The Twentieth Century in Perspective

by Hubert S. Howe, Jr.

In music, the 20th century has been a tumultuous time. It is the period in which the ultimate break with the past took place, only to be followed by further reactions against this break. Traditions were thrown off, then revived. The only way I can describe the present is to think of it as a period of eclectic pluralism in which all traditions of the past and present are taking place simultaneously. More than ever before, it is important to know the context from which a composition originates before you can appreciate it properly.

As I began to imagine how I would answer the question posed for this panel, my first thoughts were that most of my answer would have to do with tonality. Tonality was and continues to be the main issue in 20th century music -- not the tonality of the past, but a refined, updated and extended tonality, which allows more dissonance on the surface of music and yet still adheres to the concept of the resolution of dissonances into consonances and the overall dominance of a single triad as the controlling harmony of the composition. The entire period can be described in terms of extended tonality, reactions against this, and efforts to establish something new to replace it.

Tonality is neither a style of music nor a form, but something much broader and more encompassing -- a musical system -- which is a common element between works in different styles and forms. One of the problems with newer musical systems is that, in the course of music history, it is only tonality that has proved itself capable of supporting the myriad ranges of expression adequate to convey the full range of emotions and meanings that we now take for granted in music. This doesn't mean that every tonal composition is great, or that the presence of tonality gives a particular piece a sense of superiority; but it is the case that music conceived in other systems has not yet proved the same range of expression. This does not mean that works in these systems will not eventually prove to be capable of the same depth and variety, which is what people often too readily conclude after hearing one or two works.

When I was younger, I was naive enough to think that tonality was dying out, that its resources had become "exhausted", and that, as composers tried to write new works, there wasn't anything they could do that would still sound original. Happily, no such event has come to pass, and I do not think it will for the next several hundred years either. Maybe it has been around much longer than we can imagine; of course, we do not really know how ancient music sounded, since there was no notation that has preserved it for our time.

Nevertheless, as I think about the 20th century in perspective, I think that other factors are much more prominent. Before the 20th century, it was only possible to hear music through live performance. If you wanted to understand music in any serious manner, you had to play the piano; there was no other way. The invention of the radio (much less than of television) and of music recording and playback devices, has altered the way music interacts with our lives for the rest of time in much more fundamental ways than any other factors we can name. Now it is possible for people to learn and study music without getting involved in live performance. Music reaches the ears of millions more than were able to take advantage of it in the past. Music has become an industry, with markets and marketing strategies for competing interests. The availability of recording and playback has led to the development of a totally passive mode of listening, along with a musical literature to support this lack of interest. If you examine the money that is paid for access to these different music markets, you will see that very little, at least in the United States, goes for what we would consider "art".

Recording and broadcasting have also made it possible for those of us who have a real interest in music to learn much faster than was possible in the past. It also allows musical works to be disseminated throughout the world very quickly, so that a composer working here, in Tuscaloosa alabama, can actually be influenced by music composed recently on other continents. It also means that historical "periods," which lasted for centuries or at least several decades in the past, can now begin and end very quickly. It is thus that we speak about the music of the sixties, seventies and eighties as being quite different from each other, in the sense that significant progress and development have taken place.

In the 20th century a great gap has opened between the serious or artistic composer and his or her potential audience. This kind of problem existed in the past as well, but the distance is much greater now, and it has been for at least the last 50 years. Composers have become increasingly specialized, much like the experts in scientific and technical fields. In the United States, this problem has been compounded by the fact that elementary and secondary schools have increasingly been willing to cut music, along with other arts and athletics, out of their curricula. The young person's introductory education in music is replaced by "easy listening" and rock radio stations, and generations of people have never heard of such a thing as art music. And yet, in evaluating education, as a nation we are much more concerned with low test scores and the inability of our graduates to perform in scientific and technical fields than we are by the lack of culture.

The 20th century has also seen major changes in the sociology of music, as the old pre World War I empires have yielded both to democracies and totalitarian societies. Culture itself is undergoing far-reaching changes. In Europe, culture, which is strongly associated with nationalism, is still actively supported by the governments. In the United States, the government contribution is negligible, and there are increasing cries to eliminate support for the arts entirely. Even if the support is not eliminated, the art that our government does support has become increasingly bland and inoffensive -- not the sort of artistic work that is likely to arouse controversy or even emotion. The lack of culture of our political and business leaders has even become fashionable. Europeans for the most part have little respect for American culture, and the lack of government support is a crucial factor in this. Why should they respect our art if we don't care enough to support it ourselves? For most of our citizens, U.S. culture is shopping.

Our image of the role of the composer in society is still strongly influenced by the 19th century. I would like to ask those of you who read music history books whether what you read about the role of the composer in society makes any sense to you today. Can you conceive of a composer functioning in today's society in the ways that are described there? I wonder if we are simply crazy, or whether those descriptions of the past are out of kilter with the reality even then.

So in conclusion, my answer to the question of the 20th century in perspective is that the changes in musical style and substance are surely important, but that these other factors are even more important, and they will continue to influence the evolution of music from now on.