Cary Boyce has a provocative post on rhetoric on the Forum page, one that raises bigger questions than I find myself able to respond to. I’d like to address one tangent that has sprung loose in the ensuing discussion, though, because I think there is an important lesson to be learned for all of us.

Cary describes a “sentimentality of despair” that sprang up after 1945, indicating that Webern was a seminal influence. I see it a bit differently. What follows is my perspective on how this affectation came about. I don’t have all the answers, though, so I hope this accounting will simply amplify what’s already been said, and even lead to further clarification from others.

In many composition departments in the 1960s and 70s, there were two possible avenues for creative expression: the safe path, which was a hybrid of post-Webern serialism and the metrical puzzles of Elliott Carter, and the rebellious path, purportedly following in the footsteps of John Cage, which required a complete rejection of anything connected to history of Western music.

Hundreds of young composers were surprised to learn, upon entering these programs, that their budding emotional sensibilities, and in particular their adolescent angsts, were of no interest. The validity of great music could lie only in its rational basis or in its rejection of the past.

Two composers who were never discussed in these music departments were Dmitri Shostakovich and Benjamin Britten. Both of them committed the three most unpardonable sins of their day: using major and minor triads, using melodies, and using music to express specific emotions. For both of them, the emotional range was extreme, but the level of despair was particularly notable, because unprecedented.

When these two composers died in the mid 1970s, their absence left a void, and the music world started to take notice. Young composers became aware that Shostakovich and Britten, rather than being relics of an earlier century, were contemporaries of Cage and Carter, and just as worthy of emulation. While a generation of composers was embracing the new directions of Reich and Glass, a significant number of their contemporaries were allowing themselves the forbidden fruit of extreme emotional expression, and particularly reveling in the angst their teachers forbade them.

Thirty years later, Kyle Gann reports that these composers are now sitting in the most comfortable chairs in composition departments around the country and, as so often happens, what was once forbidden fruit has become a restrictive diet. Their students are told that music needs to have a wide expressive range in order to be taken seriously, and encouraged to plumb the depths of despair in particular. Once again, a liberating break from the past has ossified into dogma. Nobody meant for that to happen, I shouldn’t think, but it’s a lesson for all of us to see how easily the tone of rebellion can shift into conformity.

Who is to blame when this happens? Certainly not Britten, Cage, Carter, Shostakovich or Webern – all of these composers created stunning works of art that helped define their era. It is their mostly well-intentioned followers who package their predecessors’ achievements into ready-made prescriptions for success.

What are we to do about it? Not much we can do beyond pointing out the problem where it exists, and remaining vigilant in our own thinking and teaching.

That’s my take on what has happened. Any corrections, rejections, embellishments, etc.?

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