Academic journal article Chicago Review

The New Ancients and the Old Moderns

Academic journal article Chicago Review

The New Ancients and the Old Moderns

Article excerpt

Without wanting to revive the old quarrel between the ancients and the moderns--especially here in Venice, where that modernist of yore, Benedetto Marcello, wrote with such sarcasm of the old lyric composers and their absurd conventionality, defending instead the sincerity and frankness of the moderns of his time--it nonetheless seems important to point out that modernism has often brought vigor, vitality of expression, and truth for experience, breaking with the old forms that have proven themselves inadequate.

This is undoubtedly true of the modernist movement that began at the turn of the century, when the fauvism of The Rite of Spring and the expressionism of [Schoenberg's] Erwartung reached a level of musical energy never heard before. The developments are well known as far as these composers are concerned. Each was surrounded by followers who, in turn, were themselves followed by critics, a public, scholars, teachers, and, finally, young students, whose feeble attempts to follow in the footsteps of their masters made for a more conventional style--one that was itself reinforced by the efforts of its epigones. All of which made it difficult, for a time, to continue finding a sense of newness even in works as remarkable as these.

And so, as we all know, the new movement of neoclassicism took the stage in 1920s Paris, only to meet its end here, at the 1951 Bien-niale, with the premiere of The Rake's Progress by Stravinsky at the Phoenix Theater. After that work premiered, indeed, even Stravinsky immediately began to turn to his late, serial style, as one can clearly see from his next Venetian work, the Canticum Sacrum of 1955.

It could be said that Stravinsky used his various styles as personae or as masks, treating serialism as a modern mask, just as in the Firebird his mask had been Russian folklore. His attitude resembles that of a playwright who speaks through actors placed in various environs. The new element in his work didn't necessarily consist in the fact that he had a "modern style." Rather, it resided in his ability to get inside--and in such a profoundly original way--any and all material employed, be it Tchaikovsky, Guillaume de Machaut, or Webern. In this sense he was quite naturally compared to Picasso and to Paul Valery.

In truth, due to this peculiar attitude of his--made especially so in the era of neoclassicism--Stravinsky cut a much more modern, avant-garde figure than the Viennese composers, who, despite their innovations in creating and utilizing dissonances and proselike rhythms, were regarded as essentially Romantics, following the path set by Strauss and Mahler. In fact, it was precisely the rampant success of the neoclassical movement--which similarly brought about its own end--that made it possible for Stravinsky and many other figures to move closer to the Viennese School with renewed vitality after the end of World War II.

Schoenberg once expressed in no uncertain terms his own aversion to style: "Style is the quality of the work and is based on natural conditions, expressing him who produced it. In fact, one who knows his capacities may be able to tell in advance exactly how the finished work will look, which he still sees in his imagination. But he will never start from a preconceived image of a style; he will be ceaselessly occupied with doing justice to the idea."

As much as they may seem like opposites, these .two perspectives on style actually have a great deal in common, and ultimately underpin what is commonly understood by "idea." For the whole of the twentieth century, then, this concern with the "idea" led many to reconsider the most basic problems of technique and musical expression, as well as their underlying aesthetics, and has continued to nourish the vitality of modernist frameworks. It could be said that the rise and fall of certain styles (which seems to occur every thirty years or so in the twentieth century) is due to the ease with which procedures can be reduced to mere formulae and produced in series by epigones, rather than to illustrious examples that have sprung from the originality and imagination of composers, who have invariably concerned themselves with the "idea" and with the fundamental questions of aesthetics. …

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