Forgotten 20th-Century Classical Music Gets a Second Chance – The American Spectator

What do we possess today as “art”? A faked music, filled with artificial noisiness of massed instruments; a failed painting, full of idiotic, exotic and showcard effects, that every ten years or so concocts out of the form-wealth of millennia some new “style” which is in fact no style at all since everyone does as he pleases; a lying plastic … Pictures and fabric, verses and vessels, furniture, dramas and musical compositions — all is patternwork. We cease to be able to date anything within centuries, let alone decades, by the language of its ornamentation. So it has been in the Last Act of all Cultures.

— Oswald Spengler, The Decline of the West

Henri Tomasi, Robert Casadesus, Gustave Samazeuilh, Jean Cras, Emile Goué, Jean Françaix, and Gabriel Pierné — vanishingly few music historians, let alone laymen, will so much as recognize the names of these seven composers whose music, particularly when performed by the renowned Trio Pasquier, once filled the concert halls, salons, and radio airwaves of interwar France. Some of their work was quite innovative, like Casadesus’ 1938 Trio à cordes “Au Trio Pasquier,” with its eerily muted strings and deliberate tempos paving the way for a melodramatic Allegro aperto final movement, while other compositions were firmly rooted in French folk traditions, like Samazeuilh’s 1937 Suite en trio pour violon, alto et violoncelle “Au Trio Pasquier,” which draws upon charming 17th- and 18th-century contredanse française, sarabande, and forlane dance motifs. It is distinctly gratifying, then, to find that after languishing in obscurity ever since their heyday in the 1920s and 1930s, the collective legacy of these seven virtuosic composers is finally being rediscovered, owing almost entirely to the efforts of the Chicago-based string trio Black Oak Ensemble, whose recent double-album Avant l’orage: French String Trios 1926–1939 somewhat unexpectedly reached pole position on the Billboard Classical Charts for July 2022.

Yet it remains troubling to think that an arrangement as profound as Henri Tomasi’s 1938 Trio à cordes en forme de divertissement “Pour les frères Pasquier” was hidden away in a Paris library for generation after generation before being unearthed by members of the Black Oak Ensemble in their self-described capacity as musical archaeologists. Tomasi, Casadesus, Samazeuilh, and their fellow interwar composers indeed had the misfortune of flourishing avant l’orage, before the storm, of the Second World War and the subsequent campaign of cultural radicalism that followed in its wake. The masterpieces of neoclassical composers like Jean Françaix were promptly and unjustly forgotten, their sheet music mindlessly stashed away in murky archives. Just as the first Black Oak Ensemble recording, Silenced Voices (2019), paid homage to the achievements of Dick Kattenberg, Sándor Kuti, Hans Krása, Gideon Klein, and Paul Hermann, all of whom perished during the Holocaust, their second outing likewise succeeds as best it can in rescuing these French musical treasures from unwarranted neglect.

Listening to Avant l’orage, I am put in mind of the conductor and musicologist John Mauceri’s polemic The War on Music: Reclaiming the Twentieth Century, also released in 2022, which laments the obscurity into which Paul Hindemith, Kurt Weil, Erich Wolfgang Korngold, and Arnold Schoenberg likewise fell during the post-war period, albeit an obscurity nothing like the near-total oblivion experienced by Tomasi et al. Mining a similar vein as Norman Lebrecht did in Who Killed Classical Music? (1997), Mauceri has endeavored to explain why few (if any) compositions have joined the classical canon in recent decades and why so many works produced on the eve of the Second World War have been secreted, intentionally or unwittingly, so far out of earshot.

Mauceri’s approach is intriguing, if incomplete. He assigns the lion’s share of blame to the postwar American government in general, and the CIA and the State Department specifically, for having supported, surreptitiously at times, avant-garde art “as a fundamental example of freedom of expression in art and music,” in an ultimately misguided bid to oppose the strictly representational and anti-experimental art lauded by Hitler, Mussolini, and Stalin. It is true that organizations like the anti-communist artistic advocacy group Congress for Cultural Freedom were secretly subsidized by the CIA, and Western authorities did pit “our” Russians like Stravinsky and the New York City Ballet’s Balanchine against “their” Russians like Prokofiev and the Bolshoi’s Grigorovich, though whether atonal symphonic music and abstract expressionism played a significant role in keeping the world safe for capitalism and democracy remains a debatable proposition, to say the least. This dynamic alone, however, cannot entirely explain modern-day classical music’s parlous state of affairs.

As an ardent devotee of Arnold Schoenberg, whose atonal, avant-garde music ought to have been ideologically pleasing to Western authorities, Mauceri struggles mightily to explain the “greatest mystery of all,” namely “why wasn’t all the music banned by Hitler not instantly embraced, indeed officially supported, after the war?” Perhaps, he wonders, there were “‘gentlemen’s agreements’ made with the state-run theaters and opera houses, not to mention the academies and conservatories of Europe, in the post-war period,” the better to produce a fresh start. Or perhaps this was “merely the zeitgeist” and European classical music simply “collapsed in 1945, its course finally run.” That, or audiences are barely more receptive to the works of the early modernists as they are to later ones, a possibility inconceivable to Mauceri.

Another question arises: “what music replaced the condemned repertory — once it was determined that the music classified as degenerate would not be welcomed back and [for example] all the Italian operas of the post-Puccini period (1924-45) would be equally jettisoned?” Mauceri has the answer for this one: “none,” for “no repertory replaced the irreplaceable ones at the concert hall. Instead, a few composers, such as Mahler, Rachmaninoff, and Gershwin — who had been marginalized or dismissed by classical music experts — were gradually welcomed into the canon of classical music.” The doors to the canon were slammed shut, and the experimental works of Schoenberg and the neoclassical works of Françaix alike were left out in the cold. Taking a peek at the upcoming concerts at, say, the London Philharmonia, we see works by Tchaikovsky, Brahms, Rachmaninoff, and Sibelius plus a great deal of Mahler and Haydn. It will be like this season after season most everywhere, alongside a smattering of “The Music of Harry Potter” or “Picnic with the Pops” in a desperate bid to attract casual fans as well as aficionados.

This phenomenon is hardly unique to classical music. Most everyone is familiar with the classical ballet canon, largely comprised of ethereal ballets blancs like Giselle, La Bayadère, and Swan Lake, plus some of the more accessible pieces choreographed by Nijinsky, Massine, and Balanchine, while awareness of later neoclassical and contemporary ballets is confined to connoisseurs. The plastic arts struggle with this as well — compare the crowds at an old masters or impressionist exhibition with those at, say, a post-minimalist retrospective probing “materiality, absurdity, and incongruity” or what have you. Reasonable people naturally vote with their feet and their wallets, just as tourists do when they visit Paris, Granada, or Venice rather than some constructivist dystopian hellhole.

Mauceri nevertheless has cause to be particularly concerned about the present state of classical music, in which “so much contemporary music played by our greatest musical institutions — and supported overwhelmingly by music critics — is music that the vast majority of people do not want to hear — and have never wanted to hear.” Atonal music, or unbelievably tedious stunt compositions like Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Helicopter String Quartet (in which “each instrumentalist is required to be in a separate helicopter”), will never catch on with the wider public, leaving our culture undeniably impoverished, and strongly indicating that we are living through what Spengler called the “last act of all cultures,” a society altogether etiolated and spiritually morbid, incapable of creating authentic and enduring works of beauty, while desperately clinging to what is left of the canon.

Modernism, for Mauceri, is like the proverbial curate’s rotting egg, parts of which, like Schoenberg, he insists are quite good. The late, great Roger Scruton, in his magisterial 2009 Beauty, defended the compositions of early modernists like Schoenberg who admittedly produced works of a “nightmarish quality that is far from the consoling beauties of a song by Schubert,” but “Schoenberg’s idiom can be understood as an attempt both to understand the nightmare, and to reign it in — to confine it in a musical form which gives beauty and meaning to catastrophe.” Scruton added that Schoenberg and his fellow early modernists, including T.S. Eliot and Matisse in other artistic fields, “feared that the aesthetic endeavour would detach itself from the full artistic intention, and become empty, repetitious, mechanical and cliché-ridden.” This is, of course, precisely what happened, and surely Schoenberg and other avant-garde artists must take some of the blame, notwithstanding Scruton’s generous advocacy.

Lest we forget, the curate’s egg is fundamentally unpalatable and insalubrious. Modernism, like botulism, can be dangerous even in small measures. Since it cannot outcompete traditional forms in purely aesthetic terms, it prefers to eliminate them, wholesale if possible, piecemeal if necessary. Through its cynical rejection of the normative traditions that had previously established the boundaries of various art forms, modernism played a key role in the deracination of civilized man. Henri Tomasi, in his Trio à cordes en forme de divertissement, was able to tug the listener’s heartstrings by referencing “Les Olivettes,” a traditional Provençal air, an effect that is only possible if one has a deep connection with the French soil and French culture. Without this intimate connection, art and life will inevitably devolve into dissonance, discordancy, and atonality — as is increasingly the case in our world of brutalist architecture, repulsive public sculpture, and the sort of dull, unimaginative writing denounced in Mary Gaitskill’s June 2022 UnHerd essay “The deracination of literature.” (READ MORE: Liberal Activism Threatens to Destroy the Classical Music Tradition)

“We have a right,” in the words of the novelist John Cowper Powys, “to narrow down our universe ever further and further; until like the world of the Iliad and the Odyssey it is made up of certain simple endurances, enjoyments, mental and physical struggles, surrounded by the washing of the sea, the blowing of the wind, the swaying of the wheat, the falling of the rain, the voyaging of the clouds, and the motions of the sun and moon and dawn and twilight.” Truly great art can only be produced under such decidedly un-modern circumstances. Powys, in The Art of Happiness (1935), also argued:

In throwing overboard the old-fashioned religious life, which, after all, held the clue to deep psychological responses to the universe, we have permitted political and social idealism to usurp a place in the life of our solitary soul for which they are entirely unfitted; with the result that since these aggressive invaders cannot fill up these spacious rooms, nor feel comfortable in these stately presence-chambers, there are forlorn spaces left, spaces completely untenanted through which unhappy phantoms stalk and maniac-abortions gibber.

Truly great art, contrariwise, can hardly be produced under such dismal spiritual conditions. “El moderno se asorda de música, para no oírse,” wrote Nicolás Gómez Dávila — “modern man deafens himself with music in order not to hear himself,” in order to distract himself from those stalking phantoms. Modern man will even pay for the privilege of subjecting himself to works like Stockhausen’s irritating Fresco, with its four orchestral groups playing in four separate rooms and “glissandos no faster than one octave per minute,” while works like Tomasi’s “Pour les frères Pasquier” are unthinkingly stuffed into a drawer.

How different was the world inhabited by Gustave Samazeuilh and Trio Pasquier, in which sarabandes and forlanes could still played “très animé et joyeusement.” It was a world not yet in thrall to atonality, to the “lying plastic” and “gibbering maniac-abortions” that beleaguer modern existence. Hans Sedlmayer, in the “Analogia Morbi” chapter of his 1948 Verlust der Mitte, or The Lost Center, aptly summarized the cultural trends that put paid to that world:

  1. The establishment of “pure spheres in art (purism, isolation).
  2. The progressive driving asunder of opposites (polarization).
  3. A progressive hankering after the inorganic.
  4. Detachment from the solid earth.
  5. A tendency to be attracted by the lower rather than the higher.
  6. A tendency to give an inferior status to man.
  7. The abolition of the distinction between top and bottom.

Ernst Jünger more succinctly referred to the “increasing petrifaction of life,” though “putrefaction” might have worked as well, as a result of which ornament is considered a crime, traditional and vernacular architecture give way to concrete and drywall monstrosities, and the lively musical divertissement gives way to atonal sludge.

That the Black Oak Ensemble’s Avant l’orage: French String Trios 1926–1939 has evidently struck such a chord with the listening audience provides some cause to hope, even if it is something of a spes contra spem, that the “flight from beauty” described by Roger Scruton is losing some of its momentum. The compositions of Henri Tomasi, Robert Casadesus, Gustave Samazeuilh, Jean Cras, Emile Goué, Jean Françaix, and Gabriel Pierné, whose names are happily so much more recognizable than they were just a few months ago, represent lost cultural trajectories, lost futurities stifled by a brutal 20th and benumbed 21st century. The rediscovery of these minor masters of the interwar period reminds us of the civilization that existed before the storm of modernity reached its crescendo, and heralds the more humane civilization that would be possible should that storm ever recede.

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