I have often been accused of 'not understanding the music of the 20th century', that is: my own time. You can shrug your shoulders and conclude: 'Well, clearly they don't like it' and move-on, but there is an interesting implication in such critique which throws a light upon what is often called the 'new music scene'. Namely, the implication is, that a 'correct' understanding of 20C music would inevitably lead to embracing one of the postwar philosophies like atonalism, serialism, minimal music, cross-over, spectralism, chance processes, theatricals - in short: modernism and its progeny or its counter-movements. But according to which criteria could one assess which philosophy of music would be 'correct'? And then, what type of criteria: aesthetic, psychological, political, scientific, historical, anthropological criteria? It's mere conformism: group thinking, according to the idea that if many people share an opinion, it must be true - a basic trait of petty-bourgeois reasoning, exactly the type of conformism against which modernism from its early beginnings on, raised its arrows. *)
One thing we can establish, with a minimum of security, that since WW II new music is in a crisis. The debates may have fizzled-out, but it is indifference which has taken its place, and I think that is far worse than debates... after all, discussion demonstrates an interest among the participant parties (composers, performers, programmers, critics, audiences), but indifference is death. Once I received a letter from an irritated festival director, admitting he did not like 'the avantgarde' and preferred new music which did not go 'too far', but claiming that 'setting-back the clock' a hundred years - what I apparently was doing - was utterly unacceptable. So, setting it back a decennium, or a couple of decennia, was OK but you could not go back 'farther'. Note that this reasoning is reflecting the idea of a historic time line from past via present into future, surrounded by taboos. What happened just after WW II? A single one of the many different strands of prewar music, namely the musical philosophy which was born in Vienna at the beginning of the 20th century in the mind of Schoenberg and followed by Webern and (with caveats) by Berg, plus some followers, was taken-up as the way into a fertile future after the catastrophe of war and psychological demoralization about the European culture of 'the past', while the concert practice was quickly restored and proliferated thanks to new recording techniques and a general boost of economic progress. Official 'new music' split-off from the central performance culture and formed a territory of its own. (This process and its implications are further explored in my book 'The Classical Revolution' and various texts on my website: www.johnborstlap.com ) If we want to understand the origin of the 'crisis of new music', we have to go back to that moment at the beginning of the last century when Schoenberg got the idea of crossing the boundaries of what was at the time considered the musical tradition. The core of the problems faced by composers today, including the gap between the central performance culture and new music in all its diverse forms, can be found in the Vienna just before the first world war.
The uproar (including fistfights) accompanying premieres by Schoenberg, Berg and Webern at the time have become standard mythology of proud resistence against narrow-minded bourgeois musical culture, the loud scream of life against a petrified, conservative establishment where audiences just wanted to keep things as they were and attacked any attempt at change and renewal. This mythology has to be treated with suspicion. To begin with: audiences don't listen historically or politically, but aesthetically: they like things, and dislike other things. They may begin to dislike music that, if exposed to it a couple of times, they may begin to like it - on the condition that it is performed by dedicated and committed musicians. Of course cultural conditioning is part of this process, which can function as a hindrance to understanding but also as its instrument. When I began to understand Schoenberg's mind and his cultural environment, it became clear to me that the protests he encountered, were not directed against novelty, but against a real threat: the breakdown of culture, a fear which appeared well-founded at the outbreak of WW I. Vienna around 1900 is often described as 'the craddle of modernity' in both a cultural and a scientific sense. You could as well say that all the horrors and misunderstandings of the last century also found their origins there, even including the problems of a multicultural society and of cultural identity, a problem Europe is struggling with today with increasing intensity.
Let's have a look at Mahler. Also he met a lot of protests, against his music and against his person, partly antisemitic in nature but also inspired by the 'message' of his music, in which mutually-exclusive elements form a mosaic which can be understood as a reflection of the cultural conflicts and confusions of his time, and - remarkably - of the entire age that followed, much more so than what Schoenberg, Berg and Webern have dreamt-up, because of never rejecting the communicative powers of tonality, reminiscence and reference. Mahler's work: an idiosyncratic treatment of tradition, belongs to the core of Viennese musical culture but it looks over the fence towards the threats it feels that are approaching, trying to find some hope and consolation in otherworldy spheres. Schoenberg jumped over this fence, also driven by personal emotional problems, and the protests he encoutered should be seen as an instinctive, and healthy reaction against erosion.
Let me immediately say here that I consider Schoenberg a great composer and a crucial influence of my own work. His early works, culminating in his First Chamber Symphony, are a clear demonstration of his talent and stature. The first three of his Five Orchestral Pieces are pieces of genius, and the second: 'Vergangenes', is the deepest moving and stylistically most impressive expression of loss in the entire repertoire. After that, things began to get off the rails, a prophetic development bearing on the entire 20th century.... because indeed something was lost, at least: in Schoenberg's mind, which had a strongly historicist bent, like most of his contemporary intellectuals. His song cycle 'Pierrot Lunaire' (1912) is a hallucinating expression of the mood after the intervention of tragedy.
Understanding Schoenberg = understanding the 20C musical crisis. Understanding the timelessness of musical quality and beauty, leads to the rejection of historical time-line projections. The conclusion is, that Bach and Mozart are still contemporary composers, and that there is no museum culture in music, and that there is no progress in music. Demonstrating the Untergang of musical culture in terms of music may be an expression of truth, of reality, but you cannot build-up something if you are stopping at catalogueing the ruins. This means that Schoenberg, Berg and Webern - the Holy Trinity of new music in the 20th century - are strongly part of a unique moment in history, and that the meaning and value of their work (and everything following in its wake) can only be judged according to artistic standards which are independent from history. Are these 'extreme conclusions'? I don't think so.... they are the logical implications born from understanding historical reality, nothing more, nothing less.
*) "If many people agree with me, I get the feeling that I must be wrong". (Oscar Wilde)