Chacun a son Gout: Stylistic Plurality in the 20th Century

In Die Fledermaus, Prince Orlovsky makes the taunt that what he permits for himself, he prohibits for a guest.  And he goes on to outline goofy punishments for those who don’t play by his rules.  And if you ask, “why?” He responds, “each to his own taste…[and that’s mine]”.  This is the attitude of many, many 20th century composers and critics.

Prince Orlovsky has an excuse.  He’s drunk.  And furthermore, he’s charming.  I doubt if most 20th century composers and critics are drunk, and I know most of them aren’t charming.  In this space I’ve invited readers to contribute ideas as to what the most important work (or really works, the contest inevitably broadens) of the 20th century is (are).  This sort of contest works reasonably well for previous centuries, where there is definitely the sense of a stylistic epitome, or perhaps several epitomes, but not so well in the 20th century, where it’s each man (or style) for itself.  You like expressionism? Nominate Salome.  Serial and post-serial atonality?  Nominate something by Webern.  The “new tonality”? Nominate Terry Reilly’s “In C”.  Are you a critic of the establishment? Nominate John Cage’s “4’33”.  An aficionado of central European folk music? Bartok’s your man.  Think the 20th century is essentially about the emancipation of rhythm? Go with Stravinsky. 

I’m not persuaded that the multiplicity of styles in the 20th century has necessarily given us a greater harvest of masterpieces than, say, the 18th century.  I think multiplicity of styles is the reason we don’t have a Mozart, who, to use Whitman’s phrase, “contains multitudes”.  Yesterday I made a brief essay of which the central tenent was that composers’ skills in tonal writing has deteriorated. And I think it’s because we don’t have the necessary agreement of stylistic aims that promotes the evolution of a powerful and resourceful technique.  Sometimes in dark moments I think that Mozart and Beethoven are better at everything than any subsequent figure.  Everything.   

Back at college, we had composition seminars, where 20 or so student composers would present their works.  Many of these works were appalling.  Possibly some of mine, as well!  I had a friend who commented, “If a piece really sucks, and everyone knows it sucks, just say ‘I meant it to suck’.”  Pretty well put.  

Speaking of agreement of aims, I urge you to compare three successive, utterly masterful cycles in the string quartet genre.  Haydn’s 6 quartets, op. 33; Mozart’s 6 quartets dedicated to Haydn; and Beethoven’s op. 18 quartets.  There is a sobering lesson there, for those who care to make the effort.