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IS IT MUSIC ?
Or what exactly is this?



Is it music?


And therefore as a stranger give it welcome.
There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

[Hamlet Act 1, scene 5]


Throughout the history of mankind there have been those who have turned the world as it was known upside down. Whether it was the invention of the wheel, or the notion that the Earth revolves around the Sun, genius of some kind has managed to introduce a new idea that just plain upset everybody.

Out of these fertile happenings new worlds grew, often unnoticed, certainly unappreciated, by those in whose time they occurred. And with each new utterance, the same question was repeated. Is it music ?

Throughout the history of music, we encounter resistance to the new every generation or two, and we are relieved to discover that it really only took a generation or so for most of the disputes to resolve themselves into an enthusiasm for the very horrors first perceived.  This statement written in 1889 by the great Anton Rubinstein is typical, "All that enchanted us [in music], all that we have loved, respected and worshipped, and admired, has ended with Chopin." Chopin had died forty years earlier, in 1849.

Enter the 20th Century and exit the natural rhythm of the march of time. The world of music, was thrown into a state of disarray from which it has not recovered lo these 100 years. I have relatives of whom I am very fond, genuine lovers of music, who still look upon Prokofiev and Shostakovich as composers on this side of modern, and immediately search for the nearest exit should music as shocking as that of Britten or Stravinsky suddenly appear, muttering to themselves, "Is it music ?"

In these pages, we will explore some of these cataclysms in the history of music with a focus on the 20th Century in which the evolutionary bubble burst in a dozen different directions. To what end? We have some catching up to do, and delights await.


At the risk of losing many of you to the conviction that I have indeed gone mad, I will anticipate the subsequent development of my thesis with a reenactment of the most significant philosophical happening in the history of music.  Many of you will doubtless ask, "Is it music ?"



John Cage 4'33"
Armin Fuchs at the piano

i Tacet
ii Tacet
iii Tacet




This - what exactly shall I call it? - John Cage happening is based on a seminal concept in music: you can hear it or you cannot.

Rests, the absence of sound, have existed in music since the beginning. Initially they were used to signify a pause, a breath, a comma, as it were, in musical phrasing. Gradually, they were used for rhythmical purposes, emphasizing a moment in which a musical beat should be, but was not, syncopation, if you will. By the time of Anton Bruckner's great symphonic pauses, they had developed a new meaning, a stage direction of sorts that told the listener, exit one important idea, be ready for the entrance of the next.

Essentially, until the 20th century, rests, pauses, or silences of whatever ilk, were not musical utterances, rather the absence of same.

[Those of you who have visited this page before will have noticed that I have inserted an new video.  The original video has been removed from YouTube by the BBC due to copyright issues. There is a delicious absurdity here that Cage, above all others, would have relished.]


Shortly after the turn of the last century, an approximate date coinciding with the end of the Romantic period, composers found themselves on the horns of a dilemma. They could neither go forward nor back. For hundreds of years, music had been ruled by harmonic progression and the rules of counterpoint. From contrapuntal music, the rule of one principal voice, the melody, evolved, but the elemental harmonic structure and the rules that governed melodic motion were not abandoned, merely adapted to support the newly crowned king of music, melody. Composers then took melody from its simpler forms through increasingly complex formal structures and modulations to the ultimate almost unending melodic journeys over ever shifting harmonic sands.

But the basic building blocks of music continued to be what is known as traditional harmony. Tonic, dominant, sub dominant relationships and modulation through the circle of fifths, with an occasional nod to the relative minor, never ceded control over their domain, even in the most extreme cases in which tonality, as the world knew it, was stretched to and beyond its breaking point.

The young geniuses of the newly born 20th Century wrote the most gorgeously romantic music imaginable, huge canvases employing huge orchestras, sometimes in conjunction with chorus, indulging themselves in an orgy of everything that came before until they realized that they were building towers, skyscrapers on ancient and increasingly meaningless foundations.


Arnold Schoenberg, father of Atonality, wrote his Gurrelieder in the years between 1901 and 1911. The prelude to Part I of this great work follows.



Sir Simon Rattle conducting the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra




Anton Webern, Schoenberg's student and fellow member of the Second Viennese School, exponent of Serialism and the Twelve-tone Technique, composed the following at the age of 21 in 1904.



Im Sommerwind
"idyll" for large orchestra (1904)
Eugene Ormandy conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra





And Igor Stravinsky rocked the musical world in 1913 with the premiere of his ballet The Rite of Spring. The shocking and revolutionary rhythms employed in the music caused riots in the audience, and it was from the first performance of this ballet that the composer Camille Saint-Saens stormed, outraged. Yet Stravinsky had written the following symphony six years earlier.



Stravinsky  Symphony 1 in E♭ major, Op 1
Igor Stravinsky conducting the Columbia Symphony Orchestra


i Allegro moderato



ii Scherzo - Allegretto



iii Largo



iv Finale - Allegro molto






No one can accuse the composers of these works of a lack of talent and ability, nor can anyone deny the beauty of their music. But the world around them was changing at a pace that was leaving them feeling accutely the irrelevancy of their work. The industrial revolution, its machines and technology, and its effect on how time was perceived, had altered the essential nature of their world, and their art was no longer a reflection of the life around them.

Consider the following quotes:

"I don't paint things. I only paint the difference between things." ~ Henri Matisse

"The world today doesn't make sense, so why should I paint pictures that do?" ~ Pablo Picasso

It was time to dismantle the foundation upon which art and music had been theretofore constructed. Exactly how they went about it, and how and why it turned out to be such an unfathomable break from the past for so many, will be the subject of the pages to which the links below will take you.


Below are a number of composers who contributed mightily to the evolution of music in the 20th century.  And below those are musicians who made it their business to perform the works of these composers



Schoenberg, Arnold (1874 - 1951)

Bartok, Bela (1881 - 1945)

Stravinsky, Igor (1882 - 1971)

Webern, Anton (1883 - 1945)

Berg, Alban (1885 - 1935)
   Piano Sonata, Op 1

Hindemith, Paul (1895 - 1963)

Messiaen, Olivier (1908 - 1992)

Carter, Elliott (1908 - 2012)

Cage, John (1912 - 1992)

Dutilleux, Henri (1916 - 2013)
   Piano Sonata, Op 1

Ligeti, György (1923 - 2006)



Rosen, Charles (1927 - 2012)









For those of you who enjoy murder mysteries, here is my first with a strong musical polemic as background

Murder in the House of the Muse

which is also available as an audiobook.



And this is the more recently published second mystery in the series:

Murder Follows the Muse



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