EP&M Online Essay: Contemporary Music




David Arditti is a composer of beautiful, tonal music in what he considers to be the true classical tradition. He is one of a group of young composers in Britain today who believe that the future of classical music lies in a return to traditional values of craftsmanship, clarity, consonance and the primacy of vocal melody.

He frequently acts as accompanist to singers and instrumentalists in concerts and recitals of his own and other music. He has conducted many choral and orchestral works, including the premieres of some of his own. He was for some time the regular conductor of the Chelsea Singers, a chamber group in London with a wide repertoire.

His compositions include songs and song-cycles, piano music, chamber music, orchestral works, choral music, including a Requiem and a Mass in C, and a film score. Performances have take place all over Britain and in the USA.

His works are published by Oriana Publications (Wales) and Topmusic (Switzerland).

Website: http://www.darditti.com

What is the equivalent of the New Formalist poetry movement in music?

In the world of Western "classical", "serious" or "art" music, there is, I believe, such an equivalent clearly apparent. Whether it is a "movement" in any organised sense is doubtful, but it could be seen as such in the context of general cultural connections, influences, and mood of the time, or zeitgeist, if you will.

I am referring to those composers now active who wish to return to many of the aesthetic principles that governed the composition of "classical" music, in the broad sense, before the early part of the twentieth century. A pause for definition - there is a narrow meaning of the term "classical music" which refers to the work of composers of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries - but I am using the term in its broad, "common sense" meaning of works of completely composed, notated music (i.e. excluding such improvised, traditional or semi-traditional forms as jazz and folk), written for western instruments and combinations such as the orchestra, string quartet, etc., or voices, in the secular or religious serious, or art, traditions. This is the meaning that staff arranging the stock in a CD shop would use.

A convenient shorthand to describe these composers will be "composers of new tonal music". This is because one of the main characteristics that unites and defines them is their attitude to tonality. But this is only a shorthand, and the situation is not simple, because there are other composers who would regard themselves as writing "tonal music" who might well not consider themselves to be part of the movement I have defined, or who members of this movement would not consider to have much in common with them. Tonality itself is only one, important, aesthetic issue, but others would be form or structure, balance of consonance and dissonance, the style of use of instruments and voices, continuity and line, counterpoint, melody, structure of harmony, tension and resolution, the narrative or abstract nature of music, the social "uses" of music, its appeal and intended audiences. The last of course are practical rather than aesthetic issues, but philosophically, and really, connected to the aesthetics.

At this stage I must explain the issue of tonality for those who are not familiar with it. Mediaeval music was written on a scale of seven notes to the octave, and a melody began and ended on a particular note of that scale, which defined the one of the seven possible modes that was being used. By the renaissance, all but two of the modes had fallen out of use, and these became known as the major and minor scales that all tonal music thereafter used. During the eighteenth century the tuning of the scale of twelve equally-spaced semitones in the octave became standardised, and it became possible to write music which was the same in all but pitch location, using any one of these twelve notes as the keynote, and thus there came to be twenty-four keys, a minor and a major based on each note of the chromatic (twelve-note) scale. During the eighteenth century, the use of modulation (change of key within a piece for emotional effect or as a structural organising principle) tended still to be restricted to those "nearest-neighbour" keys that had been the only ones practical before the introduction of equal temperament, but from the early nineteenth century, and the beginning of the romantic movement in all the arts, the possibilities of the much more varied and remote modulations made possible by the equally-tempered scale, and also by improvements in the design of instruments, came to be exploited more and more, starting with the works of Beethoven and Schubert. However, up to the early twentieth century, however chromatically complex and frequent the modulations and harmonic shifts used by the composer, it generally remained very clear what the principle key of the piece was, and the piece would nearly always begin and end in that key. This is tonality.

The "atonal" music developed by Schönberg and his disciples from shortly before the First World War was based on the revolutionary idea that music could be written in which the key note, and its closely related notes, the dominant (four notes above), and the subdominant (three notes above), no longer had the pre-eminence in melody and harmony that they possessed in tonal music, which constituted all music written up until that time. Instead, a system was created, known as the "twelve-tone" system, in which a kind of democracy was enforced amongst the twelve notes of the chromatic scale. This music was written in no key, and it used the twelve notes, in theory, equally.

Many, if not most, composers continued to write tonal music throughout the twentieth century. Unfortunately, however, the atonal system became established and enforced as a type of political-artistic orthodoxy in many composition departments in universities and conservertoires, where the teaching was by pupils of the Schönberg school who believed that this was the only possible music of the future, and the composition of tonal music in those places, and widely through the academic musical world after the Second World War, became unacceptable. There followed from this the exclusion of tonal composers from most of the publicly-funded programmes and enterprises promoting new music, and the virtual synonymity of new serious music with twelve-tone music that reached its apogee in the1960s and 70s. Some of the tonal composers went into more commercial areas, such as writing for TV, films or the theatre, abandoning the hope of gaining intellectual or critical respect, and some of them gave up.

None of the vast quantity of atonal music produced during the twentieth century ever attained much popularity. The closest to being popular of all the atonal works are those of Berg, one of Schönberg¹s original pupils, but it could be argued that he diluted the method by making his melodies and harmonies as close as possible to tonal ones as he could within the system, and his works are not typical of the atonal school. The proponents of the school believed that public taste, and even the way in which the public heard music, would change so as to gradually become attuned to this new system, much as the equally-tempered scale had become widely accepted after its introduction by J S Bach and his contemporaries two hundred years earlier. This did not happen, for reasons of psychology, physiology and physics which would be too much of a digression to go into here. Suffice it to be stated as a fact that a century after its invention, atonal music continues to be perceived as unnatural, unmusical, incomprehensible, or just ugly, by the vast majority of listeners to the classical repertoire. Atonality/tonality never became an issue outside the classical world, with the practitioners of all the myriad forms of pop, folk and jazz, with the exception of a few experimenters in late twentieth-century jazz, remaining completely happy with the tonal system. It was, perhaps, too much to expect the public to come to hear atonal art music as natural and musical, while surrounded with these other forms, so pervasive in the culture of the twentieth century, which maintained the traditional harmonic and melodic principles to a large extent, as well as by the work of those remaining classical composers, so often out in critical cold, who never adopted the twelve-note system at all.

The music of the future view started to collapse in many institutions and critical circles before 1980, and, today, there are relatively few composers, and hardly any young ones, writing in a strict or clear atonal style. Instrumental in this collapse was the arrival on the scene of the minimalist composers, who started on the west coast of America, spread to the east coast and then to Europe, who decided to abandon the harmonic, contrapuntal and textural complexity of the atonalists in order to concentrate on rhythmic interest and the idea of gradual metamorphosis as a structural principle. Their music was minimal because it typically used few different harmonies and only simple melodic patterns. It was completely tonal as a radical statement and complete break from their teachers, but it had little in common with nineteenth century music.

Currently there is a state of uncertainty and flux pervading modern classical music. State, and indeed private, support for music that has very little engagement with the general public is waning. Many composers have taken to writing postmodern collage-music, incorporating elements of pop, jazz, tonal classical music, atonal music, and minimalism, but whether such crossover liberality can ever produce masterpieces of intellectual stature and consistency to rival the works of the masters remains a moot point.

These are the circumstances in which many composers believe that a revival of tonality combined with classical principles of form, and a return to pre-Schöbergian, or even pre-Wagnerian ideals of harmonic and melodic beauty could gain momentum and widespread acceptance. Such composers are definitely not attempting to produce pastiche eighteenth or nineteenth century music. This will always be the accusation from their detractors. Nor are they rejecting genuinely useful developments of the last century. No-one can sensibly reject so much of their own cultural history. These composers live in their own time and are products of everything that has come before. They are trying to create an engaging, modern and different music that nevertheless recovers those timeless principles (I phrase it thus in preference to implying regression by speaking of going back to anything) of form, symmetry, clarity, line and transparency that were the unquestioned core of the craftsmanship of centuries of composers. In doing so, they hope to reengage the wide public alienated by the deliberate extremity, awkwardness and impenetrable complexity of many of the widely-promoted composers of the last fifty years.

In the second part of this article I shall look at the work of some of these composers in some detail, and point the interested reader to the areas of the web where they can sample some of this work.

David Arditti
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