The nature of modern music


Selected and annotated by Malcolm MacDonald

The 1938 ISCM Festival, held in London, prompted HB to the following thoughts:

This festival will be a thing of the past by the time these notes appear, and I can but hope that it will have been as successful as its promoters had hoped. No musical event within my memory has ever had such generous support and publicity. The efforts of The Daily Telegraph to make the festival successful were admirable, and I can only hope they will make other musical activities their own, even if they are less adventurous. The great daily has endeavoured to create a sympathetic public, and those foreign composers who have been fortunate enough to have their works performed may return to their homes all the happier for the warmth of the welcome accorded them by musical London.

To claim that the young modern composer has a right to be heard because he is contemporary is another matter, and it is irrelevant to attempt the simile because Mozart and Beethoven were once contemporary composers. The music which the promoters of this festival wish to impress upon the public has as little to do with the music of the masters as futuristic pictures have with painting. When Mozart and Beethoven were contemporaries, it was clear to any but the prejudiced at that time, that their music was written in a language current since pre-Bach composers. Their being different from their predecessors lay in their modern adaptation, expansion and development of what was already in existence: they continued in an established tradition.

The revolution which took place at the beginning of the nineteenth century and gradually brought music from private or semi-private performance, making it public, was part of the movement which gradually changed the customs of people in every European country. Social structures were wrecked, and the people aspired for the ‘new life’, or anticipated it. Inside the turmoil of those years music did not greatly alter its course, but it never ceased to develop. The distance from Beethoven to Berlioz, Liszt, Wagner, Brahms, and Schumann is not recognisable from diversities in musical language — they use the same language, and remain ‘on the map’.

Carrying music forward to recent years, it is obvious that the works of the French impressionists offered no difficulty of understanding to those who knew their German Tristan. Another instance of the affinity of language. But there is less affinity between the advanced present-day music to be heard at contemporary music festivals, and the long line of music such as never ceased to develop, to be different, yet be modern. There is certainly something different in the ‘new’ music. It is written in a new language which is likely to remain a question of politics until it is understood. There is this to be said for the young composers whose works are being performed at the Contemporary Music Festival, they are accomplished technicians and orchestrators.

The first work played and broadcast at the recent festival, a Military Sinfonietta, by Miss Viteslava Kapralova of Czechoslovakia proved an amazing piece of orchestral writing: it was also of logical and well balanced design [1].

Musical opinion, July 1938, p.858.

[1] Vitezslava Kaprálová (1915-40) seems to have been an extraordinary prodigy, to judge by the CD of seven of her works - including the Military Sinfonietta - currently (1999) available from Studio Matous (MK 0049-2011).  A pupil of Vitezslav Novak in Prague and then pupil (and mistress) of Bohuslav Martinu in Paris, she died tragically early in Switzerland two months after marrying the son of Alphonse Mucha. The Kaprálová website   is well worth visiting.

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