Commentary Magazine


The New Tonalists

To the Editor:

I found Terry Teachout’s article, “The New Tonalists” [December 1997], perceptive and vivid, as always. Many readers share his relief and pleasure that a new generation of American composers has escaped both twelve-tone sterility and minimalist silliness.

I think, however, that Mr. Teachout’s emphasis on the American music scene gives a somewhat limited picture. Minimalism was primarily an American enterprise, with a branch office in London. Elsewhere, there were distinguished composers who arrived at a modernistic but solidly tonal idiom well before the twelve-tone religion had run its course or the minimalist fad had even gotten going. I am thinking of Finland’s Einojuhani Rautavaara (b. 1928) and Aulis Sallinen (b. 1935), Wales’s William Matthias (b. 1934), and Australia’s Peter Sculthorpe (b. 1929). Others, particularly composers from Northern Europe, could no doubt be added to this list.

It would be interesting to learn whether any of the young American composers Mr. Teachout mentions were influenced by any of their older foreign colleagues.

Jonathan Gallant
Seattle, Washington

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To the Editor:

In an effort to refute Terry Teachout’s assertion that there is something fundamentally different about the composers he discusses in “The New Tonalists,” all of whom were born after World War II, some will undoubtedly point to the many composers who have been writing tonal music all along.

Although it is true that tonal music never completely disappeared, what distinguishes the composers Mr. Teachout cites is not the fact that they write tonally but that they try to compose attractively in an attempt to court a large audience. They do not subscribe to the notion that the modern composer, no matter how good, is condemned by insurmountable cultural forces to a lifetime of obscurity. They are not therefore inclined to agree with the composer Milton Babbitt who said, in the mid-50’s, that a composer should withdraw to a tiny semi-hermetic world of academic production, performance, and appreciation. They would, rather, seem to agree with Tchaikowsky, who wrote to a friend on August 12, 1880: “I want, I desire, I love to have people interested in my music, to have them praise it and love it. . . . I want [my music] to be valued, to be in demand on the market, and to have recognition.”

Roger Kolb
Somerville, Massachusetts

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Terry Teachout writes:

As far as I know, none of the younger American composers I discussed in “The New Tonalists” has been influenced by the composers Jonathan Gallant mentions. Indeed, I have long been puzzled by the failure of contemporary Scandinavian composers—Rautavaara and Sallinen in particular—to make any significant impression on the international music scene. Yet the peculiar fact remains that the Scandinavian moderns have remained an essentially provincial phenomenon, which is why I omitted them from my piece; for better or worse, the main stream of 20th-century music does not run through Northern Europe.

Roger Kolb has it much more than half right: in order to reach a large audience, one must first of all want to write accessible and attractive music. But history suggests that the only way to do this is to write tonal music, which is what led me to deduce that tonality is not an arbitrary construct but a fundamental law of musical organization.

As for those older composers who, like Ned Rorem and David Diamond, were “writing tonal music all along,” the reason they failed to reach a large audience was not that they were uninterested in giving pleasure but that they were swimming upstream. The tide has now turned.

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