David Matthews composer

Complete article texts available online


Renewing the Past, some personal thoughts

Originally published in Reviving the Muse: Essays on Music After Modernism,
edited by Peter Davison, Claridge Press, 2001

An individual composer cannot predict the course of musical history, nor can he or she tell others how they are to compose. But since composers are no longer the natural inheritors of a tradition and of a musical language they can unthinkingly adopt, they must choose their own particular language themselves and also work out their relation with the past, and in doing so, they will inevitably acquire an overall view of what music, from their perspective, should be. My own view is founded on a few central principles, which were unfashionable at the time I began to write music in the mid-1960s but which now, at the start of the twenty-first century, have come to seem quite legitimate, except to those diminishing few who attempt to hold on to the rigid prescriptions and proscriptions of modernism. These are: that tonality is not outmoded but a living force; that the vernacular is an essential part of musical language; and that the great forms of the past, such as the symphony, are still valid. The remainder of this essay will attempt to elaborate and justify these three propositions.

It hardly needs to be said now that the proclaimed dogma of the post-Second World War avant-garde that tonality was dead was mistaken. Tonality flourishes again everywhere, and by no means only in the simplistic form adopted by the minimalists. My own attitude to tonality, in one sense, is straightforward: I hear music tonally, so it would seem perverse to resist what I hear. Although many passages in my music move away into regions where a sense of tonality is lost, I am always compelled eventually to bring the music back to a tonal centre. I am conscious of a balance to be preserved between stability and instability. When I listen to non-tonal music, it is very difficult for me to hear it except in relation to tonality: non-tonal music seems fundamentally unstable. This seems quite reasonable if one hears music as an expressive language, as I do. The alternative is to hear it as pure sound, which my ears will not allow me to do.

The temporary eclipse of tonality began with Schoenberg, who obsessively pursued the advanced chromaticism of Tristan and Parsifal to its logical conclusion, where extreme emotional states could be expressed by means of a totally chromatic musical language, free from any sense of tonal stability. His Mosaic, law-giver's personality led him to codify this Expressionist language, which had been an ideal vehicle for the nightmare worlds of Erwartung and Pierrot Lunaire, and to propose his new method of composition based on the equality of all twelve notes of the scale as a wholesale replacement for the tonal system. Schoenberg's authority was such that he and his successors have had an enormous influence on the music of the second half of the twentieth century. This is a curious phenomenon: as Deryck Cooke remarked, it was "as though the whole main modern movement in literature had taken Joyce's Finnegans Wake as its starting point." [1] Schoenberg's belief in the comprehensiveness of his system ("every expression and characterization can be produced with the style of free dissonance" [2]) was, however, mistaken: the musical modernism that stemmed from him is almost invariably limited to a narrow range of expression, which stays at a pitch of high tension, and cannot naturally evoke states of joy, gaiety, exuberance.

This might be called the common sense view of Schoenberg, but I think it is nevertheless true. It is, of course, a simplification, ignoring, for instance, the deep attachment Schoenberg retained to tonality which means that none of his serial works - the late ones especially - are entirely free from tonal references. He did not go as far as Berg, the modernist composer whom everyone loves, who reconciled serial technique with tonality by deliberately choosing twelve-note rows with tonal implications and using these rows with great freedom, and who was thus able to combine Expressionism with late-Romantic eroticism and tenderness. The purist Webern, on the other hand, abolished all sense of tonality, and his serial works really do breathe the air from other planets. Other, later classics of serial modernism such as Boulez's Le marteau sans maître, Stockhausen's Gruppen and Stravinsky's Aldous Huxley Variations inhabit a world of intellect and refined sensation, but one remote from human feeling. It was a path that, pursued further, could only lead to sterility; and it is interesting that Boulez (for instance in Rituel) and Stockhausen (in Inori) have both made some accommodation with tonality, and Stravinsky in his final work Requiem Canticles partly reverted to the harmonic world of his earlier music.

Modernism in all the arts has often mirrored the isolated, anguished state that the twentieth-century artist found himself in. While a sense of isolation is almost inevitable, given the breakdown of a common culture, does it follow that all serious artists must also be afflicted with existential angst? There is a genuine art to be made out of existential despair (for instance the early works of Peter Maxwell Davies), but composers should beware of the self-indulgent use of an extreme language, which should not be an easy option. On the other hand, it seems particularly difficult nowadays to take an opposite standpoint. In writing tonal music and trying through it to express the sheer joy and exuberance I often feel at the fact of being alive, was I simply being naive, out of touch with the modern world? I was encouraged in what I was attempting to do by hearing the music of Michael Tippett and reading his writings on music. Tippett in the 1930s opted to be a tonal composer of a strongly conservative kind, using melodies derived from folksong and aiming at a classicism modelled ultimately on Beethoven. In an article in 1938 he had written: "An artist can certainly be in opposition to the external 'spirit of the age' and in tune with some inner need, as, for instance, Blake was. A composer's intuitions of what his age is really searching for may be, and probably will be, not in the least such obvious things as the portrayal of stress and uncertainty by grim and acid harmonies. The important thing...is that he should be in some living contact with the age." [3] Tippett associated tonal stability with psychological wholeness, which he himself achieved through a rigorous course of Jungian self-analysis. The split psyche associated with modern man, on the other hand, found its most appropriate means of expression in atonality. What Tippett said, and the music he wrote that demonstrated his beliefs, such as The Midsummer Marriage, made perfect sense to me, though ironically in the late 1960s he seemed to be betraying his ideals in a quest for novelty. It is significant that he later regretted some of his more extreme experiments, and in old age reverted to a much more stable kind of music, culminating in his last piece, the serenely beautiful Rose Lake.

Although as a young composer I had no wish to follow Boulez or Stockhausen, I was, as a romantic adolescent, immersed in the early work of Schoenberg, Berg and Webern, in Scriabin and Szymanowski, in Strauss's Salome and Elektra, and above all in the symphonies of Mahler, who was the most important influence on the music I began to compose. My music became highly chromatic and had a strong flavour of pre-war Vienna. I sensed the need to purify this language with a strong dose of classicism, but I was not clear how it was to be done. In the early 1970s I reached a compositional crisis and for several years was unable to finish a work that satisfied me. Around that time I met the Australian composer Peter Sculthorpe and became his composing assistant for several years, and in 1974 he invited me to come and stay in his house in Sydney. Living there for several months as far away from Europe as it was possible to get had a profound effect on me: I was able to look at Europe with a detachment never before possible. From Australia, with its relaxed way of life, its burgeoning new culture and its strong belief in itself, the contemporary culture of Europe seemed exaggeratedly neurotic. Hearing European modernist music in Australia, it sounded bizarre: why all this tension and agitation? I was not so laid-back as to imagine that music could do without tension altogether, but a certain redressing of the balance seemed necessary. Peter's own music, which combined European and Asian influences, achieved an equilibrium of romantic expressiveness and classical poise. Peter reminded me that contemporary European music was an exception to the rest of the world, where a stable, tonal basis to music had never been called into question. Although the particular manner of his music has always seemed an ocean's distance from my own, Peter has been one of the strongest influences on my subsequent development, and I hold his own compositions in the highest regard.

D.H.Lawrence's perception of Australia as an untouched land where life "had never entered in" but was "just sprinkled over" [4] remains largely true, and the real subject of all Australian art is the extraordinary Australian landscape. But the European artist cannot free himself entirely either from history - of which our man-made and man-ravaged landscapes speak eloquently - or from musical history. Minimalism, a born-again tonal language that disregards the past, is not really suited to Europe: though a product of New York, it seems most at home in California where the sun shines and the burden of history weighs lightly. Minimalism is a secular, hedonistic music: the so-called 'holy minimalism' we have in Europe, in the music of Pärt, Górecki and Tavener, is different in essence; but these composers have also tried to escape the past, or at least the past since the Renaissance, reverting to medieval Christian ideals much as the Pre-Raphaelites tried to do in the nineteenth century. Like Pre-Raphaelitism, theirs is a somewhat artificial stance, though the strength of all three composers' religious convictions gives a depth to their music, which might otherwise sound dangerously thin. I recognize the value of traditional religious faith to provide a foundation for art: those who have such faith are enviably secure, and their art will reflect this (in music, Messiaen is the best recent example). Speaking for myself, however, I cannot ignore either the Renaissance or Romanticism, both of which represented huge and irreversible strides away from Christianity and its central doctrine of man's reliance on God and the Church for salvation, and towards a conception of man on his own, self-reliant, though able to discover the divine element that is within us. This was already inherent in the humanism of the Renaissance, and became the philosophy of Romanticism. Because of its over-optimistic idealization of human potential, Romanticism failed to bring about the wholesale transformation of mankind that many of its proponents hoped for, but that does not mean that there is any other real substitute for its essential beliefs.

Beethoven still seems to me the ideal of the modern composer, for Beethoven won through his personal anguish towards a profound spirituality in the Missa Solemnis and the late sonatas and string quartets that is the equal of the unselfconscious spirituality of medieval music, but which Beethoven achieved by himself. Beethoven's dramatic use of tonality within sonata form, whose parameters he expanded enormously in his late works, made his spiritual quest in music possible. Wagner attempted a similar path, expanding Beethoven's forms still further into music drama. Wagner's great achievement was the comprehensiveness of his musical language: he developed chromaticism to an unprecedented level of expressive power, so that, for the first time, the overwhelming force of sexuality finds its full musical equivalent; but alongside this precarious chromaticism is a stable, elemental diatonicism. In Parsifal the struggle between eroticism and spirituality is finally resolved in the latter's favour, in a sublimated A flat major. Whether Wagner achieved true spirituality in Parsifal is still a controversial topic, which it is impossible to pursue further here; but the immense yearning for transcendence in the work cannot be denied. The same conflict between body and spirit, between disruptive chromaticism and stabilizing diatonicism, is found in Mahler, Wagner's truest successor; but Mahler was less in thrall to sensuality than Wagner and there is a more natural spiritual quality to his music. Mahler's attitude to tonality, as a drama mirroring the drama of life, is, like Wagner's, indebted to Beethoven: the drama is eventually resolved: triumphantly, as in the majority of the symphonies; tragically, as in the Sixth; or transcendentally, as in Das Lied von der Erde or the Ninth. This dramatic approach still seems to me to be valid, even if one chooses not to work on such a large scale as Mahler - which is wise advice for most composers.

What I should like to suggest (once again to compress a huge topic into a few sentences) is that, if tonality is to regain its full power, it must be used dynamically again. Most contemporary tonal music is static; but stasis, it seems to me, is ideally a condition to be achieved, as for instance in Beethoven's last piano sonata where the static, contemplative slow movement is heard as a consequence of the dynamic drama of the first movement. The dynamic use of tonality will involve both modulation and the rediscovery of dissonance as a disruptive force. Although one can no longer easily define the difference between consonance and dissonance, it is still possible to conceive of harmony as either stable or unstable. Unless there are real harmonic contrasts in a piece it cannot have dynamic movement. Perhaps because our most frequent experience of movement nowadays is as a passenger in a car, train or plane, observing the landscape speeding by while we ourselves remain still, most fast movement in contemporary music, whether tonal or atonal, is merely rapid motion without any involvement of physical energy. Fast music in the past was related to the movement of the body, walking, running or dancing. The fundamental importance to music of dance is something I shall return to later.

It was Schoenberg who also brought about the other revolutionary change in twentieth-century Western music when he renounced the use of the musical vernacular. Throughout its history, European art music maintained a close contact with folk music, on which its modal and diatonic melodies were based, and there was no unbridgeable gap between serious music and popular, right up to the beginning of the twentieth century. Schoenberg himself had used diatonic melody naturally and skilfully in his early works, notably in Gurrelieder. In the scherzo of his Second String Quartet, the work in which he brought tonality to its breaking point, Schoenberg quotes the well-known Viennese popular song 'O, du lieber Augustin' and makes a point of repeating its refrain 'Alles ist hin' ('it's all over'). For Schoenberg now, the use of the diatonic vernacular was indeed over: he banished it from his subsequent, non-tonal music, except once or twice as a ghostly, poignant memory (as in Pierrot Lunaire). Schoenberg still based his music on melody, but on the chromatic, synthetic melodies he derived from his note rows (it is impossible to believe they are not in some way synthetic). Webern, once again, went further than Schoenberg in virtually excluding recognizable melody from his serial music, and the post-war Darmstadt composers, under the influence of Adorno, turned Webern's composing principles into a creed. Adorno's neo-Marxist argument was that 'mass culture', which includes popular culture, based on tonal clichés, is another bourgeois-imposed opiate, a device for keeping the masses in subjection; serious composers therefore should have nothing to do with this corrupt musical language and so must embrace its opposite, serialism, an esoteric high art music for the elite. [5]

This was a drastic over-simplification: tonal clichés and bad popular music are one thing, to reject all post-Mahlerian tonal music including Sibelius and the neo-classical Stravinsky, as Adorno did, is quite another. Just as with the arguments against tonality, we can now see that these ideas, which for a time sustained modernism at least as a valid musical style, are, as general principles, simply erroneous. Jazz and popular music are an integral part of twentieth-century art and Gershwin and Ellington, for instance, are two of the century's most significant composers. Tippett, who was the last major British composer to use folksong as a foundation for his music, was also one of the first in this country to realise that blues and jazz - and later, rock - could be a viable alternative vernacular to folksong. This idea had already been adopted by the Neue Sachlichkeit composers of Weimar Germany. By the time Tippett began to compose, folksong had died out as a living force, except in the remotest parts of Britain, but it did not simply disappear into the museum culture of the Cecil Sharp Society and Morris dancing. In the 1950s and 1960s young, mostly urban people began to revive folk music at the same time as they began to listen to and to play rock, the new popular music derived from black American blues and white Country and Western music. Blues, rock and folksong from Britain and North America united into a common new vernacular language. It is a true vernacular, for its new music has largely been written by the musicians who sing and play it, unlike the popular music of the first half of the century which was for the most part the product of non-executant composers.

Tippett's use of the blues as a vernacular, for instance in A Child of Our Time and the Third Symphony, is successful because he grew up with the blues as a natural language. He was less happy with rock, because he did not grow up with it, and I find his introduction of the electric guitar into his opera The Knot Garden faintly embarrassing, even if I warm to his intentions. My own generation, those born during and immediately after the Second World War, encountered the beginnings of rock as we were emerging from childhood into adolescence, and for many of us it was a crucial event. Some of my earliest genuine musical experiences were of hearing mid-1950s rock - Elvis Presley and Little Richard: the effect on me of this wildly orgiastic music, so different from anything I had encountered in my cosy suburban childhood, was overwhelming. The Beatles were hearing and absorbing this music at the same time, as well as older types of popular music, and they seem to have inherited the folksong tradition instinctively (Paul McCartney has told me that he did not remember hearing any folksongs while he was growing up). One of the earliest recorded Beatles' songs, 'I saw her standing there' is, as Wilfrid Mellers has remarked, pure folk monody: an utterly simple four-note melody with prominent flattened sevenths. [6] It was through hearing songs like this that my generation were reintroduced to the folk tradition.

In listening to rock music, I rediscovered the elemental power of tonality. Rock musicians, ignorant of musical history, used the triad as Monteverdi had used it at the start of Orfeo, as if it were a freshly-minted sound. Taking their cue from rock music, the minimalists too used the triad in this way. Both showed that even the most over-exploited musical cliché can be renewed from a state of innocence. The majority of composers, myself included, are not innocent in this way, yet any language handled with real confidence can have validity: conviction can overcome selfconciousness. I agree with Alfred Schnittke when he wrote: "Contemporary reality will make it necessary to experience all the musics one has heard since childhood, including rock and jazz and classical and all other forms, combining them into a synthesis... The synthesis must arise as a natural longing, or through necessity. " [7] Schnittke's own work went a long way in putting these ideas into practice. Many others are thinking along similar lines. The vernacular has indeed been rehabilitated, and if all is again open to us, then the renewal of melody which is contemporary music's most serious need may be possible. For the loss of accessible, singable melody in the music of Schoenberg and his successors was a devastating blow to its comprehensibility. The masterpieces of European music in the past all had an immediately accessible surface layer, which was primarily the melodic line. The fact that the majority of the musical public are as likely to miss the deeper, structural level in Beethoven as they are in Boulez is not an argument against the desirability of an accessible surface, for Beethoven's melodies are the keys that give access to the deeper levels of his music.

The contemporary Western vernacular may not be much help here, for contemporary rock music demonstrates an increasing impoverishment of melody (as Roger Scruton has convincingly argued in The Aesthetics of Music [8]) and indeed of rhythm and harmony, so that it now offers meagre rewards to anyone who wants to make use of it. My own generation was more fortunate. It may be that the necessary renewal of melody will come from outside Western culture, from parts of the world where a living folk tradition still flourishes, one that has not yet been exploited and corrupted by commercialism. Whatever way, it must happen, for unless our musical culture is once again founded on melody, it is moribund.

Postmodernism, then, permits a return to music of all the elements that modernism proclaimed were done with for ever. But if we are all postmodernists now, we should not be superficial in our attitude to the past, parading styles like dressing up in old clothes. Much postmodernist art ransacks the past indiscriminately, with little sense of history. A more responsible attitude is to attempt to integrate the present with the past by re-establishing a continuity with those forms from the past which contain the greatest accumulation of historical meaning. I have been much concerned throughout my composing life with two of these forms, the symphony and the string quartet. The first is a public form, the second private, but they share the same Classical archetype, which is so well-known that almost everyone who listens to music will have some notion of what a symphony or string quartet should be. According to Hans Keller's useful theory, the richest kind of musical experience is provided by "the meaningful contradiction of expectation" [9]. This assumes that the listener will have some idea of what to expect, so that he will be pleasurably surprised by the contradictions that an inventive composer will provide. If on the other hand you attempt to be wholly new, then no real surprises are possible. To write a movement in sonata form is somewhat daunting, as you are competing with - and almost inevitably failing to equal - the many supreme examples of such movements from the past. But it gives you access to a world where meaningful contradiction has been practised for two-and-a-half centuries, and although many of the devices of confounding expectation have been over-exploited and have themselves become clichés, it is not impossible to renew them by inner conviction; and there are still new games to play.

One game nineteenth-century composers played was with the repeat of the exposition. Up to Beethoven's time, this was a formality. Beethoven was the first to dispense with it, for instance in the first 'Rasoumovsky' Quartet, op.59 no.1, where he pretends to repeat the opening of the exposition, then, just when we have accepted this, the music sheers off into the development. Throughout the nineteenth century composers either continued to use the repeat convention, which because it was no longer taken for granted could itself become a surprise, as in Mahler's First Symphony; or else devised cunning ways of disguising their intention not to repeat - an outstanding example is in the first movement of Dvorák's Eighth Symphony. In the finale of my own Fourth Symphony, a modified sonata movement, I have taken the game a stage further. The exposition begins to repeat, but after three bars it goes off into what sounds like the development. After less than three bars of this, however, there is a pause, and the exposition material begins again, though not quite exactly as before, so there is still a little confusion...but after six bars of this we are finally launched into a proper repeat, after this triple bluff. Except that it is a quadruple bluff, for this repeat is not quite an exact one, though the changes are so subtle I should not be surprised if they are not noticed.

My Fourth Symphony contains two scherzos in its five-movement scheme, both of which have connections with the contemporary vernacular. The first, in a hard-driving tempo, is based on fragments of melody which could be from rock music, while the second is a tango, which I thought of as a contemporary substitute for the Classical minuet. The tango form has been used by composers (including Stravinsky and Martinu) since the 1920s and it seems to me to be an ideal archetype, with its infectious rhythms and erotic overtones that the waltz and the minuet once possessed, but which have been dulled by time. What is crucial is that dance rhythms must find their way back into contemporary music. Dance was another of post-war modernism's puritanical exclusions, because of its supposed tainted association with popularism. I am tempted to abandon rational argument here, throw up my hands and cry "what nonsense". Music began with song and dance, and however sophisticated it becomes, it must never lose touch with these essential human activities. The Classical symphony achieved an equilibrium between mind and body by following an initial sonata allegro, where the intellect was dominant, with a song and a dance movement; the finale was then often a movement of play: the body's energy enhanced by intellectual games.

Because the Classical style produced nothing of great value in this country and our own symphonic tradition only truly began with Elgar, it may be easier to write symphonies and string quartets today in Britain than in Germany or Austria. The symphonies of Vaughan Williams and Tippett, and the string quartets of Tippett and Britten, represent outstanding innovatory attitudes towards these forms. It is not fully appreciated just how rich a quartet culture there is currently in Britain, with many young ensembles of the highest quality who are keen to include new works within their repertoire. The typical concert in which a contemporary string quartet is played alongside works by Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven or Schubert is, to my mind, a most rewarding experience: the new work often gains in juxtaposition with the old, through the stimulating contrasts in style and technique within an identical medium. The string quartet, perhaps even more than the symphony, seems infinitely capable of renewal, and I should be content to write nothing but string quartets for the rest of my life, since the possibilities for variation within this most satisfyingly balanced of ensembles are so rich. In my recent Eighth Quartet, I cast off long-held inhibitions and introduced not only a folksong, as part of a modern Pastoral - alive to the precariousness of modern landscape as well as to its beauty - but also a fugue, as the middle section of a slow finale. The fugue is the most apparently exhausted of all forms, as many perfunctory fugues in twentieth-century music appear to prove. Yet Tippett was able to renovate the form in his Third Quartet, which contains three fugal movements, as was, more recently, Robert Simpson in his magnificent Ninth Quartet. It depends once again on conviction - and of course on technique. In my Ninth and latest Quartet, a tango is succeeded by a moto perpetuo which ends with a reference to the style of the Irish Reel, a folk form that is still exuberantly alive.

Composers can never know how their audiences will hear their music; they can be certain that it will not be as they hear it. Although I do not think of the audience when I am composing, but only of the notes I'm writing, and sometimes of the players I'm writing them for, I do seek a creative dialogue with my audience, and hope for some kind of appreciative understanding of what I am trying to do. The deliberate refusal of some modernist composers to engage with an audience, and the consequent unintelligibility of their music is, I think, a sad feature of contemporary musical life. It has never been the attitude of more than a small minority, but it has done great damage in making the very notion of 'contemporary music' a frightening prospect for many listeners. Repairing the damage has always been one of my chief concerns, and I dream of a time, when, as in the past, contemporary music will once again be the focus of interest for the majority of concert audiences. It is probably a fanciful dream, but its only chance of fulfilment is in the hands of composers.

[1]    Deryck Cooke, Vindications, Faber, 1986, p.195
[2]    Arnold Schoenberg, Style and Idea, Faber, 1975, p.245
[3]    Michael Tippett, 'Music in Life' in Music of the Angels, Eulenberg Books, 1980, p.33
[4]    D.H.Lawrence, Letter to Else Jaffe 13 June 1922, in The Collected Letters of D.H.Lawrence, ed. Harry T. Moore, Heinemann, 1962, vol.2, p. 707
[5]    See Roger Scruton, The Aesthetics of Music, Oxford 1997, pp. 468-472
[6]    Wilfrid Mellers, Twilight of the Gods, Faber, 1973, pp.34-5
[7]    Alfred Schnittke, Tempo 151, December 1984, p.11
[8]    Roger Scruton, op.cit., pp. 500-506
[9]    A full explanation of the theory can be found in Hans Keller, 1975 (1984 minus 9), Dennis Dobson, 1977, pp.136-9