A Survey of Three Works by Ives, Schoenberg, and Barber
In the film Legend of 1900, Tim Roth plays an orphan who grows up aboard the SS Virginian, where he becomes a virtuoso piano player, whose styling rivals the greatest Jazz pianists of the early twentieth century. The Italian film is supposed to represent the impermanence of art and the cheapness of capturing a live performance on a record. However, what cannot be achieved in the film is actually achieved by the film, as the New Orleans jazz artist is surpassed by the glorious skills of an orphan who has spent his entire life aboard a steam liner. What it says is that music may be recorded, but what is even greater than the recording is the music itself and the story that inspired it. This paper will compare and contrast three different works of musical art of the twentieth century show how they have influenced my own and other works of the modern era.
The year 1900 is significant not only because it is the name given to Tim Roth's character in Giuseppe Tornatore's film, but also because it marks the beginning a century that essentially saw the end of Brahms' era of Classical Romanticism and the birth of Schoenberg's twelve-tone system. Brahms was a brilliant composer who studied the works of Bach, Mozart and Beethoven, and practiced the superb art of counterpart, which harmoniously combined two melodies in one song. Charles Ives, in the twentieth century, would do the same -- except Ives were mash two melodies together without producing a harmonious effect. The evolution is important to understand, at least culturally: Bach mastered counterpoint in an age of faith and reason. Brahms added to the art in an age where faith was nearly gone and reason too. Ives took the art and used it to represent the twentieth century's lack of both faith and reason. Ives produced "schizoid music," as David Allen White (2000) called it. Ives, himself, said of his own work in his Essays before a Sonata: "How far is anyone justified, be he an authority or layman, in expressing or trying to express in terms of music (in sounds, if you like) the value of anything, material, moral, intellectual, or spiritual, which is usually expressed in terms other than music?" (Ives 2004:3) The question was reasserted in a musical way in Ives' Unanswered Question, a majestic and evocative piece that underlined the philosophical quandary of modern America -- it had no answers, only questions; for the past had been annihilated through modernism, and all traditions were now merely noise.
Such is obvious in Ives' Fourth of July, which takes traditional tunes and mashes them together, as though one were hearing them from two different corners of one park. His dissonance and polyphonic tones sound the way a madman's music might sound -- it is debilitating and maddening. But Ives Unanswered Question echoes back to that order of Bach and Beethoven and seems to yearn for definition. In fact, the piece was used in Terrence Malick's 1998 film The Thin Red Line to great effect when the director wished to portray the question at the heart of the film, which was this: "What's this war in the heart of nature?" Ives' answer was a kind of transcendental effort that knew it was fragmented at best, which accounts for the fragmented references to past masters like Beethoven, Bach, Brahms and Bruckner (along with American folk hymns) in his symphonies. Ives is like almost like a T.S. Eliot poem set to music. As Leonard Bernstein (1980) says, Ives' music was "music about other music" rather than music about a single theme or program.
Another composer of the twentieth century, Arnold Schoenberg, who left Europe to settle in America, wrote music that refused to be set in a specific key. In a sense, Schoenberg's twelve-tone system perfectly reflected modernity's impulse to espouse equality before quality. In a modern world that promoted liberty above all else -- religious liberty especially in America -- musical liberty had to reflect as much, which is what Schoenberg's Variations for Orchestra, Op. 31 essentially did. While Schoenberg felt his formula would make German music live for one hundred years more, I must say that Schoenberg's twelve-tone system for me cannot compare to the eloquent notes that Ives uses in his Unanswered Question -- for Ives uses notes that do demand a key. If Schoenberg has influenced my work, it has only been to turn away from the kind of meaningless modernist tendency to deprive notes of their importance for the novelty of having them all assume an equal importance. Such seems to me more wishful thinking than objective analysis.
Another modern composer, Samuel Barber, represents for me the mood and dynamic that best encompasses the classical structure adapted to the despair and longing of the twentieth century. Barber's famous Adagio for Strings, first performed in 1938, is neither experimental nor revolutionary; it is not radical, fanciful, or schizophrenic. On the contrary, it is deeply melancholic, and like Ives Unanswered Question, it has most famously been used as the musical score for another war film, Oliver Stone's Academy-Award winning Platoon.
Music historian Barbara Heyman has said, "You never are in any doubt about what this piece is about…There's a kind of sadness and poetry about it. It has a melodic gesture that reaches an arch, like a big sigh…and then exhales and fades off into nothingness" (The Impact of Barber's Adagio 2006). Such being the case, it perfectly captures the mood of its time. While other works were trying to break with the past or represent the break with the past by inverting the lessons and technique of the past (as Schoenberg would with his kind of inverted counterpoint system), Barber was not content to do this. Barber reached back to the past, to the classical tradition, and though he could complete it technically -- he ends it without ending -- the sighing finale does stay true to his day and age, which essentially is a time for sighs.
Barber has, in fact, much more in line with 1900 than any of the other two artists just described, because he best represents the melancholy at the heart of 1900. Melancholy plays such a big part in modern music, from jazz to blues to rock 'n' roll to pop (as Nick Hornsby points out in High Fidelity). Music's relation to melancholy in the twentieth century is highly significant. It points to that something which is missing in our own culture -- that something that Mozart and Bach possessed -- a defining ideology, a spiritual knowledge.
Wassily Kandinsky believed that art was a spiritual process and his abstract paintings were the representation of what he believed to be the spiritual side of life. Perfectly modern, his spirituality is fanciful, indirect, abstract, form without shape, definition without meaning. Schoenberg has much to do with Kandinsky (after all, Schoenberg was a painter, too, and put his works in shows with Kandinsky). The idea that Kandinsky is the painting equivalent of Schoenberg's music, however, is interesting. Ives' poetic equivalent, it has already been said, would be T.S. Eliot. Barber's Adagio seems to have no modern equivalent because it is so uncharacteristically modern. You could say that its cinematic equivalent is a film like Platoon, but it would only because its usage in the film practically saved it from sinking into the abyss.
Barber's Adagio, nonetheless, has influenced numerous artists, and the way in which he has influenced me is similar to the way in which Ives' Unanswered Question has influenced me. Both pieces, though strikingly different -- Barber's is an attempt at wholeness, melody, structure and harmony; while Ives' is an attempt at dissonance (though melody…