Classical: On The Air

THE TERM "Modernism" carries a stigma. Until recently only a fogy would have applied it to certain kinds of music, implying dislike. Now even liberal-minded people use it to describe a historical phase. In theology the opposite of Modernism is Fundamentalism. What could this mean in music? Possibly a belief that "tonal" music, built on key centres, is justified by an acoustical phenomenon - the hierarchy of overtones in the harmonic series - and that "atonal" music is unnatural.

Perhaps that is what Ivan Hewett was thinking when he referred to Nicholas Maw's "discreet Modernism" in Radio 3's Sunday afternoon series, The Year. Last Sunday it was 1966. I remember it well. Undoubtedly the most important event in Britain was Lina Lalandi's Bach Festival, then still based in Oxford, whither she lured Messiaen, who played his Visions de l'Amen with his wife Yvonne Loriod and her compatriot Iannis Xenakis, whose music got its first substantial British airing.

Xenakis's Akrata for eight brass and eight winds kicked off Sunday's 75-minute programme and was described as an example of how mysticism can express itself in Modernist ways. Words, words, words. Xenakis may not be the world's greatest musician (he doesn't write felicitously from an inside knowledge of what instruments or voices can do), but his way of thinking about music as the mathematics of sound goes back to the Middle Ages and beyond to the Ancient Greeks. If the title of Akrata suggests purity, the music is plain to the point of being primitive.

Yet Akrata sounds a good deal more "honest" to me than Stravinsky's Requiem Canticles, his last large-scale work, premiered also in 1966 and played at his funeral in Venice five years later, which, for all its conciseness, creaks with self-conscious artifice. Not for nothing had Schoenberg, 40 years earlier, satirised Stravinsky as "kleine Modernsky". And then Stravinsky's taste for mumbo-jumbo is merely inverted sentimentality.

As antidote to Stravinsky's "impersonal sense of ritual" (Hewett's words) - and interesting in the light of recent developments - was the closing section of Penderecki's St Luke Passion, which in 1966 created almost as big a stir as Britten's War Requiem. Hewett didn't have much time to talk, so he took Penderecki's "human drama" at face value and said his expression of religious belief was just as awesome as Messiaen's. Which was surely giving it the benefit of a very large doubt.

Religious kitsch - in which category I do not include Messiaen - has become quite commercial lately, so in that respect Penderecki was ahead of his time. But it would have been interesting to speculate on his motivation as an internationally successful composer still based in Poland, an atheist country with deep Roman Catholic roots.

By the time we had heard the Penderecki, any notion that there was a prevailing musical climate in the Sixties was well and truly scotched. The least modish work of all - and far removed from anything before it - was Nicholas Maw's Sinfonia. Of course, consistency isn't synonymous with sincerity, and a sincere composer may quite honestly take the occasional U-turn (Schoenberg did); but Maw's commitment for more than 30 years to well-crafted music with a wide range of reference independent of fashion, looks serious and commands respect.