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The Ostracism of the Tonal Composers

From the online book: Music Through the Centuries by Don Robertson (2005)
Published on DoveSong.com – Revised and expanded in 2016
Chapter Six – The 20th Century: “Dissolution”

During the 20th Century, when what was called modern or contemporary music was officially launched by the infamous 1913 performances of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring and Schönberg’s Chamber Symphony, composers writing in the more traditional “romantic” style of the 19th century began to suffer the consequences of being branded out-of-date, and this seriously limited the amount of positive music that was being written for the concert halls their were being increasingly filled with discords and confusion.

Jean Sibelius

     Jean Sibelius was born in Finland in 1865. By the 1890s, he had made his mark as a composer of orchestral music, his En Saga being completed in 1892 and Karelia Suite the following year. His first symphony was finished in 1899 and his famous Violin Concerto (one of the greatest ever written) came five years later.
     Sibelius composed in a thoroughly romantic style, with lush chords and melodies. His music was filled with passion, and therefore, as the concert world turned more and more to the “modernity” that was the current fashion (music infused with stress and discordant and disjointed rhythm), it became increasingly difficult for the music of Sibelius to be accepted by the classical-music intellectuals.

Jean Sibelius

     University professors in the theory and composition classes of major universities began falling more and more into the footsteps provided by Austrian composer Arnold Schönberg, adopting his intellectual theories and punishing with abuse those students who wrote in “outdated” musical styles. Music critics and other well-known personalities were also lured into the dark force of “modern” music. Sibelius’s music was severely criticized, first by only a few critics, then finally by some of the most influential figures in European classical music.
     The famous conductor René Leibowitz (1913-1972) called Sibelius the world’s worst composer. Nadia Boulanger, one of the most influential figures in 20th Century music, and with whom most of the famous American twentieth century composers had studied (Elliot Carter, Aaron Copland, David Diamond, Cecil Effinger, Donald Erb, Irving Fine, Philip Glass, Andrew Imbrie, Roy Harris, Norman Lockwood, Daniel Pinkham, Elie Siegmeister, Walter Piston, and Virgil Thompson for starters) called Sibelius “a tragic case”.
     This kind of criticism effected Sibelius deeply.
     “I have had to suffer a good deal for having persevered in composing symphonies at a time when practically all composers turned to other forms of expression,” he said.
     Around mid-century, Sibelius stopped writing music altogether. By this time he had become a laughing stock among the “Musical Elite”. However, in America, his music had developed a wide popular appeal, a situation largely due to the fact that not only did the American public love his music, but he was tirelessly championed by Olin Downes, the music critic for the New York Times.
     Sibelius was also loved by the public in England, where he was greeted favorably by the famous English critic and writer Ernest Newman, and in Germany, where he found public acceptance. Other central European countries, where Sibelius’ music wasn’t (and perhaps still isn’t) performed, wanted little to do with him, though, and critics in these countries scoffed at stories about those silly American and English concert attendees.
     Downes had a difficult job in America promoting Sibelius’ music, however, as he was continually challenged by the machine called “The American Composers”, most of whom had studied with Boulanger. Among them was Aaron Copland, considered one of America’s elite composers by the musical establishment, who, in his 1941 book called Our New Music, wrote:
    “The nonsense about Sibelius was due to the exaggerated commentaries of a handful of English and American critics [referring to Ernest Newman and Olin Downes, mostly] who obscured the true picture of a late-19th-century composer who had nothing significant to say for 20th-century ears… The attempt to set Sibelius up as a great modern composer is certain to fail.”
     Copland was well off the mark on that one, as Sibelius continues to move his way up the food chain of those who really were the great composers of the 20th Century. Personally, I consider Sibelius to be one of the greatest composers of that century.
     Sibelius had not adopted Schönberg’s atonality, nor had he mimicked Stravinsky’s disconnected rhythmic monstrosities, and therefore he was washed up as far as the music elite were concerned. Meanwhile, Copland was composing the most trivial of trinkets, such as his ballet Rodeo, for public consumption, side-by-side with his concession to modern music: more ‘serious’ works written in a discordant style, such as his Piano ConcertoConnotations, and Inscape… compositions that are practically unknown today, but guaranteed to keep his fellow “serious” composers happy, ensuring that his “Great 20th-Century Composer” status remained alive. But can any work of Copland’s even come close to Sibelius’ Violin Concerto, or to his symphonies, works that have a spiritual potency that touches the soul?
     Copland wasn’t alone, however. Another American composer, Virgil Thomson, began tearing into Sibelius publicly during 1940, when Thomson became the music critic for the New York Herald Tribune. His first printed review was a scathing attack on Sibelius and his 2nd Symphony. He branded Sibelius a “provincial composer beyond description” and derided his music’s popular appeal. Another composer, Russian composer Nicholas Nabokov, called Sibelius’ symphonies “antediluvian monstrosities.” Musicologist Paul Henry Lang, professor at Columbia University, author of the 1,107-page Music in Western Civilization and successor to Thomson at the Tribune, was astounded by the popularity of Sibelius’ music in America and wrote that the good points in the composer’s favor were offset by the “obesity…turgidity, and redundancy” in his music, where the melodies were too long and drawn out. Famous American critic Harold C. Schonberg, in his book The Lives of the Great Composers labeled Sibelius “simply a minor composer”.
     Music that expressed beauty and love, such as Sibelius’, was an anachronism during the period of 20th-century “modernity”, and critics referred to it as being overly sentimental, boring, and bad. Meanwhile, the American and English public preferred the music of Sibelius over that of the modern intellectuals such as Webern, Schönberg, and Stravinsky, who are still to this day considered 20th-century musical gods. There was such a negative acceptance of Sibelius’ music by those in charge that the extremely sensitive composer found it more and more difficult to create new works, so much so that he was unable to give his last 8th symphony to the world, and destroyed it instead. Following this, his last decades were musically silent.


     Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninoff had similar problems. He continued to write in the romantic-era style from his first to his last composition, carrying into nearly the middle of the 20th century a tradition that he had begun in the 19th century. In 1927, Viktor Belyayev wrote in the Musical Quarterly:
     “It was Rachmaninoff’s fate to live in the midst of this multitude of jostling and divergent currents in contemporary Russian music. In this concourse of circumstances we see the reason for the profoundest tragedy of his work – the tragedy of a great soul expressing itself in language and by methods which were antiquated, whereas under other conditions they would have harmonized with the times.”
     There was always a continual torrent of abuse heaped on Rachmaninoff. Works such as his Second Piano Concerto, one of the most beautiful piano concertos ever written, were neglected and criticized and dismissed as “twaddle” because they were not composed using discords. 

Sergei Rachmaninoff

     One critic wrote that the second piano concerto was “the sort of thing that any pianist and orchestra could extemporize by the yard.” Yet, few other composers during the entire century came close to composing a work that compares to this beautiful work, one of the widest-excepted works by any 20th-century composer.
     In the 5th Edition of the sacred Grove’s Dictionary published in 1954 (THE standard music reference dictionary in university libraries), Eric Bloom had this to say about Rachmaninoff:
     “As a composer, [Rachmaninoff] can hardly be said to have belonged to his time at all. . . His music is well constructed and effective, but monotonous in texture, which consists in essence mainly of artificial and gushing tunes accompanied by a variety of figures derived from arpeggios. The enormous popular success some few of Rachmaninoff’s works had in his lifetime is not likely to last, and musicians never regarded it with much favour.”

Let’s Put a Stop to All of This

     Unwilling to embrace the discordant, nervous music that had taken over their musical world, and defeated by continual criticism, Sibelius and Rachmaninoff, along with English composer Edward Elgar, had by the 1920s curtailed composing music. Sibelius stopped abruptly after his gorgeous 1926 composition Tapiola and the 1928 Incidental Music to the Tempest. After revising his first piano concerto in 1917, Rachmaninoff wrote only six more works in the remaining 25 years of his life, and Elgar stopped writing after the Cello Concerto of 1919. Thus, three great composers, two who had composed two of the greatest concertos ever written, gave in to defeat, to watch silently as concert halls jangled with the discords and nervous energy of 20th-century music… music that came not from the heart, but as a reflection of the stress of life during that turbulent century.
     In a plebiscite conducted in America, where people were asked which living composers were most likely to be performed a hundred years from then, Sibelius came in first, Richard Strauss second, and Rachmaninoff third.

The Intellectuals

     This musical misdirection in the 20th Century was spearheaded by intellectuals such as philosopher and sociologist Theodor W. Adorno.[1] Adorno hated Sibelius’ music. He wrote that the great Finnish composer should be lumped in with “the other amateurs who were too frightened to study composition theory.”
     In addition to his writing and philosophizing, Adorno composed his own discordant music based on the theories of the Austrian composer Arnold Schönberg, whom Adorno idolized because he had “stripped music of its crutches”… the “conventions” that had been inherited from past music. Pierre Boulez, another discordant composer, liked to call this “the stripping away of the accumulated dirt.” Of course, this “dirt” was the harmonic framework of all great music from all of the world’s great music traditions. These pronouncements represented the abnegation of sacred reality, of nature, and humanity itself.

Theodor W. Adorno

      Adorno wrote that music, because of the way in which it was composed, affected consciousness and was being used as a way of “social management and control”. Adorno’s argument was that the listener could only attain true “consciousness” by listening to Schönberg’s discordant music. Why? Because, Adorno stated, the listener had to use his or her intellect to truly understand music, and Schönberg’s music instigated critical reasoning in the listener. By listening to this music that contained “all the darkness and guilt of the world”, the listener attained “true consciousness”.
     Thus, the intellectuals came forth in the 20th Century to define “true consciousness” as that which one attained through an intellectual comprehension of music. This is exactly the opposite of attaining consciousness through transcending the limiting mental process while attuning oneself with the higher emotions expressed in music by masters such as Beethoven, Franck, Bruckner and Wagner.

Adorno Trashes Popular Music

     Adorno called popular and folk music “predictable music”. He felt that the sense of critical hearing in listeners who liked predictable music would regress in the same manner that one’s sense of taste would regress by eating fast food and diet colas, an argument that completely eliminates the emotional and spiritual effects of popular music.
     During the 20th century, this argument became fodder for music intellectuals who wanted to sell people on atonal and serial music. Intellectually, the argument was appealing: If one listens to predictable pop music all the time, one will never develop a taste for classical music. But emotionally, this does not make sense, as powerful feelings can be aroused by those “musical clichés” that Adorno and his intellectual comrades abhorred. Those feelings can also be aroused by listening to classical music, especially music from the romantic era of classical music that spanned the 19th century: music that Adorno also abhorred.
     Adorno’s argument says that in order to attain true consciousness, people should turn off popular music and turn on the discords, studying the twelve-tone rows and ‘sets’ and all of the intellectual theoretical rubbish that fills 20th-century music theory textbooks and theses. What a load of real “dirt” this is!
     Realistically? I would say that either in the case of food or music, it is not the awareness of the common foods or common music that dulls and makes unreachable the deeper tastes. People reach higher levels on the “food or the music chain” when they are ready for it.
     It is the absence of awareness, training, understanding and acquaintance with the deeper tastes of any art, be it food, architecture, poetry, music or painting, that has prevented many people today from even being introduced to the truly great masterworks of the classical traditions. Additionally, most children are raised in an environment where the classical arts are either ignored or pronounced “high brow”, and corporate-controlled radio and television rules the roost. Meanwhile, public education provides very little value for the most part. Of course, the shift to discordant music and negative art during the 20th century has lent a hand in the un-popularizing process.
     Adorno considered listening with our emotions as an abdication of reason. “Popular music is objectively untrue and helps to maim the consciousness of those exposed to it,” Adorno wrote in 1976. This kind of intellectual garbage was that which empowered much of the thinking that took place in the music departments of our universities, turning them into cultural-marxist think tanks that lacked any real spirit of music.
     Adorno further wrote that music “sets up a system of conditioned reflexes in its victim.” He is referring to, of course, what he calls the “wrong” kind of music, such as popular music, and music by such romantic composers as Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff. He felt that this music was used to control society by causing conformism. What Adorno failed to understand was that when listening to romantic music, profound feelings can be invoked, and it is the positive feelings of love, joy and peace that are pathways on the road to true consciousness!
      Conformism has nothing to do with the outer world of man, and all to do with the inner. No matter what is going on without, it is the inner acquiescence to anything exterior (from casual comments by others to full out-and-out brainwashing) that is the essence of conformism. People are already conformists, having been raised and bred, schooled, and set on the “acceptable” paths proposed by “society”. Listening to popular and romantic music does not breed conformism. If anything, it can help liberate the listener by allowing him or her to better understand their own feelings, thus supporting the work of the true, nameless spiritual path.
      For example, the song by singer Mariah Carey called “Hero” appeals to the emotions with its strong communication of feeling, and to the mind with its message of inner strength. The song was the result of Carey’s own inner guidance as she struggled to gain strength during a difficult period of her life.
     Yes, we know that the corporate music industry sold Mariah Carey as just so much sex, but that is not what we are talking about here. In this song, she was able to encapsulate in an emotional way how she discovered the hero within herself, the hero that brought her triumphantly through her trials. I wonder how many thousands, if not millions, of people this song has helped and inspired. Personally, I recall a time over twenty years ago when driving alone in Virginia, headed to a gospel concert, I listened to this song over and over, and just sobbed from the emotional impact that the song resonated within me during a time when I needed to find my own hero. Discords can never produce a result like this.
     The truth about philosophy of any kind, including religious philosophy, is that it can help create a set of patterns in the intellect that become the ruling force in one’s life. But the true mission of philosophy must be the liberation of the individual spirit to think and feel for oneself, as all necessary answers are then within grasp. After one has reached a true state of self-awareness, philosophy and religious dogma are no longer as useful as a personal motivator; guidance and understanding are gained from intuition and true cognition.
     Welcome to the 21st Century everybody! it is time to unleash ourselves from the poison darts of truly ignorant intellectuals such as Theodor Adorno, whose ideas have imprisoned composers of classical music for years and caused concert goers to flee the concert halls.
     And by the way, as for the laughable theory apparently proposed by writer John Coleman in his book The Conspirators’ Hierarchy: The Committee Of 300 (and flooding the internet) that Theordor Adorno was the force behind the Beatles, writing all of their songs, this is quite simply disinformation of the highest rank!

[1] Adorno was a leading member of the Frankfurt School of critical theory, whose work has come to be associated with thinkers such as Ernst Bloch, Walter Benjamin, Max Horkheimer, Erich Fromm and Herbert Marcuse, for whom the works of Freud, Marx, and Hegel were essential to a critique of modern society. As a critic of both fascism and what he called the culture industry, his writings—such as Dialectic of Enlightenment (1947), Minima Moralia (1951) and Negative Dialectics (1966)—strongly influenced the European New Left. (Wikipedia)

20th Century Composers and Discord

    Rachmaninoff, Sibelius, Richard Strauss and Elgar were not the only composers who wrote music that continued to be based on tonality. There were a number of other composers, some who wrote both tonal and non-tonal works.
     The music of Hungarian composer Bela Bartok ranged from very accessible to stridently discordant. His six tormented string quartets, for example, are angst-filled testimonies to pain and despair, while a number of his early works, such as the Second Suite, Opus 4, and later works like the Third Piano Concerto are beautiful and enjoyable musical compositions. American composer Aaron Copland wrote extremely popular works, such as his Appalachian Spring (which contains sections of music with beautiful harmonies and melody, and other sections based on distorted melodies and ugly harmonies, while maintaining an air of folksiness throughout), as well as others that are extremely discordant. There were a number of composers who wrote music that still maintained roots in tonality but used ugly and dark harmonies and distorted discords. Many composers were intimidated by the pervading opinion that all contemporary music must be written in a “modern style”, else the composer would be banished from the concert hall or from teaching positions at universities. Fortunately, this attitude will disappear in the 21st century as 20th Century classical music begins to be viewed in hindsight, and the understanding of the effects of consonance and dissonance are more clearly understood.
      Maurice Ravel was mainly a tonal composer who wrote pleasing music. However, a few of his works were influenced by the discords of Igor Stravinsky. Works such as his two piano concertos and the early string quartet, for example, are beautiful works of art.
     Until the actual break with 20th Century negative musical tradition by the so-called minimalists, beginning in 1960, the power of discord and the persuasion of the serial composers and their proponents was so strong that even those who continued to write music based on tonality incorporated discords into their music. While much of the music of Russian composer Aram Khachaturian remained pure (he wrote a beautiful violin concerto, a piano concerto, and the Masquerade and Gayne suites for Orchestra), the music of his contemporaries Prokofiev and Schostakovich[1] was often infused with discord, jagged and nervous harmonies that created generally unpleasant emotions.
     Composers who did not stray much from the path of tonality include Howard Hanson (whose masterpiece of Romantic music is his 2nd symphony), Alan Hovhaness, Ralph Vaughan-Williams, Benjamin Britten, Henry Cowell, Lou Harrison, Hindemith, Neilson, Carl Orff (Carmina Burana and the Shulwerk), and let us not forget Leroy Anderson and George Gershwin. Samuel Barber’s music is tonal, yet not always concordant. He wrote two beautiful masterpieces, however: the Adagio for Strings, Opus 11, and the Violin Concerto, Opus 14.

[1] The Russian composer Shostakovich reveals his romantic soul in the beautiful second movement of his second piano concerto in F major, opus 102.