On Aug. 9, 1942, during the 900-day siege of Leningrad, a bedraggled orchestra inside the city played Dmitri Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony, subtitled “Leningrad.”
The Soviet composer had set to work on this massive symphony the previous summer, just after the German assault on Leningrad began. Arturo Toscanini had conducted a high-profile American performance in July 1942 to a huge radio audience; Time magazine pictured the composer on its cover. The Germans got wind of the Leningrad premiere and planned to disrupt it with artillery fire, but a well-timed Russian counterstrike ensured that the performance took place amid eerie silence. Loudspeakers were set up along the Russian perimeter, and strains of “Leningrad” wafted over no man’s land toward the German positions. Years later, a former German soldier who was visiting the city told Leningraders that when he and his comrades heard Shostakovich’s adamantine music coming at them, they knew that they would never win the war.
For many people, the beginning of the 20th century marks the point at which classical music dropped off the radar screen of mainstream culture, disappearing into a fog of pretension and irrelevance. While Modernist painters such as Matisse and Picasso became cultural icons, their images reproduced on coffee mugs and place mats, and writers such as T.S. Eliot and Virginia Woolf were cited on the yearbook pages of angst-ridden adolescents, parallel achievements in classical music acquired a reputation for being fussy, or cacophonous, or both. Yet the biographies of Shostakovich and other modern composers tell another story. These artists almost literally occupied the front lines of history, negotiating between sonic utopias and the convulsions of reality.
Implausibly dramatic incidents crop up throughout the century’s musical narrative. Shostakovich’s colleague, Sergei Prokofiev, having suffered through years of humiliation at the hands of Soviet ideologues, dies less than an hour before Stalin breathes his last, deprived of even a few minutes of life without the dictator. The ardently leftist American composer Aaron Copland appears before Joseph McCarthy’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, wondering whether the communist-hunting senator even knows who he is. Richard Strauss, the elder statesman of German music, shakes hands with Adolf Hitler at an intermission at the Bayreuth Festival; 12 years later, the same composer opens the door of his Alpine villa to find young American soldiers smoking cigarettes. (“I am the composer of ‘Rosenkavalier’ and ‘Salome,’ ” he announces; the soldiers are duly impressed, though some mistakenly believe he also wrote “The Blue Danube.”) During the 19th century, the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer claimed that music floats above history, unstained by blood; the century that followed made that theory untenable.
Historical upheavals sometimes help to explain why composers wrote what they did -- in particular, why their style became at times so forbiddingly strange. The horrors of World War I made it practically impossible for most young composers to indulge in lush, Romantic textures; the aristocratic grandeur of prewar Europe seemed almost a co-conspirator in the war that shed so much blood in the name of tradition, decorum and national pride. Thus, in the Weimar Republic, young Paul Hindemith gave up on 100-piece Wagnerian orchestras and wrote for tight-knit ensembles that sped along like gas-powered Bach. Igor Stravinsky made a similar break while living in Switzerland and France, the Russian Revolution having wiped out the world of his childhood. Whether atonal, neo-Baroque, jazz-happy, folkish or quasi-industrial, the music of the first few decades of the century defined itself by rejecting the plush aesthetics of the kaiser, the czar and Queen Victoria.
The Second World War finished off whatever the first left standing. The ghastliest chapter in the story unfolded in Germany, where Hitler held classical music captive to his religion of hate. The fuhrer held gala performances of Wagner’s “Meistersinger” at the Nuremberg party rallies, shaking his henchmen awake when they nodded off; groveled before his favorite musicians, at one point suggesting that the conductor Wilhelm Furtwangler be protected by a special bunker; and sent maimed soldiers to Bayreuth so they could experience the healing power of Wagner. Hitler’s sincere love of classical music -- it was one of the few genuine things about him -- did incalculable damage to the art form’s image in the popular mind. When we see Hannibal Lecter listening to Bach’s “Goldberg Variations” with blood dripping from his fingers, we may be seeing an after-image of Hitler’s distorted adoration of the German masters.
Composers’ careers were also changed, sometimes severed, by the ordeal of exile. In the 1930s and ‘40s, the neighborhoods of Los Angeles filled with refugees from totalitarianism -- among them Stravinsky and Arnold Schoenberg, the opposing giants of musical modernism in the first part of the century. Both lived on streets north of Sunset Boulevard -- Schoenberg on North Rockingham Avenue in Brentwood, Stravinsky on North Wetherly Drive in Hollywood. Each attempted to Americanize himself, with amusing results. Stravinsky composed a ballet piece for the Barnum & Bailey Circus, mastering the challenge of writing for 50 dancing elephants. Schoenberg had a legendary, unsuccessful meeting at Paramount Studios with Irving Thalberg, who wanted him to write a film score; the Austrian atonalist spoiled his pitch by demanding, among other things, compositional control over the rise and fall of the actors’ voices. Nonetheless, Schoenberg adapted to California life with surprising ease: He listened to UCLA football on the radio, wore wacky polka-dot ties and once made fun of a student’s composition by galloping around the room and shouting “Hi-yo, Silver!”
With the end of the war came another, even more emphatic, rejection of the past. This time, many of the young composers were literally traumatized by the hellishness that Hitler had unleashed. Greek composer Iannis Xenakis, a communist partisan, had part of his face blown off by a British shell in the last months of the war. German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen, as a teenage medical orderly, had inserted straws into the mouths of still-breathing soldiers whose faces had melted. Hungarian composer Gyorgy Ligeti lost most of his family in the Holocaust. All of them felt an acute, moral compulsion to start fresh in the music they wrote after the war. Stalinism also left a kind of stain; the spacious, plain-spoken, “open prairie” sound of Copland’s “Appalachian Spring” and “Fanfare for the Common Man” came under political scrutiny in the Cold War era, as if tonal writing and fellow traveling went hand in hand.
In the U.S., the diaspora of emigre composers in New York, Los Angeles and elsewhere led to unexpected consequences. Schoenberg’s 12-tone method of composition, in which no note in the 12-note chromatic scale should repeat before the others had sounded, became a kind of cult object among young Americans, who saw in it a super-sophisticated, hipper-than-thou language, a mirror image of rapid-fire bebop cool. One young experimenter, La Monte Young, studying at Berkeley in the late ‘50s, decided to elongate the notes in the Schoenberg series until they turned into mesmerizing drones. His colleague, Terry Riley, proceeded to transform that style into minimalism -- a music of steady pulses, stripped-down melodies and gradual chord changes. The last great revolution in 20th-century composition happened in 1964, when Riley’s “In C,” a semi-psychedelic experience in which players improvise on given melodies, was played at the San Francisco Tape Music Center. Neither classical nor popular music was quite the same afterward.
During the 20th century, composers felt the sting of politics, but they did not do politicians’ bidding. Of all the arts, music is the least controllable, the most elusive; Shostakovich demonstrated as much by writing ostensibly heroic Soviet symphonies in which listeners perceived all manner of subversive energies and secret lamentations. Copland, a gay Jewish left-winger from Brooklyn, inadvertently lent his “Americana” sound to any number of Republican campaign commercials; no filmmaker can evoke the innate goodness of rolling fields of corn and wheat without Coplandesque hymns on the soundtrack. Only a few degrees of separation fall between Schoenberg’s angst-ridden Viennese utterances and the heroin anthems of the Velvet Underground. Extremes became their opposites over time.
Classical music is still coming to terms with its volcanic 20th century legacy. One hundred years after Schoenberg’s first radical experiments, audiences grumble when the composer’s name appears on concert programs. Yet modern works are slowly creeping into the heart of the repertory. Shostakovich’s symphonies and Bela Bartok’s concertos have become popular showpieces; Leos Janacek’s and Benjamin Britten’s operas play regularly at opera houses. Meanwhile, young composers who came of age in the era of the Internet are pilfering rhythms from hip-hop, learning do-it-yourself marketing from indie rock, publishing their own music and recordings and chronicling their careers on blogs. Composers may be on the cultural margins, but they are free to express themselves in an exhilarating variety of voices. An art form that once seemed on the verge of extinction has begun all over again, in a new key of C.