Music at the Turn 

A Memoranda List

Wednesday, Jan 6 1999
Artwork by Peter Bennett

A year begins, a century ends. The Los Angeles Philharmonic’s last 1998 concert included music by Olivier Messiaen, a significant creator and inspirational force of recent decades; it starts this year with music by Toru Takemitsu, another. Last month, the Los Angeles Opera premiered a new American score; later this month, UCLA will put on a concert of ages-old but very new music for drums, only drums. Ends of years — or of centuries or millenniums — are the listmakers’ glory days, the time for summing up in tabular form. And so, like Gilbert and Sullivan’s Lord High Executioner — exalted archetype of paid criticism — I too have got a little list.

I was 16 when music first attacked me. My friend Normy and I were in the 25-cent rush seats, upstairs in Symphony Hall, on a Friday afternoon in 1940; Serge Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony had begun the concert with Gluck and Mozart, full of comforting tunes and harmonies in a familiar language. After intermission, however, I was hurled across a boundary onto a strange and scary landscape. Midway in the first movement of a brand-new symphony (the Fifth) by a composer with a barely pronounceable name (Shostakovich), the man on kettledrums started up a huge bim-bam-boom. A xylophone joined in, maximum hysteria. The piano, for God’s sake — whoever heard of a piano in a symphony? — banged away. All around us elderly matrons pushed their way quickly to the exit doors. (The Boston Herald’s great satirical cartoonist Francis Dahl noted that one of Boston’s indigenous sounds was the rustle of Grandma Saltoncabot’s black bombazine in the Symphony Hall corridors, beating a hasty exodus from Dr. Koussevitzky’s Shostakovich.)

The first thing I learned about new music was that it survived on a battlefield. The critics — including the Herald’s Rudolph Elie, who would later hire me as a stringer, my first writing job, at $3 a review — greeted the Shostakovich Fifth with howls of protest. The dissonances and the banging were bad enough, the sentiment ran; what was worse was that the music, to those apprehensive 1940 ears, contained clear evidence of Soviet conspiracies against the American government. Koussevitzky, ever the warrior, immediately rescheduled the Fifth Symphony for a repeat performance later that season. (There are now close to 50 recordings of the Fifth in the latest Schwann catalog. It is easily the best-known symphony composed in this century; people whistle its subversive tunes in the streets.)

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That afternoon’s encounter with the music of my own time brought a sense of astonishment that I can still feel; I simply had no idea that people could take the orchestra of Beethoven and Brahms, throw in a few more instruments, and create sounds like this. A few months later came Walt Disney’s Fantasia with its Rite of Spring sequence (hacked to pieces, I learned only later, from Stravinsky’s original score, but thrilling even so): more exhilaration, up to the edge of terror. I’ve never been much for horror movies or roller-coaster rides; the passion for new music I acquired on those two afternoons, and have tried to nurture on the thousands since, satisfies whatever craving along those lines I might otherwise entertain.

Of all the arts, music inspires the greatest fear of the unknown. If a painting or a sculpture offends, you can walk away. Music attacks, grabs hold and imposes its own time frame; try to escape from a live performance of some act of blatant musical innovation, and you risk stepping on toes, both literally and figuratively. A piece of new music sounds new because it does battle with expectations we’ve amassed from listening to other music not as new; therein lies its power. Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring aggressed upon its first audience — in Paris, 1913 — with its very first notes; a solo bassoon isn’t supposed to wail like that in its highest register. Beethoven’s "Eroica" Symphony got in wrong with its first audience right at the start — in Vienna, 1805 — because the C sharp in the eighth bar doesn’t belong in the key of E flat. In the early 1700s, Bach was constantly in hot water with his employers because of his wild and dissonant organ improvisations. In Florence around 1600, Claudio Monteverdi enraged a critic named G.M. Artusi with passionate harmonies that no composer had dared to use before. In all those cases, and thousands more, the passage of time has smoothed the feathers of those first enraged audiences; Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring also gets whistled in the streets.

These offenses all seem to have taken place in the early years of their centuries — by coincidence, or because the chronological upheaval at a century’s turn inspires a certain state of mind. Now we’re there again, and while the computer guys try to figure out how to cope with double-zero dating, the culture guys are having a fine old time with compiling lists: the best, the most favored, the greatest or just the most.

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