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Century-ism a Century Later

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Perhaps you have noticed that 2013 is the centenary of the premiere of Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring. Next year there will be much thought given to the one hundredth anniversary of the outbreak of World War I.

One hundred is a good number, since it parses time into a unit that is just beyond our life span and yet we can touch it in our lives through our personal intersection in our youth with older people. We artists can occasionally achieve the death-defying act of skipping an entire century. Here we are, firmly in the 21st century, and I worked with of some of the most important figures born in the 19th century, like Leopold Stokowski and George Abbott.

The decimal system is so useful that we take it for granted. It keeps everything in order. We think in zeros. We celebrate birthdays divided by ten as if they are more important than the others. We round off to the numbers with zeros to help us understand efficiently and clearly. We use it to figure out the tip on the restaurant bill.

But, every now and then, we are reminded of how it does not represent everything, like when we look at a clock, write down the date, or look at a piano keyboard. That's when twelve begins to ask for consideration. And then there's the number of days in the week, which seems to represent God's basic number: seven.

As everyone knows, the decimal system and categories in general help us grab things and put them together as a way of holding onto concepts, understanding the perceived world, and measuring the thing we call time. If the basic category is binary-- on-off, yes-no, black-white -- then we immediately know how useful and, at the same time, naive our categories can be. There is the disease I call hardening of the categories that has infected our assessment of music.

Last Sunday, as quoted in The New York Times, my colleague Leonard Slatkin, Music Director of the Detroit Symphony, explained his program for Carnegie Hall (music of Rachmaninoff, Weill and Ravel) as being the work of "three composers whose musical hearts were in the 19th century trying to be part of the 20th century."

This really made me think because it seems to imply that somehow everything changed (or should have changed) on January 1, 1900. Slatkin, who grew up in a house of great musicians in Hollywood's Golden Age, and was quoted out of context, surely did not mean to imply that. However, many people think that history works that way, i.e., a composer born in a year that started with 18 should suddenly have shed his style (and who he profoundly was) when the numbers start with 19. Ravel was born in 1875, Rachmaninoff in 1873 and Weill in 1900.

It is certainly true that Rachmaninoff suffered mightily from some critics who wanted him to write atonal music. He always answered, somewhat defensively, that he had to write the way he had to write. I well remember while teaching at Yale University in the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s, an undergraduate came to my office because he wanted to tell me something. I had never met this young man and he seemed to want to tell me some very personal secret. He sat on the chair next to my desk and said. "I ... I ... I really like the music of Rachmaninoff."

Having heard his confession, I felt I should somehow grant him absolution. The shock of hearing a 19-year-old unburden himself this way has never left me. I know I said something about how he was probably a good person and that it was really OK to like Rachmaninoff. Rachmaninoff had been totally excluded from the world of serious music in those years. He was seen as a second-rate Tchaikovsky, who "did not know what century he lived in," to quote a powerful figure in classical music (identity withheld to protect the author).

In the 1950s and 1960s, two great composers actually abandoned their styles and joined the 12-tone school (i.e. the so-called 20th century). Their names are Igor Stravinsky and Aaron Copland. While Stravinsky had by that time changed his styles so many times he was only partially recognizable beneath the various costumes he had been wearing ever since the premiere of The Rite of Spring in 1913, Copland gave up his signature American sound to write his last orchestral works using the 12-tone system, one of which was premiered at the opening of Lincoln Center in 1962. That work, called Connotations, is a good example of what happens when a composer bends to the pressure of being something one is not. (I well remember listening to the live broadcast and buying the two-LP recording of opening night. Listen to the audience when the Copland ends. It says a lot.) I wonder how many orchestras are playing Connotations or Inscape (1967), and, if they are, what kind of response the music gets sixty years later. Copland, like Weill, I should add, was actually born in the 20th century.

I also wonder what we would be playing in Carnegie Hall, if Rachmaninoff had begun writing "as if he were in the 20th century," again, meaning a-tonal or non-tonal or 12-tone music. Would we be playing it? Would our official opinion of him be any different? Would that young Yale man have had less guilt? (I suppose he would have had to confess, "I love early Rachmaninoff.")

Kurt Weill, like Rachmaninoff, has suffered tremendously, too, for issues of style. His early tantrum period (to borrow a phrase from Ned Rorem) was self-rejected early on because he did not want his style to get in the way of his music and his audience. What a perfect reason for finding one's voice as an artist. It should also be noted that when Weill adapted his famous Berlin style for America, he was accused of not being sincere.

How wonderful that we should be hearing Rachmaninoff, Ravel and Weill, played by a great American orchestra under one of our most important music directors in our greatest concert hall. Both Rachmaninoff and Weill died as American citizens. When Ravel came to New York on tour in the 1920s, he was asked what he wanted for his birthday. He said, "Two things. A steak that is really rare and to meet George Gershwin."

In the next few weeks, century-ism will reach a frenzied peak when the actual one hundredth anniversary of a performance in Paris by the Ballets Russes will be celebrated throughout the world. If May 29, 1913 is to be thought of as the true opening of the 20th century with the world premiere of Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring, then we have to explain why Stravinsky never wrote another thing like it, in spite of it achieving his instantaneous fame - a fame he managed to "outlive" (to use his own term) for another 57 years.

Stravinsky, like Weill and Rachmaninoff, died an American citizen, having lived in West Hollywood for the greater part of his life. On June 1, 2013, the anniversary of the second performance of The Rite, I will be conducting a program called "Paris and Hollywood - Celebrating The Rite of Spring without Actually Playing It," at the Valley Performing Arts Center in Northridge, California. Since everyone will have already played The Rite, we thought it might be instructive to hear the music that preceded it in those early 20th Century years, (including the equally important work that premiered two weeks before The Rite, the Debussy-Nijinsky-Bakst Jeux, which will be danced by three of the University of North Carolina School of the Arts ballet students), and then, after intermission, we will explore what happened after America first heard it in 1930, when Stravinsky was living in L.A., and Disney made it part of Fantasia in 1940. That's when the 20th century's great art form, the movies, took this seminal 20th century ballet score and really propelled it into popular culture. The music of The Rite would become the lingua franca of film scoring, beginning in 1941 with Franz Waxman's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and continuing on today.

Century-ism is convenient when it helps celebrate things but it is really annoying when it is used as a criterion for instantaneous change and an esthetic cudgel used to destroy the things that exist but we do not like. We can create systems and categories that exclude the majority of data, but it is only in music that these theories seem to take hold. Anything can be proven if you eliminate the data.

If it is useful to talk about the 20th century as a coherent unit of time, then the 20th Century was the Great Romantic Century, an appellation usually granted to the 19th century. A few crazies started something in the 1800s that unfolded with a passionate and sometimes devastating force in the years that began on January 1, 1900. Just think about those thousands of love songs delivered to the entire world by new technologies of promulgation, and the thousands of hours of romantic symphonic music and the new technologies of promulgating them. Rachmaninoff and Ravel did not change who they were because the calendar flipped one day.

Perhaps we occasionally need to move beyond the decimal system, and beyond the Boolean world of True-False, yes-no, on-off and good-bad. The quantum physicists might inspire us to accept the fuzzy, the ambiguous, the messy, and the inexplicable. Music is good when each of us determines it is good - good for me may not be good for you. Many of us will agree on certain composers and certain music as good - great, even.

What then makes music good? I believe that music is good, no matter what the style or when it was written, when it has the capacity to take us to a timeless place that is both deeply personal and simultaneously universal. It is a place of infinite possibility and with a wide embrace. That is the common attribute of good when it comes to music. Any other definition just insults those who don't like what we like and is unworthy of us.

That said, let's celebrate the centenary of the premiere of The Rite of Spring!