Monday, August 22, 2011

Milton Babbitt: an elegy gone awry pt. 2

Continued from Milton Babbitt: an elegy gone awry pt. 1

New Music Lover #2: Do you mean John Adams? Oh, I think that both Babbitt and Carter, even Sessions, who composed several good pieces, "The Black Maskers" and a thorny but dramatic Violin Concerto, will have minor but secure places in music history, and somewhat larger places in the history of American art music. John Adams, after the current fashion dies down, will have next to no place whatsoever, as there is no real intrinsic merit in that music as far as I can detect. "Nixon in China" may be remembered for its superb libretto and as a period piece. No, John Adams will be placed somewhere below both John Harbison (whose work I admire), Steve Reich (a wonderful composer), and Alan Hovhaness (an underrated composer). Very far below, I should think, not on Karl Marx's "ash heap of history," but somewhere in the dark, unvisited recesses of the basement.

Grad Student #1: Wrong. Adams name, due to an inertia that has nothing to do with my opinion or your name, will be around long after we are dust. Harmonielerhe will continue to be performed because, in addition to being an informed retrospective commentary, people actually pay to hear it and walk out feeling like they got their money's worth. Furthermore, as it was commissioned by Exxon, who will most likely be around long after the oil dries up, you can bet that they will continue to milk the investment for every drop that it is worth.

New Music Lover #2: No, GS#1, wrong. The problem with John Adams' music is that orchestras simply hate playing it, even more than they hate Bruckner. "Harmonielehre" (note the spelling, please, if you like it so much) will be played for a space and then put on the shelf, along with such pieces as the "Naturesymphonie" of Hausegger and the "Rustic Wedding" Symphony of Goldmark, and a whole host of other big, pretentious, audience-pleasing but meretricious works that pandered to the public of their day. John Adams is no different: a bourgeois composer for bourgeois audiences. Indeed, suddenly, Babbitt is looking better and better -- at least his work is concise, well-make, and, in its way, unpretentious.

Grad Student #2: Funny thing about history: if enough people propagate the music of Babbitt, Adams, Carter, etc, it will "survive." It seems to me that Babbitt is discussed in many circles; his death may regenerate a new generation of listeners and academics. It also seems to me that, if history has shown us anything, it is almost impossible to predict who will or will not be remembered. To be honest, it also seems a little blasphemous to speak ill of the dead on the day they died...but this is all just opinion.

New Music Lover #2: The dead do not know or care who talks about them after that last breath is taken, my dear. Neither will you or I when we, too, are dead. I liked Babbitt as a person, admired him as a teacher, respected his music without liking it at all. I just don't think that the pious hyperbolic apostrophes to his putative massive stature actually do his posthumous reputation any favor. Honor him, yes, but to call him a great composer whose music will live in eternity is going a bit far. (Which, in fairness, Nick did not do above when this thread began.) In fact, your point is precisely my point: it is almost impossible to predict who will or will not be remembered. Spohr and Bruch were considered great composers when they died -- Bruch lives on because of, at most, four pieces (admittedly two are very good indeed), but when was the last time you heard a piece of Spohr? On the other hand, both Bach and Schubert died in obscurity. Gesualdo was forgotten for centuries, as was Vivaldi. I am not saying that this is "fair" at all, as life is famously unfair, but history makes some strange turns.
(to be concluded)

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