One thing in history never changes, and that is the element of change itself. True, men always resist the unfamiliar. But the dynamism of life forces them on to ever new perspectives and new solutions. The story of mankind is the story of a continual becoming, a ceaseless adventure whose frontiers ever widen.
What does change, from one age to the next, is the rate of change. Certain periods are comparatively stable. The force of tradition is strong, and acts to brake the new modes of thought that are struggling to be born. At other times society is in a state of flux. Horizons open up with breathtaking rapidity, and changes that in other epochs would be spread over many generations are telescoped into a single lifetime. Ours is such an era. Today the rate of change, both social and cultural, has been enormously accelerated. Life demands from us signal powers of adjustment if we are not to be left behind.
Music, one of the major manifestations of man’s creative impulse, has changed constantly through the ages, as every living language must. Each generation of musicians inherits a tradition, an established body of usages and techniques which it enriches by its own efforts and passes on to the next generation. At three points in the history of music — as it happens, they were equally distant from each other — the forces of change were so much in the ascendant that the word new became a battle cry. Around the year 1300 progressive composers were referred to as moderni and their art designated as ars nova, “New Art.” The breakthrough of this modernism produced new rhythmic and harmonic principles as well as basic reforms in notation. The year 1600 is another such landmark. The contemporaries of Monteverdi raised the banner of le nuove musiche, “The New Music”; expressive melody and the dramatic concept of opera challenged the tradition of religious choral music. Similarly, around 1900 there emerged the New Music, with an explosiveness that gave rise to many a bitter battle.
At the turn of the twentieth century the first signs of change revealed themselves in art before they appeared in the decaying social structure. Europe was still living in traditional bourgeois comfort when revolutionary rumblings began to be heard in literature, painting, and music. The old order collapsed with the First World War, giving enormous impetus to the forces of change. During the decade of the war and in the 1920 s the New Music made prodigious strides forward.
Evolution or Revolution?
The new is born from the old and retains certain features of the old. In the heat of battle the new may seem like the ruthless destroyer of the old; but when the tumult subsides its innovations stand revealed as the inevitable continuation of the past. In the early years of this century audiences were persuaded that the art of music as they had known it was coming to an end, and responded accordingly. Perfectly respectable individuals in Paris and Vienna hissed and hooted, banged chairs, and engaged in fisticuffs with strangers. Less than half a century later, the works that caused these antics are enthroned as classics of the modern repertory. The men who wrote them are acknowledged masters; their disciples occupy key positions in our conservatories and colleges. The techniques and procedures once regarded as startling have become part of the accepted vocabulary of musical art. Although we like to think that human nature never changes, actually we are more adaptable than we suspect. Music that bewildered and jarred the listeners of fifty years ago is today heard by a rapidly growing public with every evidence of pleasure.
We are still too close to this great upheaval to be able to pass final judgment upon it. Yet, now that more than half our century is over, we can begin to view the New Music with some measure of perspective, and see that what at first appeared to be a violent revolution was in reality a necessary evolution. Significantly, the leaders of the modern movement disclaimed revolutionary intent. “I hold that it was error,” Igor Stravinsky wrote, “to regard me as a revolutionary. If one only need break habit in order to be labeled a revolutionary, then every artist who has something to say and who in order to say it steps outside the bounds of established convention could be considered revolutionary.” And Arnold Schoenberg to the same point: “I personally hate to be called a revolutionary, which I am not. What I did was neither revolution nor anarchy.”
These statements attest to what every artist knows: that rules are not broken for the sheer joy of breaking them. For the artist, as for the philosopher, there is no absolute freedom, only freedom as “the recognition of necessity.” The artist accepts the necessity of rules just as boys do when they play baseball, and for the same reason: to achieve freedom of action within a self-imposed frame. If he discards the inherited rules it is only because they have ceased to be meaningful — that is, fruitful — for him, He rejects them only so that he may impose other rules upon himself. In short, the rules change, but not the concept of rule, the eternal principle of law and order which is basic to the discipline of art.
When the New Music was first heard, people asked why composers could not go on writing like Tchaikovsky or Puccini. The answer is obvious. Art, as an integral part of life, has to change just as life itself changes. The melodies of Tchaikovsky and Puccini were part of the nineteenth-century world. Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Bartok, and their contemporaries no longer inhabited that world. They had perforce to move on, to discover melodies that would express the present as eloquently as those of the masters had expressed the past.
The last fifty years have witnessed a vast expansion of musical resources. New conceptions have enriched the language of music, and have had a great impact upon the artistic consciousness of our epoch. Contemporary music, so rich in its diversity of expression, so excitingly attuned to the spirit of the twentieth century, is the latest — consequently the most vivid — chapter in man’s age-old attempt to impose his artistic intuitions upon the elusive stuff of sound: that majestic 5000-year-old attempt to shape the sonorous material into forms possessing logic and continuity, expressive meaning and nourishing beauty.
What Is Modern?
We use the term modern as we do baroque, classical, or romantic, to describe events of a certain period in time. Yet it would be wiser to avoid drawing hard and fast boundaries around the art of a period that is still in a state of flux. Besides, every generation has its own concept of what is modern. In general, we use modern, new, twentieth-century , and contemporary as though they were interchangeable. Yet are they? Contemporary , strictly speaking, is a chronological designation that refers to anything happening in our time. But not everything that is contemporary is modern. For example, Rachmaninov and Gretchaninov were contemporary with Stravinsky, Schoenberg, and Bartok. They all lived in the twentieth century; yet they most certainly differed in regard to the degree of modernity in their work.
Within the range of contemporary music are composers who are ultra-conservative and those who are ultra-radical, with all manner of middle-of-the-roaders between. It is neither necessary nor possible to find a label that will cover both Sibelius and Anton Webern, both Menotti and Karlheinz Stockhausen. Therefore, we will use contemporary in its broadest sense as synonymous with twentieth-century music, taking as our point of departure the beginning of our century. “New Music” is a narrower term, and is used here to refer to the styles that emerged immediately before and after the First World War.
There was a time when books on modern music appealed to the reader to rid himself of his prejudices and to approach the subject with an open mind. Such exhortations are no longer necessary. We live in twentieth- and twenty-first-century houses, we wear twentieth- and twenty-first-century clothes, and we think twentieth- and twenty-first-century ideas. Why then should we shut ourselves off from twentieth-century music? Only those who fear the present aspire to live in the long ago. They gaze so fixedly toward the past that, in the memorable phrase of H. G. Wells, they walk into the future backwards. Let us rather lay ourselves open to all music, savoring the best of the old along with the new. In the process we shall vastly enrich our understanding of both.