Inside 20th-century music
N.C.N.A. (No Composers Need Apply)
An Indian gentleman I once met at a summer music festival, who was lecturing on Indian classical music, greeted me one day in a baffled state. He had just looked in on one of the resident piano teacher's master classes, which was labeled ''Piano Workshop.'' Instead of seeing what he had expected to find - this archetypal symbol of Western musical culture being assembled by an instrument maker and his apprentices - he came upon a roomful of young pianists having turns playing Beethoven and Liszt!
What this amusing East-West confusion of terms taught me, was that, in a great many ways, Western art music is plagued today with various confusions - not just of terms, but of purpose.
What initially prodded this article was not the anecdote about my Indian friend, but the bringing to my attention of the programs played by one of the major US orchestras during its tour of Europe last season. Not only was there not a single American work on any of them, but, to the best of my recollection, there wasn't a single work by any living composer, from anywhere! The US, to my knowledge, is the only country where orchestras perpetrate this kind of thing: sending their ensembles abroad to give the unavoidable impression that musical creativity is something we have been able to shield ourselves from more effectively than locusts or Fascism. Music in this country seems to consist solely (in the minds of many) of performers and audiences.
Now, I utterly agree that performers are vitally important for music. But players also seem to have inherited, in our subliminal consciousness, the role heretofore played visibly, though not exclusively, by the creative personality - the composer. The recreative has become more or less what music today is all about.
Before the World Wars, what we had was a musical world in which the wisest, most venerable performers, were avidly playing the music either of themselves or of their contemporaries. Audiences today, in the main, go to concerts to hear younger performers playing old music.
It's not that the classic masterpieces are ''getting old'' and musty. They simply are undergoing an unavoidable amount of distortion, being reinterpreted season after season, each year carrying us further away from their times, roots, and origins.
The composer no longer has the place that he once had in our general concept of musical life. In almost all of the past eras of great contributions to music, most audiences expected to hear the music of the day. As one eminent figure put it, with sublime simplicity, such a public expects music to be written. Do we today expect music to be written? How content would we be, how long should we go , before we noticed - how long could the situation go on - if all composers of art music everywhere stopped writing right now, produced nothing more? If we were left happily and permanently in a state of Mozart, Brahms and Verdi . . .?
The answers, I am sad to say, are: quite satisfied, and for quite a while. But the art of music wouldn't be long for this world if that were ever actually to happen.
Oh, I'm sure there are a good many people who beam with delight at the thought of no more atrocities from composers who are loosely definable as ''modern.'' And I am more than willing to agree that a good deal of bamboozlement and imposture has come our way over the years in the name of art and art music.
But those who have heard me say it before will forgive my repeating that no art form survives solely on showcasing its past, any more than by tinkering absentmindedly with arcane futurism(s).
It is understandable that some seek shelter in the nineteenth century from the ravages of some of twentieth-century music's intolerabilities, but it is no place to stay indefinitely - for the good of the entire art. There is a great deal of wonderful music of our time, and in the past there has always been a natural winnowing process which brought an age's superior products to the surface. Today, unfortunately, there are several forces at work undermining that natural process, of which apathy toward modern works is perhaps the smallest. Inflation has put a pressure on board-responsive orchestras and agent-responsive soloists to keep the halls full by purveying mostly the tried-and-true. Finances are probably the most restrictive force, as they have been in every planning area where less than sure-fire results are predictable.
The richness of the music produced in this century seldom has the chance to be enjoyed as fully as it ought. Exploring it on one's own has become a necessity for the interested music lover, but it can be a stimulating and rewarding enterprise. The public library is a good place to begin. Most libraries of any size will have a collection of recordings, among which one may find some of the following - my momentary recommendations of some good starting-off points for listening.
* Francis Poulenc: Gloria (choral work)
* Howard Hanson: Second Symphony
* Bela Bartok: Third Piano Concerto
* Walter Piston: Sixth Symphony
* Jacques Ibert: Louisville Concerto
* Roy Harris: Sonata for Violin and Piano Hearing a fine, compelling and utterly convincing work from this twentieth-century richness can do a lot to wipe away the excesses of artistic charlatanism. At least, for the moment, it can minimize our worries about how to reverse music's fiscal tailspin and its effects on creativity. These are looming threats which are not going to go away instantly, by any means. But for each music lover to become more aware of this richness, and voice his desire to hear it more often, would be significant for art music's survival as a lively art.