Music of the Twentieth Century—How It Affects You
THE St. Croix (Virgin Island) Concert Society was proud to present the famed Guarneri String Quartet early this year. It truly was remarkable that one of the world’s finest string groups should be giving a concert on this small Caribbean island. The program consisted of a Beethoven, a Bartók and a Schumann number.
Among those in the audience were some who were greatly delighted by the Beethoven and Schumann pieces but who were left cold by the twentieth-century Bartók quartet. One of these asked her companion: “What are the players quarreling with each other about?” for that is the way the Bartók work struck her. But evidently these were in the minority, for the modern Bartók composition received far greater applause than did the early nineteenth-century Beethoven and Schumann numbers.
Obviously there is a difference between twentieth-century music and that of previous centuries. The classical music of the eighteenth century was primarily concerned with sheer beauty of melody and harmony, much in keeping with the definition musicologist Sigmund Spaeth gives of music, ‘the organization of sound toward beauty.’
In the following century music became more and more a vehicle for expressing feeling, emotion, and so is termed “romantic,” as distinguished from “classical” music. Among its composers were Beethoven and Schumann. Then toward the end of the nineteenth century and on into the twentieth century composers sought more and more to appeal to the intellect rather than to the emotions, and so modern music is stimulating to the mind, and often is quite loud and rapid as was much of the Bartók quartet played that evening.
Without a doubt this trend has served as an enrichment, as can be seen by the music of Wagner, Debussy and Stravinsky. However, it seems that many modern composers in their emphasis on the intellect and in their search for new sounds have gone to extremes, even as noted by such music authorities and critics as Spaeth, Schönberg, Kurt Sachs and B. H. Haggin. This they have done by overcharging their writing with complex rhythms and in particular by the use of dissonance.
What Is Dissonance?
By dissonance in music is meant the use of two or more tones that sound harsh to the ear when played together; although some music authorities scruple against such a subjective definition. If it is hard for you to appreciate the concept of dissonance, try this little experiment: When you happen to be near a piano, play any key and the one or two immediately next to it at the same time. The result will be a dissonance, because the vibrations are so nearly the same that they clash instead of blending harmoniously.
Dissonance is not wrong in itself and has been used by leading composers in times past and very effectively by such composers as Wagner and Debussy. But if not used judiciously, the result may be very grinding upon the nerves of many, although not necessarily of all listeners. Such music tends to leave the ear unsatisfied, not to speak of the emotions.
What of Jazz?
Jazz is a form of music that was born in the United States in the twentieth century. It makes much use of dissonance, accounting for its “blues” sound. In keeping with other popular kinds of music, such as “swing” and “boogie-woogie,” it has a highly syncopated rhythm. Syncopation may be viewed as a form of rhythmic distortion. Thus ordinarily in a piece of music written in 4/4 time, the first and third beat are stressed, receive the emphasis, such as One, two, three, four. But in syncopation the strong beat is anticipated or delayed, thus creating a novel effect. This rhythmic device is nothing new, being employed by composers of serious music from the time of Bach onward. But in jazz it is featured, made the rule rather than the exception.
While early in the twentieth century jazz was played in strict tempo, that is, four beats to the bar or measure, the passing of years has brought rhythmic sophistication. Trained musicians have begun to play jazz to other meters, namely, in 3/4 time, the meter used in the waltz, or in 5/4 time, as in David Brubeck’s “Take Five.” Then there has been the injection of more complex harmonies into jazz, many musicians making use of the chordal ideas of Debussy’s revolutionary music, as well as drawing on the harmonic contrivances of Bartók and Hindemith, outstanding composers of serious music of this century.
On the other hand, jazz has influenced composers of serious music, they having borrowed from its instrumentation, its harmonic devices and rhythmic styles and its blues. Examples of this are seen in George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” and “Porgy and Bess” (a Negro folk opera), in Ferde Grofé’s “Grand Canyon Suite” and Ravel’s piano concertos.
What makes jazz a distinctive art form is not so much its dissonance or its syncopation as the element of improvisation. Yet here, too, improvisation in the form of a theme with variations has long been an art form. But in jazz it is not worked out ahead of time as in ‘serious’ music; it is all done impromptu, spontaneously. The jazz musician, therefore, depends upon his knowledge of the harmonic structure of the original theme and a highly developed ear in order to produce spontaneously his improvisations.
But some have gone too far, just as mentioned earlier in connection with serious contemporary music. There has come into existence that which is known as “Free Jazz.” Here there are no rules, no acceptance of anything traditional, a rejection of the chordal system that has marked beautiful music of the past. This has resulted in a sort of rebellion against all known musical theory and harmony. The result? Not only are the musically uneducated repulsed by the disorganized screeches emanating from wind instruments and other hit-and-miss attempts at something worth while, but many serious jazz musicians cannot accept these new extremes in the interest of music. It definitely is not ‘the organization of sound toward beauty.’
A Look at Rock and Roll
Rock and roll immediately brings to mind the younger generation, which has truly been engulfed by the hard, driving rhythm of this most recent of musical fads. Actually it is rather difficult to define rock and roll in terms of ‘the organization of sound toward beauty.’ Putting great stress on heavily accented beats, especially the second and fourth beats of a measure, rock and roll might be said to be 90 percent rhythm and 10 percent melody and harmony.
It is for this reason that rock and roll music has given birth to much of the wild and sexually provocative dancing of the younger generation. One pianist noted that while playing with a trio in one ‘rock’ establishment, he was able to leave the piano quite often, his absence from the trio hardly being noticed so long as the electrified bass and drums kept up the steady, loud pulsation that belongs to “acid rock,” as some like to call it. He added, “The crowded night-club seemed to be in ecstasy, appearing at times like a writhing snake pit.”
Yet it must be admitted that some ‘rock’ groups have produced at times some very tuneful music. And it is this melodious music of these groups that still lingers in the minds of both old and young and not the driving, overly pulsated music that so often causes teen-age girls to scream and faint at a ‘rock’ festival. As one noted musician stated, when people, old or young, request him to play music of the Beatles, almost invariably they ask for the tuneful, lyrical pieces that that troupe produced.
No consideration of modern music would be complete without some reference to electronic music, termed “the most important new instrument since the piano.” Basically there are two kinds of electronic music: that which enhances sounds naturally produced and that which produces its own sounds.
In the case of the former, due to electronics, a weak and poor voice can be made to sound rich and full, and all other kinds of musical renditions can be given a power and a quality that they themselves do not possess. A familiar example of this is the electric guitar.
The most common form of the latter, the electronically produced music, is that of the Hammond and like organs and the eerie theremin which, when a performer passes his hand through the air above it, gives a sound much like a musical saw. In fact, by means of electronics a composer is no longer limited to the skill of human performers but can imagine any sound or combination of sounds and have them produced to his liking. As one critic noted, it offers “a beguiling array of possibilities for the exercise of fantasy in tone colors and textures, a microscopically subtle control of pitch and rhythm, and the opportunity for virtuosity and complexity in quantities limited only by the composer’s imagination and patience.”
By means of electronic devices the sound of a carillon, when speeded up, can be made to sound like a musical doorbell, and the sound of water dripping in a tin pot can be slowed down to sound like the rumble of a kettledrum. But, here again, the extremes to which electronic music makers have gone causes one to question their appreciation of the fact that music is supposed to be ‘the organization of sound toward beauty.’
From the foregoing it can be seen that as regards all forms of music one must be selective. Certainly no one has the right to look down on those whose appreciation for music may be limited to Country and Western selections. And neither should those who prefer serious traditional music, whether chamber, concert or operatic, be disparaged as being overly orthodox or ‘long haired.’
Actually those without musical education are really not in position to judge much of what they hear in the way of music, as to whether it is constructed well, displays excellent taste in harmony, is developed well rhythmically, and so forth. But a person can decide how a particular musical expression affects him. For example, let’s return to the hard, driving rock and roll discussed before. How does it affect young people emotionally? According to a study of 400 pregnant teenagers and 91 nonpregnant college girls, rock music turns young girls to premarital sex. This is not surprising, since such music produces in many young people a sort of physical abandon, marked by gyrating, and sometimes even convulsive, movements of the body, which, more often than not, are centered around the pelvic region. Immorality remains a few twists away. But let’s not forget the cause—the hard, driving rock music.
Then again, what about the damage that can be done to eardrums when there is an excessive amount of volume, because of the music being electronically amplified? A British medical journal reported that two hours of discotheque music can adversely affect one’s hearing. Is this type of music for you?
Are you an eager concertgoer or a lover of serious music? There is much that you no doubt enjoy. But at times do you find yourself sitting for two hours listening to highly discordant music? On leaving the concert hall, do you find that you are satisfied emotionally, uplifted, or do you sense inner tension, perhaps a measure of frustration, even a sense of despair? Perhaps you need to be more selective. To satisfy, music must appeal to the heart, not just the mind.
Is jazz your choice? Then you evidently like the syncopation, the “blues” sound, and perhaps you admire the improvisation. But, remember, not everything that is improvised has beauty. How does it affect you? Do not conclude that just because it is being sold under a “jazz” label it is the kind of music that you like. Learn to be discriminating.
So, determine how the music affects you. Generally, you will find that the effect is wholesome when you select music that puts more emphasis on melody than on rhythm, on harmony rather than dissonance. When you listen to music that tends to relax you, or that moves you emotionally in an upbuilding way because of its sheer beauty, then you have found music that affects you beneficially.