It was with some hopeful anticipation (and amazement) that I watched this new BBC series about 20th century music. The first episode was disappointingly titled 'Wrecking Ball'. Thus an antagonistic tone had already been established and the modernist music that followed was discussed in terms of how it had destroyed the harmony of 19th century and earlier classical music, not opened it up to new and potentially exciting soundworlds. So the series makers have already decided for us that modernists are wreckers - how very open-minded of them. Schoenberg was therefore re-established in his now boringly familiar role as bete noire and Webern a sinister Nazi-supporting purveyor of cold intellectual noise (Berg, the more romantic of the Terrible Trio, was barely mentioned - obviously he did not fit the role of ghastly wrecker). It was left to Schoenberg's daughter who resolutely explained her father's vision and the opposition he faced in polite Viennese circles. A valuable link was made between Schoenberg's avant-garde music and Schiele's avant-garde painting, though the strange fact that Schiele has been embraced by the wider art-loving public and Schoenberg shunned by the majority of classical music buffs was not explored.
So, the Second Viennese School was portrayed as an almost psychotic reaction to the industrialisation of the 20th century. John Adams was wheeled on to dismiss Schoenberg's music as "ugly" (very musicological Mr Adams, you pr*t!) and even Mark Anthony Turnage (why not Birtwistle or Ferneyhough?) grudgingly accepted the importance of the Second Viennese School but then got terribly excited over Stravinsky's Rite. Steve Reich was equally succinct in his assessment of Stravinsky as the most important modernist of the 20th century ("an open and shut case" - yeah as blindingly simple as that, Steve). No living modernist composer (as opposed to tonal minimalists - more of them to follow in the next episode) it seems could be found by the BBC to put in a good word for Schoenberg and his like. Journalist Tom Service did an admirable job, in the very little time allocated to him, in putting forward a case for early modernism. If the BBC is hoping to get people interested in 20th century modernism then this is not the way to go. The series already looks set to reinforce age-old prejudices.
Highpoint of the episode was the brief bit of footage of Gershwin playing tennis with Schoenberg. It was a lovely moment and had the programme makers really wanted to they could have made this episode so much more positive.
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