Music: Leaving Home

Arthaus Musik, distributed by Naxos, has released an in­triguing series of seven DVDs titled Leaving Home: Orchestral Music in the 20th Century. Created for a TV con­sortium in 1996, Leaving Home features conductor Sir Simon Rattle and the City of Birmingham Symphony Or­chestra on a tour through some of the significant musical landmarks of the past century. Most ambitiously, the series tries to provide a context within which to approach—if not complete­ly understand-20th-century music. During the nearly five hours of pro­gramming (roughly 50 minutes per DVD), Rattle lays the case for what happened and why.

Approaching the programs, I was highly skeptical. I have had no great ex­posure to Rattle as a conductor, though the British revere him as one of the greats. I expected nothing but another apologia for the avant-garde. What I found was a highly intelligent, engaging exposition of what is behind modern music. Aside from being a fine musician, Rattle turns out to be quite an attractive TV personality. These programs may not plumb the ultimate depths, but they are a respectable attempt at what Leon­ard Bernstein used to do so well in terms of music education on TV Each DVD booklet also comes with a literate, in­teresting essay by Alexandra Maria Dielitz, adding to rather than duplicat­ing the video material.

The title Leaving Home carries the connotation of growing up, striking out on one’s own, reaching a level of maturity. Here, however, it more appro­priately means losing one’s way home, or being lost. This is especially so in the first and best volume, subtitled Dancing on a Vol­cano, a phrase from Alban Berg’s observations upon the advent of Nazi power. Rattle relates tonality to social order and hierar­chy. (There is marvelous film footage of Emperor Franz Josef’s funeral.) As the old social order and empires were crumbling at the beginning of the 20th century, “so music was leaving home;it was abandoning tonality, seemingly forever.” This change was presaged by Richard Wagner’s famous Tristan chord, in which we were left “adrift on a sea of indefinite tonality.”

Arnold Schoenberg completed the total sense of tonal disorienta­tion with chord after dissonant chord, leaving the listener harmonically without a compass. Rattle places this development within the larger Vien­nese cultural scene—painting, psychi­atry, and literature. Of this world, he says, “we don’t know exactly where we are.” However, we do know it is not a nice place; it is not home. Rather, it is a dangerous, nightmare world, which Rattle illustrates with Schoenberg’s and Egon Schiele’s paintings. “The logic of complete freedom,” Rattle concludes, “leads to the madhouse.”

To escape from the madhouse, Schoenberg created a new framework to replace tonality and harmony, his 12-tone or serial system, which for­bade audible overtone relationships in music. It was, I believe, an escape from a madhouse to a concentration camp. It was based not only on leaving home, but on forgetting home—on a deliberate act of amnesia. No one can remember a 12-tone theme since it es­chews harmonic relationships (except if one is endowed with perfect pitch). Since art is based most fundamentally on memory, nothing could be more destructive to it than memory’s loss.

The next two episodes explore how the elements of rhythm and color were affected by modernity through the works of Igor Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Claude Debussy, Olivier Messiaen, and others. These two pro­grams are somewhat more superficial compared with the first episode. Their survey approach suffers from a lack of coherence and some clichéd footage—horses running slow-motion through the surf to Debussy’s music. However, there is priceless footage of Messiaen, gifted with synesthesia, telling us what he hears when he looks at the stunning stained-glass windows of Saint Chapelle in Paris.

Volume four, Three Journeys Through Dark Landscapes deals in greater depth with the music from the 20th-century Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union in works by Bela Bartok, Dimitri Shostakovich, and Witold Lutoslawski. Rattle is very savvy about the political implications of music in totalitarian regimes. “Mu­sic,” he says, “can tell truths which, if written in words, would have cost their authors their lives.” Rattle’s analy­sis of Bartok’s opera Bluebeard’s Castle is especially good, as are the excerpts he performs. However, his thesis is borne out more completely by the other two composers, especially Shostakovich, who warned, “If the music smiles, don’t you believe it.” As Rattle demonstrates, Shostakovich worked within the tradi­tion of secret writing in developing a kind of musical code, which can make some of his symphonies puzzling to the uninitiated. Rattle decrypts the 14th Symphony as a great outburst of anger and the 15th as the expression of a more inward faith in the “ultimate victory of truth over tyranny.” This is moving and superbly well-done.

The American Way, the fifth volume, is a weaker entry. With the excuse that American musical culture is defined by the absence of any uniform style, it offers a potpourri of works from ten composers, though it should have been nine since the German commu­nist Kurt Weill was not an American and certainly not a great composer. Of the others, did we really need an ex­tended excerpt from Gershwin’s Rhap­sody in Blue, or yet another homage to Charles Ives, the single most overrat­ ed American composer? Where were Roy Harris, William Schumann, and David Diamond? I believe the answer is probably that Rattle and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra have never performed them.

Interestingly, Rattle seems to talk less in this episode. I think that is be­cause American music, aside from the works of Schoenberg’s American dis­ciples, has never been as ideological as European music and mostly speaks for itself. The most intriguing section of this episode deals with American minimalism in the works of Morton Feldman, Terry Riley, and John Ad­ams. Rattle misses a big opportunity to bring his Leaving Home theme full circle with Adams’s music. Adams’s work is an explicit rebuttal to Schoenberg’s 12-tone system and all that it repre­sents; it is a conscious recovery of the way home. Finding that way again is a moving experience—like being re­leased from a concentration camp.

The last two volumes, After the Wake and Threads, offer a musical post­mortem on the destruction of World War II and what began to emerge from its ruins. The premise of chapter six is that nothing could be the same after the war’s horrors. It ranges from Richard Strauss’s nostalgic, gloriously beautiful Four Last Songs to Schoen- berg’s angry A Survivor from Warsaw, to Karlheinz Stockhausen’s completely crazy Gruppen . (From the booklet comes a wonderful anecdote of the aged Strauss, answering a reporter who asked him what his plans for the future were: “Well, I think dying.”)

Rattle speculates that Pierre Boulez and others were trying to create “new natural laws of sound,” while the audi­ence had to relearn how to listen. Ac­tually, these composers were rejecting the existence of natural law and trying to replace it with something totally and painfully artificial. However, we also get to hear some Benjamin Brit­ten, one of the greats who complete­ly sloughed off the supposed crisis through which music was going, and some late Stravinsky. His ballet Agon is given a very clever explication as a pocket-sized history of music.

The last volume is supposed to give us the “rainbow after the storm.” How­ever, its title, Threads, more accurately indicates that the disparate strands of music we hear from seven composers, including Hans Werner Henze, Lu­ciano Berio, Gyorgy Kurtag, and Sofia Gubaidulina, are not yet a fabric. In fact, some of them, in my estimation, are dead ends. The accompanying booklet contains a delicious quote from Berio that could serve as the epitaph for 12-tone music: “I have often heard mu­sic where you had to ask yourself why the composer chose sounds for his ma­nipulations and not eggs, shirt buttons or Coca-Cola bottles. Serial methods in themselves guarantee nothing at all—no idea is so stupid that it cannot be ‘serialized.'” I also treasure the film footage of Gubaidulina improvising with a small ensemble in her Moscow apartment, and was delighted by the closing selection of Oliver Knussen’s sparkling Flourish with Fireworks.

Too bad the series did not con­sistently stick with its terrific theme and develop it more coherently. Re­gardless, Rattle always has something interesting to say. Some of the com­posers he selected to make his points are not the ones I would have cho­sen. However, for that very reason, I learned something from most of this series. It is hard to ask for more on the way home. 

  • Robert R. Reilly

    Robert R. Reilly is the author of America on Trial: A Defense of the Founding, forthcoming from Ignatius Press.

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