Last night's viewing - The Sound and the Fury: a Century of Music, BBC4; Death in Paradise, BBC1
In the second of his series The Sound and the Fury: a Century of Music, Ian MacMillan addressed what he described as "one of the most ruthlessly experimental periods in the whole history of music." The adverb was intriguing. From whom was pity being withheld exactly? The audience, which explicitly became an irritating inconvenience to some composers? Or the composers themselves, who emerged from the horrors of totalitarianism to find themselves wrapped in a kind of elective cultural tyranny?
Either way, there was a sense that two or three decades of serious music-making might be taken as symptoms of a collective post-traumatic stress disorder. Stockhausen, we were told, shied away from the four-beat bar because it reminded him of the stomp of jackboots. And Ligeti lived for the rest of his life with a rage at the death of his family in the concentration camps. The anger and the pain were audible in this music, and if audiences reacted with anger and pain on hearing it that was just fine with most of its creators.
If you don't know anything about contemporary classical music, the series offers an admirably clear summary of its major strands, an apologia that is sympathetic and even persuasive. If you do, I imagine you might find some of its summaries a little over-simplified, but even in that case the compression highlights the sheer oddity of this passage of cultural history. The oppressive ideologies that collided in the war had both set themselves against Modernism in art. In Germany, Goebbels called for a "romanticism of steel" and excoriated the "degeneracy" of contemporary experimentation. In Russia, Stalin walked out of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk and three days later Pravda denounced what it described as "Muddle instead of music". Hardly surprising then that after the war dissonance should come to sound like freedom. And then in Darmstadt, having escaped the commissars and the gauleiters, the figureheads of serialism proved as intolerant of dissent themselves. Peter Maxwell Davies recalled being described as "a traitor" to the cause of new music because he'd allowed forbidden tonality to creep into one of his compositions.
It wasn't entirely monolithic. There was wonderfully comic footage of Stockhausen instructing musicians in the performance requirements for a piece. Essentially, they had to sit in silence until they stopped thinking and only then begin to play. But the moment they caught themselves consciously making music they had to stop again. With earnestly furrowed brows, they pursued pure mindlessness through a thicket of discordant toots and plonks. There was a sense, though, that Stockhausen's counter-revolutionary eccentricity was protected by the near impossibility of any ordinary member of the public actually enjoying the music he made. No one who flirted with pleasure or beauty could expect similar indulgence. And we're still left with this paradox – that Shostakovich's 5th Symphony, composed with half an eye on Stalin's diktats, thrives in the concert hall in a way that Darmstadt's most liberated masterpieces do not. We'll probably understand it all in another 100 years.
Death in Paradise doesn't risk alienating the audience at all, unless, like me, you're alienated by a complete predictability of form. Quite a lot of people aren't, it seems, and turn up happily each week for DI Poole to go through the motions yet again, saying lines he must have said before ("What are we missing?") and then assembling a group of people, each with an identically weighted motive for murder, in order to expose the guilty party. But I'm not sure it's the best use of Ben Miller's talents to have him playing a character who is obtusely small-minded at one moment and brilliantly perceptive the next. And could the writer have been acknowledging the Cluedo-like nature of the plotting when he had one character say, "Great... now we're back to square one"? Professor Plum did it, by the way, with the lead piping.
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