Magazine article Musical Times

Thursday's Children

Magazine article Musical Times

Thursday's Children

Article excerpt

Thursday's children


Settling the score: a journey through the music of the twentieth century

Edited by Michael Oliver

Faber & Faber (London, 1999); xxii, 338pp;

L14.99 pbk. ISBN 0 571 19580 6.

Musical composition in the twentieth century

Arnold Whittall

Oxford UP (Oxford, 1999); vi, 419pp; L35 / 13.99 pbk.

ISBN 0 19 816684 2 / 0 19 816683 4.

Exponents of the moves towards 'revising' and going 'beyond' the musical object can learn much from the events of Thursday 29 May 1913. In the aftermath of the violence of the premiere, it became clear that there could be no return after the The rite of spring, no cosy retreat into cushioned armchairs, no retour d Petroushka or Firebird, let alone Casse-noisette or Giselle. This act had made an impact. As Arnold Whittall has recently said of Birtwistle's Earth dances (The rite's bastard son), this was 'music offering no escape from reality'.

Yet though The rite (and the catastrophic war with which it is indelibly associated) embodied a point of no return, there were various attempts to undo the damage. The reception history of The rite narrates this tale. It chronicles the various attempts at toning-down, taming, defusing the work; at turning an act that had forced its way into the listeners consciousness into its product, into the musical object 'over there'. Stravinsky himself played a large part in this cover-up, both in written polemic and through his neoclassical works, which initially seemed to return to an earlier well-contained notion of the musical work.

Of course, the fates of all musical events and the acts that create them follow similar trajectories. They are talked about, written about, transduced, transfused, transgressed, translated - in short, transformed, sometimes out of all recognition. And out of the ashes arises, phoenix-like, a musical culture sustaining the very musical event upon which it preys. This is the essence of the symbiotic life-cycle of a musical culture.

The particular lesson of The rite, though, is that music remains - stubbornly - an act, with a real impact and a real resonance. It begins and ends as an act or event towards which one is drawn inexorably and irreversibly, and in which one is made - forced - to participate (as Brian Ferneyhough notes in Settling the score about another work profoundly influenced by The rite, Varese's Ionisation). In this sense The rite is music 'about music', not in the normal sense of that over-used phrase, but because it enacts with peculiar intensity and power the scene of human encounter at the heart of the musical act. Because of this, the twentieth century became 'The rite's century' (the title of Michael Oliver's antepenultimate chapter). It was a century in which act triumphed over object, experience over work, style over idea - though you wouldn't always realise it from reading alone.

In fact, whether it was a 'triumph' at all, given the force with which objects, works, and ideas have been venerated in various regimes, aesthetic and political, is a moot point. Maybe it was more of a triumph against all odds, and maybe this is why we often talk about music qua music in terms of aesthetic transcendence (Arnold Whittall's reason for choosing to focus on the 'music' rather than its contexts): despite the temptations of objects, works, and ideas, and the idolatry surrounding them, the undoubted (but nevertheless fragile) power of The rite to hold one's attention came about in and through the musical act. That's why Stravinsky's own suggestion that the opening bassoon solo should be periodically transposed up a semitone is not as ludicrous as it seems: it simply draws attention (back) to the enormous ritualistic power of the music and the sheer physicality of its sonority.

Before the rise of mass recording, which unwittingly helped in the attempt literally to 'objectify' The rite, musical acts were always real occasions, events to be anticipated and celebrated. …

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