Even a cultural illiterate like your author can hear that music took a radical turn for the worse in the early 20th century. The change affected both popular and classical music, but the highbrow arts led the way and are the source of the problem. Its origins go deeper still, to the 19th century roots of nihilism under the influence of Friedrich Nietzsche, who questioned all Western order, value, and beauty. Nietzsche’s adherent in music was the incredibly influential Arnold Schoenberg, the dominant intellectual force in 20th century music. He composed originally to reconcile Brahms and Wagner, and was praised by Richard Strauss and Gustav Mahler. By 1910 Schoenberg wrote his Theory of Harmony, which remains to this day one of the most influential music theory books ever written, developing a large and influential school of artists who helped spread his radical views.
Reilly explains that the center of Schoenberg’s revolt was his rejection of tonality. He denied tonality existed in nature as the property of sound itself, a view of music held from ancient Pythagoras right up until his day. His revolutionary view was developed not from scientific advances in acoustics but from Schoenberg’s desire to escape all of the ancient restrictions on sound, saying “I am conscious of having removed all traces of a past aesthetic.” As Reilly clarifies:
Schoenberg took the twelve equal semitones from the chromatic scale and commanded that music be written in such a way that each of these twelve semitones be used before any one of them is repeated. If one of the semitones is repeated before all eleven others are sounded it might create an anchor for the ear, which could then recognize what was going on in the music harmonically. The twelve tone system guarantees the listener’s disorientation. Schoenberg proposed to erase the distinction between tonality and atonality by immersing man in atonal music until, through habituation it became the new convention. Then discords would be heard as concords. As he wrote, ‘The emancipation of dissonance is at present accomplished and twelve-tone music in the near future will no longer be rejected because of discords.’
Schoenberg was not exaggerating. He overcame 2,000-year-old conceptions of tonality, concord, and harmony to set discordance as the new standard for modern music. But once beauty in the classical sense was upended, why stop there? His disciple, French conductor and composer Pierre Boulez, took it further and applied the same principle of tone row pitch to all the elements of music—pitch, duration, tone production, intensity, and timbre. Another French disciple, Edgar Varese, asked why even 12-tone at all? Even he could not abandon all order, though. The American composer John Cage went the whole way and simply “created noise through chance operations.” Now you know why it sounds so ugly. That is its point.
This dreary story of the nihilistic revolution in music—as well as in culture generally—is somewhat well known, but Reilly lets us in on the little secret that this revolt in music has spent its course. How does he know? He interviewed the counterrevolutionaries, starting with the most important, University of Pennsylvania composer George Rochberg, who was a leading 12-toner when in 1964 his son died. Rochberg became frustrated that he could not express his deep emotions in the new orthodoxy and dramatically turned back to tonal passages. Reilly’s interview with him must be read in full, but let me note two things. Here is Rochberg on his feeling at the time:
I couldn’t breathe any more. I needed air. I was tired of the same round of manipulating the pitches, vertically and horizontally … What I finally realized was that there were no cadences, that you can’t come to a natural pause, that you can’t write a musical comma, colon, semicolon, dash for dramatic, expressive purposes or to enclose a thought.
Asked about Schoenberg’s remark that artists must be “cured of the delusion that the aim of art is beauty,” Rochberg replied: “I have re-embraced the art of beauty but with a madness, absolutely. That is the only reason to want to write music.” He ends with the ultimate praise for Reilly, “I have to say you really understand my music.” One must read the full discussion to comprehend similarly.