Seven 20th Century composers who refuted the assertion of the “Second Viennes School” that tonality was dead

Illustration 5
Three classics in the aesthetics of music

            In the early 20th century, two musical catchphrases almost, from frequent and widespread repetition, achieved the status of the received wisdom of folklore. Each originated in Germany, and each was false. The first, referring specifically to Britain, called it Das land ohne music. The second simply and generically stated that Tonality was dead.

            The first can be traced back to 19th century New England and the philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson, writing in English Traits (Boston, 1856):

“England has no music. It has never produced a first rate composer, and accepts only such music as has already decided to be good in Italy and Germany.”

            The second can be traced back to early 20th century Vienna, and the second Viennese school of Schoenberg, Berg and Webern[1] .

            Many 20th century composers other than the seven here mentioned, particularly from those who did not spring from the German tradition, refuted the claims of the Viennese serialists. Bartók is one[2].

            Arnold Schoenberg’s legacy, and that of the Second Viennese School – twelve note music, atonality, serialism, post serialism, electronic music – spread during the 20th century with the inevitability of a flood tide. The more it spread the more it divided composers and musicians along the aesthetic divide between those who could accept the “total serialism” of Boulez, Stockhausen and the avant garde, with the elimination of tonality which followed from that, and those who could not.

            Then gradually, from the 1990s, the tide of total serialism began to ebb, and it ceased to be as powerful a creative force as it once had been. At its core lay the premiss that “tonality was dead”, which was a logical fallacy known in law as petitio principii, in which a conclusion is taken for granted in a premiss, begging the question. But the aesthetic division it had brought about among musicians took longer to ebb. As Leonard Bernstein put it, it was The Unanswered Question of the 20th Century.

            Among those 20th Century composers who rejected the negativism contained in total serialism, were seven composers who have given clear aesthetic reasons for their rejection of it.

1. Claude Debussy

             For reference to Debussy’s aesthetics, see Roy Howart/ Debussy in proportion / Cambridge UP 1983; Three classics in the aesthetics of music: Claude Debussy /Monsieur Croche the Dilettante Hater; Ferruccio Busoni /Sketch of a new aesthetic of music; Charles Ives / Essays before a Sonata / Dover Publications, New York, 1962.

            The greatest unanswered question of the 20th century was that posed by Schoenberg, Berg and Webern, the so-called Second Viennese School, when they asserted that Tonality was dead. Thus they sought to justify their twelve-note music, by asserting an untested observation as if it were a proven fact: “Tonality was dead”. Who said so? Where is the factual evidence that this is so, or that this is not more than mere opinion?

            From his earliest published pieces Debussy was intuitively concerned with tonality, as well as with proportional balance, the Golden Section and the Fibonacci Series, as the means of affecting tonality, and he remained so throughout his life. The whole – tone scale was his earliest discovery, and that for which he was best known.

2. Ferruccio Busoni

            Ferruccio Busoni (1866-1924) was one of the leading pianists of his generation. Half Italian and half German by birth, his thoughts and ideas about music were those of a virtuoso pianist. ‘Respect the pianoforte’ was his considered advice to any speculation that smaller microtones than the semitone were physically possible. His Sketch of a new Aesthetic of Music (1905) was exactly what it claimed to be: a set of creative and philosophical principles on which Western art music rested. Art is eternal, unchanging, timeless, infinite, and the established art forms of our Western culture in the twentieth century are sculpture, painting, architecture, poetry and, most recently, music.

             Music is the tonal art, whose aim and purpose is the expression of incorporeal human feelings, not descriptive programme – music. The highest point of music is the purest tonality, the empyrean of eternal harmony, which is called by Busoni ‘the apotheosis of tonality’. But it seems clear to us a century later that Busoni was reaching forwards imaginatively into our digital future today, when we can imagine the octave divided not merely into twelve equal semitones but into an infinity of microtones, in an unbroken gradation. If human speculation, and a desire to explore the unknown, whatever it may contain, is a natural instinct, we are warned by the poet Robert Browning not to throw our humanity overboard with our reason: Except a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, Or what’s a heaven for?[3]  

            Aesthetics is the science of art, that search for a rational answer of apparent simplicity and generality to questions which are actually of great complexity, because they are the spiritual means whereby we attempt to explain fully something that we can only perceive partially. ‘Absolute music’ is pure form without a poetic programme. Form itself stands at the opposite pole to absolute music, on which is bestowed freedom from the limitations of matter. Few indeed are the composers whose music has reached such perfection; mostly these rarities occur in composers’ late works; and not surprisingly, for such pinnacles of achievement are only obtained after long years of endeavour. Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto is one such shining example, and certain of the late works of Beethoven, particularly the late String Quartets, the late Piano Sonatas, and the Missa Solemnis.

            The audible presentation of music (the performance), its emotional interpretation, derives from the free heights from where descended the Art itself. When the Art is threatened by earthliness, it is the part of interpretation to raise it, and re-endow it with its primordial essence.

             Busoni was a pianist, and he considers the challenges involved in the interpretation of the composer’s written down version of his music vision, from the point of view of the pianist; he starts with the notation:

“Notation, the writing out of a composition, is primarily an ingenious expedient for catching hold of an inspiration, with the purpose of exploiting it later. Every notation is, in itself, the transcription of an abstract idea. Again, the performance of a work is also a transcription, and still, whatever liberties it may take, it can never annihilate the original. For the musical art-work exists before the tones resound, and after they die away, complete and intact. What is “musikalisch”? The creator should take over no traditional law in blind belief which would make him view his own creative endeavour, from the outset, as an exception contrasting with that law.

 “The function of the creative artist consists in making laws, not in following laws already made. He who follows such laws ceases to be a creator. The true creator strives, in reality, after perfection only; and through bringing this into harmony, with his own individuality, a new law arises without premeditation.

“Our tonal system is a set of signs which is a device to bring within our grasp a small part only of that eternal harmony. Our whole system of tone, key and tonality, taken in its entirety, is only a part of a fraction of one diffracted ray from that Sun, “Music”, in the empyrean of the eternal harmony.

“I have made an attempt to exhaust the possibilities of the arrangement of degrees within the seven-tone scale; and succeeded, by raising and lowering the intervals, in establishing one hundred and thirteen different scales. These 113 scales (within the octave C – c) comprise the greater part of our familiar twenty four keys, and furthermore a series of new keys of peculiar character.”

3. Charles Ives

            Charles Ives (1874 – 1954) was born in Danbury, Connecticut. His strong individualism, imbued from an early age with American popular culture, drove him to a creative life, with its demands of eccentric, solitary experiment and unorthodoxy. After four years at Yale, under the strictly conservative teacher Horatio Parker, he realised that American society did not want the sort of musical sounds that he wanted to compose, so in 1897 he took the first of many radical decisions to make a career not in music, but in business. For the first twenty years of his working life he spent three quarters of his time, by day, as an insurance man, as a partner with the firm of Ives and Myrick; the remaining quarter, by night, as a maverick composer. But this double life inevitably took its toll, and in 1918 he suffered a breakdown and heart attack. Thereafter for the last 30 years of his life he was an invalid, relying heavily on the support, physical and spiritual, of his devoted wife Harmony.

            During this time his connection with the world of professional musicians reduced until it became almost non-existent. He was regarded as a committed if passionate amateur, and his manuscripts, hopefully submitted with a view to performance, were inevitably rejected. Aaron Copland called him “a genius in a wasteland”. None of the composers, who later began gradually to see his work in a serious and more positive light, and to become involved with Ives, notably Henry Cowell and Elliott Carter, were so much as acquainted with him at all during the period up to 1918, which witnessed his most important creative achievement. The first breakthrough, and professional performance of the complete Concord Sonata came in 1939, by which time Ives was approaching 70. The pianist Jon Kirkpatrick spent ten years of intense study, during which he gave public performances of just single movements, starting with the Alcotts (3rd movement) in 1932. He was only able to give a performance at all because Ives himself had decided, as long ago as 1902, even if nobody wanted it, to make the score available by paying for it to be professionally printed, and by distributing complimentary copies to all in the profession who might play it. Not until 1939 did Kirkpatrick feel ready to give the work its complete world premiêre in Carnegie Hall, New York. The critic of the New York Herald Tribune described the performance as “electrifying”, adding that it finally alerted America to the fact that here was a major work by a great American composer. John Kirkpatrick later became professor emeritus, and curator of the Ives collection at Yale University.

Piano Sonata No.2 (Concord, Mass., 1845)

             The composer’s intentions in this work are fully described in his Essays before a Sonata – prescribed reading for any who would understand the genesis of American contemporary (that is to say 19th century) music.

             The small town of Concord, Massachusetts in 1846 was the home of the Transcendentalists; that is to say the writer and philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson, the novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne, the Alcott family, whose daughter Louisa wrote Little Women, and Henry Thoreau, author of Walden. In this flowering of American literature, Ives saw just those aesthetic roots that he sought, and his Concord Sonata, which was the first work of his to achieve public if belated acclamation, consists of four impressionistic pictures of these citizens of Concord. The German romantic movement exerted a direct influence on the transcendental New Englanders, particularly on Emerson, the intellectual leader.

            Indeed the impressionistic depiction of ideas or personalities is a central theme of romantic composers. We recall Schumann’s Carnaval, or Elgar’s Enigma Variations. But this is by no means to be confused with ‘programme music ‘.

            In the Prologue of his Essays, Ives sets out, in a few succinct pages, the whole immeasurable range of artistic inspiration, as it appeared to him. The work is called Sonata for want of a better word, and the title should not be taken to imply the harmonic connection of a conventional scheme, such as sonata form. Right from the opening the harmony is without a tonal centre, but very far from atonal. The four movements are named after the citizens of Concord:

I Emerson

            Emerson was a philosopher after Ives’s own heart. He called him “America’s deepest explorer of the spiritual immensities. His message was spiritual hopefulness, and courageous universalism that gives conviction to his prophecy and that makes his symphonies of revelation begin and end with nothing but strength and beauty of innate goodness in Man, in Nature and in God, the greatest and most inspiring theme of Concord Transcendental Philosophy.”

            So the first movement is the longest and the most difficult. The artist seeks to impose unity on the chaos of intractable material. Barless, keyless and apparently formless, the music falls into two main categories, prose and verse; the first free in form and complex, the second more orthodox and formal. Ives also introduces the familiar 4–note motif from Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, which appears in many different guises: “The soul of humanity knocking at the door of the Divine mysteries, radiant in the faith that it will be opened – and the human become the Divine!“

           The music cannot be identified with any specific passage in Emerson’s writings, though there is a correspondence of mood. At one point the pianist is instructed to sound a particularly violent chord “in as strong and hard a way as possible, almost as though the Mountains of the Universe were shouting as all of humanity rises to behold the Massive Eternities and the Spiritual Immensities“. At another point, high notes played pp “reflect the overtones of the soul of humanity as they rise away almost inaudibly to the Ultimate Destiny“.

II Hawthorne                             

            If Emerson represents the positive side of the Transcendental group, Hawthorne represents the darker world of “phantasmal realms“, guilt-ridden desires, and childhood longings. As J.B.Priestley says[4], ”if psychoanalysis had been invented at this time, surely Hawthorne would have provided the ideal study – material. Most of the characters in The Scarlet Letter symbolise some part of the unconscious.” Like Emerson, he had Calvinism in the blood, though Ives does not stress this aspect. Instead he suggests the background sensibility of the unconscious with a whirling, metre-less glittering texture, against which, in relief, fragments of melody stand out. Free rein is given to the artist’s fancy, to which Ives has given us this clue: “It may have something to do with the children’s excitement on that frosty Berkshire morning, and the frost imagery on the enchanted hall window, or something to do with “Feathertop” the Scarecrow and his Looking Glass, and the little demons dancing round his pipe bowl; or something to do with the old hymn tune that haunts the church and sings only to those in the churchyard, to protect them from secular noises, as when the circus parade comes down Main Street….” And Ives’s circus parade is true to life, vulgarity and all. The brass band blares away in competition with the Drum Corps; at one point the Drum Corps “gets the best of the Band – for a moment“ certain notes are hit hard with the left hand, like a trombone setting the pace “for the old Cornet Band to move off to.”   

III The Alcotts

               The Alcotts conjure up a picture of healthy New England childhood; the sort of wholesome and homely innocence that middle-aged children like to turn back to later with ease and affection, not to say nostalgic sentiment; “the richness of not having“, as Ives calls it; the good fortune of being without ready–made entertainment; spiritual sturdiness and Puritan severity; the family hymns that were sung at the end of each day; the “Orchard House“ beneath the old elms, where “sits the little old spinet” – piano Sophia Thoreau gave to the Alcott children, on which Beth played the old Scotch airs, and played at the Fifth Symphony.

The lyrical simplicity of the movement is marked by off-beat rhythms and bitonality. Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony motto is used this time to set off an improvisatory train of thought.

IV Thoreau

                Henry James said that “Thoreau is more than provincial – he is parochial “. But is it not by ‘contracting out ‘ of day to day affairs that original and solitary contemplation is possible? Is not that the story of Ives himself? Priestley1 calls Thoreau “in many respects the more considerable writer“ (than Emerson), precisely because of his originality; Ives would have added, also because of his universality. In Nature Thoreau saw an analogy to the “innate goodness “ of Transcendentalism.

                If the sonata has a conclusion at all it is in this last movement. If we need a programme for it, as Ives says,

“Let it follow his thought on an Autumn day of Indian summer at Walden – a shadow of a thought at first, coloured by the mist and haze over the pond:

                        Low anchored cloud,

                        Fountain head and

                        Source of rivers…

                        Dew cloth, dream drapery –

                        Drifting meadow of the air…

… the beauty of the day moves him to a certain restlessness; as he stands on the side of the pleasant hill of pines and hickories in front of his cabin, he is still disturbed by a restlessness and goes down the white – pebbled and sandy eastern shore…”

So the day passes, and the music gradually assumes an endlessly melodic character, for which the composer calls for a flute if possible; the most evocative of instruments, as Debussy found in his Prelude. Then the evening comes, “when the whole body is one sense and as candles are lit on earth, stars are lit in heaven. “

4. Igor Stravinsky

            Stravinsky, more than any other twentieth century composer, was at pains to ensure that both aspects of his creative personality should be correctly perceived; first in the sound of the music itself, in all its dazzling richness and vitality, second in the inward and private world of creativity and philosophical wonder, going back to the Greeks, which he called “ the creative impulse.”

            The first, the performance and making of music, which the Greeks called “poesis “, is the subject of his Poetics of music, six Charles Eliot Norton lectures, given at Harvard University in 1939 – 40. The second, the aesthetics of music, which the Greeks called aesthesis, is the subject of six books of conversations with Robert Craft, published between 1959 – 1968. Let no one underestimate their nature and importance. Like the Socratic dialogues of Plato, the master wishes to give an account of his work, for which Craft acts as Plato to Stravinsky’s Socrates, by feeding him leading questions, which act as the catalyst of detailed and rational replies by the master. The six books are:

                                    Conversations with Igor Stravinsky                               1959

                                    Memories and Commentaries                                        1960

                                    Expositions and Developments                                      1962

                                    Dialogues and a Diary                                                  1963

      Themes and Episodes                                                    1966                                                    

      Retrospectives and Conclusions                                    1969

            These six books, combined with the music itself composed at the same time, provide us with the primary source for Stravinsky’s mature judgements on the numerous controversial and key issues which characterised western music in the twentieth century. He is thus the most representative of twentieth century composers. His career began when, in the wake of Wagner, western music had forsaken a single common language. The period between the wars witnessed a polarisation, between the Austro – German school on the one hand, represented chiefly by Schoenberg and the Second Viennese School, and the Franco – Russian school on the other, represented chiefly by Stravinsky. In the final period of his life, after The Rake’s Progres, his work may be seen as reuniting and revitalising twentieth century music. Moreover it was through these six books, which between them, thanks to Robert Craft, reveal Stravinsky’s aesthetic conclusions in the final, serial period of his life, that Francis Routh was able to establish almost a personal relationship with Robert Craft, which greatly helped with his own book on Stravinsky. It was almost as if he was allowed to be a third person listening in to one of their conversations. Therefore it is appropriate that this present discussion should conclude with some words of Robert Craft himself. They are to be found in the New York Review of 21 February, 1974, at the end of a long review – article entitled “Stravinsky’s Russian Letters”:

 “To anticipate general readers’ questions about general books, the first to appear since Stravinsky’s death, and hence the first to cover the completed life and works, is Francis Routh’s new addition to the Master Musician’s Series.[5] Mr Routh’s compression and presentation of the long life are admirable, and, against all the odds, his study of the music manages to be fresh. Routh’s statement that “Stravinsky’s precise and logical aesthetic was partly a philosophy, the product of his intellect, and partly a discipline, the product of his creativity”, is as solid a thesis as any that has been propounded on the subject. “

            To the great unanswered question posed by the serialists of the twentieth century, that tonality was dead, Stravinsky’s response is as compelling as it is brief, and it occurs in Conversations with Igor Stravinsky (1959), the year of Threni and Movements:-

            “ My recent works are composed on the – my – tonal system. “ Exactly!

5. Olivier Messiaen

               Messiaen’s psychological make-up was extraordinarily varied and intense; from this stems the richness of his musical language. As the organist at the Church of the Holy Trinity in Paris, a post which he held for the whole of his life, he wrote a detailed treatise in 1944 about the fundamental principles of his technique. Alhough Messiaen’s music has a mystical meaning and significance, he himself describes his thought as being more ‘theological’ than ‘mystical’. So far from being vague, and more or less interchangeable, these two concepts may be very precisely and exactly differentiated; and the difference is crucial. Mysticism is a state of mind in which, by contemplation, a man seeks to reach outside and beyond the confines of his human state, and thus experience contact with the Divinity. Theology on the other hand is the science of religion, and is very much concerned with a man’s human condition. Its function is to reconcile the imperfections of this world with the divine glory – which is precisely Messiaen’s artistic purpose. His creative thought is entirely conditioned by a poetic Catholicism.

            The commonest themes in his work are love, death, bird-song, and the chief festivals of the Christian Church, such as Christmas, Ascension, Pentecost. The underlying meaning of these timeless themes is contemplated, developed, one might almost say ‘composed’ by Messiaen. For the melodic material he drew on the ecclesiastical modes, folk-song, bird-song. “Nature, the songs of birds! That for me is the home of music. Free, anonymous music, improvised for pleasure.” What chiefly give Messiaen’s music its harmonic and melodic character are the ‘modes of limited transposition ‘. Of these there are seven, though the second and third are used most often. The modes are formed of several symmetrical groups, the last note of each group always being the same as the first note of the following group.

              Characteristic works in which his tonal discoveries are clearly demonstrated, mostly from the early period of the 1940s, are for organ, La Nativité du Seigneur; for piano, Vingt regards sur l’Enfant Jésus; for soprano, Harawi; for orchestra, Turangalila – Symphony.

6. Francis Routh

From “Memories of King’s”

               The piano has always been at the centre of my musical life. I began learning the piano at an early age, and that in turn taught me many ways of approaching music, and making music, for which the instrument was the catalyst. Beginning as a student performer, the keyboard for me was the universal polyphonic sound – source, explored and discovered by the ten fingers, whose control was the first technical challenge to be met successfully before one could move on to the next stage, which was the approach to pure music itself through the works composed for the piano.

                This stage made me aware of the historical evolution of the instrument, which has adapted to, indeed given rise to, the infinitely varied 300-year tradition of western piano music. Finally, arising out of this very adaptability, I approached the piano through its universality, which makes it, for the creator, the natural testing–ground for new ideas and technologies. So it has figured prominently through the sixty years of the evolving stages of my musical life and compositions. I have always composed at the piano, and fresh musical structures, whether contrapuntal, harmonic or tonal, have often found their first outlet, and outward form, in a work for piano.

Illustration 7
The Well-Tempered Pianist
Redcliffe Recordings RR021

                The Well-Tempered Pianist (2010) is based on the proposition that music is the tonal art. Each prelude is therefore a formulation of the scale of extended tonality, which is the whole-tone scale, first discovered by Debussy, extended to include the perfect fourth (upwards from the tonal centre). This interval pattern occurs also as the matrix of The Manger Throne, Op.3 (1959), which was one of my earliest pieces, begun in 1948. The identical pattern is used for the major and minor scale on each of the 12 degrees of the chromatic scale, just in the same way that Bach used the diatonic scale when composing The Well Tempered Clavier (1722). The success of his first set of 24 Preludes and Fugues can be measured by the fact that twenty years later Bach added a further set of 24 Preludes and fugues, making a total of 48 Preludes and Fugues in the complete Well Tempered Clavier bequeathed to posterity.

            On the same principle, after hearing the complete recording of The Well-Tempered Pianist, I was influenced to continue the creative momentum of the 24 Preludes by composing Symphony III, Op.79 (2012), developing and varying the identical ideas of just one of the 24 Preludes (No.5), but on an orchestral scale, and enlarged with a second theme, to accord with a symphonic 3-movement structure.

7. George Benjamin

Written on Skin (Opera, 2017 Royal Opera House, Covent Garden)

             Two essays in the programme for Written on Skin, in which the composer and the librettist are interviewed by Alain Perroux, the Dramaturge of the Aix-en-Provence Festival, are prescribed reading for any who seek the aesthetic reasons for the success of George Benjamin’s second opera. The essays are: The Angels of History, Martin Crimp interviewed by Alain Perroux; The Intensity of the Moment, George Benjamin interviewed by Alain Perroux.

            Opera seems the perfect art form for our age of multi–national and trans-national communities. From the pre–Enlightenment fascination with the Orient onwards, it has always absorbed external influences into its classical Graeco–Roman roots, and crossed cultural boundaries. Opera’s language defies boundaries. Because the text for a libretto is so focussed, and is transmuted by abstract music, opera composers are forced to dig beneath the surface of context to find the emotional essence of their stories and characters, and so create works which have a universality to transcend linguistic and cultural barriers. It is not just opera’s subject matter which has expanded from narrow classical roots into a global age, but also its audience. Written on Skin has already been performed in 14 countries around the world.

Alain Perroux: The question faced by every opera composer is the necessity for the music in relation to the text. How have you answered it?

George Benjamin: This is the question I asked myself in every bar. What is the dramatic purpose of the music if it is not to be reduced to creating a generalised emotion, like in film music? What is its purpose at every second of the drama and within the structure of the opera? Because it doesn’t make sense if the overall form works well, but the intensity of the moment is weak, or vice versa. Now that we’re accustomed to cinematic realism, it seems impossible to me to write a ‘realistic‘ opera like those from the turn of the 20th Century. To me, a domestic drama with post-serial music sounds wrong: you’re always asking the question “why are they singing?”.

Alain Perroux: Without being models, Wozzeck and Pelléas et Mélisande both seem distant points of reference for Written on Skin. All three works are based on the eternal triangle of husband – wife – lover; but while in Wozzeck the ‘husband’ is a poor, oppressed soldier, in Written on Skin he appears in the guise of a powerful lord which is himself an oppressor.

            Referring specifically to his use of tonality in his basic musical idiom, Benjamin likens it to a particular character’s “harmonic and melodic DNA“, which is submerged in the texture.

            In Scene 8 Agnѐs is watching the dawn from her window, singing in a “slightly unstable diatonicism. The Protector wakes from a nightmare, and expresses himself using a sombre, repetitious mode, with angular and dissonant harmonies. The atmosphere of the dawn is presented in a world that stands between those of Agnѐs and the Protector – so there are three identifiably different harmonic and rhythmic worlds.  But I don’t want their superimposition to require a kind of analysis during the performance. I prefer to be subliminal, to prompt the listener’s memory without their being aware of it“

[1] See particularly Webern writing in Der Weg zur neuen Musik, ed. Willi Reich, Vienna 1960; tr Leo Black, The path to the new music, London & Bryn Maws, Pennsylvania, 1963

[2] For reference to Bartók’s aesthetics, see Erno Lendvai’s Béla Bartók An analysis of his music, 1971, The workshop of Bartók and Kodály, 1983; József Ujfalussy’s Béla Bartók, 1965; János Kárpáti’s Bartók’s String Quartets, 1967.

[3] The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations

[4] Literature and Western Man

[5] Stravinsky by Francis Routh (Dent, London, 1974)


6. Four paintings by Diana Routh