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  • Our lecture tonight on the 20th Century Crisis is going to be somewhat different in format

  • in that well be starting directly with a piece of music on film

  • and, as usual, any of you who’d like to follow the score at the desk

  • I welcome to come and join me.

  • What a way to enter the 20th century!

  • Blazing with self-confidence,

  • back there in 1908,

  • this Spanish Rhapsody of Ravel's is totally unaware -or at least unconcerned-

  • that a crisis lurks just around the corner,

  • a life-and-death crisis in musical semantics.

  • But this music has no worries about the future,

  • it's immensely pleased with itself

  • it has a childlike faith that the tonality, on which it feeds, is infinite;

  • that tonality is immortal,

  • as long as it is continuously refreshed

  • and enriched by bigger and better ambiguities,

  • both phonological and syntactic ones, chromatic and metrical ones.

  • They're all there in that music,

  • all those elusive and seductive Either/Or's that we found

  • last time in Berlioz and in Wagner and Debussy; they're all there, and then some.

  • But all that wandering chromaticism we've been listening to

  • is still contained in a tonal framework,

  • and Ravel is telling us, through his music, that he sees no reason

  • why it can't go on forever similarly controlled and contained,

  • to the end of recorded time.

  • In other words,

  • were safe:

  • it's only 1908, and there's still Rosenkavalier to be written,

  • and a few more Puccini operas,

  • and the Firebird,

  • and who knows how many other similar delights.

  • Life is nothing but a joy.

  • But 1908, if the truth be told,

  • is not just a bowl of cherries.

  • Far from it,

  • there's something else in the air

  • a disturbance, a prescient feeling that all this smug optimism

  • can't lastneither tonality, nor figurative painting,

  • nor syntactical poetry, nor, indeed, the seemingly endless growth

  • of the bourgeoisie, or of colonial wealth, or of imperial power.

  • Sensitive minds are beginning to hint at a social collapse

  • a monstrous World War.

  • A premature flicker of fascism is already perceptible:

  • Marinetti's famous Manifesto of Futurism is about to appear,

  • glorifying war, the machine, speed, danger

  • and calling for the destruction of the past with all its traditions,

  • including music.

  • At the same time, on the other side of the musical moon,

  • Mahler is writing his Ninth Symphony, agonizing over

  • his reluctant and protracted farewell to tonality.

  • Even Scriabin in his Prometheus is waging a losing battle

  • to contain his own mystic chromaticisms.

  • And even Sibelius

  • is writing a Fourth Symphony filled with unresolved doubts and terrors.

  • And these troubling presentiments are particularly intense in and around Vienna

  • the decadence and hypocrisy of this

  • over-waltzed Austro-Hungarian Empire

  • are seen by the Viennese polemicist Karl Kraus.

  • (I don’t know if you know that name, but it's a very important

  • name, you should know it.)

  • Seen by Karl Kraus as glaringly reflected in the degeneration of language,

  • and are cruelly exposed in a harsh light of his critical writings.

  • If you don’t know the name Karl Krauss, look him up,

  • he’s a key figure,

  • in this first decade of the century.

  • And he knows what's coming.

  • Mahler knows too, but he is about to die

  • along with his beloved tonal music.

  • And there is a new composer,

  • still in his thirties, who also knows,

  • but who will live to do something about it.

  • And his name is Arnold Schoenberg,

  • who has already written a masterly work,

  • Verklärte Nacht ("Transfigured Night")

  • in which he has stretched those Wagnerian tonal ambiguities we found last week

  • to the snapping point.

  • The problems presented by Tristan and Isolde have now

  • grown to a point necessitating some radical solution.

  • The works have become not only chromatically unmanageable

  • but unwieldy, as well, in sheer size.

  • Like the dinosaur, they've simply grown too big.

  • Composers like Reger and Pfitzner are vying with each other

  • for some kind of Oscar to be awarded for the longest, thickest, and most

  • complex piece in the world.

  • And Schoenberg too made his bid with an early

  • super-Wagnerian monster work called Gurrelieder.

  • They were all, including Mahler, swept along by

  • the mighty "wave of the future" that Wagner, in his hyper-romantic egomania,

  • had predicted and initiated.

  • But how big can you get, how chromatically ambiguous, how syntactically overstuffed

  • without collapsing of your own sheer weight like the dinosaur?

  • There were just too many notes, too many inner voices, too many meanings.

  • And this was what caused the crisis in Ambiguity.

  • So, now in 1908, Schoenberg is already giving up the struggle

  • to preserve tonality, to contain those post-Wagnerian chromaticisms.

  • In this very year he is writing a Second String Quartet

  • that clearly announces the upheaval and his renunciation of tonality.

  • In the last movement of this quartet he resorts to the human voice,

  • a soprano who sings Stefan George's prophetic words:

  • "Ichhle Luft von anderem Planeten" ("I feel air from another planet").

  • And it sounds like this.

  • And then she sings

  • "Ichhle Luft

  • von anderem Planeten

  • and indeed Schoenberg does feel that air

  • and we feel it too.

  • This Opus 10 is to be his last tonal piece for many years to come.

  • By Opus 11, were already breathing that new air.

  • Listen

  • You feel that new air?

  • Breathing it?

  • This is atonalityto use that awful and frequently misunderstood word.

  • Not the atonality of Debussy’s old tonal scale that weve studied last week,

  • which is alwaysif you remembertonality contained.

  • This atonality is not contained, either diatonically or in any other way.

  • For better or worse, nontonal music has been born.

  • And the history of music has suffered a sea change.

  • And in that same year of 1908, but far away from all this

  • an ocean and a continent away, in fact in Connecticut of all places

  • the sharpest comment, the most trenchant description of the tonal crisis,

  • was made by an unheard, unhonored and unsung Sunday composer named Charles Ives.

  • Who also knew, though totally unaware of Schoenberg or any

  • of that upheaval, he knew something was up,

  • and proclaimed it in his half-playful, mystic, quirky way through

  • a marvelous little piece called "The Unanswered Question".

  • And this music says it all, better than a thousand words.

  • For this reason I'd like you to hear itand and also to see it

  • to see this almost graphic representation of the conflict.

  • Of course the question Ives proposes in his title is not a strictly musical one,

  • by his own say-so, but rather a metaphysical one.

  • Let me quote part of his descriptive foreword to the piece:

  • The strings play pianissimo throughout with no change in tempo.

  • They are to represent "The Silences of the Druids --Who Know, See and Hear Nothing."

  • The trumpet intones "The Perennial Question of Existence", and states it

  • in the same tone of voice each time.

  • But the hunt for the "Invisible Answer"

  • undertaken by the flutes & other human beings

  • [typical Ives cracker-barrel humor],

  • becomes gradually more active, faster and louder...

  • These "Fighting Answerers, as times goes on... seem to realize a futility

  • and begin to mock "The Question"–the strife is over for the moment.

  • After they disappear, "The Question" is asked for the last time,

  • and "The Silences" are heard beyond in "Undisturbed Solitude".

  • A charming idea, naive and profound at once.

  • But I've always thought of Ives’s Unanswered Question as not metaphysical one

  • so much as strictly musical question, whither music in our century.

  • Let me reinterpret the piece in exclusively musical terms,

  • there are three orchestral elements involved: the string ensemble,

  • a solo trumpet and a woodwind quartet.

  • The strings do, indeed, play pianissimo throughout with no changes in tempo, as Ives says,

  • but more important of anything about druids: theyre playing pure tonal triads.

  • And against this slow sustained purely diatonic background,

  • the trumpet intermittently poses his question:

  • a vague nontonal phrase.

  • And each time that is answered by the wind group

  • in an equally vague, amorphous way.

  • The repeated question remains more or less the same but the answer

  • is grow more and more ambiguous and hectic

  • until the final answer emerges as utterly gibberish.

  • But throughout it all, those strings have maintained

  • their diatonic serenity imperturbable

  • and when the trumpet asks his question for the last time whither music,

  • there’s no further answer except for those strings

  • quietly prolonging their pure D major triad into eternity.

  • Is that luminous final triad the answer?

  • Is tonality eternal? Immortal?

  • Many have thought so and some still do,

  • and yet that trumpet’s question hangs in the air, unresolved,

  • troubling our calm.

  • You see how clearly this piece spells out the dilemma of the new century,

  • the dichotomy that was to define the shape of musical life