Order of the Cynthian Palm

by Edward Gold

Arnold Schoenberg, the father of atonalityIt has been a long time since the onset of Schönberg's atonal "revolution". At the time (1910s and 20s.), it seemed like a good way to get away from the cliches of the late tonal period and to codify and organize the sounds of the post-Mahler and Strauss neo-Romanticist chromaticism and extreme expressionism.

But what no one could have foreseen was that the atonal and twelve-tone methods of composition would give rise to even more restrictive clichés: widely-spaced and unsingable "melodies", dissonant "harmonies" and nebulous rhythms. And, with a few notable exceptions, these works tended to pretty much sound alike.

For years now, this style has been kept artificially alive through the efforts of a group of academics who want to protect their jobs and others like Pierre Boulez who attack anyone who doesn't toe the party line as "useless". (Boulez also calls the music of the past "useless" while making money performing the same "music of the past".) This current "emperor's new clothes" situation is also maintained by a group of music critics who laud these composers simply because their jobs require it. And, since a former enemy, Igor Stravinsky, jumped on the twelve-tone bandwagon in his late period (Webern and not Schönberg was his model.), the style has become even more deified.

When it became obvious that there was no beauty in this style and the public was not responding to it, the atonal establishment countered that "beauty" was old-fashioned and useless and that the public was looking for the wrong things (without saying what they should be looking for). And so, they became "attack dogs" much as we see also in politics and religion.

What has become obvious to me and others is that it's quite possible to write new music in the so-called "old-fashioned" tonal style which still has an infinite number of possibilities. That one writes "clichés" is the price we pay for being able to communicate; without these "clichés" there is nothing. If Bernstein's "Somewhere" from West Side Story seems to derive from a theme in Richard Strauss' Burleska for Piano and Orchestra (perhaps crossed with the slow movement of Beethoven's "Emperor" Concerto.) , well, what of it? No one would mistake the one for the other, even if you might recognize the debt on hearing either.

It is obvious from my own output, that I often use some form of atonality in whole or in part, but I think this is part of the freedom any composer should be permitted.

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