Reactionary Composer of the Week

Most of us reactionaries, I trust, think that modern classical music, like modern art in general, is (to paraphrase Proph) nothing but one long hideous auditory abortion. And while this is not entirely untrue, many of you may not know that several composers have in recent years tried to revive the tonal traditions of old. Near the end of his book The Aesthetics of Music, Roger Scruton writes that while many of these attempts have been valiant, and have often resulted in beautiful music, none have succeeded completely. What we need, he thinks, is a musical equivalent of Eliot’s Four Quartets: Something that rejects modernist decadence while at the same time acknowledging and reflecting the changed circumstances under which we live.

I agree with Scruton, and I want to do what I can in advancing the counterrevolution, in art as well as in culture, religion, and politics. This is why, in the coming months, I’ll highlight one reactionary 20th– or 21st-century composer each week or so, along with one or two representative pieces. Note that with a few possible exceptions, which I’ll point out as they appear, these composers are stylistic rather than political reactionaries.

First, though, it may be useful to summarize, as briefly as possible, why and how we ended up with musical modernism in the first place.

Over the course of the Romantic period, which in music is usually said to have started with Beethoven and ended, depending on whom you ask, with the Impressionism of Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel or with the Expressionism of Arnold Schoenberg (of which more later), composers increasingly began to bend and sometimes break the rules codified by Medieval and Renaissance music and expanded and solidified in the Baroque (about 1600-1750) and Classical (about 1750-1820) eras. They experimented ever more freely with chromaticism—that is, the use of notes foreign to the key one is currently in—and frequent and unexpected changes of key. The Romantics also experimented with form and rhythm. Sonata form, which provided the template for most large-scale pieces of instrumental music in the Classical and early Romantic eras, was often jettisoned in favor of short, free-form tone paintings (such as Chopin’s piano music) and “program music” which sought to depict some non-musical thing—a novel, a folk tale, a painting, etc.—in music, and which usually used the form of that non-musical thing as the sole template for the form for piece of music itself. Beethoven’s experiments with rhythm, subverting the listener’s expectations about where beats should fall, were carried on by Brahms and others. (One example of this rhythmic experimentation is the second movement of Beethoven’s 32nd and final Piano Sonata, parts of which can only be described as early 19th Century boogie-woogie.) These experiments became ever more daring, resulting, by the late 19th and early 20th Century, in many compositions in which any notion of key, form, or a clear beat were almost but not quite done away with altogether. The best examples of this are the previously mentioned French Impressionists, along with Austro-German post-Romantics like Gustav Mahler and Richard Strauss, and, before them, Richard Wagner and Franz Liszt. As an example, here is the first movement of Gustav Mahler’s Ninth Symphony from 1910:

In the early 1900s, a young Austrian composer named Arnold Schoenberg, who had previously hewed close to the highly chromatic but still basically tonal style of Strauss and Mahler, decided that the logical next step in the evolution of music was to do away altogether with the concepts and rules that his predecessors had bent and subverted. This resulted in a series of atonal works, where Schoenberg consciously set out, not just to bend those rules, but to abandon them completely. To illustrate, here is a movement (complete with ugly stage design!) from Schoenberg’s 1912 song cycle Pierrot Lunaire:

Note the lack of an identifiable key or beat (as opposed to the Mahler, which has both, albeit frequently subverted.) Note also that this is intentionally ugly, jarring, and unpleasant (again unlike the Mahler, which I find quite beautiful), as exemplified by the use of Sprechstimme, a combination of speech and song.

There’s a perhaps not insignificant similarity between Schoenberg’s view of music history and the Marxist view of history: The previous order has inevitably succumbed to its own internal contradictions, and must now be replaced, by a revolutionary vanguard, with something radically new. (Lest Kevin MacDonald fans jump down my throat for not doing so, I should mention in passing that Schoenberg, like many other Austro-German cultural radicals of the time, was Jewish.)

Although many dismissed Schoenberg as a madman, he also had his supporters, most notably his students Alban Berg and Anton Webern, who also started to compose atonal music under his (by all accounts stern) influence and tutelage. While Berg was generally less experimental than Schoenberg (listen, for example, to his beautiful Violin Concerto, which occupies a sort of no man’s land between tonality and atonality), Webern was generally more so. After a while, Schoenberg, worried by his atonal style’s lack of rules and structure, came up with the so-called twelve-tone system–or to use Schoenberg’s own catchy moniker, the “Method of Composing with Twelve Tones Which are Related Only with One Another,”–which (to simplify a bit) requires the composer to use all the twelve tones of the chromatic scale before he can use any one of them again. Since tonality is based on the privileging of certain tones over others, the twelve-tone method by its nature completely obliterates any sense of key.

Meanwhile in Russia, another hitherto Romantic young composer, Igor Stravinsky, composed the music for three ballets—The Firebird, Petrushka, and The Rite of Spring. Unlike Schoenberg, Stravinsky did not scrupulously avoid tonal centers, though he did do away with any formal division between consonance and dissonance, and used the orchestra in a new, percussive way. Also important for future developments was Stravinsky’s use of rhythm, which, taking its lead from the asymmetric accents of Russian folksong and the Russian language, grouped beats into irregular, odd-numbered groups rather than the threes and twos of conventional classical music. Here is the Dance of the Adolescents from The Rite of Spring, a famous example of Stravinsky’s irregular rhythms, percussive use of the orchestra, and liberal approach to dissonance:

Like with Schoenberg, opinion was sharply divided on Stravinsky. Some rejected him violently and completely (famously, a riot ensued at the premiere of The Rite of Spring), while others were intrigued by his innovations. His combination of nationalism and modernism, emphasizing the primitive, unconventional, and uncivilized aspects of the folk songs and folk tales he borrowed from, was particularly influential, and several others followed his example in this regard, notably Béla Bartók in Hungary and Geirr Tveitt in Norway.

In the years after the Second World War, modernism became the dominant style among European and American composers. The reasons for this were at least partly political. As Alex Ross describes in The Rest is Noise, tonality itself was considered “fascist” by many European (and especially German) composers of the post-WWII era. Like the rest of traditional European culture, the music of Beethoven, Bruckner, and Wagner, which had been hijacked by the Nazi propaganda machine, was considered an inevitable precursor to the Holocaust, and as such had to go. European composers, following the radical example of Schoenberg’s pupil Webern, turned toward an atonal style called “serialism,” carrying on the spirit of twelve-tone music by applying strict (if arguably arbitrary) rules, not only to melody and harmony, but also to rhythm, tone color, and every other aspect of music. Serialism took root not only in Europe, but in the United States as well, probably owing to the fact that many of the leading European modernists, including Schoenberg and Stravinsky, escaped to America around the outbreak of the Second World War. The result is an extremely complex, hyper-intellectual, meticulously constructed music which nevertheless sounds like random, ugly nonsense to any but the most sympathetic listener. Here, for example, is the first movement of the Second Piano Sonata of Pierre Boulez, a leading European serialist:

Beginning in the late 1950s and culminating in the 1970s, many young composers, especially in the United States, revolted against serialism, returning to tonality in various ways and to various degrees. This new anti-modernism remains the dominant tendency in American contemporary classically music today (in Europe, modernism is still not quite out of fashion), and can be broadly classified into three schools, with the usual warnings about oversimplification:

  • Minimalism came from the U.S., and for the most part stayed there. Owing as much to pop and Asian music as to the European classical tradition, minimalism reacted against the complexity and atonality of serialist music by focusing on the repetition of simple, tonal motives. Notable minimalists include the Americans Philip Glass, Steve Reich, and Terry Riley. While I find most early minimalist music dull and (sometimes literally) monotonous, I do enjoy some of the original minimalists’ more recent works. In the 70s and 80s, many began to consider minimalism a stylistic dead end, and moved on to

  • Postminimalism, a style that combines minimalism with new elements and greater variety. Postminimalism generally owes more to pre-modernist and proto-modernist European music than minimalism, though it is not averse to eclecticism. Like minimalism, it is mostly an American phenomenon. The most notable postminimalist is the American John Coolidge Adams.

  • Neoromanticism. A later development than postminimalism, neoromanticism combines the expressive palette of Romantic-era music with the extended tonality of early 20th-century composers like Stravinsky and Ravel, sometimes interspersed with lashings of more overt modernism. The character of neoromantic music varies from area to area. American neoromanticism, represented by such composers as David del Tredici, Richard Danielpour, Christopher Rouse, and—before them—Samuel Barber, is generally the most tonal of the bunch. Neoromantics in Britain, among them Nicholas Maw, Robin Holloway, James MacMillan, and (to a lesser extent) Oliver Knussen, generally owe more to the Second Viennese School’s expressionism (though they reject serialism), but also show a greater concern for form and thematic development. Neoromanticism on the European continent—which is particularly prominent in Germany, where it is represented by the likes of Wolfgang Rihm—usually toes the modernist line to a much greater extent; I admit to having very little liking for it.

It should be pointed out that the hegemony of modernism was never absolute. There were always a few stylistic reactionaries, usually scorned by modernist critics, who continued to compose music more or less free of ugliness. They were, among many others, the Englishmen Benjamin Britten, Ralph Vaughan Williams, and William Walton; the Russians Dmitri Shostakovich and Sergei Prokofiev; the Italian Ottorino Respighi; the Americans Aaron Copland, Samuel Barber, Leonard Bernstein, and Virgil Thomson; and the Hungarian Béla Bartók. There were also a few long-lived Romantics who survived into the age of modernism but kept composing in the old style. Three names are particularly worth mentioning here: Jean Sibelius from Finland (1865-1957), Sergei Rachmaninov from Russia (1873-1943), and Richard Strauss from Germany (1864-1949). I hope to cover all of these camps, from minimalists and neoromantics to old Romantics and neoclassicists, in the coming months.

With that said, let’s jump in. Today’s reactionary composer is the American David del Tredici (b. 1937), a neoromantic who has several Lewis Carroll-based compositions to his name, including the 1976 “concert opera” Final Alice. Here’s that work’s final movement, a setting of the acrostic poem at the end of Through the Looking-Glass, performed by soprano Hila Plitmann and the Detroit Symphony Orchestra under conductor Leonard Slatkin. (Be warned that there’s a noisy ad at the very beginning):

33 thoughts on “Reactionary Composer of the Week

  1. Run, don’t walk to a copy of Henry Pleasant’s The Agony of Modern Music. Written in ~1957, he was right in the middle of modern composer’s cheerleading for chaos and saw right through it. A book worthy of the reactionary library.

  2. I think some of the best “classical” music out there comes from soundtracks. This piece from a video game literally blows me away

    There is a ton of stuff like that if you swallow your pride. I think some of the movie scores done by Basil Poledouris literally rival Wagner. I am not exaggerating. Also musicals are pretty great. Steven Sondheim is a favorite. Ultimately making music people actually want to listen to is going to skew reactionary (from a musical standpoint).

    • Agreed. Thank you for making me aware of Basil Poledouris; I’d never heard of him before, but I’m listening to his “Hunt for Red October” score now (the wonders of Spotify!), and it’s pretty great. In return, let me recommend two recent discoveries of mine: James Newton Howard’s score for “The Village” and Carter Burwell’s for “True Grit.” They’re both amazing: The Howard is very lyrical and violin-driven, and the Burwell has an old-West, Americana style that’s similar to Copland and Thomson at their best.

      • You know you’re at the right place in the blogosphere when other commenters read your mind. 🙂 I will simply add that Poledouris’ score for Conan the Barbarian is widely considered his magnum opus, but you have to see the movie to experince it properly since, for some odd reason, the commonly available album excludes half of it.


        It is called “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms”. It is a hymn published in 1887 with music by Anthony J. Showalter and lyrics by Showalter and Elisha Hoffman.

        Are today’s “composers” just ripping off work of the dead?

    • I think some of the best “classical” music out there comes from soundtracks.

      Yes. I don’t where the genre line is between “classical” and “soundtrack”, but, for instance, Howard Shore’s Lord of the Rings scores are sublime.

  3. Conservatives should be circumspect about Arnold Schoenberg, whose “system” (he never liked that term) was intended to rescue music from the disintegration of tonality. Additionally, Schoenberg was one of us: Deeply anti-modern in his cultural attitude and politics, friendly to the Austrian monarchy, suspicious of democracy, an explicit anti-Communist, and a believer, whose opera Moses und Aron denounces political demagoguery and pleads for the spiritual regeneration of contemporary life. The idea that modernity is a relapse into primitive, sacrificial religion was right at the center of Schoenberg’s critique of the 20th century. Britten and Shostakovich (and even Del Tredici) studied Schoenberg respectfully and carefully, integrating some of his musical language into their own late works. The dehumanization of so much modern music stems, not from Schoenberg, but from bevies of American composition professors who responded to “dodecaphony” in a literal-minded way and began teaching it as an orthodoxy (“serialism”) that must never be violated. Thanks once again to the vaunted public universities of the USA.

    • Thomas this is a very astute comment. Actually Stravinsky too was deeply reactionary: highly religious, scornful of modernity and vehemently opposed to any form of socialism/progressivism.

      This is why a lot of the discourse (not just here by any means, but people like Alex Ross are perfect exemplars) leaves me very disturbed and sceptical. Are we really to believe that the true reactionaries are Marxist True Belivers like Copland and Britten? The Americans, virtually across the board, are rabid socialists entirely committed to the destruction of the old order and wholly opposed to tradition in all its forms.
      (Britten’s “Our Hunting Fathers” springs to mind, and I’m deliberately using him because he’s not low-hanging fruit: musically he really is full of integrity and compatibility with classical tradition.)

      Of course the true crisis of the twentieth century has nothing at all to do with the supposed breakdown of tonality: the true crisis was that popular music had

      i) been linked to universal recording and broadcasting, turning local folk music into High Art in effect
      ii) been entirely taken over by big business (with another Kevin-pleasing nod and wink for good measure)

      The net effect of this was that the writing really was on the wall for serious music. People had access to production standards that made popular music every bit as polished as concert music, and could choose from the best of the best without having to risk hit&miss local events if they didn’t want to. This means that, over the course of the 20th century, concert music gradually became completely disconnected from ordinary people’s needs, leaving only experts and dilettantes, often of an elderly and upper middle class nature.

      Again, as with the Leftism, it was America that mostly established and accelerated this trend, as well as giving it a distinctly progressive ethos that increasingly sought to sexualise, trivialise and infantilise the population, while American artists openly sided with the pop culture: minimalism is really analogous to ‘pop art’, and while the early works of radical social democrat Steve Reich or hippy globalist Philip Glass are quite austere (and in the latter case rather beautiful), as time went by the mask fully came off and we now see Glass collaborating with David Bowie and John Adams quite blatantly citing his influences as entirely eclectic and vernacular.

      The reactionary in the 21st century should first find a solution to the American problem and only then worry about tonal language and so on. There’s far more to music than harmony and rhythm: it must first detach itself from the vernacular, the defeatist and the universal and re-embrace the high standards of the past in aiming for the sublime, the transcendent and the beautiful, without prejudice to the wants and needs of people living under the sway of sin and corruption.

  4. I take the opportunity to call attention to my December 2011 article at The Brussels Journal on “Franz Liszt, God, and Civilization”:

    It seems worth saying that much contemporary concert music is quite listenable and even beautiful, and that the awfulness of academic orthodoxy (mandatory nihilism in music) no longer holds the creative impulse in its thrall.

  5. @thomasbertonneau: Agreed on all points. Looking over this post again, I see that it probably gave a more negative picture of Schoenberg than intended. I have a soft spot for the man’s music myself, especially Verklärte Nacht and the Piano Concerto, and I don’t mind Berg or Webern either. And yes, much of modern concert music is indeed surprisingly beautiful and listenable, which is what I hope this feature will serve to highlight.

    @Scott W.: Sounds intriguing! It seems to be out of print, but I’ll try to track down a reasonably priced used copy.

  6. “Acrostic Song” by del Tredici
    I thought the breathing sounds for percussion were cool. The melody starts out pretty, but gets old after awhile. Then I figured that was intentional because the composer wanted you to focus on the poem instead of the melody and I had trouble understanding her words, so I think that was a fail. My favorite part of this piece was the dissonant musical interlude after her vocal solo. The instruments portray confusion and dreaminess well. I thought her counting was creepy, but I think that was intended also.

  7. I was at this concert of “Final Alice”. I took my kids because I am trying to get them interested in classical music and I figured any program which included “Peter and the Wolf” would be fairly accessible. My mistake. “Final Alice” is an interesting work but the frenetic vocals in the earlier part of the piece grate on the listener after a while, since they are almost impossible to understand. It was the first DSO concert I’ve been too (and I go a lot) where I saw lots of audience members give up on it and leave – which was a shame, because Hila Pittman gave a bravura performance and it is obviously a work close to Slatkin’s heart. The Acrostic song has since become a favourite of mine.

    I am looking forward to more in this series. I hope you will make special mention of modern “reactionary” composers like Vaughn Williams, Butterworth, Sibelius and some of the lesser known ones such as George Lloyd and Hamilton Harty who I discovered on YouTube fairly recently. His piano concerto is marvellous:

  8. Another current soundtrack composer for your consideration is Mark Isham, who provided the scores for A River Runs Through It, Life As A House, and many others. His grasp of melodic depth is impressive.

  9. Ahem…

    If reactionaries cannot see what smites them in the face – that *in music* Schoenberg and Stravinsky were THE great modernists of the 20th century, then we might as well take out full voting membership of the Clever Sillies Union.

    Of course they wrote non-modern stuff, but that is not what they are famous for. Schoenberg’s Verklarte Nacht sound indistinguishable from Richard Strauss (except to the expert), but it was only by becoming a modernist that Sch. became famous and influential.

    Imagine the confusion and incredulity that would be generated by taking the man in the street and planting him in front of a performance of a typical piece by Schoenberg and telling him that *this* is reactionary!

    The fact that we, personally, as reactionaries, *despite* being reactionaries, might like or even love specific works or aspects of modern art should not distract from the fact that *modern* is what it *is*.

    Otherwise we disappear into sophistry and pseudo-intellectualism of a species that is very much the same as post modernism and political correctness.

    • Agreed on Schoenberg, and partially agreed on Stravinsky, I suppose. Let me rephrase my take on Schoenberg thus: I think atonality, including the version Schoenberg expounded, is a complete dead end. However, Schoenberg was a great enough composer that he managed to write some (in my opinion) good atonal music; I point again to the Piano Concerto, along with the Violin Concerto and Moses und Aron. In addition, it’s worth noting that he himself was surprisingly conservative in both his politics and his musical tastes. (Two interesting quotes/anecdotes to illustrate this: Number one – Schoenberg once wrote, “I am at least as conservative as Edison and Ford have been. But I am, unfortunately, not quite as progressive as they were in their own fields”; Number two – Once, long after having started composing atonal music, Schoenberg is said to have exclaimed, after hearing a performance of Grieg’s ultra-Romantic Piano Concerto in A Minor, “That is the sort of music I would like to write!”)

      Also (I’ll get to Stravinsky in a minute), I don’t think the hypothetical “Man in the Street” is necessarily a good measure in this case. I don’t know if it’s at all obvious that he would know what “reactionary” means, nor that he wouldn’t be perplexed by a lot of genuinely good stuff, including Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge, the late symphonies of Mahler, Guillaume de Machaut’s Messe de Nostre Dame, or even some of the wilder Elizabethan madrigals. As for Stravinsky, I think we should go a little easier on him than on Schoenberg. He was never a doctrinaire atonalist, not even in his late, serialist period, and I, for one, certainly don’t think of (for example) The Firebird, the Violin Concerto, or the Symphony in Three Movements as particularly “difficult” or “modernistic.” (Certainly no more so than, say, the film scores of John Williams, which borrow heavily from Stravinsky’s Ballets Russes ballets.) I’ve been at concert performances of all three, and in my experience, audiences love them.

    • I don’t agree at all. Telling the man in the street that Schoenberg’s Piano Concerto is reactionary would be to tell him the truth. Schoenberg’s Piano Concerto doesn’t give a hoot for his plebian sensibilities. If he wants the greatest minds to pander and condescend for him, he can turn to communist filth like Aaron Copland.

  10. The line between classical music and soundtracks/video game music/etc. is quite easily understood once you distinguish between music that is in the same lineage as classical music and music that actually is “classically tonal” — i.e., music whose structure arises from systematic exploitation of the melodic and harmonic resources created by conflicting tonal areas.

    The “classical lineage” begins with obviously non-tonal music. Gregorian chant, medieval polyphony, and Renaissance polyphony are all classical in some sense. But they are not tonal, because they predate tonality and indeed the concepts of keys and chords.

    Tonality was invented in northern Italy between about 1550 and 1600, depending on how you want to treat transitional figures like Zarlino. It was defintely in existence with the landmark publication of Le nuove musiche (1602) and the publication of Monteverdi’s Fifth Book of Madrigals (1605.) In the famous and influential introduction to this book, Monteverdi described its style as seconda prattica, in deliberate contrast to the Renaissance prima prattica.

    It’s worth noting that composers worked with tonal materials – music “in a key,” with modulations, distant key areas, contrastive use of key, and functional harmonic progressions – long before harmonic functional analysis was invented in the 1720s by Rameau. Every modern musician understands Rameau’s vocabulary for talking about chords and modulations, but his contemporary J. S. Bach’s descriptions of his materials and thought processes is opaque to non-specialists.

    Anyway, tonal music was written by serious composers between 1600 and 1920, roughly. What makes soundtracks different? They use classical materials in non-classical ways.

    So, for instance, the opening music to Star Wars is often played in concerts, and indeed it uses an orchestral, melodic, and harmonic vocabulary that wouldn’t have shocked Tchaikovsky. So why isn’t it classical? The problem is that it isn’t in a classical form. In classical music, the form is connected to the substance. Pieces in sonata-allegro form, by far the most common form for the opening movements of symphonies, concertos, quartets, etc., need to be at leats 8-10 minutes long, because they need to (1) establish a key area for the first theme group (2) establish a contrastive key area and, usually, a second theme group, (3) “develop” by altering material from parts 1 and 2, and (4) “recapitulate” parts 1 and 2 with part 2 now in the key of part 1. This is the bare minimum; composers often add introductions, false recapitulations in the “wrong” key, extended “codas” after the recapitulation, sometimes with additional development in the coda, etc. Other major forms, like the “rounded binary” (the precusor to sonata form) may also be used, but the point is that the formal complexity is a required, not optional.

    So what’s going on in a symphony is much more than pretty tunes competently orchestrated – they had that in the “classical” period too, but they called it a potpourri or a medley. Sonata-allegro form is a structure that integrates melody, harmony, and large-scale key contrasts to form a whole that greatly exceeds the sum of its parts. The real payoff in sonata-allegro form isn’t the tunes, it’s the large-scale coherence of the structure.

    A symphony usually consists of four movements, with at least one sonata-form movement (and sometimes as many as three.) Soundtrack music, whatever its merits and whatever the skill of its composers, simply doesn’t allow for this degree of formal organization. Soundtrack music, stripped of its orchestration, is really more like particularly ambitious instrumental pop or world music than like the formally sophisticated orchestral music of the period 1600-1920 – music whose formal traits were just as present in the quartet, the piano sonata, or the concerto as they were in the symphony.

    • While I can see what you’re saying, I think you’re oversimplifying a few things.
      Any good film score is much more than succession of unrelated, undeveloped “pretty tunes.” In many such scores, including Williams’s for “Star Wars” and Howard Shore’s for the LOTR trilogy, there are recurring leitmotifs not dissimilar to those in Wagner’s operas or Strauss’s symphonic poems. Other scores create continuity in other ways: Hans Zimmer’s score for “Inception” is structured as a loose set of variations on the Edith Piaf song “Non, je regrette rien,” while Carter Burwell’s for “True Grit” is based on several old American Protestant hymns, notably “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” and “The Gloryland Way.” We should also remember that serious composers can write–and indeed have written–film scores that lack none of the depth or sophistication of their concert works: Look, for example, at Prokofiev’s scores for “Lieutenant Kijé” and “Alexander Nevsky,” Copland’s for “Of Mice and Men,” and Thomson’s for “The Plow that Broke the Plains,” not to mention the catalogues of Bernard Hermann, Max Steiner, and Miklos Rosza.

      To be clear, I certainly won’t dispute that the very best film music is still nowhere near as good as the very best concert music. But I will dispute the claim, which you seem to be making, that film music is in principle incapable of having artistic merit. I chalk the asymmetry between concert and film music up to the relatively young age of the film medium, and to the fact that the advent of film happened in a still-ongoing age of cultural and moral decline. The amazing things that have nevertheless been done in the medium says something about its potential: Give it another couple of centuries and (hopefully) a collective return to sanity, and film music will have its Bach and Beethoven.

    • Very good explanation of the technical distinction between classical and non-classical. For most non-technical listeners (like me) we tend to include as classical, or maybe light-classical, any kind of music which is played by a full orchestra, such as film music and even Broadway show tunes. I don’t think you intended to imply that just because a piece of music cannot strictly be described as classical in this sense means it is necessarily inferior. I prefer Howard Shore’s score for LOTR over almost any modern experimental classical piece.

      • In many such scores, including Williams’s for “Star Wars” and Howard Shore’s for the LOTR trilogy, there are recurring leitmotifs not dissimilar to those in Wagner’s operas or Strauss’s symphonic poems.

        Construction by leitmotif is part of the process of dissolution of tonal logic that ends, logically, in free atonal composition like that of Schoenberg prior to his adoption of the twelve-tone method.

        Once you have decided that your piece is essentially governed by motivic logic rather than tonal logic, there is a conflict of fundamental interests between motivic development and tonal development. In the works of the Viennese masters, as elucidated by Schenkerian analysis, there was an organic unity of structure; deep structures gave rise to surface structures, and vice versa, within an overall tonal frame. Motivic composition eliminates the possibility of deep structures by demanding that all activity in the piece is the statement or the near-literal repetition of some motive or other. And if you want to compose by motives, why distract yourself with chords? Chords have value, if at all, as a sort of armature or pleasant filler, since motives run the structure.

        This is clear in the works of Wagner and his successors: in them, it’s usually not possible to speak of a stable key or of relationships between key centers. (Of course, I’m talking about the “later” Wagner here.) The Ring begins, famously, in Eb, and concludes in Db. Mahler’s 5th begins in C# and ends in D, and Mahler himself said it has no overall key. In general, late Viennese chromaticism (Zemlinsky, Strauss, et al.) liquidates the sense of key that had governed sonata form during the golden age of classical music.

        Other scores create continuity in other ways: Hans Zimmer’s score for “Inception” is structured as a loose set of variations on the Edith Piaf song “Non, je regrette rien,” while Carter Burwell’s for “True Grit” is based on several old American Protestant hymns, notably “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” and “The Gloryland Way.”

        I hardly mean to accuse film composers of incompetence; indeed, they are usually more worldly and much better educated than the Viennese masters, who were working musicians from a young age and whose educations were spotty or nonexistent. (Beethoven’s math is clumsy in his private letters, etc.) Given the restrictions of the film music genre, film composers do their best, and their best is carefully crafted and powerful in context. But no film composer, whether Rozsa, Korngold, whatever, succeeded in writing classical music that stands up next to that of the great classical masters.

        (Prokofiev is on a different level, but you’ll note that to make his famous suites, he had to craft film music into a free-standing suite, and even then it’s not really his best work. Lieutenant Kije doesn’t compare well to the 7th Piano Sonata! But more generally, Prokofiev wrote one of the final chapters in classical music. Like Stravinsky, he was a hitchhiker on the conventions of classical music founded by earlier artists; to get the most out of his work, you have to have a tonal sense honed by tradition of Beethoven and Chopin, by way of Tchaikovsky and Rimsky-Korsakov, a sort of John Webster to Beethoven’s Shakespeare, if you will.)

        The phenomenon of the incapacity of sophisticated and well-educated film composers to write great symphonies demands an explanation. I think the most parsimonious explanation fitting all the facts is that film composers do not enjoy the immersion in and apprenticeship in long forms that made the great classical masters create their oeuvres by instinct. After all, Schubert wrote “The Erlking” at 17, with very little in the way of formal training – who could do that today?

      • I’m glad you enjoyed my post and found it informative. Yes, film music is not bad per se, it’s just that it is inherently limited, partly by its medium, partly by the conditions under which its composers are formed, and partly by classical music’s failures of self-understanding. And, even if all of those could be overcome, it might very well be that no art form can last forever even if its greatest works attain immortality.

        The Attic tragedy, the Elizabethan drama, and the Viennese sonata-form all flourished briefly, generated a few immortals, and went to seed. I see certain parallels between the triumvirates of Haydn-Mozart-Beethoven and Aeschylus-Sophocles-Euripides. The eldest is revered and performed today, but seen as the stiffest and most archaic of the three; the middle one is seen as the most perfect; the youngest is the wildest, the most formally innovative, the one with the greatest emotional immediacy, but also the most willful and wayward…

  11. I like this Tredici piece (at least until the end) and I’ll have to follow up on some of the other composers mentioned here. I would like to add the name of Einojuhanni Rautavaara, who I think is the best composer I have heard from our present generation. As a non musician the technical aspects of music escape me, but I agree with the sentiment, attributed to Anais Nin, that without music life would be a sad mistake. What has been lost in the post WW1 era in all the arts, it seems to me, is the belief in beauty as an ideal worth striving for, without which there can be no art of any kind, no matter how technically brilliant it might be.

  12. I think you missed a group of Uberreactionaries who look back to the dawn of written music: to slavonic chant and cantus firmus. They tend to be european, and range from the very accessible (Goriecki) to fairly accessible (Part).

    I’m aware that most critics find this music too simple… but it rediscovers tone and melody.

    • Absolutely: indeed John Tavener is so reactionary he even has the same name as a Renaissance polyphonist. These guys are also mostly Orthodox Christians.

  13. Pärt is fantastic. His Passio Domini Nostri Jesu Christi secundum Joannem is sublime. At several points in the piece, it is superlime. Listen to the Hilliard Ensemble’s performance straight through on Good Friday, with the passion open before you in Latin, together with English translation if need be, and I can almost guarantee you a shattering experience. Here are the first few minutes, and the last. Listen with your eyes closed.

    • Pärt is by far my favorite composer, but I haven’t been able to find many others like him. Einhorn comes close with Voices of Light, which draws heavily from medieval music (and which I’ve seen live, performed as intended, as a soundtrack to The Passion of Joan of Arc), but I’ve heard that’s his only decent work, so I haven’t bothered to dig much deeper. Any recommendations?

  14. Thank you all for some great reading. I recently discovered this site and I’ve greatly enjoyed the articles and comments. I’m glad you are including discussions of music and art. I humbly submit for your consideration some of my compositions. I am a university trained composer. Somewhere around 2003, I began to embrace conservative/reactionary writings. A few years later, my wife and I visited Spain and Portugal. During the trips, I began to sketch out the music for a string quartet inspired by the Iberian Peninsula where for the first time in many years, I was writing tonally. There are some other works, specifically the Piano Sonata which uses the classic form with a more chromatic tonal style. Please have a listen. I hope you enjoy.

  15. I’ll admit that I tend much more to the bizarre as far as music is concerned; for classical, I quite like Reich, as well as some of Rautavaara (especially Incantations, an odd, dissonant little percussion concerto which I’ll have to put on Youtube sometime), and I’ve never been able to get into a lot of the ‘classics’, but a lot of that is just for lack of trying. And, of course, I’ve never been able to understand why people tend to dismiss ars subtilior.

    Anyway, I feel like I should mention that popular music is beginning to adopt classical themes: there are orchestral metal bands like Nightwish and Xystus (the latter even recorded an album with an entire symphony orchestra!), orchestral gothic bands like Elend, and some post-rock bands have come close to redeveloping minimalism. And then you have things like the noise metal band Harvey Milk basing one song off a portion of Holst’s The Planets.

    I suspect that it would be possible to get a large portion of my generation interested in classical music, if they’re introduced to the right composers — Dvořák, Strauss, and Rautavaara would probably be popular. (There’s an outreach program in the DC area that put on Also Sprach Zarathustra and got a lot of students from an elementary or middle school to go to that.) But as it is now, I’m usually one of the youngest people in the audience, which is unfortunate.

    • Check out the liturgical music of Ockeghem, Machaut, and Gesualdo. About as bizarre to the modern ear as it is possible to get. Yet totally reactionary. Of recent recordings – and speaking as a performer of this music – I recommend the Hilliard Ensemble, mostly because they make the music quite accessible.

      Of course, if you really dissect Bach, he’s wilder than all the rest put together.

      • Even Monteverdi has his Gesualdo moments. The modern (as in of today) obsession with dissonance is misguided. The relevant dichotomy is vernacular versus formal, not tonal versus atonal. (Tonal theory was invented in the Enlightenment and dismissed anything that failed to conform to its strictures, including Gesualdo, as incompetent rubbish.)

        The reactionary artist tries his best to embrace the transcendent, and in doing so seeks the sublime and the beautiful. He doesn’t spare any thought at all for the democratic consensus of his inferiors, particularly when they’re under the thrall of the progressive religion.

  16. Pingback: Experimental Music and Video Resource | Libertaria: The Virtual Opera


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