The European spirit is characterized by a restless
, relentless drive toward a pluralistic and universal state. A pluralistic Weltanschauung
leads in society to a glorification of the individual, and in science to the concept of atoms as irreducible entities. Atoms are, in fact, abstractions, for we merely interpret their existence from the operation of energies of which we assume atoms to be the source. The musical analog of the atom is the musical note — an abstract entity when considered a component of a written score. Socio-politically the citizen having an irreducible right to make its presence quantitatively felt by voting is also an abstraction. I say "its" presence because gender theoretically is not considered; neither are racial ancestry, social class, religion, or any other qualifying or conditioning factors.
In a society founded on number and form (in the abstract, geometrical sense of the word), unconditioned individuals are needed as basic units. Such a society is preeminently intellectual. Its universalism is a mental universalism, stressing abstract relationships defined by numbers rather than by persons, by formal organization rather than by the substantial nature and the quality of life of the units being organized.
Thus in music the quantitative relationship between abstract entities — the notes — is emphasized far more than the resonance (the quality of vibratory energy) of tones. The livingness of a tone depends of what produces the audible sound, on how
it is produced, by
, and where
Can music be a universal language when such concrete factors are irreducible elements in producing communicative tones? Strictly cultural music cannot be a universal language; its meaning is communicable only to the people imbued with the collective psychism of the particular culture. To be a universal language either the language (music) must be abstract (that is, based on numerical and formal relations) or the term universal
must be limited to refer to the super-cultural or omni-cultural field of existence and experience implied in the term homo-sapiens
. The human species is still a particular field of existence and experiences; it is only relatively
This relative universality is implied in the Pythagorean concept of the music of the spheres, because the spheres were pictured as concentric regions of space centered around the earth. To the Greek mind, however, the center was really archetypal Man (Anthropos). Thus we should speak only of the music of Man (anthropotonic
music?). In China, however, music was centered on a fundamental tone thought to be the tone of the earth. For other cultures it was the tone of the Earth-Mother, of nature. In the Middle Ages, the universe was illustrated vividly as a series of concentric spaces with God, a fountainhead of light and creative power, at the center (the Celestial Rose envisioned by Dante and drawn by Gustave Doré).
To the rationalistic European men of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the idea of universality had an abstract, algebraic character, barely disguised by the intellectual, individualisitc religious spirit of Protestantism. The drive for universality had lost (some say transcended) the sacromagical (or mythic) character it had during the Middle Ages (and the Crusades). Nineteenth century Romanticism, however, sought to return to the theocentric vision of the Catholic Middle Ages, but in a new, personalistic way. It tried to evoke a religion of humanity transcending the cultural exclusivism of the classical European spirit.
Beethoven's Ninth Symphony began a new phase of European music, inspired by this Romantically universal vision of a unified humanity. The deculturalization and dis-Europeanization of music began, in an (unconscious far more than conscious) attempt to create a music that would be both
personalistic and universal. That period ended with Gustav Mahler's last symphonies. It reached a climax of theatrical magnificence and Germanic grandiloquence in his Eighth Symphony ("The Symphony of a Thousand") and ended with the very moving and tragic last movement of his Ninth Symphony, which was performed just as war in the Balkans began, the prelude to the first World War and the disintegration of the old European culture. In August 1906 Mahler wrote in a letter to the conductor Wilhelm Mengelberg, "I have just finished my Eighth! It is the greatest thing I have as yet done and so individual in content and form that I cannot describe it in words. Imagine that the whole universe begins to sound in tone. The result is not merely human voices singing, but a vision of planets and suns coursing about."(1
At the same time in France, Claude Debussy, Maurice Ravel, and Paul Dukas — whose orchestration of the symbolic opera Ariane et Barbe-Bleue
(1907) announced the brilliancy and extraordinary orchestral sonorities of the works of Olivier Messiaen and Krzysztof Penderecki — and in Vienna the Arnold Schönberg of the Five Pieces for Orchestra
opened a new era in the development of "tone color" and "orchestral coloring." The term color
is, however, misleading, for it hides a deep change that has been unfolding for nearly a century. It gives a superficial meaning to the development of a deep, intuitive sense of the need to experience sonorities that would at least reflect some of the intensity and power of cosmic tones-sonorities generated by the vibrations of material instruments resonating to the impact of a creative spirit whose purpose is to renew human consciousness and perhaps transmute the very matter of human bodies and of the earth.
After 1910, at the threshold of the first World War, four composers of totally different characters and backgrounds (whose surnames all begin with S) opened an era of disintegrative yet transformative musical activity. Alexander Scriabin began a process of distonalizing and deculturalizing
European music by pouring into old forms and old instruments the dissolving power of his mystic consciousness, haunted by the possibility of using music and rituals as sacred means to transcend ego and evoke states of ecstatic unity. But the impossibility of realizing his dream may have been the real cause of his sudden untimely death. He nevertheless opened a path which (if properly understood) spiritually and technically points to a new feeling of tone-resonance and a new approach to the development of music out of complex harmonic structures.
Igor Stravinsky (another Russian, but of a totally different temperament from Scriabin) stunned the European aristocracy of culture and wealth with his Sacre du Printemps
, by releasing the power of primitive magical rituals through relentlessly repeated violent rhythms and dissonances never before heard in Europe. The famous first performance of Le Sacre
was indeed a foreboding of the war that also shocked an aristocracy that had been made to believe in the straightforward, unending "progress" of humanity from barbarism to civilization. Le Sacre
definitely marked the end of an epoch and a resurgence of the possibility, as yet unactualized, of a sacromagical use of sound.
In Paris after 1900 the strange figure of Erik Satie became the precursor of the Dada mentality by spoofing all the conventions of the musical establishment. Thus he also became the forerunner of this aspect of the avant-garde movement that was to develop fifty years later. In his earlier years (around or before 1890) Satie may have been the first musician to find unabashed pleasure in sounding beautiful, tonally unrelated chords just for the sheer joy of their sonority.
In his youth, Arnold Schönberg had pursued the post-Tristan and Ysolde
path of intense lyricism in composition, warmly encouraged by Gustav Mahler. He responded to the atmosphere of disintegration and inner despair pervading the last days of the Austro-Hungarian empire by composing increasingly atonal, dissonant, and expressionistic works. Driven perhaps by a psychic as well as intellectual need for order, he developed his famous twelve-tone system, which for a long time dominated twentieth century music, both directly and through Anton Webern's serial and atomistic works.
While the central European composers added significantly to Expressionism — which is for our century what Romanticism was for the last-and developed particularly innovative orchestral techniques (Schönberg's Five Pieces for Orchestra
for example) the most future-oriented composer of the mid-century was, I believe, the French-born composer Edgard Varese. His famous statement, "Music must sound!" shocked the musical establishment of the Twenties. It proclaimed the need for a music freed from the intellectual abstractions, the formalism, and the narrow, clannish professionalism of the European tradition.
Varese's music is not pleasant to hear, nor was it the product of a spirit-oriented philosophy, for Varese was impressed by the scientific and technological materialism of our period. He loathed the mystical quality of Scriabin's music, and to him Prometheus
was a complete musical failure. He disclaimed any connection with the anti-cultural Futurism of the Italian poet Emilio Marinetti (which had flared up just before the first World War) and especially with the Dadaists of the Twenties, rightly stating that he was not interested in tearing down but in finding new means to compose with sounds outside the tempered system, which existing instruments could not play. He was not alone in such a search, though he did not follow the difficult example of the American composer Harry Partch, who built his own instruments and used various kinds of scales; nor did he align himself with others who composed with quartertones or even smaller intervals. Varèse as a composer was practical, using what was available, but he welcomed the electronic instruments of Leo Theremin and heralded the coming of electronic music.
An excerpt from a lecture Varèse gave in the Thirties shows clearly his main concern was the "imagineering" (a combination of imagination and engineering) of a future music:(2
Liberation from the arbitrary, paralyzing tempered system; the possibility of obtaining any number of subdivisions of the octave, consequently the formation of any desired scale, unsuspected range in low and high registers, new harmonic splendors obtainable from the now impossible use of subharmonic combinations, the possibility of obtaining any differentiation of timbre, sound combinations, dynamics far beyond the present human-power orchestra; a sense of projection into space by means of emission of sound in many parts of the hall, cross rhythms unrelated to each other treated simultaneously since the machine would be able to beat any number of desired notes, subdivisions of them, omission of a fraction of them, all in a given unit of measure or time which is not humanly possible.
Another of Varèse statements, "I believe in the metamorphosis of sounds into music," while welcome, does not speak of the quality
of the sounds or of the music's message. Varese was not only typically European but typically city-bred. His music is strident and harsh, expressive of life in the great cities of our technological society. Yet it opened the door to a future music more truly cosmic than Mahler's Eighth Symphony, for Mahler's music is still totally rooted in the spirit and the forms of the European culture. This future music, however, is yet to be composed.
Varèse was not, like the Stravinsky of Le Sacre du Printemps
, a neo-primitivist, inwardly frightened by what he had released and about to turn away into the mental security of Neo-classicism. Varèse saw in the long-fashionable "return to Bach" a comfortable trend, a "lying down in beds that have been made up for centuries, . . . tradition lowered to the level of bad habits."(3
) He would probably have denounced the minimal movement in music and its Hindu-Tibetan inspiration as also being a "comfortable" trend, an escape from the realities of the modern world into the mysticism of old cultures. He was truly future-oriented, and though willing to use contemporary instruments, he used them to their limits. After him, Olivier Messiaen, Krzysztof Penderecki, Pierre Boulez, and other mainstream composers pushed even further what he and Stravinsky had begun, to the point where something radically different has now to happen — or else the whole field of creative orchestral music must collapse. It is possible that out of the avant-garde movement some composers will emerge who, weary of an Orient-inspired simplicity, will create a new orchestral sonority. Gestalt
, the recent work by Peter Michael Hamel, may be an indication of such a trend. Its development requires not only that as-yet-unused sounds should be metamorphosed into music but that music itself should be metamorphosed. This can occur only in a metamorphosed society — a new culture based on new symbols, inspired by new myths and a rebirth of the sacred. Electronic instruments and computers cannot by themselves engender a new, truly creative movement in music; neither can the rise of a new social class, as in Soviet Russia or China, create a truly new and radically transformed culture. Humanity as a whole has to be able to resonate to the descent of a new spirit-a spirit of wholeness in creative freedom.
We may not be able to know the form this spirit may take. We can only evoke the possibility of its coming by discovering new principles of organization still obscured by the traditions and habits of the European past. This past still controls the minds of most composers, performers, and especially music teachers, on both sides of the Atlantic; and let us not forget that one may be controlled by what one emotionally and rebelliously repudiates as well as by what one passively accepts or perpetuates under novel appearances. The one essential need of humanity today is the renewal of the mind as it resonates to the release of a new cosmic and planetary spirit.
In Nicolas Slonimsky, Music Since 1900
(New York: Coleman-Ross, 1949). Return
, Vol. 10 (Summer 1976). Return