By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
Editor’s note: Alan Rich has been the classical music critic at theL.A. Weekly for the past 15 years. Prior to theWeekly, he wrote forNewsweek and theHerald Examiner andCalifornia Magazine and, before that,New York Magazine and theNew York Herald Tribune. Now 82, he is a local and national treasure, if we do say so ourselves, and he has a new book, a collection of his criticisms and essays, most of which appeared in these pages. The following is excerpted from a piece written in 1999, a list of 100 works from the 20th century that define their time. The full piece can be viewed online at www.laweekly.com.
No time in recorded history could match the sense of wonderment, the euphoria, the eager curiosity about the future that gripped the Western world right around 1900. The previous couple of decades had given the world the telephone, the light bulb, the phonograph, the automobile, and, a couple of years later, would give it the airplane; these were not merely improvements on things already in existence (as the compact disc might — just might — seem an improvement on the 78-rpm shellac disc, or the Airbus on the DC-3); they added up to an explosive expansion beyond what had previously been assumed the limits of human possibility. All the arts seemed to draw new energy from the spirit of innovation in the land; in the decade and a half from 1900 to the outbreak of World War I, the air crackled with the shock of the new.
Some of the newness may have been the logical consequence of the recent past; the whisperings and half-lights of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande clearly stemmed from the impulses that guided Claude Monet’s brush at his lily pond; Gustav Mahler’s last symphony and the first works of Arnold Schoenberg took the agonized harmonic frustrations of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde onto the concert stage. So, with more surface glitter and less inner substance, did Richard Strauss in his blood-drenched Elektra. Igor Stravinsky’s first ballet scores were recognizably the work of Rimsky-Korsakov’s star pupil. Yet the spirit of the times seemed to drive the new creators hard and fast. The merely two-year stylistic gap between Stravinsky’s Petrushka and his Rite of Spring yawns wider than the 20 between Beethoven’s “Eroica” and his Ninth. So do the two years between Mahler’s Ninth Symphony and the Pierrot Lunaire of his self-anointed apostle, Arnold Schoenberg.
Jump back a few decades — to 1880, say. The European bourgeoisie prospered; the great cities celebrated their grandiosity by building concert halls and opera houses. Virtuosos flourished — sopranos, pianists, conductors. The old masters — Beethoven, Haydn and Bach in monstrously perverse re-orchestrations — held their place; just the opening bars of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, that supremely romantic gesture of bringing the music in gradually as if from a distant cloud, became the gambit for dozens of latter-day rip-offs, some successful. It was taken for granted, however, that by far the majority of the concert and operatic fare was to be music hot off the press. The audience eagerly awaited the latest Brahms symphony, the latest Verdi opera. Richard Wagner died in 1883, and the world awaited with bated breath the emergence of his successor, assuming beyond argument that there would be one.
Around 1900, however, the signs first appeared of a schism between “music” and “new music.” Wagner had implanted some of the attitude with his orotund pronouncements about “the music of the future.” By 1900, too, Europe’s great music-publishing houses had caught up with the past, with complete performing editions of practically every major composer, from Bach to Beethoven and on through Schubert, Mendelssohn, Schumann, Berlioz. Performers could, better than before, think in terms of a “repertory” of past masterpieces; audiences, too, developed a fondness for wallowing in the familiar. And so the world at large no longer awaited the next symphony by Mahler or the next string quartet by Debussy with the hunger for newness that had driven taste in, say, 1880. Newness had become newer, and therefore more fearsome, than in the good old days. The impact of Pierrot Lunaire and The Rite of Spring — and the dozens of similar assaults on the musical status quo — drove the wedge.
Music’s world expanded beyond its traditional French/German/Italian/Slavic boundaries in these years. Finland’s Jean Sibelius brought his country its first fame, with music basically rooted in the mainstream past but with at least one splendid work, the bleak, ascetic Fourth Symphony, that does indeed mirror the fog-shrouded bleakness of its native soil. Spain’s Manuel de Falla wrote Spanish-tinged music that went past post-card prettiness in a dark, edgy and wonderfully witty manner. England’s Ralph Vaughan Williams, though defiantly anchored in his country’s ancient musical styles, at least turned out a repertory of symphonies that did not sound fresh off the boat from Germany, as did those of his countryman Elgar. And the United States, whose handful of respectable 19th-century musicians also composed with heavy German accents, produced its first generation of indigenous crackpot/geniuses with the likes of good ol’ boy Charlie Ives, Henry Cowell, Carl Ruggles and the émigré Edgard Varèse, who proclaimed his Americanness with a wildly dissonant piece called Amériques that had the critics disputing whether it was more descriptive of a zoo or a boiler factory.