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The Sound and the Fury BBC4 - 20th Century Music

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Initial post: 13 Feb 2013, 01:30:44 GMT
Last edited by the author on 13 Feb 2013, 02:23:02 GMT
mancheeros says:
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.

In reply to an earlier post on 13 Feb 2013, 08:37:38 GMT
Roasted Swan says:
mancheeros - you'll know I don't always share your musical enthusiasms but I agree with everything you say above - I thought it was another example of "coffee-table-culture" TV. Too much was collated together in generalised terminolgy; "Debussy heard Gamelan at the Paris Expo and everything changed" - even the collective description of "all" music prior to the 20th Century in the first minute of the programme was riddled with the kind of generalisation a GCSE music exam would be proud of.

I'm no huge fan of Adams - but Reich is much more interesting and challenging - but they are both major figures in the current music scene so if they say x or y you need the time to let them expand/justify their stance instead of just using the "headline" statement. I must admit I get no personal pleasure either (using that word with care) from Webern's string quartet writing. I studied it at college and you can understand the intellectual control he applies but the result for me stays intellectually controlled - the great music transcends the process of its creation and becomes something greater. Getting Eric Whitacre to act as some kind of commentator on modernist trends did seem like putting the fox in the chicken coup to act as guard.

I suspect the real problem is that there are just too many strands to 20th Century music for a 3 part(?) series like this to handle so broad-brush and generalisation will rule. Perhaps one should be glad that *any* kind of attention is being given to 'serious' music at nine pm on a weekday. It did strike me that this was very much a production made with the US market in mind too. I didn't get to the end - I recorded it but am not desperate to finish it.

Posted on 13 Feb 2013, 09:56:10 GMT
Last edited by the author on 13 Feb 2013, 15:14:57 GMT
Can I just ask if you two are aware of the connections between this series and the Southbank celebration of this book
The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century ?

The three episodes also feature specially filmed performances from a number of ensembles including the London Sinfonietta, which can been seen in full on the Red Button after each programme. This week features music by Arnold Schoenberg, Anton Webern and Charles Ives.
Fri 15th February, 1:55am-4:00am

And here too

Posted on 13 Feb 2013, 11:13:17 GMT
Last edited by the author on 13 Feb 2013, 11:32:05 GMT
This seemed to be a whistle-stop tour of what i've come to think of as the deeply pernicious Alex Ross meta-narrative. Even the title 'The rest is Noise'evaluate to the really crass claim that this is all one needs to know about 20th Century music to be in the cool set. The reality of 20th Century music is vastly richer than this narrative would have one believe. For all that I did enjoy some of the footage. To see Igor conducting was for me a treat. I was also quite struck by Ives Concord Sonata. Ives is a composer I find difficult. His work can be very profound but you can never be sure that Yankie Doodle Dandy or something isn't going to suddenly strike up.

Posted on 13 Feb 2013, 11:18:32 GMT
Roasted Swan says:
Mr Whitaker; I was aware of the Southbank series but not the red button link. No one was disputing the quality of the performances and linking to complete recordings is an excellent idea. It was the bludgeoning through history that grated.

Posted on 13 Feb 2013, 14:19:17 GMT
Ockeghem says:
A very frustrating programme. Schoenberg was accused of deliberately "destroying" tonality in music and banning "tunes" in his work, when in fact he was attempting to expand musical tradition. In reality of course his expressionist music is almost fully melodically thematic and is suffused with tonal references. It was ironic that they played Drei Klavierstücke, Op. 11 no. 2 which features a near constant d f ostinato in the bass which lends an unmistakable D minor context to the whole work! And are the calm, floating harmonies of Farben from Fünf Orchesterstücke really "amazingly aurally ugly...sensuously punishing" as John Adams claims for Schoenberg's music, or "harsh and clashing" as the narrator would have?

Why only one continental European composer (Boulez) as a talking head and why so many damned American minimalists? And why is miniscule figure like Whitacre employed at all?

And, above all where was Bartok!?

In reply to an earlier post on 13 Feb 2013, 14:39:01 GMT
Last edited by the author on 15 Feb 2013, 10:47:37 GMT
Besides, Pierre Boulez we had George Benjamin, Marina Frolova-Walker of Cambridge University and Mark Anthony Turnage, we are promised , Arvo Part, Peter Maxwell Davies, Harrison Birtwistle, John Tavener, and Julian Lloyd Webber (!).

Might just get Bartok next week.

Posted on 13 Feb 2013, 14:51:45 GMT
Bruce says:
Missed that - will try to catch up on iPlayer!

In reply to an earlier post on 13 Feb 2013, 15:39:24 GMT
Roasted Swan says:
J Booth - you are so right - the use of "leading" descriptions and emotive phrases like 'destroying' did remove any sense of an objective and fair appraisal.

Posted on 13 Feb 2013, 16:23:55 GMT
Bella says:
I assumed that the emphasis was on wrecking etc in order to keep the message simple - unfortunately, as others have commented, this kind of over-simplification does nothing for the cause of 20thC music. Schoenberg's enthusiasm for Brahms, some of whose works he actually arranged, fairly late in life, was conveniently overlooked..... And I took strong exception to classical composers being portrayed as interested only in beautiful melodies and harmonies. But at least the BBC was devoting an hour to something that wasn't a repeat of a popular Prom, and I got enough out of the program to want to complete the series.

In reply to an earlier post on 14 Feb 2013, 10:17:13 GMT
Bruce says:
In Hungary? ;-)

Posted on 14 Feb 2013, 10:55:14 GMT
D. E. Warby says:
I have to agree with the above contributors' frustration. Did anybody else spot the two howlers of misinformation in the programme? Firstly, it was claimed (by a lady whose name I cannot remember) that Rimsky-Korsakov distanced himself from his pupil Stravinsky after 'Petrushka' because of the way his pupil treated folk melodies. Well, Rimsky had been dead for three years when Stravinsky wrote 'Petrushka' and so wasn't in a condition to approve or disapprove. The second was (very puzzlingly) Schoenberg's daughter claiming it was her father whom George Gershwin had asked for composition lessons, only to be told he was better off being a first-rate Gershwin than a second-rate Schoenberg. Surely it was RAVEL in this situation, not Schoenberg.
I now have to think hard whether or not I can face the next two installments.

In reply to an earlier post on 14 Feb 2013, 11:12:59 GMT
Last edited by the author on 15 Feb 2013, 10:42:43 GMT
Pretty sure that it was Andrey Rimsky-Korsakov being cited in the first instance.
(I have gone back to check and the Russian lady who is a Cambridge don
does indeed talk about the son not the father.)

The other is part of the Gershwin mythology.
"WHENEVER George Gershwin met a famous composer, so the stories go, he would ask for lessons. He is said to have requested them from Varèse, Schoenberg, Bloch, and Toch, among others, but the two legendary responses are attributed to Ravel and Stravinsky. The dapper Frenchman declined, saying, "Why should you be a second-rate Ravel when you can be a first-rate Gershwin?" The Russian, notorious for his one-liners, supposedly asked Gershwin how much money he made; when Gershwin told him, Stravinsky said, "Then I should take lessons with you." Stravinsky later insisted that the exchange never took place, and claimed that before he had even met Gershwin, he had heard the money story from Ravel. One Gershwin biographer, Charles Schwartz, tracked down the sources of these stories; after finding that they all led back to the Gershwin family, he speculated that the composer had floated them himself."

I really wish people would get their facts right before creating their own howlers of misinformation!

Posted on 14 Feb 2013, 11:32:02 GMT
Last edited by the author on 14 Feb 2013, 11:32:47 GMT
On the one hand it's good that someone in the BBC thinks that modern music merits a little air-time, on the other it's hard to see what can be achieved with three one-hour slots. It's also unclear who the intended audience could be. The treatment is too fascile to convince non-believers or make converts, and was bound to be frustrating to the faithful. Howard Goodall's whirlwind music history series being repeated on Saturday nights at the moment is actually far more effective at genuine musical education, even if I dislike his tendency to showcase modern pop songs in faux-classical arrangements to underline his points. (This dislike is clearly my problem, it is clearly the best way to get the ideas across to the largest number of viewers). Goodall manages to smuggle in just enough theory, in an easily digestible form to make genuine arguments. Back to S&F, what does it mean to be 'wrecking harmony' if you don't know anything about harmony in the first place. The airtime would arguably would be better spent educating the public on the basics of harmony; keys, scales and triads; with an up to date soundbite treatment, than just bombarding them with jargon.

Posted on 14 Feb 2013, 11:43:11 GMT
Unfortunately I missed The Sound and the Fury and for technical reasons to bring to describe fully I have so far been unable to watch it on iPlayer. The BBC seems to think that Parental Guidance is required to watch the program and I have been unable to remove the lock. Perhaps the BBC is afraid of exposing tender sensibilities to what Schoenberg ironically called 'atonality poison'.

Equally unfortunately I did catch most of the first episode of the HG program and haven't bothered since. His jog-trot through the Renaissance seemed pretty pointless to me. That the BBC are devoting three hours to anything remotely serious without also interspersing it with actors in period costume pretending to be Handel, Mozart, Schubert etc is miraculous. I don't expect anything more serious or comprehensive these days.

In reply to an earlier post on 14 Feb 2013, 12:13:07 GMT
Bruce says:
Now I have seen that one and as you say - the fact that Howard Goodall tries to relate developments to actual music theory and doesn't avoid "difficult" areas, does mean that he makes more sense and a better case.

Most mainstream docs seem to think that musical notation and theory are foreign languages that cannot be comprehended by the general public! ;-)

Posted on 14 Feb 2013, 13:58:40 GMT
wordsmith44 says:
I would never argue about the need for technical mastery - aware, for example, how
orchestrations can make a brilliant difference in listening pleasure. But essentially they are the tools for bringing the mental processes into being for us all. There seems to be
a way of thinking that embraces the former as somehow more important than the message. Beauty is not only in the mind of the beholder, it has to be in the mind of the
creator. Writing "tunes" is a gift from the gods yet this is often derided...heaven only
knows where that logic comes from? One can only assume that "if you ain't got it, you
can't flaunt it"!

In reply to an earlier post on 14 Feb 2013, 15:35:02 GMT
Last edited by the author on 14 Feb 2013, 15:36:28 GMT
mancheeros says:
Had I been a teenager with a general interest in knowing more about the music 'discussed' in The Sound and the Fury, I think I would have been most likely to check out the work of Ives and Varese. Michael Tilson Thomas spoke quite movingly about Ives's background and how his music attempts to recontextualise the smalltown life of protestant Americans (their vernacular songs and hymns, etc) and he projected a genuine enthusiasm for Ives's music. Similarly, Varese - whose music was arguably the most 'extreme' in that episode - was portrayed as a composer who was not out to wreck anything but to embrace and capture the moods and sounds of the modern metropolis. In other words, a bold and exciting bloke.

If helping people to understand the technical complexities of modernist music is difficult within the confines of a TV programme, then a careful use of metaphorical language can open up the music for some listeners. For instance, describing Webern as a scientist looking at plants through a microscope (which was the case in the programme) is a very risky metaphor; molecular science is a big turn-off for most people. However, if one likens Webern to a poet of haiku you stand a better chance of firing the imaginations of the arty crowd who are probably the ones watching the programme. The BBC doesn't seem to have thought through these things. You can close off a subject by poor choice of figurative language or you can open it up by talking about it in the language that your audience will understand and be excited by.

In reply to an earlier post on 14 Feb 2013, 16:20:20 GMT
Last edited by the author on 14 Feb 2013, 16:21:07 GMT
Bruce says:
But there's a lot more to classical music than just writing tunes - it's all about development, sonata form, progressive tonality etc. I applaud Goodall for tackling subjects like the Circle of Fifths and showing how this has had a direct impact on what music has been produced. I also think that what he said about equal temperament vs. just is something that has affected the whole of western music, but which most people are completely unaware of - even though it is a massive limiting factor and means that we lose the individual character of each key - it's a huge thing for music which just gets ignored.

In reply to an earlier post on 14 Feb 2013, 17:13:00 GMT
enthusiast says:
I am not clear on the link between the programmes and the Alex Ross book - certainly the treatment of the material is hugely different. It is as if the programmes had been made with the aid of Alex Ross's hugely successful approach to making sense of a very diverse and disparate century ... but then cheapened beyond measure by a TV need to have heroes and villains. I am not quite sure what John F means by the "deeply pernicious Alex Ross meta-narrative" - surely more than the structure/story itself? - and did not find in Ross's book any "crass claim" that the music he covered - which was extensive - was all that mattered. On the contrary the book is full of strands and directions that are not explored but are acknowledged. Nor did I ever hear him promoting or even accepting the idea of there being a "cool set". Again, he spends some time extolling the greatness of composers who were manifestly not "cool" as well as the 2nd Viennese School and the Darmstadt set. It is as if we read different books, John. Or am I just too dim or insufficiently intellectual to have really understood what I was reading?

In reply to an earlier post on 14 Feb 2013, 22:03:19 GMT
Bella says:
I enjoyed Alex Ross's book, however I wasn't looking for critical insights, not least as it was obviously a very personal account. There are large gaps in my knowledge and I appreciated getting some of them filled in, without feeling any obligation to go along with the assessments.

Posted on 15 Feb 2013, 13:20:36 GMT
Last edited by the author on 15 Feb 2013, 13:36:56 GMT
My problem with the Ross book is that it is symptomatic of a story that is turning into the standard interpretation of 20th Century musical history, and i think it reduces a far more rich and complex picture into soundbite format, about which it is too soon to start drawing definitive conclusions. I am currently reading the 4th Volume of Richard Taruskin's Oxford History of Western Music, and although it is highly stimulating and informative from a music theory point of view, it is not to my mind a history of Western music but a tightly focussed analysis of the harmonic innovations of 'the usual supects'. For an 800 page book on the history of early 20th century music it only discusse the works of about a dozen composers. The same composer that S&F presented us with. A little while ago I came across a recently published set of articles on Tippett, and the first chapter set out to place Tippett in the context of English twentieth century music, mentioning several dozen of all those also ran neglected brits with whom we don't know where to start, classifying them by style and genre. It was like uncovering a rosetta stone. I would just like to see a more balanced music history that embraces both approaches; one that makes clear the achievment of the truly greats, but also gives due place to the many lesser characters who provided the context in which they operated. At the end of the day my real gripe with the standard narrative is quite petty in that several of my favourite composers do not turn up in its annals.

P.S. I'm pretty sure no one who posts on here is dim, and i would hate to enter into comparison's about our respective intellectualities. It's so hard to know how one's online persona comes across and it's hard to know when expressing an opinion whether it comes across as opinionated. Everything i post is with the intention of provoking good natured discussion and not to browbeat. If I express a strong opinion it is often with a slightly victimised sense of being in a vanishing minority, with zero expectation of changing anyone else's mind about anything.

Posted on 15 Feb 2013, 13:25:33 GMT
Bruce says:
It's repeated in HD tonight - so I have set my Sky Box to record it.

Posted on 15 Feb 2013, 13:37:27 GMT
If nothing else it's got us talking.

Posted on 15 Feb 2013, 13:41:20 GMT
I finally managed to watch the programme of iPlayer or, more accurately two-thirds of it before I lost patience. My objections to it are more or less the same as mancheeros and Nick in the first two postings. Even with a composer I don't particularly like, Webern, I found the trite comments annoying.
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