An illustration of Arnold Schoenberg
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Rivers and Deltas of Musical Time

In his fifth Off the Cuff column, the Dallas Opera's Keith Cerny looks at the origins of modern opera.

published Sunday, May 13, 2012

One of our goals as a world-class performing arts organization is to present a range of repertoire, reflecting different compositional styles and time periods, all performed at the highest level of quality. Working with the Dallas Opera's artistic team on future programming, we continually strive to devise balanced seasons blending well-known, popular operas almost guaranteed to attract large audiences with more modern and contemporary work.

Everyone would agree that in the opera field, many of the works of Mozart, Verdi and Puccini qualify as "classics." But what defines a modern or contemporary work? That the work was written in the last few years?  If so, how do we evaluate operas such as Daniel Catán's Il Postino, written in an idiom closely aligned with Puccini's style of a century ago? What place is there for significant works composed 80 or more years ago that are still in many ways too "modern" to appeal to a wide audience? (e.g., Schoenberg's 12-tone opera Moses und Aron, which premiered in 1951, although it was composed in 1930-32. And "Bravo!" to James Levine for having the courage to program and record this neglected work at the Met in 1999).

Fortunately for lovers of classical music, I have seen an important change occur over the past 25 years in our collective understanding of what constitutes musical innovation. When I was a music student in the early 1980s, music history was often described as an evolution of musical form into longer and more elaborately orchestrated works (for example, from Haydn symphonies to epic counterparts by Beethoven and Mahler) and—even more importantlya progression of harmonic complexity from classical harmony, to more intricate romantic and post-romantic harmonies, all the way to atonal. This "script" helped to explain some of the popular classical compositional styles of the timefor example, mature 12-tone, tonal clusters, certain types of electronic music, many of which placed heavy emphasis on dissonance. These styles also often had the unfortunate side-effect of being relatively inaccessible to the audience, at least on first hearing. It was hard for me to believe that this represented the "sole" trajectory for contemporary classical music, and it seemed clear that the paradigm of a single stream of classical music development was hitting a dead end.

This strain was particularly acute in opera. Puccini's late operas (e.g. Turandot, which was only partially completed at his untimely death in 1924) extended well past works that were ahead of them, chronologically; even though Puccini's musical style was decidedly more rooted in late romanticism than early 20th century innovation. Consider Richard Strauss' Elektra, which premiered in 1909. Its challenging and dissonant style is at odds with much of Strauss' other output, and anticipated the emphasis on dissonance that was popularized by composers, academics, and influential music critics some decades later. Alban Berg's Wozzeck (1925) nearly overlaps the end of Puccini's life and composing career; however, the work radiates 20th century attitude from the start, despite its roots in 19th century literature.

So here is the good news for artistic programmers and audiences: I believe that there is now much less focus on the paradigm of a single musical timeline of development, and consequently far greater acceptance of stylistic diversity, regardless of the time period in which a particular work was written. The visionary composer John Cage said it well, back in 1992: "We live in a time I think not of mainstream, but of many streams, or even, if you insist upon a river of time, that we have come to [a] delta, maybe even beyond [a] delta to an ocean which is going back to the skies." Now, I am not sure that I understand his meaning of an ocean going back to the skies, but the image of the delta is very powerful to me. It suggests not just one giant flow, but rather, a myriad of different smaller flows—separating, converging, and forging new courses once again—within the one delta. Some are fast-flowing all the way to the sea. Others are capable of carrying us a long way before they subsequently dry up. Still others have tidal flows that go in and out, leaving musical landscapes behind that range from parched to overflowing.

Going back to my university experience (and with the wisdom of hindsight), if the "river model" of musical development was showing problems, the delta model proved highly effective. In the "fast-flowing" stream, there are 20th century operas and composers that have exerted tremendous influence: Richard Strauss in the early 20th century, for examplenot to mention Giacomo Puccini. More recently, the first and second generation minimalist operas of Philip Glass and John Adams, respectively, have influenced many contemporary composers deeply. These currents in the musical delta travel all the way to the ocean with a sustained, vigorous flow.

There are other operas that, while important works, veer from the mainstream channel and are best appreciated, in and of themselves. György Ligeti's operatic parody Le Grand Macabre (which premiered in 1978), while deeply original in its own way did not produce many successors. Carlisle Floyd's Susannah (1956), set in a rural evangelical community helped to establish a distinctive voice in "American" opera, but did not create a new genre on its own. I admire Osvaldo Golijov's Ainadamar (2003), yet its exotic compositional style probably reflects the mind of one capable composer rather than a fundamental new approach deemed likely to attract many followers. Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress (1951), written in neo-classical style, is a profoundly moving work and one that I greatly enjoy. It, however, paddles "upriver" against the prevailing musical flow, in that it explicitly seeks to draw upon earlier compositional idioms although it makes use of them in a powerfully original way. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it did not launch a wholesale neo-classical movement, at least not in the realm of opera.

Like some well-meaning yet misguided flood abatement project, this need to force the streams of imagination to flow strictly within the banks of the river of time I believe also does disservice to the career progression of several outstanding composers. Consider the case of the "father of 12-tone writing," Arnold Schoenberg. His earliest masterpieces indicate his creativity could be applied in a far more traditional vein, drawing on the work of those two Richards: Wagner and Strauss. Schoenberg's Verklärte Nacht (1899) is performed relatively regularly, and continues to gain widespread audience acceptance more than a century after it premiered. His Pelleas und Melisande (1905), based on the Maeterlinck play which also inspired Debussy's opera, is one of my personal favorites. The piece requires a huge orchestra (quadruple winds, eight horns, four trumpets, five trombones, a very large string section, etc.) so is not performed as regularly as it deserves. The "river" model of musical progression justly acknowledges Schoenberg's enormous contribution to modernist style, but it also tends to downplay his important earlier work.

I'm convinced that it is critical for us, as musical programmers and artistic leaders, to continue to edge away from the concept of a unilateral flow of musical time, and to move towards selecting and presenting works of the greatest artistic merit, period.

How fortunate we are that in the early 21st century, so many arts organizations now have the freedom to take this once-daring approach! By focusing on where these compositions fit "within the delta" rather than insisting they take their proper place on the "riverbank" of some pre-determined historical timeline, we open new possibilities and remarkable new vistas to our patrons. We also stand a much greater chance of comprehending the distinctive works of these uniquely talented individuals on their own terms.

What could be more timely, in this second decade of the 21st century, than an approach to music programming that is as free-flowing as it is timeless?

◊ Keith Cerny is the General Director and CEO of The Dallas Opera. His column "Off the Cuff" appears every month in His first column can be seen here, the second is here, third here and fourth here.

◊ Here's video of a 2006 German production of Schoenberg's Moses und Aron:

 Thanks For Reading

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Rivers and Deltas of Musical Time
In his fifth Off the Cuff column, the Dallas Opera's Keith Cerny looks at the origins of modern opera.
by Keith Cerny

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