Reflections of an American Composer

Reflections of an American Composer

by Arthur Berger


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520232518
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 11/28/2002
Pages: 277
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Arthur Berger is Irving Fine Professor of Music Emeritus at Brandeis University and Fellow of both the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He is the author of Aaron Copland (1990) and composer of orchestral, piano, choral, and chamber music.

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University of California

Copyright © 2002 Regents of the University of California
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ISBN: 0-520-23251-8

Chapter One

Rendezvous with Apollo: Form Is Feeling

What some of us who have been avid listeners of Stravinsky have always heard as being most significant in his works composed between approximately 1920 and 1955 are not his references to older music but rather the subtlety, ingenuity, and inventiveness of every aspect of composition. The subject is not the compiled Classical material, but what is done to it. (Specifics on this later.) I would not want to give the impression that I believe the Classical allusions vanish with this approach and are not apprehended as such-not only Classical, but Baroque, Renaissance, Romantic, and so on. In the final product their treatment by Stravinsky renders a result that occupies a position as far as possible from pastiche. The originality is palpable in the extreme. As Copland once observed, "... if you don't listen closely, there are times when you might mistake Mozart for Haydn, or Bach for Handel, or even Ravel for Debussy. I cannot ever remember being fooled by the music of Stravinsky." It is odd that over the years so many listeners as well as the critics (the listeners coached by the critics?) focused above all on the music's references to Bach or any other old master as if that were the essential content. They found it altogether unnatural that the extremely avant-garde composer of the orgiastic Le sacre du printemps (Rite of Spring) completed in 1913 could have traveled in so few years to the chaste ambience of, for instance, Apollon musagète (1927), and they made it perfectly clear that they were unwilling to make the trip with him.

It is one of the unfortunate quirks of history that so great a part of Stravinsky's oeuvre should have been saddled with a label like "neoclassicism" that does it so much injustice. Schoenberg seems to have been the victim of a comparable injustice because of the locution "atonality" which he disapproved of, since it suggested "against tone," though it does not affect, imprison our hearing to the extent that "neoclassicism" does. A name somehow gives a thing legitimacy and, no small factor, it makes it easier to refer to it. The use of slogans to pinpoint the thrust of movements in the arts accelerated during the course of the twentieth century. As Wallace Stevens once put it, modern art "has a reason for everything. Even the lack of a reason becomes a reason. Picasso expresses surprise that people should ask what a picture means and says that pictures are not intended to have meanings. This explains everything."

It does not look as if things are going to change in the foreseeable future as far as the labels for different trends are concerned, so we have to live with them because calling a movement something else when one designation is so deeply imprinted on the minds of so many people is, it seems to me, cumbersome. The best we can do is apply first aid and try to do some damage control. Meanwhile, if we find we have to have recourse to the term-and I should find it hard to avoid this particular one-my advice would be to use it in the broadest of senses. I recommend special vigilance where one believes one has espied a case of neoclassicism but on closer inspection it turns out to be an excursion to an old style in the spirit of a vacation trip from which one will soon return. I have in mind arrangements, among other things. For example, Busoni's and Schoenberg's arrangements of Bach do not make their perpetrators neoclassicists in any sense. Even Stravinsky's adaptation of Pergolesi in Pulcinella is not yet a neoclassic Stravinsky, as I have observed before on more than one occasion. (I was interested to see that the Stravinsky authority Richard Taruskin felt the same way.) Stravinsky's treatment of the borrowed Pergolesi tunes is not very different from his treatment of folk tunes in Petrushka, though I should be willing to admit that dealing with the Baroque composer's music may very well have fanned the flames of a desire to use works of the past as raw material instead of folksongs in the future.

Stravinsky in later life confided to Milton Babbitt how he felt about the recriminations leveled against him to the effect that he was unnaturally "returning to" the past (the Schoenberg work Stravinsky refers to is Three Satires, Op. 28, dated 1925, for chorus, in which some of Schoenberg's own words made fun of composers who were aiming at a "return to ..."):

Stravinsky told me how deeply disappointed and hurt he had been that Schoenberg had chosen (that was precisely his word: "chosen") to take the slogans of "back to Bach" and "neoclassicism" seriously, so seriously as to respond with an acerbic verbal satire, with music to match. For, to Stravinsky, "back to Bach," was just that, an alliteratively catchy slogan which had no pertinence to professional activity or professional discourse. It was there, permitted to be concocted, like "neoclassicism," to be talked about by those who could not and should not talk about music, who didn't even bother to hear the music, but who, when they bandied about the catch words, were "talking about Stravinsky."

To take Stravinsky literally in this reported conversation would oblige one to forswear both the evocation of the concept and the application of the rubric "neoclassicism" to his music and put it to rest as a sort of Madison Avenue slogan that had served its purpose. It must have been out of pique that Stravinsky disowned it in later life, and who can blame him when it distracted people from what is essential in his music? But as I said above, I think it best that we try to live with it. At one point it seems to have served Stravinsky. (See the manifesto re Classicism below.) It can still be useful in dealing with his music if one is circumspect and if one does not lose sight of the fact that Stravinsky does not identify himself with the sources that he draws upon in his music but keeps his distance or, as he sometimes used to say, uses them as the subject of his "criticism."

In this rare instance of his unburdening himself on the subject as part of a dialogue with Babbitt, however, Stravinsky seemed intent upon obliterating the whole concept from his past, and he was indeed free with facts to help him do so. For the blurred memory of an old man was playing tricks on him if what he remembered was the alliterative slogan hurled at him by the French musical public-a slogan he curiously remembered as being hurled at him by Frenchmen in English! We should be charitable and not take this little slip as something to make us lose sight of the essential burden of his confession which is not at all affected by it: namely, that at the point in his life when he recalled this affair he was thoroughly disabused of the concept neoclassicism and wanted to shift the blame to others for identifying him with it.

What I often find more disturbing than the recriminations leveled at Stravinsky for his backward look, his unnatural "return" to the past, are the frequent allegations that his music is devoid of feeling. These allegations have often materialized as a corollary to complaints about his retrogressive stance but they have then assumed major proportions. One would think that by now the matter was settled and that Stravinsky was no longer regarded as a paradigm of music without feeling. Only a few years ago, however, I came across a review in the New York Times that contained the following observation: "Using a mildly astringent language reminiscent of Stravinsky but with heart, Mr. Perle presents ..." (italics mine), and to my surprise I found in conversation with fellow musicians that this view of Stravinsky is not altogether dormant.

Consistent with the Romantic thesis of music as self-expression (what John Dewey called, in its most unfortunate manifestations, a "spewing forth") is the notion that composers in the music they write must not express any feelings but their own, as if emotions experienced by others cannot burn as intensely in their music as emotions they experience themselves. (If this were true, how would novelists be able to deal properly with characters that are hateful or in any way alien to themselves?) When music or a style is being appropriated, the feelings expressed originally are obviously the feelings of other people, and the argument is that they have somehow been wrung out in the process of being transmitted. In addition to this, mere mention of "Classical" is enough to prepare some of the listening public for basalt frigidity as the polar opposite of the hot intensity of Romanticism.

I wonder if it would not be a good idea to reserve the rubrics Classical and Romantic to apply to the artwork rather than to the artist, who may be different things at different times. I remember how surprised I was at a remark made to me some time in the forties by Paul Hindemith whom we all had pegged as a staunch neoclassicist. I was emerging from the old Metropolitan Opera House on Broadway at Thirty-ninth Street where I had been listening to Siegfried in order to review it for the New York Herald Tribune. (Hindemith remembered me from having met me a few years earlier in Cologne at an International Society for Contemporary Music festival which included my String Quartet among its offerings.) After greetings he told me, "that is an opera I would like to have written myself." Since this chance encounter I have learned that he adored Wagner and that in the last scene of his opera Mathis der Maler, whether consciously or not, he quoted Tristan.

On the subject of feeling in Stravinsky's music, no one has been more culpable of contributing to confusion and misunderstanding than he himself by virtue of the notorious, thoroughly indiscreet statement that appeared back in 1935 in his autobiography (Chroniques de ma vie, in the original French)-a statement that would seem to corroborate the public's assessment of his attitude toward expression in music:

Car je considère la musique, par son essence, impuissante à exprimer quoi que ce soit: un sentiment, une attitude, un état psychologique, un phénomène de la nature, etc.... L'expression n'a jamais été la propriété immanente de la musique. [For I consider music by its essence powerless to express anything whatsoever: a sentiment, an attitude, a psychological state, a phenomenon of nature.... Expression has never been an immanent property of music.] [Translation mine]

I was enormously relieved when he explained himself many years later-or as some may prefer to put it, reversed himself-in one of the books of conversation with Robert Craft:

That overpublicized bit about expression (or non-expression) was simply a way of saying that music is suprapersonal and superreal and as such beyond verbal meanings and verbal descriptions. It was aimed against the notion that a piece of music is in reality a transcendental idea "expressed in terms of" music, with the reductio ad absurdum implication that exact sets of correlatives must exist between a composer's feelings and his notation. It was offhand and annoyingly incomplete, but even the stupidest critics could have seen that it did not deny musical expressivity, but only the validity of a type of verbal statement about musical expressivity. I stand by the remark, incidentally, though today I would put it the other way around: music expresses itself.

Stravinsky was obviously attempting to deal with the tricky phenomenon that music is essentially nonverbal, and he was warning listeners who are rendered uncomfortable by this phenomenon, listeners who will use words nonetheless, that they should beware of reifying them so that they appear to have more import than they can possibly have. The best part of his more recent statement is the warning against "exact correlatives ... between a composer's feelings and notation." The phrase "beyond verbal meanings" has to do with the conviction that the music cannot be "reproduced" in words or even an analytical diagram. (See the quotation from Arnold Isenberg in chapter 14.) But words and diagrams observing proper limits can be enormously helpful. Listeners who regard music as inviolate and ineffable are as commonplace as those who always see pictures and hear stories, and I would not want the reader to think I am endorsing either type. As to the first type their view quite justifies their listening in what Santayana called a "drowsy revery." They are not interested in taking the music apart for better understanding. They welcome the prospect of merely being lulled by the billows of sound.

Stravinsky's original statement on the subject of expression had done the damage, and it is doubtful anything he would have said afterward could have been accepted as sufficient reparation. The conclusion that may be drawn from his disclaimer is that composers who may insist they are writing music that does not express either their own feelings or those of anyone else may yet be writing music that embodies feelings, since these, whether there or not, cannot be fixed or localized verbally. If the words used to characterize a musical emotion are unreliable, the words used to contend that there is no emotion must be equally unreliable. We are indebted to Freud for the awareness of the way in which our unconscious desires, implicit feelings, partly formulated beliefs manifest themselves without our knowing it in the merest action of walking into a room, in the presumably meaningless loops and curves of handwriting, in the apparently awkward movement of the hand (for those who still use old-fashioned nonmechanical pens) that "fortuitously" shatters the inkstand which, though we are not thinking of it at the moment, has displeased us for some time.

Composers may evoke emotions without knowing what they are and without being aware they are doing so. Tones themselves are, to start with, emotionally toned. A high, loud sound has its aura of excitement, however limited or diluted that may be under certain conditions. A high piercing laugh does not represent glee by convention; there is an intrinsic relation, what some psychologists have called a functional relation, between the laugh and the quality of our exultation (a relationship of the kind that an onomatopoeic word has to its object). At the same time, the scream's meaning is not specific. Indeed, embedded in laughter at a distance it may be mistaken for a sign of distress. A composer's choice of a high sound to complete a formal pattern involves an accompanying, probably unconscious, approval of the feeling that comes in its wake. It is a feeling, moreover, that is not a mere matter of association like the relation of most words to their object.


Excerpted from REFLECTIONS OF AN AMERICAN COMPOSER by ARTHUR BERGER Copyright © 2002 by Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission.
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Table of Contents

Abbreviations and Contractions


1. Composers and their Audience in the Thirties
2. Nationalism
3. Is Music in Decline?
4. Rendezvous with Apollo: Form Is Feeling
5. Reinventing the Past: Pastiche, "Criticism," or Collage?
6. Serialism: Composer as Theorist
7. Rapprochement or Friendly Takeover?
8. Postmodern Music
9. Virgil Thomson and the Press
10. Music on My Beat
11. PNM and the Ph. D.
12. Do We Hear What We Say We Hear?
13. New Linguistic Modes and the New Theory
14. Backstage at the Opera
15. A Tale of Two Critics: Rosenfeld and Haggin
16. A Tale of Two Conductors: Koussevitzky and Mitropoulos
17. Octatonic Scale
18. Brief Encounters: From My Diary


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