Exploring Twentieth-Century Music: Tradition and Innovation

By Ravenscroft, Brenda | Canadian University Music Review, January 1, 2003 | Go to article overview

Exploring Twentieth-Century Music: Tradition and Innovation


Ravenscroft, Brenda, Canadian University Music Review


Arnold Whittall. Exploring Twentieth-Century Music: Tradition and Innovation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003. xi, 238 pp. ISBN 0-52181642-4 (hardcover).

It was as a neophyte graduate student, fresh from the colonies, that I first encountered Arnold Whittall in the Master's program in Theory and Analysis at King's College, London. Following a brutal term of Schenkerian analysis under the cold gaze of Professor D., our class greeted the arrival of Professor Whittall in the second term with some relief. His incisive instruction in the rigours and intricacies of set theory was delivered in a disarmingly mild, faintly avuncular manner. More than his demeanour, however, what engaged us was the way in which he interspersed instruction in technical matters, such as the Z-relation and nexus sets, with conversations about the music of the century. He introduced us to the music of Michael Tippett, whose opera The Midsummer Marriage was being performed contemporaneously by the English National Opera, he provoked us to think about how the concept of modernism found form in composers such as Benjamin Britten and Elliott Carter, he discussed the ways in which aspects of musical structure may offer insights into a composer's reaction to their society and its cultural climate.

For many of us, this was our first encounter with the enriched world of ideas and interpretations that constitute musicology, having previously only been exposed to the routine description of historical events, dates and documents in "music history" courses. And for all of us, it influenced the way we thought about music of the twentieth century, and laid rest to the belief that theoretical analysis could operate independently of musical context.

It is Whittall' s ability to inhabit both the realm of the analytical and the musicologicai that makes Exploring Twentieth-Century Music: Tradition and Innovation such a fascinating and unique book. Musical works of this century are presented not only as "expressive structures" generated by specific compositional methods and techniques, but also as objects of interpretation and meaning. Whittall skillfully blends analytical examination of specific pieces with discussion of the larger context in which they are formed by providing critical and musicologicai commentaries on those compositions, and by examining the fundamental forces that affected composers and their works within the complex and challenging world of the twentieth century.

Having been thinking and writing about music since the 1960s, when he published his first article, "Rousseau and the Scope of the Opera" Whittall' s perspective on music of the twentieth century has been gained over a period of at least four decades.1 His career, encompassing the roles of teacher, broadcaster, concert presenter, and writer on music and music theory, has involved a detailed examination of music of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and his dedication to contemporary composition has made him a formative force in the world of modern music. It would not be an overstatement to say that his work has helped to shape generations of musicians, directly influencing the academic landscape in both Europe and North America.

Most books about twentieth-century music take a chronological path in their presentation of the music of this century, starting with what they identify as the tipping point between high romanticism and early atonality, and organizing the rest of the century either by consecutive compositional trends - avant-garde, nationalism, neoclassicism, serialism, and so fortli - or by focusing sequentially on prominent composers of the time. Books of a more technical nature tend to concentrate almost exclusively on aspects of pitch organization in the twentieth century, covering topics related to set theory, serialism, the use of alternative scales and modes, and occasionally paying brief attention to other parameters such as rhythm and texture. …

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