Classical: On Air
Friday 06 November 1998
There was a substantial sequence of extracts from pieces written by Stravinsky at different periods, putting his character to the test. But the most characteristic thing about Stravinsky is his method of continuity - or discontinuity - and his character is not reducible to any of the single elements of rhythm, harmony or melody.
Then there was a telling editorial juxtaposition of music from Stockhausen's Stimmung and Debussy's Fetes to show, without a word being said, that identical pitches don't necessarily make for similar music. What's in a chord?
Anyway, "What do we mean by harmony?" enquired Harrison Birtwistle, sounding slightly put upon. This was a real question, for Birtwistle has almost as little harmonic sense as any 20th-century composer, and there was a touching eloquence in his absence from the next 20 minutes or more, before he popped up again, explaining, "What I control is intervals!" - as if some unseen or unheard inspector from the Arts Council had accused him of laxity.
Schoenberg's 12-note method bypassed an independent grammar of harmony altogether, even though Schoenberg himself was a connoisseur of harmony. But then James Wood was confident that Schoenberg's method would not turn out to have been one of the most significant innovations of the century, as we once thought.
Alexander Goehr - franker than you expect a Cambridge professor to be - confessed he had been to see Sir Michael Tippett (before he died) and told him he was worried about his (Goehr's) lack of harmonic sense. He would write something but not be able to remember the harmonies the following day. "Funny you should say that," returned Tippett. "I've been trying to write coherent and expressive music without harmony all my life."
But then the harmonic series, or overtones present in a note, do suggest that some sort of tonality is natural, even if it isn't the system of major and minor scales or the harmonic vocabulary built upon them that European theorists codified a few hundred years ago. French avant-garde composers such as Gerard Grisey and Tristan Murail have explored the higher regions of the harmonic series, beyond the bounds of tempered tuning systems, and John Tavener mumbled benevolently about the "harmony of the spheres".
The rediscovery of clear and simple harmonies in composers such as Arvo Part, Steve Reich and Tavener came with a sigh of relief, said James Wood. Or a groan of boredom in the case of Pierre Boulez, who said he didn't like being able to predict what he would hear, hinting at a subject for a whole new programme.
It was all very well for Debussy to shock a conservative professor by saying, "There is no theory, you merely have to listen", for the boat he was rocking hadn't yet sunk. Nearly a hundred years later, Gyorgy Ligeti admitted that in the Sixties he had thought clusters the new language, only to realise they were a mirage, although those weren't exactly his words. "I was lost, and I am still lost."
TV reviewBroadcasting House was preparing for a visit from Prince Charles spoiler alert
Glastonbury Michael Eavis reveals final headline act 'most likely' British pair
Film Ewan McGregor joins star-studded Beauty and the Beast cast as Lumiere
TVThe Island with Bear Grylls under fire after male contestants kill and eat rare crocodile
Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Migrant crisis: Greek soldier saved 20 people singlehandedly off Rhodes beach
- 2 Sofyen Belamouadden murder: The inside story of a crime that horrified Britain
- 3 UK weather: Britain braced for snow as arctic air mass moves in
- 4 Aaron and Melissa Klein: Oregon anti-gay bakers ordered to pay $135,000 after refusing to make cake for same-sex wedding
- 5 'Isis' schoolgirls: Missing British teenager tweets picture of her Syrian takeaway
Poldark, series 1 finale, review: How a costume drama became a Sunday night swoon-fest
Al Pacino admits he was nearly fired from The Godfather and it's still his most 'difficult role'
Warner Music owner Len Blavatnik tops Sunday Times Rich List
Game of Thrones season 5 episode 3, review: Sansa and manhood-lopping torturer Ramsay Bolton - really?
The day I starred in Only Fools and Horses
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
The sickening truth about food banks that the Tories don't want you to know
Migrant boat disaster: Ukip candidate mocks victims in sickening Twitter post
Nigel Farage wants the BBC to stop making programmes like Doctor Who, Strictly Come Dancing, and Top Gear
Global warming: Scientists say temperatures could rise by 6C by 2100 and call for action ahead of UN meeting in Paris
General Election 2015: Britain would become a 'communist dictatorship' under Ed Miliband and Nicola Sturgeon, claims wife of Michael Gove