adrian Leverkühn, in the grip of demonic possession, sets out to “take back the Ninth Symphony.” Such is the task that Mann proposes to his devil-possessed composer, and one can be forgiven for thinking that there are composers around today who have made this task their own.
The last line causes me to happily recall that I have posted an interview with musicologist Robert Reilly on the revival of classical music, “Modern music in recovery,” in which Reilly talks about the flourishing, now, of composers who are not devil-possessed.
Melody, harmony and rhythm are as essential to beautiful music as they are to beautiful architecture. And although their absence does not necessarily kill interest, it certainly does kill pleasure. To enjoy the parallels between music and architecture, read the entire essay by Scruton, whose The Classical Vernacular: Architectural Principles in an Age of Nihilism is one of my bibles. He is a founding member of the Future Symphony Institute, where I found his lecture on modernist composition, and whose motto is “Orchestrate a Renaissance.” (The Reilly interview also was reprinted on its website.)
Here is another passage. What is called serial music is contemporary music that is not exactly atonal but has musical phraseology arranged according to mathematical rather than the traditional musical terms of harmony, melody and rhythm. In short, serial music has not gone quite as far in abandoning music’s classical traditions. The concluding metaphor is perfect. By the way, I think it is fair to say that, as far as musical tradition is concerned, most popular musical types, even jazz, are much more tonal than atonal, which is why people can hum them from memory.
The result of this is that, while we can enjoy and be moved by serial compositions, this is largely because we hear them as organised as tonal music is organized, so that “next” sounds “right.” We may notice the serial structure; but it is the progressive, linear structure that we enjoy. In a great serial composition, such as the Berg Violin Concerto, we hear harmonies, melodies, sequences, and rhythmical regularities, just as in the great works of the tonal tradition, and we do so because we are hearing against the serial order. It is as though the composer, having bound himself in chains, is able nevertheless to dance in them, like a captive bear.