Making a Case for the New 'Classics'

By Karen Campbell, | The Christian Science Monitor, January 28, 2000 | Go to article overview

Making a Case for the New 'Classics'

Karen Campbell,, The Christian Science Monitor

In olden days, when classical was the popular music of the day, audiences looked forward to the next new piece by Mozart or Beethoven.

Nowadays, audiences that thrill to Bach and Rachmaninoff - music spanning nearly three centuries - tend to cringe at the thought of sitting through a symphonic concert featuring the music of their own time.

A large part of the problem is fear of the unknown. While much of the music of the first half of the 20th century has entered into the mainstream repertory (see "A taster's choice," page 16), classical music of the past 50 years has been mostly a grab bag for typical concertgoers.

For one thing, it has been especially difficult to categorize, which often leaves listeners without an easy entree into what the music is all about - what to listen for, and what it all means.

Unlike music of the past, there have been few movements or periods with commonly accepted forms and rules. Twentieth-century music had no one unified musical language, but rather a rich multiplicity of styles, with composers drawing from a wealth of diverse influences, from rap to Indonesian gamelan (a musical ensemble). Composers also have had all of civilization's history up to now from which to draw - talk about hindsight.

A work being written at the end of the 20th century can play off anything from Gregorian chant to state-of-the-art electronics. As we enter the new millennium, "the sky's the limit," which often can leave uninformed listeners struggling to open their parachutes.

Conductor-composer Robert Kapilow, who has devoted much of his career to educating the public about classical music, says: "New music on an orchestral program often puts people in a defensive frame of mind. They either feel bad if they don't like something or mad at the orchestra for programming it, and they shut down."

Instead of shutting down, however, audiences armed with background information can find that music of the here and now is just as compelling, and often more exciting and relevant, than music of "way back when."

Music written today is being informed by the rich and complicated world in which we live, and a little understanding of the plethora of influences on it can make for greater appreciation.

A little history

First, there is no clear linear history of modern music - pieces being written at any given time can and do vary wildly. But there are some general trends over the past century that can put things in perspective.

Probably the greatest shift has been the transformation of melody and harmony. Although there still are many contemporary composers who can write as lyrical a melody as their forebears, most composers these days don't send audiences away with a tune they can hum; that's a trend that started more than 100 years ago.

As the centuries-old diatonic tradition of major and minor keys seemed to lose expressive potential with overuse, composers began searching for a new musical language by exploring other combinations of notes, creating different kinds of tonalities, and exploring the clashing pitches of dissonance.

Take the Impressionists, primarily represented by Claude Debussy (1862-1918) and Maurice Ravel (1875-1937). These two Frenchmen composed some of the most memorable melodies ever written, but they often defied the 19th-century standard of centering them around a particular pitch (which helped define the key of a work), using instead a whole-tone scale in which all notes could have equal importance.

Similarly, chords (simultaneously played clusters of notes, creating a work's harmony) didn't follow traditional patterns of resolution. These composers were out to create less-concrete musical images, much the way the Impressionist painters blurred the clarities of line in art.

With Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971), commonly considered the most important composer of the 20th century, the classical world began to embrace dissonance (pitches that clash with one another) and a reinvigoration of rhythm. …

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