copland and contemporary music -- 2/9/24

Today's selection-- from What to Listen for in Music by Aaron Copland. The great composer Aaron Copland, writing in the mid-20th century, addresses the subject of disorienting contemporary music:

“Over and over again the question arises as to why it is that so many music lovers feel disoriented when they listen to contemporary music. They seem to accept with equanimity the notion that the work of the present-day composer is not for them. Why? Because they ‘just don't understand it.’ As a nonprofessional phrased it recently, ‘Far too many listeners still flinch when they are told that a piece of music is “modern.”’ Formerly—up to the middle twenties or thereabouts—all new music of progressive tendency was bunched together under the heading ‘ultramodern.’ Even today there still persists the idea that ‘classic’ and ‘modern’ represent two irreconcilable musical styles, the one posing graspable problems and the other fairly bristling with insoluble ones. 

“The first thing to remember is that creative artists, by and large, are a serious lot—their purpose is not to fool you. This, in turn, presupposes on your part an open mind, good will, and a certain a priori confidence in what they are up to. Composers vary greatly in range and scope, in temperament and in expression. Because of that, contemporary music imparts not one kind, but many different kinds of musical experience. That too is important to remember. Some present-day composers are very easy to understand, others may be very tough. Or different pieces by the same composer may fit into one or the other category. In between are a great many contemporary writers who range from being quite approachable to being fairly difficult. 

“To label all this music under the one heading ‘modern’ is patently unfair, and can lead only to confusion. It might be helpful, therefore, to bring some order into the apparent chaos of contemporary composition by dividing some of its leading exponents according to the relative degree of difficulty in the understanding of their respective idioms: 

"Waltz No. 2" by Dmitri Shostakovich, performed by Abbraccio Classical in 2012.

“Very easy: Shostakovitch and Khachaturian, Francis Poulenc and Erik Satie, early Stravinsky and Schoenberg, Virgil Thomson. 

Quite approachable: Prokofieff, Villa-Lobos, Ernest Bloch, Roy Harris, William Walton, Malipiero, Britten. 

Fairly difficult: Late Stravinsky, Bela Bartok, Milhaud, Chavez, William Schuman, Honegger, Hindemith, Walter Piston. 

Very tough: Middle and late Schoenberg, Alban Berg, Anton Webern, Varese, Dallapiccola, Krenek, Roger Sessions, sometimes Charles Ives. 

“It is not at all essential that you agree with my comparative estimates. These are meant merely to indicate that not all new music ought to be thought of as equally inaccessible. The dodecaphonic school of Schoenberg is the hardest nut to crack, even for musicians. For the later Stravinsky you need a love of style, precision, personality; for Milhaud or Chavez a taste for sharply seasoned sonorities. Hindemith and Piston demand a contrapuntal ear; Poulenc and Thomson a witty intelligence; and Villa-Lobos a feeling for the lushly colorful. 

“The first essential, then, is to differentiate composers, trying to hear each separately in terms of what he wishes to communicate. Composers are not interchangeable! Each has his own objective and the wise listener would do well to keep that objective in the front of his mind. 

“This clarification of objective should also be borne in mind when we distinguish between the musical pleasures to be derived from old and new music. The uninitiated music lover will continue to find contemporary music peculiar so long as he persists in trying to hear the same kinds of sounds or derive the same species of musical enjoyment that he gets from the great works of past masters. This point is crucial. My love of the music of Chopin and Mozart is as strong as that of the next fellow, but it does me little good when I sit down to write my own, because their world is not mine and their musical language not mine. The underlying principles of their music are just as cogent today as they were in their own period, but with these same principles one may and one does produce a quite different result. When approaching a present-day musical work of serious pretensions, one must first realize what the objective of the composer is and then expect to hear a different sort of treatment than was customary in the past. 

“In dealing with the elements and forms of music, various instances were cited to show how recent composers have adapted and extended our technical resources for their own expressive purposes. These extensions of conventional procedures necessarily imply the ability, on the listener's part, to lend himself by instinct or training to the unfamiliar idiom. If, for example, you find yourself rejecting music because it is too dissonant, it probably indicates that your ear is insufficiently accustomed to our present-day musical vocabulary, and needs more practice—that is, training in listening. (There is always the possibility that the composer himself may be at fault through the writing of uninspired or willful dissonances.)”



Aaron Copland


What to Listen for in Music


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