A Special Event Indeed: Twentieth Century Music

Review by Matthew Harre

The Twentieth Century Music event on Sunday, Feb. 27, 2000, was like the day itself. It started out foggy, gray, cloudy. Not a day of promise. Contemporary music, as it's commonly understood, is dissonant, ugly music. Dark seemed the appropriate shade. At least anticipating the modern pieces other people would play. We knew and understood our own pieces, so we didnt feel that way about what we played, but we did expect to hear dissonant, ugly pieces from others.

I started the afternoon with a few comments which went something like this:

"Historically, the recent eras of music have been named in conjunction with the other arts and have reflected differing balances between reason and emotion. While many regard the baroque as music of reason with all those Bach fugues, it was more accurately regarded as an era of emotion in its total output. The cantatas, the Passions, the vocal music of Bach, which were predominant in his catalogue of works, show a religious romantic. The Baroque was followed by brief movements of excess, at least thats what they felt in those days. (Remember they hadnt heard Wagner.) These movements were the rocco and the Emphindsamer Stile (sensitive style).

The classical era followed. It was formal and reasonable. The sonata is the structure of this era. There are clear phrases and sections, each with their job of presenting themes, developing them or restating them. This is an era which is first to be predominantly instrumental instead of vocal. This is the era that reminds us that even when musicians are being formal and structural, they are the most romantic of the artists.

The Romantic era was next. It was all about feeling but not religious feeling; it was about personal feeling. It was not about God; it was about 'me.' This tends to be our performance perspective even today. We value the unique, individual expression.

Along comes 20th Century music and the name tells us nothing but that its in the present; contemporary, modern music. Weve used these terms for three generations now. There is nothing modern about 1920, 30 or 40 except some of us. Its time for better terminology. Given the opening paragraph, we could call it The Ugly Era or the Disgusting Era or, less prejudicially, we could call it the Dissonant Era. In addition to playing today, I have a task for you:

  • Whats going on here?
  • What myths about this ugly music are true and not true?
  • Is it music of emotion or is it more music of reason?
  • Are the really dissonant pieces more or less emotional as a result of the dissonance, or is the dissonance irrelevant to that issue?
  • What better names can we come up with for this music?
  • Or, rather, is it so diverse that one name would have to be a musically meaningless as 20th Century Music?"

Then the playing began, proceeding in chronological order of the compositions. Represented were composers Sergei Prokofiev, Bela Bartok, Jacques Ibert, Ruth Crawford Seeger, Ferde Grofe, Esther Ballou, Alberto Ginastera, Aaron Copland, Lasalle Spier, AMSF member William Ramsay, Ricky Lombardo, and AMSF member Andy Aylward. Three world premiers took place: two pieces of Bill Ramsay for piano and one of Andy Aylward for guitar. All stood up well to their competition.

After the playing was finished, the sunshine came out, if only for a bit. Even the most diehard conservatives enjoyed themselves. We arrived at no conclusions. The music was incredibly varied. Pieces composed earlier in the century tended to be more dissonant than those written later. Perhaps that was just the chance selection of pieces for the day. Other programs of contemporary music would present vastly different feelings of what the music of the last century was about.