26 January 2017

The Cult of the Unlistenable

Preparing some concert notes for a rare performance of Samuel Barber’s Cello Concerto, I came across a wonderful phrase in an article by Paul Tobias, published in The Strad magazine in 1996.  He had written a passionate defence of Barber’s Cello Concerto, explaining its failure to gain a foothold in the repertory on a whole range of issues, none of which was the fault of the composer.  Much of what he wrote accorded with my own interpretation of the situation, not least his suggestion that in the immediate post-War years, American composers had become so obsessed with breaking away from the pre-War notions of music as a means of communication and emotional display, that they had created the “Cult of the Unlistenable”.

What a brilliant phrase and how right Tobias was in highlighting it as a significant problem facing music in the second half of the 20th century. 

We can trace it back to the Second Viennese School, but the Cult really originated in the “Darmstadt School”, where a number of leading avant-garde composers – Nono, Stockhausen, Boulez among them – promoted a compositional ethos which was almost exclusively concerned with addressing complex mathematical problems of their own devising.  Music was seen as an esoteric intellectual exercise; something to be studied and read rather than listened to.  As Boulez went on to show, if you followed this path to its logical conclusion, the whole raison d’être of music ceased to exist and music itself became redundant. 

We know that now, but in the 1950s and 1960s such was the originality and forcefulness of their ideas that they spread like wildfire across the conservatories and universities of the world, encouraging academic and student composers to indulge in intellectual exercises divorced from the actuality of audience accessibility.  Even today, there exists in most advanced musical institutions a body of academic composers who solve problems and address issues through composition which bear no relationship to the kind of music which the public – who are, after all, the principal consumers of music – identify as being relevant to them.  There has long been a fundamental disconnect between much of the composition craft taught in universities and the reality of composition in the musical marketplace.  But that is just how it should be; student composers should be taught to pose and then solve intellectual problems as a means of perfecting their art before they go out into the Big Bad World. 

However, during the last century, it became fashionable – trendy, if you like – to regard such academic experimentation not for what it was but as a substitute for the music people wanted to hear, and to present it as the only legitimate path for music to take in the name of progress.  Thus the music of the mid-20th century became so thoroughly associated with desiccated intellectualism that any music which attempted to entice listeners through recognisable melody, coherent harmony and identifiable rhythm, and especially that which attempted to entice through an open expression of emotional and sensual elements, was dismissed by the trendy gang as “irrelevant, out-dated and inappropriate”.  Composers who wrote this kind of music well into the 20th century – Barber was one, but others included Rachmaninov – were castigated by those critics and commentators who had swallowed the rhetoric of the academic brigades and believed that the only “real” modern music was that which caused, if not pain and distress, certainly confusion and puzzlement.  In short, the “Cult of the Unlistenable” had been created.

Of course, we should all now see that for what it was; a passing fad which has a slight legacy in the music of today, but which in its extreme anti-traditional concepts was more concerned with revolution than survival.  But sadly, not all of us do.

Only the other day I read a piece in which the writer described listening to Rachmaninov as a “guilty pleasure”.  Rather like the consumption of chocolate is seen in some quarters as something of which to be ashamed and preferably to be done in secret, so listening (and enjoying) Rachmaninov is seen as something slightly perverse; an escape from modern-day reality.  This is arrant and unacceptable nonsense.  If Rachmaninov was writing in a musical idiom which was different from those of some of his contemporaries, who is to say who was right and who was wrong, who was revolutionary and who was reactionary.  If Rachmaninov chose to entice rather than alienate listeners why was that wrong, and why should we today feel guilty about accepting his musical message?

Similarly, while in my youth it was very common for people to dismiss “Modern Music”, assuming that the Cult of the Unlistenable encompassed every piece of music written during the 20th century, I am delighted that such blanket prejudices seem to be on the wane.  Yet still I read of audiences “not liking modern music” as if everybody naturally likes everything written before 1900.  I believe audiences are much more discerning than that, and while they may well register their disapproval of the Cult of the Unlistenable, they do not assume that the Cult of the Unlistenable and Modern Music are synonymous. 

The Cult of the Unlistenable did untold damage to music, not only encouraging a jaundiced view of the music of Barber, Rachmaninov and others, but actively suppressing great works of the mid-20th century like the Barber Cello Concerto.  Time has come for the damage done by the Cult of the Unlistenable to be undone; try to be at Singapore’s Esplanade Concert Hall on 13th April to hear cellist Qin Li-Wei perform the Barber.  Unless you are something of a dinosaur and still subscribe to the Cult of the Unlistenable, I suspect you will be in for a glorious musical treat.  And as an added pleasure – with no hint of guilt attached – the concert also includes Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for referencing my guilty pleasures! My guiltiest pleasure is to listen to the Yellow River Concerto - that melange of Liszt, Rachmaninov, Grieg, Chopin by way of Jiang Qing (Madam Mao). Its a terrible piece, but why do I love it so and have possibly every known recording of it? Is it because of my Chinese blood?

    Speaking of more guiltiest pleasures and spending money on it, try and find that CD which couples both the Rachmaninov Third Piano Concerto (Ashkenazy) and Yellow River Concerto (Daniel Epstein), both with Eugene Ormandy conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra! Its a keeper!