Classical Music Doesn’t Have to Be Ugly to Be Good

In the early 1990s, I was in a chorus assigned to sing a contemporary classical piece that was, in a word, hideous. Almost willfully so, it seemed. It wasn’t in any home key — it was atonal — giving the listener no sense of base, instead just creeping all over the sonic spectrum. To my ear, the piece offered nothing of beauty, sequence or proportion. I remember thinking that I would rather have listened to a silverware drawer thrown down a staircase.

Quite a bit of (relatively) recent classical music strikes people that way. And if it does, there’s a chance that what they’re hearing — whether they know it or not — is music composed with the notoriously listener-unfriendly 12-tone method of composition (one type of what’s known as serialism) pioneered by the composer Arnold Schoenberg in the early 20th century. What the bland name 12-tone doesn’t really tell you is that the technique replaces tonality with atonality. As a lay-friendly description in Encyclopaedia Britannica explains, in such a system, “no notes would predominate as focal points, nor would any hierarchy of importance be assigned to the individual tones.” What you wind up with is something like this. The “William Tell” overture or Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, it is not.

Yet some of the method’s practitioners have been given to an idea that this kind of music was an inevitable progress, dismissing a more intuitive yearning for nice-sounding music as a lack of sophistication: The composer Pierre Boulez once declared, “Any musician who has not experienced — I do not say understood, but, in all exactness, experienced — the necessity for the dodecaphonic language is useless” — “dodecaphonic” meaning 12-tone and “useless” meaning you, the rube.

For anyone who considers himself forward-thinking, it’s the kind of pronouncement that’s hard to ignore. After declaring my take on that awful choral piece to a fellow baritone, he tartly suggested that I listen to some modern classical, by composers such as Luciano Berio, which he believed was, in its way, beautiful. At the time, I felt like I had been schooled, forced to at least entertain the possibility that classical music had nowhere to go but ugly after a certain point. Maybe the familiar tonality and beauty of more traditional classical — the work of Chopin or Schumann — was tapped out.

Or not.

Though in that moment my musical horizon was probably broadened (even if I wasn’t completely heartened), my whole sense of classical music’s development has, of late, been simultaneously turned upside down and edified by two revelations. As I covered here, Joseph Horowitz’s book “Dvorak’s Prophecy: And the Vexed Fate of Black Classical Music” shows that audiences have resisted Dvorak’s call for American classical music to flourish based on our own homegrown substrate, Native American and, especially, Black music.

Under Horowitz’s analysis, the emergence, if not dominance, in the late 20th century of listener-unfriendly atonal classical music should have been viewed as more of a sideshow. He writes: “The new American classical music paradigm I have here proposed, reaching into the past, treats the 20th century as an aberration in an Ur-narrative. The modernist juggernaut, whatever its triumphs, elevated art to lonely heights.”

Now, the conductor John Mauceri (whose work I discussed in one of my early Times newsletters) expands on this story in “The War on Music: Reclaiming the Twentieth Century,” teaching that we not only need feel no sense of unsophistication in not liking ugly, mechanically constructed music, but that there are warehouses full of sophisticated and complex, but easily lovable, classical music, some we don’t hear because of an association with ignominious regimes.

As Mauceri writes, “Hitler, Mussolini and Stalin had stylistic demands that would give an official sound to their regimes.” In all three of their countries, “they silenced non-tonal and 12-tone music along with anything that might be considered experimental.” In Italy, music in the grand opera tradition à la Verdi was embraced by officialdom, but later tainted by association. In Russia, explains Mauceri, Stalin dictated a policy favoring “Socialist Realism — music that was defiantly not experimental.” The renowned composers Prokofiev and Shostakovich walked a fine line “between approbation and annihilation.” Lesser-known composers such as Dmitri Kabalevsky, Aram Khachaturian and others are now performed very little. (In the gabby, showstopping song “Tschaikowsky” from the 1941 Broadway musical “Lady in the Dark,” a long list of Russian composers, many of whom we’ve hardly heard from, are rattled off.)

Mauceri writes: “As the generations have passed, a source of these aesthetic judgments — the racial policies of the Nazis and the Fascists and the war against Soviet Communism — has been forgotten, and postwar aesthetic conclusions have been accepted as objective. And after having removed so much music and so many composers from our lives, what have we gotten in return?”

Consider also Erich Wolfgang Korngold, a Jewish composer from what is now the Czech Republic who went into exile with the rise of Nazi Germany. His music — from his opera “Das Wunder der Heliane” to the score for the Errol Flynn movie “The Adventures of Robin Hood” — is intelligently luscious, not lacking complexity yet remaining accessible. But the atonal fashion’s hold in the mid-20th century was such that Korngold’s music has been dismissed in some quarters as mere Hollywood “kitsch.” Mauceri justly and deftly refutes this dismissal of Hollywood music and sees the work of John Williams (“Star Wars”!), Miklos Rosza (“Ben-Hur”!) and others as a healthy, endlessly creative continuation of the post-Romantic classical music tradition.

Horowitz and Mauceri’s “What if?” reframings of classical music’s trajectory helped me clarify why I have felt the way I have about various types of classical music. When I did listen to Berio 30 years ago, it left me craving “Porgy and Bess.” I now know why and feel no sense of musical obtuseness in that. I now know why, when I watched the 1940 adventure pic “The Sea Hawk,” another Flynn vehicle, I was so distracted by the wonderful underscoring that I kept forgetting to keep up with the plot — it was a Korngold score. It is esteemed enough by cognoscenti to have been recorded separately, but in a concert hall would probably still be classified as “pops,” despite no qualitative difference in expressiveness or gravitas from the work of Brahms.

Indeed — and I doubt Horowitz or Mauceri would take issue with me on this — America’s more structurally ambitious musical theater pieces are often as artistically rich as “La Bohème” or “Der Rosenkavalier.” When written for a traditionally composed orchestra in a style focused on melody and harmony, they stand along with the best Hollywood scoring as an American classical music that could have emerged only here, given the Black American-born strain in their musical foundations.

For example, to return to my previously noted enthusiasm for the work of Stephen Sondheim, his 1964 “Anyone Can Whistle,” is, to me, as essential, totemic and ineffable as any opera. It depicts a sad little town, headed by a vainglorious mayor, that harbors an asylum, with one of the asylum’s nurses romanced by a tortured, charismatic and oddly sexy con man. Sondheim exquisitely set this mess to music.

One of its songs, “Simple,” is a 13-minute smorgasbord about how elusive the definition of mental illness is (yes!) with intertwining music styles in shifting meters and tempos. It is, quite simply, genius, on very much the level as what Wagner or Strauss wrought. Another, “Me and My Town,” starts out bluesy and harmonically impatient and goes into a patter-y ensemble piece.

The orchestrations alone are splendid — cellos instead of violins or violas, which makes everything sound a little grimmer. There are French horns moaning menacingly to depict the brooding, hot-focus intelligent rant to come at the start of the nurse’s “There Won’t Be Trumpets”; and the lonely solo flute playing low in its range — almost sounding like someone ruminating and sad to be alone — to bring on the plangent romantic duet “With So Little to Be Sure Of.”

The original Broadway cast recording of “Anyone Can Whistle” was one of my first CDs, and there was a reason. It isn’t just some “musical.” It is a recalibration, a refraction, a gloss upon, the artistic assignment taken on earlier by “Tosca” and “Salomé”: passionate, complicated and precise musical drama. Classical music has morphed into so very much all around us, including at the movies and even, as Mauceri notes, in the rich scoring of some of today’s advanced video games. Its story need not be a gloomy descent into work valued by a small circle for the glum achievement of evading anything so trivial as pleasing the senses.

I must add: I have recently had the pleasure of encountering another kind of modern classical music. A few weeks ago, I mentioned that William Bolcom wrote modern ragtime pieces. The young composer Vincent Matthew Johnson has done so more recently, and a recording of several of his works by the pianist Max Keenlyside reveals a composer who has taken the torch passed on since Scott Joplin and created ragtime that continues in the Bolcom spirit and keeps the genre ever moving.

There’s nothing quaint here — some of Johnson’s pieces would be beyond the ability of anyone who’s not a seasoned musician. However, one of his pieces is, to me, just ragtime to a T written in modern language: The whole CD is splendid, but I can’t get enough of “Blue-Berry Pancakes,” my favorite five minutes of classical music for this month.

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John McWhorter (@JohnHMcWhorter) is an associate professor of linguistics at Columbia University. He hosts the podcast “Lexicon Valley” and is the author, most recently, of “Woke Racism: How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black America.”

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