The alternate history of 20th-century classical music, from burning pianos to a 99-year-old nun
The story of the evolution of classical music in the 20th century is notoriously difficult to tell. In the early years, the narrative pretty much makes sense. Yes, there are the non-conformists and the foreigners, but the Austro-German core of classical music built by the canonical “masters”, from Bach to Brahms, still sets the standard. Indeed, one of the main driving forces behind the modernist revolution in music, Arnold Schoenberg, said his goal was to secure the supremacy of German music for the next 100 years. But even as he spoke those words, rebellious spirits from the Slavic and American fringes of classical music—Charles Ives, Igor Stravinsky, Leoš Janáček—proved him wrong.
As the 20th century drew to a close, the idea that modern music could be explained as a single, ongoing narrative seemed increasingly abandoned. There were too many incomprehensible, even hostile, aesthetics and ideologies at play: here, experimenters evoking music from electronic sounds and anarchic “happenings”; over there, the “serialists” who wanted to structure the music with ruthless rigor; in another corner, the American minimalists; in another, the neo-romantics. When Paul Griffiths, author of one of the most famous surveys on modern music, came to update his book, he gave up. The final section of his revised Modern Music and After is titled “Many rivers,” as if to acknowledge that modern music has many histories, not just one.
Now in comes Kate Molleson, former critic and regular host of Radio 3’s New Music Show, with a new survey of 20th-century music that makes Griffiths look hopelessly parochial. Although the music described by Griffiths is incredibly varied, it is almost entirely composed by middle-class white men from the Western world. Molleson wants us to know about all the other voices that have been left out of this and similar stories: the women who anticipated the innovations of the best-known men who often worked alongside them, and the visionary spirits in search, far from the historic centers. classical music, in the Philippines, Brazil, Mexico, New Zealand, Ethiopia, and that part of south Chicago that was a mecca for radical-minded black musicians who didn’t want to be branded as “jazzers.” “.
But this creates a difficulty. What unites a frail 99-year-old Ethiopian nun who went to a Swiss graduate school and briefly participated in the ethio-jazz explosion of the 1960s, with a Swiss immigrant in Brazil who may have built the the most fantastical menagerie of self-invented instruments in all music, and a New Zealander who, in her youth, burned pianos in staged musical-dramatic “happenings”? The answer, at first glance, seems to be: nothing, except the passion of the author, which is intense. Molleson tells us that she wrote the book out of love and anger. The love is for classical music, which she describes as “captivating, essential, personally and politically game-changing”; the anger is against “a culture that willfully closes its doors to perceived outsiders”.
Fair enough, if these strangers actually knocked on the doors of conductors and symphony halls, demanding to be let in. But with few exceptions, one gets the impression that they were content with their status as outsiders and would have politely told these conductors to go to hell, if they had asked for a conventionally written piece.