Music in Our Time
To the Editor:
In the concluding passages of his article on Nicolas Slonimsky, “A Failed Musical Genius” [June], Samuel Lipman says:
Almost everywhere we look in contemporary composition—and this has been a sad fact at least since World War II—both style and content are perceived as matters of choice, as if artistic creation were no more than a matter of selecting a meal in a cafeteria, and the temple of harmony had given way to the Tower of Babel. . . . Viewed against the musical panorama of the century in which he has lived, Nicolas Slonimsky’s self-confessed failure is both tragic and all too emblematic.
Yet the truth is that composing music is still—in the right hands—a beautiful creative process yielding results of great expressive power. Just thirty years ago Igor Stravinsky was doing extraordinary things; the music he created during the 50′s and into the early 60′s is absolutely breathtaking. (I wonder how many listeners realize what a miracle Agon is?) And around the same time, . . . we have Roger Sessions’s Third Symphony, which takes its place within a body of orchestral music that is one of the really remarkable artistic achievements of our time.
It is true that both Sessions and Stravinsky have died, but in regard to living composers, the situation is anything but bleak. In Britain, for example, both Michael Tippett and his younger contemporary Peter Maxwell Davies are making tremendous pieces, and have been doing so for years. The real problem lies not with the musicians (remember, the great ones are comparatively few at any given time) but in the listener’s capacity to become imaginatively engaged with the music itself. . . .
The “sad fact” is that Mr. Lip-man, as well as other listeners, have apparently not been able to do this.
New Haven, Connecticut
Samuel Lipman writes:
Bob Casillo’s letter is a curious example of blaming the victim rather than the perpetrator. Nearly fifty years have now elapsed without significant new contributions to contemporary music. Such beautiful music as has been written in this period—including the works of Shostakovich and Prokofiev in Russia, Poulenc in France, some serious followers of Arnold Schoenberg and Alban Berg, and assorted Americans—can now clearly be seen to reflect nothing later than the rich musical culture of the interwar period. As far as the post-World War II avant-garde is concerned, the so-called masterpieces of Stockhausen, Cage, Boulez, and Berio (to name only four of the most prestigious), have utterly failed to gain the love, not just of “listeners,” as Mr. Casillo would have it, but of the overwhelming majority of deeply serious and highly talented musicians.
Mr. Casillo mentions, by way of demonstrating the power of recent music, the late works of Stravinsky and the music of Michael Tippett, Peter Maxwell Davies, and Roger Sessions. Whatever the permanent value of these compositions—I personally find late Stravinsky dry, Davies rebarbative, and Tippett and Sessions fascinating and worthwhile, though sadly unlikely ever to win a sizable following—Mr. Casillo’s limited and problematic examples only underscore the wider musical failure in our time, not of listeners, but of composers.