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Classical Music: New Choices for the 21st Century
By Charles Berry

As a composer of classical music, I would like to share my thoughts about the current state of classical music.

The art of classical music music composition is still under a shadow of ugliness created by various 20th century ideologies of compositional methods and the dogged admiration for experiments gone wrong.  John Cage, Pierre Boulez, Arnold Schönberg, and the others -- not one of these composers sang the last dying note.  Not one of them gave us a useful means for the creation of music. The new methods of composition --12-tone, aleatory, minimalism, post-minimalism -- do not provide the wide emotional possibilities of expression, which were available in the older Classical and Romantic styles.

Beauty, as a concept, and as an experience of listeners, must return to the writing desk of composers, and to our concert halls.  Beauty can be discussed, and valued, and defined in myriad ways.   Our customers, the ever-patient, music-loving symphony-season subscribers, know Beauty when they hear it.   Beauty encompasses a wide range of aesthetic choices.  Few concertgoers would mistake Beethoven for Haydn, Haydn for Debussy, or Debussy for Scriabin, or Scriabin for Copland, or Copland for Stravinsky.   The audience is open to a wide range of possibilities.  The only real requirement is a musical language and a form that can be apprehended within the duration of the piece  (a feat much easier said than done, for composers in any century.)  The audience should not rely on concert brochures to tell them, in words, what they should be able to appreciate with their own ears.

Composers know Beauty when it enters their imaginations -- when they allow themselves to write notes on paper, without letting their intellects get in the way.

I believe this was the failing of many 20th century composers -- they let compositional methods over-ride their innate sense of beauty, proportion, melody, form, harmony, and rhythm.  All the individual elements of musical composition were passed through a sieve of ideology -- allowing precious little beauty into the final draft of the music -- and long-winded explanations were developed to justify the resulting noise.

Many professors of composition were hired because of their ability to describe, in words, the complicated theories they invented.  Beauty has possibly not been discussed seriously among professional composers since the 1930’s.  It is much easier to discuss compositional methods, or electronics, or acoustics properties, than to discuss Beauty.   Since the time of Schönberg, most discussions of Beauty were considered irrelevant, or hopelessly Romantic and even naïve.    

Because Beauty has no specific meaning to anyone, discussion of the subject can wander in many directions.  The author hopes composers, with wide differences in compositional style, will begin to assess their work in relation to Beauty, to think privately and honestly about the implications of Beauty, and begin to discuss Beauty with other composers, and with music critics and conductors. When Beauty can be talked about, and regarded as an essential element of music composition, the art of composition will regain a meaningful place in the hearts of audiences.

At present, I feel most new compositions have no lasting effect on listeners.  If a piece is performed more than once, the audience tolerates it -- but feels nothing.  Nothing is accomplished.  Any discussion of Beauty needs to go beyond compositional methods.  Beauty as perceived by an alert concert-goer may be contrasted to Beauty as perceived by the composer.  The intention of the composer may have little relation the end result in the ears of an audience.  I have read articles by Schönberg that describe his musical intentions, perhaps his sincere artistic goals.  But, those goals did not result in music which audiences request to hear again and again, as they do the music of Beethoven.

The prevailing theory in the 20th century was that this disparity was caused by the audience’s lack of sophistication.   A few harsh critics declared the cause was the composer’s lack of talent.  Neither explanation seems accurate.  Schönberg’s genius is easily recognizable in early works such as Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured night).   Audiences are no less sophisticated than they have ever been.  It is important to remember, the original audiences for Haydn and Mozart were bored royalty.  By comparison, we have ideal audiences – who sit quietly and usually do not fall asleep.   The explanation of the disparity between intention and results can only be found in the self-perception of the composer.  How honest is the composer in assessing Beauty in his work?  Does the composer care about the symphony-season subscribers, or is the most important audience the music critics, or the dean of the school of music where he wants a job, or other composers?   Which audience is the most important?  Whose opinion matters most?   Does the composer hope some enlightened future audience will appreciate works that current audiences ignore?  How do music producers -- the decision-makers who program new works, influence the substance of a composer’s work? The artistic choices any composer makes rely, to some degree, on which audience the composer hopes to reach.  The audience may change from work to work.  I feel it is important for composers to think clearly about whom the audience is.  Couperin wrote to please the tastes of The Sun King, Bach needed his organ gigs, Scriabin….who knows?!

Composer, Beth Anderson Harold puts it this way: "[Sometimes, the music] is not focused in the heart of the composer….But, composers have written to influence the king, or get the job playing organ at the big church, and the outcome has been brilliant."

On a practical level---I believe composers need to please the audiences of our time as much as Haydn needed to please his royal benefactors. Thankfully, few of us need to compose toe-tapping march music for Stalin, as Shostakovich did (his life depended on it.)  I do not think the composers of the 20th century avant-garde concerned themselves with the economic facts: Symphony subscribers keep the lights turned-on in Symphony Hall.

The future of orchestral music cannot rely forever on the works of the past.   I believe we need to write music that is within certain parameters of harmony, melody, and rhythm (meaning, perhaps: a lot of chords built on triads, using dissonance sparingly.)  The parameters are very wide, and loosely based on the audience's past experience.  Several weeks ago I made a list of the 100 most requested classical works from radio-station listener-response polls.  For the most part, listeners all choose the same pieces.  To me, this indicates there is a common language in these works -- which reaches everyone.  New works can expand on that common language and remain within the parameters of what audiences might enjoy.  I have not reached any final conclusion about which parameters of harmony, melody, rhythm, or form need to be retained, and which can be tossed.  My sense is something must be retained, for a new work to be understood and enjoyed by an audience. 

In discussing Beauty, distinctions need to be made between, popular appeal, current fads, and enduring value.  John Williams, Jerry Goldsmith, and other film composers deserve admiration for their highly skilled craftsmanship.  John Williams, in particular invents melodies that hundreds of thousands of people enjoy and recognize.  This kind of accomplishment is worthy of respect, but is not as valuable as the accomplishment of Bach or Mozart.  John Williams himself would be this first to acknowledge this fact.

Instant appeal is not a primary element of Beauty.  Sometimes a work of Art has that instant appeal, sometimes it does not.  The current “-ism,” in fashion with critics, or in academia, is also an inaccurate means to judge Beauty.  Talking with composers over 70 years of age---I realize how quickly fads fade, even in Classical Music.  Our elders have witnessed four or five major “artistic revolutions” come and go during the last 70 years.  The best of these composers followed their own innate instinct, and defined Beauty in their own way -- completely apart from the fads.       

Below I have attached quotes from composers and music critics, regarding Beauty and the history of musical fads of the 20th century.  We, the currently active composers, have a responsibility to ourselves, and to our audiences to think carefully about what we create, and why we create.

“ I am not a “modern composer” in the strictest sense of the term, because my music, far from being “revolution,” is “evolution.”  I have never attempted to overthrow the accepted rules of harmony and composition.  On the contrary, I have always drawn liberally from the masters for my inspiration. (I have never ceased studying Mozart!)...Great music, I have always felt, must come from the heart.   Any music created by technique and brains alone is not worth the paper it is written on.  Music, I feel, must always be emotional first, and intellectual second.  That is why, in composing, I have never been tempted by the radical style of the young and very interesting composers.  And so, although as experiments there may be something to say in defense of all this music, it is, in my opinion, an artistic failure.  Then, besides being cerebral, ‘modern music’ is for the most part, very ugly.  And music, I insist, must in spite of everything be beautiful.”

 Maurice Ravel, composer  c. 1935


"As to beauty in music, I try very hard to inject elements of it in every work. Music for me is not cerebral. Rather, it is visceral and I agonize over every note. Without beauty, music is empty."

Benjamin Lees, composer 2003 (letter to author)


“A composer writing for a larger hall loses a good deal of the freedom afforded by the smaller one.  Melodies, in order to be understood, must be written so that the physical and mental distance between the performers and the listeners cannot distort them. In rhythm, metrical structures will push themselves into the foreground, due to their greater intelligibility.  Thus rhythmic patterns which, in order to be grasped intelligently, require a keen analytic mind on the part of the listener, ought to be avoided.  Rapidly moving harmonies or harmonies of too great a complexity are not advisable, for the same reason.  It is striking to see how sensitive our classical masters were in this respect. The technique of their symphonic works is essentially different from that of their chamber music, although the basic material is identical.”

Paul Hindemith, composer   1949

[NOTE:   Hindemith noticed, and greatly admired, the sensitivity of Haydn, Beethoven, and other old master composers, regarding the acoustic properties of large and small performance halls.  Some contemporary composers---with all the science of acoustics, and sound engineering at their fingertips---manage to ignore basic properties of sound.   Melodies and harmonies get meddled in a large space--- music must be written to accommodate that physical fact.]


“Real music soars above class society.  Musical careers have a lot to do with class and money, but they don’t influence society’s acceptance of the music. ...[Regarding self-promotion] ...It takes just as much intelligence to invent a synthesizer, or to make a crowd-pleasing poster for your concert, as it does to make beautiful music.  But doing those other activities does not make you a composer, though they may add to your career, or your savings account.  Being a composer of playable music still does not guarantee beauty.  That’s a problem you have to solve for yourself.   

"Beauty got a bad name some time after the First World War.  Musical craft (ear training, orchestration, the real reasons for voice leading, etc.) was hardly taught in the 1960’s and ‘70’s, probably because of the revolt against a tradition that could allow the war in Vietnam to happen.  Beauty seemed low in value in relation to life itself.  But life goes on, and ugliness, and lack of skills, and nihilism are no excuse...”

 Beth Anderson Harold, composer  1980


 “...researching a study of 20th century music, I arrived at the reluctant conclusion that Boulez, above all others, was responsible for breaking the pact between creator and consumer. ...From the moment he burst onto the Paris scene in 1945 with an anti-Stravinsky demonstration, Boulez was noted for the violence of his gestures.  [For Boulez,] all music composed before1900 was mere “nostalgia.”  Boulez maintained that it was a composer’s duty to pursue the “music of the future” without regard to contemporary taste.  Enchanted by the icy purity of Anton Webern’s serialist method of composition, he decided that mathematical science held the key to musical progress.

Now that his star is falling, you can see the damage he caused.  Many composers are emerging from undeserved neglect.  Major 20th century figures--Hindemith, Martinu, Weill, Barber--are back on the concert menu. Andrzej Panufnik, effectively banned for nine years on the BBC [due to Boulez],  experienced a revival before his death last year.  Britten and Shostakovich now represent centrality, Boulez and Stockhausen, the periphery.”

Norman Lebrecht, music critic   1992

[NOTE:  One strong personality affected the programming of new music in England and France.   Boulez, as Music Director for the BBC, decided who would be heard, and who would not.  Times change. ]


“Music is an art.  it is a very special and very sacred art.  Being as aware of this as I am, it is disturbing to me to realize the position that music holds in the world today.....How painful it is for me, when I talk with young people today who are convinced that minimalism is something to be taken seriously, or that John Cage’s music is actually worth listening to.  John Cage’s music is all about philosophy, not about inspiration and depth.

“After realizing that there was always an expectation for stylistic improvement, to further art music along, and that older styles were considered archaic for no concrete reason, I realized that during the 1980’s, this ‘improvement’ had become a style known as minimalism.

“I  believe it is time to abandon this concept of stylistic improvement as a criteria for which a piece of music is accepted or not.  It is a false sense of improvement that continually gives birth to avant guard, and other superficial and degenerate artisitic movements that imply a rejection of the past. ‘ 

Don Robertson, composer  2000

[ Compare Don Robertson’s view of John Cage’s music, with John Cage’s own words---an excerpt from a letter written to Charles Berry in 1982.]


“I rediscovered the traditional purposes for making music  a) to imitate nature in her manner of operation, and b) to sober and quiet the mind thus making it susceptible to divine influences.  Thus I was freed from self-expression.  Music became a discipline, a way of life.  I have noticed very few people are interested in New Music.  I was 50 years old before there was any supportive acceptance of my work.  I am now much older but my work remains controversial as your feelings testify.” 

John Cage, composer  1982


       My correspondence with John Cage, confirmed my belief that he was more a philosopher and a writer, than a composer.   He was a brilliant and gentle man.

His music was not intended to be meaningful, or moving, or listened to with any seriousness.   Young composers who admire his music, risk deluding themselves, believing there is musical and/or spiritual value--where there is nothing at all.   This was John Cage’s whole point---we create our own perception of value.  That philosophy does not often translate into beautiful or lasting music. I do believe Cage’s Sonatas and Interludes for prepared piano, and some of his percussion music express his goal, “to quiet and sober the mind.”        

An interesting fact:  At the Arnold Schönberg Archive at UCLA, librarians have gathered Mr. Schönberg’s papers, manuscripts, voice-recordings, lectures, etc...and enshrined everything down to the smallest cocktail napkin.  

In this respect, John Cage was correct.  We create our own perception of value.  In business school, Marketing Directors learn the term “ Customer Perceived Value.” Attractive packaging, and the careful use of words, makes all the difference.  Call a bottlecap a Work of Art, and put it in a Museum.

Charles Roland Berry
Seattle Washington, 2003


About the author, Charles Berry

    My first memories of Classical Music come from when I was seven or eight years old, laying near the family stereo, listening to Mendelssohn’s Italian Symphony, and the complete Symphonies of Beethoven with Arturo Toscanni and the NBC Symphony Orchestra, and the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto, with Jasha Heifetz, Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.   I was in awe.  I heard none of the details of composition that I hear now.  I was in awe of the beauty, the power, and the dignity of the music.   These were examples of Great Art.  This did not need to be explained to me.  I felt it.   I felt the same way when I saw works by Michaelango, and drawings by Leonardo da Vinci.   These were examples of the greatness humans can achieve.    Artists and musicians became my heroes.
    I showed no particular talent as a musician.  In fact, in 3rd grade, in a fit of frustration, I tore up my piano lessonbook.  I wrote my teacher a short note:  “You tried.  I quit.”  Just the same, I sang in choirs throughout grade school, junior high, and high school, and played cello for five years.   In high school, my instrument became the guitar.  I wanted to be a folksinger, like Bob Dylan.
   In my twenties, I found myself at the University of California, studying music history, and music composition with a quiet British composer, named Peter Racine Fricker.  I had heard an Lp record of his First Symphony.  When I met him for the first time, I said:  “Thank you for writing that Symphony.”   (Until that moment, I never thought I would be able to say anything to anyone who had composed a Symphony.)   For his part, Mr. Fricker smiled.  No one had every thanked him like that. As if he had done me a personal favor.   Mr. Fricker wanted to teach me the intricate details of serialist music, and teach me to discipline my wandering musical imagination.  I was not a good student.  I was full of enthusiasm with a very short attention span.   My most memorable study at the University, was finding the original hand-written manuscript for Bernard Hermann’s music to the movie Psycho. The score to the shower scene was written in red pencil.
    In 1982, in San Diego, I met Paul Creston.  I studied composition with him for one year.  Sitting in his living room, I tried to be calm, when he played tapes of his orchestral music--live recordings with Eugene Ormandy, George Szell, and Arturo Toscanni. (He knew the men who had been my childhood heroes.)  Paul Creston did not talk much about his career, preferring to focus on immediate problems---teaching me about form and orchestration, and his own methods for harmonic and melodic construction.  Much later, after his death, I discovered how lucky I was to learn from him.  During the 1950’s and early 1960’s he was the most performed American Symphonic composer--as well-known to audiences as Copland, Barber, and Menotti.  His career was eclipsed by a younger generation.      
My favorite story from Paul Creston, occurred at a composer’s conference in New York.   Paul Creston, Carl Ruggles, and Edgar Varese went out to lunch together.  Creston and Ruggles ordered sandwiches.  Varese ordered a complete, and expensive dinner.  After eating, Varese disappeared to the Men’s Room, and never came back--leaving the big bill to Creston and Ruggles.
   For a time, I hosted a Classical radio program on KBOO, community radio, in Portland, Oregon.   I called-up famous composers, and interviewed them over the phone.   I edited the interviews, added excerpts of their music, and broadcast the half-hour programs, which included George Crumb, John Cage, Benjamin Lees, Karel Husa, Ned Rorem, George Rochberg, and William Schuman.  (Now, I was getting to know my heroes, talking with them.)  William Schuman sang melodic excerpts from his Symphonies, over the phone.  George Crumb’s cuckoo clock chimed in the background.   I heard traffic noise through the open window of John Cage’s New York apartment window.    Ned Rorem went on about his sex life, as always.   Later, in Santa Cruz, California, I got to know the Hungarian cellist and composer, George Barati.  He was also a longtime conductor for the Honolulu Symphony.  He told me how, in his younger days, he played in a Sunday afternoon string quartet, with Albert Einstein--during his years at Princeton University.   He also knew Bartok and Kodaly, and sang in a choir conducted by Rachmaninov.   He told me of visits with Stravinsky and Schönberg.
   In the 1990’s I presented performances of my music in San Francisco with George Barati, Lou Harrison, and an electronic composer, Charles Amirkanian.  During this time, I also met Alan Hovhaness on several occasions.  He told me how he lost the manuscript to an entire symphony when a mugger grabbed his briefcase.  Hovhaness stuck a thumb out in his suitcoat pocket, saying he had a gun and was not afraid to use it.  The thief ran off with the symphony in the briefcase.   Though he searched for the music in nearby dumpsters, Hovhaness never found that symphony.       
These experiences form a panorama in my mind of 20th century American Classical music.  I believe each of the composers I have known, was doing his best to add a unique voice to the culture of the world.  Big egos--yes, some of them were not shy.  But in the end---humble or not, each was aspiring toward an indefinable Beauty.  Each hoped he might, at some moment, create a work of Great Art----like those works I experienced as a child, listening to Beethoven. Each of these men also had heroes, and aspired to add his imagination to the collective achievement of humanity.  Regardless of how I view their accomplishments, regardless of the enduring value, or lack of value in their music----I am forced to admire the determination that caused these men to dedicate their lives to Music.  I am grateful to each of them.

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