It’s hard to believe, but just 150 years ago, classical composers and musicians were the pop stars of their day. Pianists such as Franz Liszt had their own groupies swooning in the aisles. Society matrons would kill to have Chopin tickle the ivories at one of their soirees. Startling new works like Berlioz’s opium-inspired “Symphonie Fantastique” had college students loudly demonstrating their enthusiasm from the balconies, much to the chagrin of their scandalized elders in the better seats below.
And you didn’t have to be rich to get in on the fun. Astute composers such as Chopin soon had their latest gems published in sheet-music form, and families of a new and growing middle class regularly learned them on the parlor piano. Meanwhile, plumbers and carpenters eagerly followed the world of opera and lustily belted out Verdi’s latest hits on their way to work. People in all walks of life closely followed the glamorous and sometimes scandalous lives of high culture’s superstars.
This situation largely persisted until World War I, when the horrors of that conflict forever changed the landscape of the arts in the West. Modernism and its offshoots gradually took hold, including surrealism and dadaism in painting, stream of consciousness in fiction, and increasingly undisciplined free verse in poetry.
In music, modernists embarked on a disastrous 20th-century experiment in atonality or serialism, basing new music not on harmonious theme and development, but on the mathematical patterns of the 12-tone row. For theorists such as Arnold Schoenberg, the scientific purity of notation far outweighed any consideration of audience.
European serialists and their successors, such as the Americans Milton Babbitt and Elliott Carter, also went out of their way to lump instrumental choirs into tone clusters, creating cacophonous works of surpassing ugliness. Avant-garde composers such as John Cage made a mockery out of serious music itself, directing musicians to rap their music stands with their bows and stare down the audience in stony silence while playing nothing.
This rebelliousness, combined with utter disdain for the audience, led to the rapid decline in the popularity of classical music after World War II. What once was a top-down system, in which high culture provided the inspiration for popular culture, rapidly disintegrated.
The reason for this was simple. Until serialism fastened its death grip on classical music, the music of high culture had been an inspiration to middlebrow and lowbrow culture, which liberally borrowed from it or stole its tunes outright, smithing them into popular songs in an earlier, low-tech version of today’s hotly contested MP-3 music file-swapping services. Then, with the dawn of jazz, rhythm and blues, and rock ‘n’ roll, pop music, particularly in America, struck out on its own, sweeping baby-boomer audiences along on a new and revolutionary musical ride. Popular music no longer needed direction or approval from an increasingly isolated and irrelevant higher culture.
Things change. By the 1970s, the 12-tone row had run its course, as modernism collapsed into a tired and cynical postmodernism that declared structure, meaning, form and hope had come to an end. Alternatively, some symphony orchestras tried adopting the music of young “minimalist” composers such as the Americans Philip Glass, Steve Reich and John Adams and the Estonian Arvo Part.
The minimalists had returned to tonality, but just barely, by employing short tonal motifs that they then tortured to death for the next three hours, producing a trancelike effect on audiences not unlike the similar effect of New Age music. Such static dullness was hardly an advance, but it did seem to avoid Romantic overstatement and seemed to suffice — for a while.
Almost at the same time, something potentially more daring was brewing. Slowly, stealthily, a “new tonalism” has crept into classical music over the past 15 years or so. Younger classical composers and musicians, craving the kind of audiences that embraced the last generation’s rock stars, have begun to embrace fully, sometimes noisily, Western musical tradition — including melody — once again. If they want to get somewhere, they might take a closer look at what’s going on in popular music.
Pop composers, singers and instrumentalists alike have been involved for at least two decades in a struggle to create some form of new “fusion” or “crossover” music that blends elements of traditional classical music, jazz, Celtic, folk, post-punk, country and other strains that have a broad appeal beyond the usual niche audience. Each happening in this world is a surprise.
Stars in this crossover pop environment are as varied as they are interesting. Trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, highly opinionated as a jazz scholar, is nonetheless a consummate classical musician and a wizard of the baroque trumpet. Norah Jones has come out of nowhere with her astonishing interpretations of old cafe classics, blowing the minds of a cynical recording industry while attracting twentysomethings to eightysomethings as new fans.
Locally, the artists on the Annapolis-based Maggie’s Music label — Ceoltoiri, Karen Ashbrook, Bonnie Rideout and the consummate 12-string guitarist Al Petteway — have become underground and above-ground classics of the Celtic revival, which in turn owes a great deal of its success to its fusion with New Age music — which is at times hard to distinguish from minimalism. You get the drift. Younger popular musicians are only too happy to mix genres and explore their options.
Even more interesting than these horizontal linkages across genre lines is this surprising fact: The interesting stuff is percolating from the bottom up rather than trickling from the top down.
Classical composers have been slower to change, but now, a little uncertainly, some are making their moves.
Stefania de Kenessey, a music professor at the New School, is one example. Her humorously named Derriere Guard salons in New York welcome new tonalists, expansive/new formalist poets, neo-traditional architects and representational painters to join forces by returning to their artistic roots without forgetting the need to adapt them to 21st-century sensibilities.
James Grant, a free-lance new tonalist, recently mounted a highly successful Kennedy Center premiere of his massive new Civil War-based choral work, “Such Was the War,” proving that grand, large works still move an audience. Across the Atlantic, businessman-composer Rene Gruss has created New Bohemia (www.newbohemia.net), a Web site intended as a meeting place for new tonalists and other fellow travelers.
The new tonalists, however, have run smack into a formidable obstacle in their commendable campaign to compose tonal music for modern audiences: They have forgotten how. Many of these composers have lost their roots in the Western tradition and no longer know how to compose melodies as plush as Puccini’s or as provocative as Prokofiev’s. They have been attempting to break out of this cycle, but with limited success. Miss De Kenessey, for example, has composed some charming and vigorous works in differing tonal modes, often echoing the folk traditions of Bela Bartok, but she has yet to create a breakthrough hit.
More recently, D.C. area new tonalist composer Arnold Saltzman, the cantor of the Adas Israel Congregation, premiered his “American Symphony” on Father’s Day at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center at the University of Maryland. Scored for full orchestra, Mr. Saltzman’s symphony boldly and faithfully embraces the traditional four-movement form and is infused with a number of charming and occasionally martial themes honoring the founding presidents of America.
Unabashedly patriotic in a contemporary musical environment that frequently discourages love of country, Mr. Saltzman’s symphony is a unique tribute to traditional American values and was warmly appreciated by the audience in a way that 12-tone works never are. Yet Mr. Saltzman’s working through of motifs was at times incomplete and did not advance the direction of serious music in a substantive way. Like his fellow new tonalists, Mr. Saltzman is still trying to grasp the direction that an evolving new tonal musical landscape will assume.
While young architects are displaying a new enthusiasm for received traditions; while expansive poets are returning verse to the arts of meter, rhyme and storytelling; while sculptors such as the late Frederick Hart, who created the moving statue at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, have taken plastic form in a new direction, the new tonalists remain a relatively timid lot. Perhaps it will take more encouragement from crossover musicians in popular culture, along with their tempting arc of success, to lead younger classical composers out of the wilderness in which the modernists and postmodernists have stranded them.
First, though, the new tonalists will have to break openly with a stodgy and elitist academy while washing their collective hands of residual minimalist tendencies. The new tonalists have taken a step in the right direction. Their music is being heard and often admired, but they have yet to create compelling new compositions that will lodge in the repertoire, because they are afraid to soar.