The Alan Bush Music Trust would like to thank the BBC for giving the Trust permission to reproduce the transcript of this talk by Alan Bush in 1971. It is the text of a talk given by Alan Bush on BBC Radio 3 on 29 August 1971, which was reproduced by the kind permission of the BBC in The Royal Academy of Music Magazine, No. 201, Winter 1971.
by Alan Bush (1971)
'Discuss what you consider to be the most burning problems at this stage in the development of the art of music': this was the producer's brief to me when I was invited to give this talk. I'm assuming that by 'the art of music' is meant the music which has been created in Europe, the music whose roots lie in the music of Classical Greece and the East-Mediterranean countries, including probably Ancient Egypt. These roots, growing on Italian soil, flowered some fourteen-hundred years ago into Gregorian Chant; propagated by the Roman Catholic Church this beautiful music penetrated throughout Western Europe and from the tenth century onwards was cross-fertilised by the indigenous folk-music styles of many different countries. And, thus, the basis was laid for the marvellous heritage of Western-European religious, operatic and concert music of the past thousand years. Further enrichment has come from Russia since the mid-nineteenth century and from the Soviet Republics and the Americas in the past half-century.
So what are the burning problems, if any, that beset music's further development? The chief one, I believe, is the ever-increasing gulf between the composers of today and the musical public. This showed itself first in the 1920s. It was then that the musical public began to lose sympathy with the works of most contemporary composers, including those of technical competence and evident artistic integrity. This was a new situation. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, most of the composers now universally recognised to be of high rank enjoyed public success in their lifetimes. Exceptions, such as Schubert and Bizet, both died fairly young of illness, not of starvation in a garret, and even so, had achieved some recognition.
In the early twentieth century, Debussy, Puccini, Ravel, Richard Strauss and Stravinsky all became not only famous but even popular throughout the world quite early on in their lifetimes, despite the markedly novel features in their works. Elgar, Mahler and Sibelius were all acclaimed by the publics of their own countries.
But the gulf that became noticeable in the 1920s has widened much further since the Second World War. In Britain today the inclusion in a programme of one single work by almost any composer, known to be alive or only recently deceased, has a disastrous effect on the sale of tickets. There are exceptions of course: Bartók's Concerto for Orchestra, Alban Berg's violin Concerto, some works by Benjamin Britten and William Walton and certainly anything by Prokofiev and Shostakovich.
What can be the explanation for this? It would seem either that with few exceptions the composers born during the last eighty years are inferior to those born previously, or that the musical public today is less intelligent than that of fifty years ago.
The musical public today is larger and, in my experience, shows more intelligent interest than ever before; and with regard to the evaluation of composers still living or recently deceased, I would say that among them are some who are the equals of all except the greatest figures since Schubert, whom I once heard Artur Schnabel describe as 'the last of the great composers'. There are, in my opinion, a number of composers today who fully deserve as much attention as, for example, Borodin or Dvořák, Rachmaninov, César Franck or even Brahms.
No, my explanation for the gulf is the following. There appeared in Vienna sixty years ago a tiny côterie, hardly a handful of composers, whose leader, Arnold Schönberg, started to propagate the idea that the logical development of musical art demanded the abandonment of the principle of tonality. This meant in practice a disregard of any hierarchy of intervals such as had been acknowledged in all previous periods in Europe as inherent in the nature of musical sound itself, and consequently as an indispensable framework within which composition must proceed if musical art was to result.
After composing for about twelve years with tonality abandoned and no structural principle put in its place, Schönberg arrived, to use his own words, at 'a new procedure in musical construction which seemed fitted to replace those structural differentiations provided formerly by tonal harmonies'. He called this procedure the 'Method of composing with twelve tones which are related only with one another'. Schönberg, in an essay in 1941, stated his belief that 'this method is not without aesthetic and theoretical support, which advances it from a mere technical device to the rank and importance of a scientific theory'. Study of the theoretical paragraphs of this essay quickly dispels any such illusion. Schönberg's sole justification of the method depends upon the following argument: 'The comprehensibility of the dissonance is considered equivalent to the consonances' comprehensibility. A style based on this premise treats dissonances like consonances and renounces a tonal centre.' Of course dissonance is equivalent to consonance in the sense that both are permissible ingredients of musical art. But dissonance is not the same as consonance. It has different acoustical and physiological effects. Therefore dissonance ought not to be treated as if it were identical with consonance. Furthermore, the renunciation of a tonal centre does not follow from any previously stated proposition and is merely a dogmatic assertion of the composer's belief. As such it is totally without the scientific validity which he claims for it.
This method is now known as serial dodecaphony. However insecurely founded theoretically, it has once irresistible lure for the young composer; as a rule of thumb it provides a much easier way of composing with grammatical correctness than is possible in any previously developed Western-European idiom; however limited his aural sensibility may be, anyone who understands musical notation can learn it with one hour's instruction. This easiness gives a young composer confidence, as it is unlikely that he has thought much about the general problems of musical theory; he therefore remains unaware of the method's flimsy basis. In any case a young composer doesn't want to think, he wants to get on and compose something. Apart from this advantage, that it is so easy, employing the serial method makes a composer think he is being modern, even if the technique is already half-a-century old.
Dislike by the public for the works produced by the twentieth-century Viennese School has been widespread, expect perhaps for Alban Berg's violin Concerto and his opera Wozzeck, both of which alternate between serial and tonal styles. The doughty champion of the School, Theodor Adorno, in his Philosophie der neuen Musik of 1948, tried to make a case for assessing the works of the Viennese School as the only music adequate to the artistic climate of the mid-twentieth century. But even he describes Schönberg's mature works as 'Werke des grossartigen Misslingens', that is, 'works of magnificent failure'. The general public is not interested in works which are failures, so perhaps their hostility to these Schönberg works, as pronounced now as fifty years ago, is not unjustified. And likewise with regard to Anton Webern, the third member of the Viennese School; his fragmented aphorisms with their cancrizans and palindromes are equally unappealing.
I am by no means alone in questioning the value of atonal music, serial or otherwise, or even its right to be considered as musical art at all. As early as 1933 Constant Lambert in Music Ho! attacked atonal music. He wrote: 'The desire to escape from the tyranny of the key-system in music is as understandable as the desire to escape from academic realism in painting; but whether we like it or not, tonality in music and realism in painting are a norm that is in our blood-departure from them, however successful and however praiseworthy, is technically speaking an abnormality....If we can rid the word abnormal of any outside associations of taboo, or even of glamour, then we must admit that the atonal movement is by far the most abnormal movement music has ever known.'
In 1937 Paul Hindemith produced his Craft of Musical Composition, which substantiates this point of view. In the introductory chapter he writes the following: 'The discovery in the last century of the extreme limits of power and subtlety in the effect of musical tone extended the boundaries of the tonal domain at the disposal of the composer into hitherto undreamed-of distances. Blinded by the immense store of materials never used before, deafened by the fantastic novelty of sound, everyone seized without reflection at whatever he felt he could use.' The operative words are 'without reflection'. Hindemith, however, reflected upon the problem and produced a theory, based upon the hierarchy of intervals inherent in the musical tones themselves, but embracing within one category all the semitones of the octave, instead of following Rameau's long-accepted theory which had placed the seven so-called diatonic notes, derived from the harmonics of tonic, dominant and subdominant, in a different category from the other five so-called chromatic or altered notes. More recently, Deryck Cooke, in his Language of Music, and the Hungarian Ernö Lendvai, in his exposition of Bartók's method of composing, have brought forward further arguments as to the ineradicable tonal relationships inherent in the nature of musical sound itself, and the consequent necessity of bearing them in mind, or rather in ear, if musical art is to result.
It will not have escaped the attention of listeners that if tonal relations are an essential ingredient of musical art, then a considerable number of the constructions of sound of the last fifty years which are performed and which are generally assumed to be music, are not in fact works of art at all, certainly not works of musical art. In this connection I have recently come upon a most interesting essay by a young Scottish composer, Morris Pert, who suggests that such works should be placed in a number of sub-sections under the general title 'sonic art', a kind of sub-art of music; they could then be reasonably discussed and evaluated within their genre, which, he is insistent, must be recognised as inferior to musical art. This is a matter which deserves serious consideration.
But this questioning of the status of atonal works, which purport to be musical works of art, should occasion no surprise. The problems presented by many artifacts in the fields of graphic art and sculpture, as well as music, are often most perplexing. Professor Marshall McLuhan, towards the end of his book The Medium is the Massage, pronounced the following definition: 'Art is anything you can get away with.' A few pages earlier he quotes John Cage, including the latter's dictum that 'everything we do is music.' It is hard to believe that Professor McLuhan can regard this statement as other than totally asinine. With Karlheinz Stockhausen the situation is rather different. He demands in one work that the players are 'to vibrate in the rhythm of the universe' and in another that the audience should listen to 'spiritual music for concentrated listening in meditation for the submerging of the individual into the cosmic whole'. This would be merely amusing, if one did not know that in 1970 this composer's works were performed in Osaka, Japan, for six months, five-and-a-half hours every day, for every minute of which he collected performing fees.
It is in the face of such happenings that the great conductor Ernest Ansermet posed the following question: "Under what condition does music emerge from sounds or, if you wish, under what condition does the sounding event really give place to a musical event?" It took him twenty years to find the answer; he expounds it in his treatise, Les fondements de la musique dans la conscience humaine. He speaks of the high and low of musical pitch, the imaginary space into which music introduces us, as a structured space. Its structures are perspectives of octaves, articulated at the perfect fifth and perfect fourth, and from these intervals the hierarchy of intervals which make up tonal relations is further derived. He ended a lecture, delivered in London in 1964, as follows: 'Between tonal and atonal music there is an impassable gulf, and if the musical world, won over by the propaganda made for it, ops decisively for atonal music, dodecaphonic or otherwise, it will lose its sense of music.'
By this time the listener will have gathered that I am far from blaming the musical public for rejecting this music. I do blame them, however, for not supporting more vigorously those present-day composers who are developing our musical heritage, not by deliberately seeking novelty for novelty's sake, but by expressing some of the intense feelings, associated with the immense social transformations which are going on around us, and which have had no parallel during the past thousand years.
To my younger colleagues I would say: Before you put pen to paper think first about life. Then about the bit of life you want to put into music at that particular moment. Don't bother about whether what you are writing has been written before or not. Of course it has to some extent or other, but not quite in the way you will do it, if you concentrate on doing it as best you can, because you are, if only to an infinitesimal degree, a unique individual. Above all, don't aim to express yourself. You are changing every minute, so this is an impossible task. Study the social implications of the music of the past and draw from this study conclusions about the music you could actually be writing today. It may be difficult for you to obtain performances in the present musical climate of Britain, but persevere.
As for myself, I have been fortunate. When performances of my works have been given, they seem almost always to have met with the approval of the public. My four operas have been staged, in all in eleven productions, some of exceedingly high quality. Each one of these operas portrays some event in the organised struggle of mankind for social advance, presented in the lives of individuals caught up, some with intent, others by force of circumstances, in these struggles. I believe in the ability of man to solve the problems set for him by life, and I try to express something of the love of life, of enthusiasm for our unsurpassable species, homo sapiens, of clarity rather than confusion, and of the possibility of living in peace and ordered freedom, not the inevitability of continuing the rat-race of Western civilisation.