Magazine article Musical Times

Brought to Book

Magazine article Musical Times

Brought to Book

Article excerpt

Brought to book WILFRED MELLERS Illegal harmonies: music in the twentieth century Andrew Ford Hale & Iremonger (Sydney, 2000); xx, 266pp; 21.95. ISBN 0 86806 6354.

Andrew Ford is an Australian composer in his early forties who has won attention and respect over the past decade. In the preface to this book - in which the title refers to the fact that music always had, and now has unabashedly, taken cognisance of sounds beyond those 'legally' accredited in academic textbooks - Ford suggests that a survey of music over the twentieth century can be accomplished by an Australian precisely because Australia has so little past - apart from an aboriginal past so remote (and shameful) that it seems barely conceivable in relation to our urbanely industrialised conurbations. Yet at the same time aboriginally `unaccommodated man' may provide a yardstick by which to assess basic human necessities.

The multiplicity and contradictoriness of twentieth-century music is indeed a tricky subject, and I suspect that Ford's `New World' status contributed to his book's effectiveness. It's both highly and deeply illuminating, and is a delight to read since it sounds like Andrew Ford talking: off the cuff, but with a vivacious lucidity that not many professional authors can rival. That the book seems to `speak isn't surprising, since it is a notated book-version of a series of talks originally devised for and delivered on Australian television, with the aid of many recorded music examples. Ford offers a series of 'moments' that remind us of the pristine nature of each musical experience, yet at the same time reveal connections between things superficially disparate. Spotting the links is the heart of intelligence, and I'll hazard that this is the most intelligent book about modern music that, over a long life, has come my way.

Writing up the television programmes in book form, Ford doesn't attempt to make an inclusive chronological survey of so much bewilderingly multifarious material. Instead, he lights on those few composers who have `changed the world', does not discuss them in general terms, but highlights specific works, in relation to the social, political, religious and cultural circumstances through which the composers lived, or are living. Ford brings off this daunting task because

he is as specific in assessing social and cultural conditions as he is in selecting the 'right' composers and works. This may merely mean that his choice among dead composers coincided with those I've made myself over more than fifty years.

In the early part of the book, dealing with the Founding Fathers, Ford centres on Debussy, Schoenberg and Stravinsky, concentrating on the quintessential works: Debussy's Pelleas et Melisande, an operatic parable about modern man lost in Milton's `blind mazes of this tangled wood'; Schoenberg's String Quartet no.2, Erwartung, a one-woman mini-opera about the same theme as Pelleas, and Pierrot Lunaire, a chamber piece about loss and lunacy, explored through new techniques of theatrical projection; and Stravinsky's Rite of spring, which effects a mensural revolution to balance Schoenberg's harmonic revolution, and his Symphony of psalms, which reassesses Renaissance and Baroque formal conventions in sociological and religious terms of the then present. Ford is also on target in highlighting Bartok's great Music for strings, percussion and celesta, while his discussion of Berg's Wozzeck and Lulu reveals how their complementary 'decadence' and awareness of potential redemption make them powerful testaments to the temper of their time and of ours. In dealing with the next generation Ford sees how Vaughan Williams's ostensibly regressive qualities were in fact progressive, and how the durability of Copland's 'popular' works, such as Appalachian spring, depends on technical features they share with the rebarbative boniness of 'radical' early works like

the Piano Variations. …

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