After the Avantgarde.

Translation in progress
No book may have been more influential on Dutch thought about modern music than Dutch composer Ton de Leeuw’s book Music of the Twentieth Century – A Study of Its Elements and Structure. It has been translated in German and in English Cover De Leeuwby Amsterdam University Press– almost thirty years after it’s last Dutch edition. Someone must have felt it still has wider relevance to understanding music in our new century. And the book is indeed remarkable for its approach, bearing the mark of that Dutch speciality, ethnomusicology, which was in many ways developed by Jaap Kunst, one of De Leeuw teachers (another was Messiaen, yet another, Dutch composer Henk Badings), of whom he may have inherited his penchant for Indonesian music. Because of a long-felt sympathy, it is with melancholy that I take leave of De Leeuw’s approach in this retro-review, written in 1996 – shortly before his death, I am sorry to say, but long before the translations, and long before Richard Taruskin (in the, or rather his New Oxford History of Western Music) made an end to the dominance of the avantgarde viewpoint. First published in the Dutch Jounal of Music Theory, 1/2 (1996).  TRANSLATION IN PROGRESS


The following text deals with two music historical subjects. The first is the influence of avant-garde thinking on the historiography of 20th century music. I will explain this influence on the basis of Ton de Leeuw’s well-known book: Music of the Twentieth Century. An investigation into its elements and structure. Then, in less detail, I will make a few comments on the historical position of the avant-garde, which has changed in the meantime, and on the consequences this has for our view of history.

Although De Leeuw’s text is not a typical historical text, there are good reasons to take it as a starting point for a historical retrospective. As a Dutch composer I, and many with me, grew up with this text in the seventies and, I would almost say, fused together. As a teacher, I read it with the eyes of all sorts of pupils. And, not in the least: for most Dutch music students this probably formed the Dutch basic text and the reference work par excellence for a long time. But there are also reasons of a more general nature.
The first one is a historical one. Although De Leeuw’s point of view is personal, it does not stand alone. It is an example of the widespread view, certainly up until the end of the 1970s, that the developments that the avant-garde showed after 1945 were, if not desirable, at least inevitable and therefore required greater historical-technical understanding.

The second reason concerns the role of music theory. It connects music and the historical argument; it forms the musical hands and ears of the historian. In De Leeuw’s text, music theory for the twentieth century is deliberately practiced from an ideological and scientific point of view. This offers the opportunity to trace the workings of music theory in the formation of historical consciousness.

In De Leeuw’s text music theory constantly plays a central role: it must lead to an understanding of musical technique, of the composer’s craft or handiwork, of the “conscious control over the material” it exercises. Characteristic of this is that two approaches serve as a guideline. Firstly, ethnomusicology and its theoretical concepts. This leads to different comparisons of Western and non-Western music. This ethnological angle, in turn, is closely linked to a more general philosophical view of music and musicality, the role of the composer, and the relationship between Western and non-Western kinds of music and concepts.
Immediately in the Introduction, de Leeuw outlines two philosophical problems that will continue to play a major role for him:
1. The isolation of art music and musician. the gap that separates art music from the general public, which has become ‘both anonymous and amorphous’ (p3), and
2. letting go of ‘expressiveness’ as a goal, so that music can (finally) become an autonomous activity (p5)
It is against this backdrop that he develops the main outlines and main problem definitions of his argument, which I will briefly outline here.

De Leeuw’s technical starting point is immediately apparent from his description of the early 20th century. This situation is characterized by the development of ‘floating tonality’, towards free atonality (Schönberg) on the one hand, and expanded tonality (Stravinsky, Bartok) on the other hand, as a result of an increased ‘need for expression’ (p. 7). As a result of this development in the material, the “gain in harmonic richness” (p. 8), the “tonal forces of form” are levelled out, the great tensions lose their function in favour of differentiation of detail. Of course, this does not only apply to harmonics. The fragmentation into elements [italics of the author] is general, but this is accompanied by an independence of these elements. (…) This fragmentation and growing independence comes to an end for the time being with recent serial music” (p. 9).
It is this break with tonality and its world of forms and the disintegration into independent elements that are the main themes in the further argument.
The elements ‘Rhythm’, ‘Melody’, ‘Harmony’ and ‘Sound colour’ are each dealt with in separate chapters, in which their use is described chronologically on the basis of works by Debussy, Stravinsky, Bartok, Messiaen and Boulez in particular, sometimes with side-jumps to Webern, Hindemith and Pijper.
This leads to two very different chapters, which summarise and intensify the previously mentioned tendencies.
First of all the chapter ‘Exotics and folklore’ . This brings up three important points:

  1. To begin with, the “gap between two worlds”: on the one hand, the Romantic subjectivity most common in the West; on the other hand, the selfless oblivion at the service of music (this is the ‘Eastern’ attitude; p.116).
  2. Subsequently, he emphasizes what all Eastern art music has in common: “making music that starts from a rhythmic-melic basis, and in which the vertical moment plays a secondary role” (p.127-8).
  3. This brings De Leeuw to the important concept of modality. In the West it is in Debussy’s musical attitude that this is most evident, in his “horror of the German-romantic cult of subjective expression” (p.129) which makes him “the first non-romantic”. This is especially expressed in his “bringing to a standstill” of harmony: “the chord as an independent phenomenon” (p. 131). This paves the way both for a more objective attitude and for a freer development of elements other than harmony, namely, rhythm and melody.

This is the run-up to perhaps the most important chapter of the book: the story of the development “From Free Atonality to Twelve Tone Music”. Below I will describe the way he brings many lines come together in this, but it should be clear that according to De Leeuw “the innovations of atonality [are] not only more radical, but also more comprehensive” (p.136). “. The focus of this chapter is his analysis of the way in which Webern ultimately subjects expressionist chromaticism to an objective order, and with it, the other elements such as rhythm and timbre.

Beyond this historical threshold, Webern, we finally enter the last chapter, “From twelve-tone music to…”, and with it, the author’s then ‘present’: the then, mainly Western, European avant-garde. The key points of this thinking are described with here as a new phase of that which was already initiated by Webern in particular: first, the definitive disintegration of the elements pitch, time and sound color, and secondly, that the series loses the last remains of thematicism and thus becomes an abstract means of regulation, to which all elements can be subjected equally. This amounts to the disintegration of the musical elements, and thus to the division of the process of composition into two phases: an analytical phase of material structuring and a synthetic one of material composition. From this follow the various problems of connecting details of material and large form. And from these follow phenomena such as statistical form, aleatorics and the like, that he makes clear by examples from Messiaen, Boulez and Stockhausen.

The dots in the title of the chapter already indicate it: the road to the future is completely open. It is also clear that this makes the problems in the present all the more acute. Herein lies the book’s great power (and power of persuasion): the reader witnesses how the composer Ton de Leeuw asks himself the questions of the then present, and tries to clarify them in the light of past history. He does not enumerate historical ‘facts’, but confronts the reader time and again with questions and reflections concerning musical craft, and its roots, in times of renewal and uprooting.