This dreary story of the nihilistic revolution in music—as well as in culture generally—is somewhat well known, but Reilly lets us in on the little secret that this revolt in music has spent its course. How does he know? He interviewed the counterrevolutionaries, starting with the most important, University of Pennsylvania composer George Rochberg–who was a leading 12-toner when in 1964, his son died. Rochberg became frustrated that he could not express his deep emotions in the new orthodoxy and dramatically turned back to tonal passages. Reilly’s interview with him must be read in full, but let me note two things. Here is Rochberg on his feeling at the time:
I couldn’t breathe any more. I needed air. I was tired of the same round of manipulating the pitches, vertically and horizontally … What I finally realized was that there were no cadences, that you can’t come to a natural pause, that you can’t write a musical comma, colon, semicolon, dash for dramatic, expressive purposes or to enclose a thought.
Asked about Schoenberg’s remark that artists must be “cured of the delusion that the aim of art is beauty,” Rochberg replied: “I have re-embraced the art of beauty but with a madness, absolutely. That is the only reason to want to write music.” He ends with the ultimate praise for Reilly: “I have to say you really understand my music.” One must read the full discussion to comprehend similarly.
Reilly’s interview with Gian Carlo Menotti, whose beautiful operas ignored the new orthodoxy from the beginning, discusses Menotti’s difficulties with the critics, and his having the last laugh with enormous popularity and even growing critical acclaim. His story of meeting Padre Pio is disorienting in these skeptical times, with Menotti refusing to tell its outcome as being too “private” to reveal. Reilly even interviewed perhaps America’s most honored composer just a few years before his death, David Diamond, who told him:
So much of the music that was written during the 1950s and part of the 1960s, music that was basically textural in the sense that the sonorities were the important thing, or patterns of sound, have not lived on. In fact, they’ve disappeared. Nobody ever listens to them. It’s because there is a lack of real musical language which communicates. In other words, there is no melodic substance and there’s no feeling in the sense of emotion, whether it’s lighthearted emotion or whether it’s dark and profound emotion.
Diamond claimed that even Schoenberg at the end told him 12-tone was not for everyone.
Reilly writes much more about dozens of composers. Yes, one would not know 12-tone was dead listening to many public radio stations and the critics; but as Stravinsky associate Robert Craft remarked, audiences will not take it. They will simply walk out at the discord they have not accepted, regardless of what their betters tell them. Even if the critics blame it on popular ignorance, the beautiful classics dominate almost every program where people actually have to pay cash. Atonality is not gone; and in fact, most of the modern composers Reilly mentions incorporate it into their works in some sense or other. But the rigid orthodoxy is dead, and that is good news indeed for those looking for beautiful music.
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