The obvious answer is, any music being written now. But few musicians, and maybe listeners, will be satisfied with that. Perhaps we need a better question. Who says what modern music is? A few years ago an academic paper caused the kind of stir that academic papers seldom do. It was called ‘Taste, Power and trying to understand Op. 36: British attempts to popularize Schoenberg’ by Ben Earl (Music and Letters, Vol. 84, No.4, Nov., 2003). It argues that from the 50s to the 70s a zealous clique of BBC mandarins had a mission to convert people to Schoenberg, and that a bit like St. Patrick in Ireland, they were only going to stop when conversion was achieved, and not before.
The article raises a bigger point. The assumption is that there are only two sides to this issue: the promoter’s and the public’s. But someone gets lost in the middle, and this is of course the performer. Perhaps the music that will survive is the music that performers like to play. Schoenberg’s Violin Concerto Op. 36 is a convenient illustration. It is a difficult, demanding work for everyone: soloist, conductor, orchestra and listener. Earl describes it as ‘the most intractable and unloved’ of Schoenberg’s serial compositions. A decisive enough judgement, even without stopping to ponder what the loved and tractable serial opuses might be.
Yet here is a strange fact: about ten commercial recordings of the Concerto have been made, most recently the one on Deutsche Grammophon by Hillary Hahn and Essa Pekka Salonen. What is going on here? Surely the truth is that, whatever the public feels about this work, players are intrigued by its very problems. Hahn’s performance is phenomenal, and one of her inspirations was listening to previous recordings and noticing that no one took the music at Schoenberg’s metronome speeds. She decided she wanted to, and she put in the years of practice needed to do it. Listening to this performance is a surreal experience as all those hieroglyphic double-stop harmonics notated in minute rhythmic values leap out at you, not as the usual asthmatic squiggles, but as musical shapes that make sense.
Now I can hear the howls of protest about music-as-gymnastics and all the rest. But the fascination of what’s difficult (Yeats’s phrase) is and always has been an aspect of music and performance. Any amateur pianist who attends a performance of the Waldstein Sonata is going to have one question in his head more than any other: not, what the middle movement tempo will be like, or how the pianist will pedal the beginning of the finale, or some arcane aspect of phrasing. No, he wants to know how the pianist is going to negotiate the notorious octave glissandi at the end. The Hammerklavier is not my favorite Beethoven sonata; I find it difficult music to unravel and have often wondered if in the final fugue Beethoven’s incredible ear did not momentarily desert him. But for this reason I perhaps listen to this Sonata more than to any other of his. Its very difficulty intrigues me.
The point I make here has been made at greater length by Charles Rosen in a superb interview you can watch on the Martin Perlich Video site.
So, what can we conclude? For me, it is comforting to think that the pluggers and promoters and propagandists on the one hand, and a fickle and often ill-informed public taste on the other, may have little to do with determining what music might survive. If someone wants to play or sing a composer, and someone else can be found to listen, maybe something of his music will last. There are worse thoughts to live by.