October 2002 -The Heath controversies volume 1

'I have been misquoted and generally misunderstood over my comments concerning 20th century music, and the importance of Schoenberg and his twelve tone system, so I have decided to put the story straight once and for all.

Basically, there is no doubt that Schoenberg was a great composer to judge from his early pre 12 tone works. That has never been at issue with me.

However, being the undoubtedly great artist he was,Schoenberg wanted to push the musical boundaries of the harmonically & structurally complex late 19th century tradition, and move music forward. Unfortunately, the only way forward he could see, was to destroy the concept of harmony altogether, to get rid of the tonic,and to replace harmony with a system that would guarantee that no harmony would ever arise again i.e. the 12 tone system.

It is here that I take issue with Schoenberg, because harmony comes about because of the natural laws of harmonics,octaves and fifths etc, and the emotion and power of any given musical phrase comes from its relationship with the tonic. To take away the the tonic, [or an implied tonic] therefore takes away any chance of an emotional response, and you simply end up with Godless music: angry and dark sounds with no resolution or forward momentum---and yes, that's what all atonal based music sounds like to me. As a new noise for the 20th century musical palate fine, but as a way forward for music, totally unsatisfactory.

In my opinion the twelve tone system results in ugly sounding, joyless music, as it is simply incapable of expressing joy,love, passion and romance---------surely the whole point of music in the first place????

It is this lack of expression which has turned the general public off 'new' classical music and why there is a problem and controversy at the centre of the classical new music world for instead of creating vibrant new work responding to the days events,'contemporary classical music has gone down a culdisac and consequently lost its audience to rock, pop, and rap.

How is it that music written in the twelve tone 'avant garde' style has survived for so long when the public blatantly don't want it?you may ask,and the answer is state funding, and the befuddled and ironic double think that often drives its decisions----'this must be great art because every one hates it'!!!!!!!!! ?

So Instead of writing to communicate with the public, as all composers of all previous generations have done, many European [ie State sponsored] composers over the past 50 years have simply ended up writing for the benefit of the arts funding boards alone,and are therefore able to disregard the public reaction totally. In the opinion of many such composers, the public need to be 'educated' [ie brainwashed] before they can enjoy a new piece--hence the invention of pre concert talk [ a further chance to bamboozle and intimidate the audience with intellectual waffle]

So now the really interesting question: if Schoenberg was wrong and much 20th century music was based on a false theory kept alive on State subsidy, what was really going on? and how will all of this be viewed and understood in a hundred years time?

What I propose is that musical history, rather than being linear-------ie an unbroken line stretching from Haydn to the avant gardies [via Schoenberg]-----I think musical history is probably cyclical, like a tree growing bigger and bigger, then finally falling to the ground under it's own weight, only to be replaced by a small shoot which grows, until it too eventually falls under its own weight..

So if the overladen tree of the late classical tradition keeled over in the late nineteenth century, what was the new shoot growing fresh and vibrant beneath?

It is my contention that the three primary diatonic chords, with a minor pentatonic scale over laying them ie the Blues, represented the simple but musically devastating new twist necessary for a dramatic harmonic rebirth. I also contend that the early blues music of African-American slaves which led from blues to jazz to rock to soul and punk and rap represents the roots of the new classical music,much as minuets, trios, gavottes & gigues, formed the basis of classical & romantic music,starting a unbroken line which went through Bach to Haydn to Mozart to Brahms to Strauss to Schoenberg..

I see a similar line from John Lee Hooker to Charlie Parker to Miles Davis through to John Coltrane and Joe Zawinal and beyond. Although these musicians did not replace classical music, they all pioneered the harmonies and rhythms of the 20th century which in my opinion, form the basis of real 20th & 21st century music.

Earlier, I said that state funding was responsible for keeping 'avant garde' music alive, however there was another reason too--institutional racism.The reason why jazz music was not for many years given its proper due and place in musical history was because it was the music of black culture------in fact the Head of the BBC in the 1930's, Lord Reith, described jazz as 'the filthy product of modernity' and was disappointed that the BBC had not followed the Nazi example and banned jazz altogether!!!.These outdated and racist sentiments also explain why none of the colleges of music in the 1950s & 60's allowed jazz to be played at all, with the threat of expulsion if the rules were broken.

Even now many 'serious' students of composition at Oxford and Cambridge the last beleaguered battlement of Schoenbergs wacky theory, often have little or noknowledge of basic Blues progressions let alone anything John Coltrane may have advanced!! strange..........but true.To be fair the BBC have now embraced jazz wholeheartedly, but it has taken time,& there is no doubt that their earlier thinking heavily influenced the musical direction of many composers in the second half of the 20th century,certainly in the UK

If my thoughts are correct, there is the shocking realisation that maybe ALL state sponsored Schoenberg influenced 20th century classical music, was a waste of money and was actually all a red herring----all in all, an extremely expensive fish!!!

Of course it also follows that if arts bodies were so hopelessly off track for so long, surely there is an argument for a complete reappraisement of how funding bodies operate,and perhaps even their very existence.


Dave Heath 2002

 

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