Norman Lebrecht recently drew attention to comments made by Jacques Attali:
Je crois personnellement que la musique atonale est une impasse, elle ne correspond pas à la nature même de l’audition, elle a constitué une tentative de « terrorisme musical » qui ne correspond pas à la nature profonde de ce qu’est la musique.
(I personally believe that atonal music is an impasse, it does not correspond to the natural way of hearing, it constitutes a ‘musical terrorism’ that has nothing to do with the profound nature of music.)
Jacques Attali is more politician than musician (‘would-be orchestra conductor’ as Lebrecht neatly sums him up) and his comment is neither original nor particularly provocative. Criticisms of atonality are as old as atonality itself. In 1914 Strauss allegedly described Schoenberg as being in need of a psychiatrist and that ‘he’d do better to shovel snow instead of scribbling on music-paper…’, in 1961 Ernest Ansermet attempted to debunk serialism in his book Les fondements de la musique dans la conscience humaine. More recent criticisms include, in 2009, Roger Scruton’s collection of essays Understanding Music, Philosophy and Interpretation (especially in the eleventh, True authority: Janáček, Schoenberg and us) and, perhaps more provocatively, Jérôme Ducros’s 2012 lecture L’atonalisme. Et après?
I was led to this last source after reading the often perceptive, sometimes hilarious comments to Lebrecht’s original post. It would have taxed my French, except that, just a couple of weeks ago, an English language version of the lecture was made available on YouTube (embedded, below). It is fascinating to watch, really one of the most compelling and elegant arguments in favour of a return to the old ways of composing. It will enrage many.
Ducros’s argument basically boils down to the fact that atonality results in a kind of blandness, since music lacks a dialectic, a set of rules understood by the listener against which the composer can satisfy, surprise or, indeed, frustrate their expectations. In essence, the listener, in expecting everything, is surprised by nothing.
I have some sympathy for this point of view, having often found it difficult to discern the shape or narrative thrust of atonal music. On such occasions, however, I have never felt this had anything to do with the lack of tonality itself. There are many ways of providing coherence to music and one of the joys of grappling with modernist repertoire is trying to work out what these might be. To take an obvious, and popular, example: Ligeti’s Atmospheres is best understood as a series of shapes, shifting colours and subtle manipulations of tessitura. Heard in this way the work is both coherent and compelling.
Ducros’s analysis does, nevertheless, lead us to an important truth: too often the other forms of musical coherence that a composer must rely upon in the absence of tonality are not nearly sufficiently stressed. Of course, often there will be all sorts of clever musical filiation going on in the background, but none of this is of any use whatsoever if it cannot be discerned by the listener.
A secondary issue raised by Ducros is that too often music students are encouraged, or rather forced, to write in an atonal style in musical institutions. He presents it rather dramatically as a battle in which composers, after years of stultifying musical education, have to emancipate themselves from the modernism they have been forced to adopt. If this is true, it seems to be more a reflection of the ossified state of musical education in France than a criticism of higher education more generally. Certainly, in the UK and US, most universities are perfectly happy to produce students that write tonal music. What they will not accept is students who do this from a position of ignorance. One cannot pretend that the twentieth century did not happen. It is vital for universities to challenge young composers by making them aware of the historical context in which they write.
Ducros’s attempts to characterise the twentieth century as the century of atonality are, anyway, erroneous. The best composers have always followed their own stylistic inclinations. How else could Britten be writing Noye’s Fludde a year after Boulez finished Le marteau sans maître? And if composers are individuals, so too are listeners. Ducros might be rather surprised to find, even if he does not like it himself, that there are plenty of people who adore the music of Schoenberg, Webern, Boulez, Stockhausen et al. Composers will choose to write whatever they wish and audiences will choose to listen to whatever they wish. There is no battle, just a myriad of bewildering and enticing possibilities from which the contemporary composer must choose.