As couldn’t possibly have missed your notice, this week marks the hundredth anniversary of the first performance of Igor Stravinsky’s classic ballet “The Rite of Spring”. And it happens, not at all coincidentally, when the South Bank in London is putting on a season of Twentieth Century music that celebrates Alex Ross’ classic best-seller “The Rest is Noise”.
Most people think of Twentieth Century classical music as forbidding at best and on the whole unlistenable. Alex Ross’ history of music from Richard Strauss via Schoenberg, Britten and Messiaen to Glass, Riley and Reich is a compelling account of the music that draws in the reader and makes you want to hear more.
However, and this is not a theme in the book, there is already a sense that the classical music of the Twentieth Century has become very much the music of its time and that its bold experimentalism into twelve-tone, atonal and free improvisation has past into history. This doesn’t just apply to classical music, of course, but bizarrely twentieth century classical music, supposedly timeless and universal, has become niche music that is of more interest to musicologists than music-lovers.
I don’t think this is a good thing, but it’s hardly surprising. Not many people would really play Webern or Berg rather than their contemporaries Duke Ellington or George Gershwin. Of course, a great deal of twentieth century music has popular appeal. Music by Samuel Barber, Gorecki, Holst and, of course, Stravinsky are phenomenally popular. And the tradition hasn’t died, although one wonders whether the most popular composers today, like Arvo Part, John Rutter and Steve Reich, are really the torch-bearers that will carry the tradition into the rest of the century.
Another item of interest to me is that the twentieth century tradition does still divide people and not quite along the expected fault-lines. There is probably more in common between the musical tastes of those who listen to Napalm Death, Autechre or Stravinsky than there is between those who actually enjoy the pallid stuff that generally wins Grammy awards.
And if “The Rite of Spring” is the most celebrated piece of music of the twentieth century, then surely this is the most celebrated artwork: