As `Towards the Millennium', Simon Rattle's yearly retrospective, reaches the 1970s, Bayan Northcott assesses an increasingly fraught decade
In 1976, during a lecture series in America, Sir Michael Tippett suddenly addressed himself: "All the `knot gardens' and the howlings and shrieks have altered your ears, they've ruined your style." The immediate cause of this quite uncharacteristic bout of creative self-doubt seems to have been his recently completed fourth opera, The Ice Break, in which the evoking of a race riot had tempted him to cross the divide between musical expression and mere onomatopoeic noise. Certainly his ensuing works, such as the Fourth Symphony (1977) and Triple Concerto (1979), sound like attempts to recapture at least something of his earlier lyricism and coherence.

Not that Tippett was the only artist to feel adrift in the mid-1970s. Often thought of as a mere interregnum between the inclusive Liberalism of the Sixties and the exclusive Fundamentalisms of the Eighties, it should surely be seen as the decade when things fell apart: when East-West detente went into reverse and the world economic order was disrupted by the oil crisis; when the post-war socio-political consensus still just about held in Britain at the beginning of the period, but had fragmented between Thatcherite and Bennite extremes by its end; and when, not least in the arts, a whole complex of assumptions around the notion of progress, that had held sway for the best part of two centuries, fell under suspicion.

There is a received half-truth which latterday commentators who want to make a bit of moral capital for themselves in these eminently late- Capitalist days never tire of coining: that the world of serious music from the 1940s at least into the 1980s was controlled by an atonal tyranny, now happily in retreat. This not only ignores the extent to which traditionalist, indeed tonal, composers - one thinks of Copland, Shostakovich, Britten and Bernstein - were able to sustain successful careers through those decades (providing they were good enough). More seriously, it disregards the extent to which the notion of "the modern" retained at least tacit assent.

Even as late as the 1970s, most musicians, or indeed ordinary listeners, probably still assumed that, just as the findings of science grew ever more incomprehensibly weird, so the arts were going to get ever more modern. They might endorse, or more likely dread, the prospect, but at least its seeming inevitability offered a principle by which, or against which, matters of preference, taste and judgement might be measured. By the end of the decade, the desirability or even possibility of a main line of progress seemed to be disappearing in a proliferation of alternatives under such journalistic catch phrases as New Complexity, New Simplicity, New Romanticism, New Spirituality, New Tonality, etc, etc (though, in most cases, that "New" should more honestly have read "Neo"), not to mention such burgeoning legacies of the Sixties as Indeterminacy and Minimalism. And behind this confusion of values, the ever-mightier market stood ready to interject its simpler criterion: that whatever sells less than a million is "elitist" and to be shunned.

Or so it would all seem in hindsight, even if many of these changes were in train both before and after the arbitrary divide of 10 years in question, and were experienced at the time as no more definite than a creeping sense of unease. For meanwhile, life had to go on - and indeed, death. Stravinsky, last of the original Modern Masters, departed in 1971, to be followed in 1975 by Shostakovich, leaving an enigmatic 15th Symphony (1971) and a brace of surpassingly bleak last quartets. Britten, completing Death in Venice in 1972, was already stricken by the heart condition that was to claim him in 1976 - by which time the still spry Copland had also more or less given up composing. Yet, among other senior figures, Messiaen was well into the majestic apotheosis of his last 25 years with the polychromatic Des Canyons aux Etoiles (1976), while Elliott Carter actually seemed to grow younger, providing an ebullient Symphony of Three Orchestras (1976) for the American Bicentennial.

Others - Tippett, Lutoslawski, Dutilleux, Schnittke, Simpson, Henze - carried on in their characteristic ways while the prolific, not to say outspoken, Elisabeth Lutyens proceeded to grow old disgracefully. Of the post-war avant-garde then entering their fifties, only Boulez continued to promulgate the party line, though at the outset of the Seventies he was more prominent as a conductor in London and New York and, by the end, as director of his purpose-built acoustic research centre, IRCAM, in Paris. Technician Stockhausen had long since turned guru and Berio opted for a more inclusive Postmodernism - even if their old anything-goes nemesis, John Cage, turned the tables yet again at the start of the decade with a brief return to real composition in his Satie-based Cheap Imitation.

Back at home, the brilliant young generation that had first emerged during the 1960s Glock era at the BBC - Thea Musgrave, Malcolm Williamson, Alexander Goehr, Peter Maxwell Davies, Harrison Birtwistle, Nicholas Maw, Richard Rodney Bennett - was settling into solid achievement, with Maxwell Davies abandoning the screaming nuns of his neo-expressionist period for the sombre sweep of his Orkney symphonies, and Goehr infiltrating serialism with more traditional techniques. Meanwhile the music of the latest arrivals, born in the 1940s and 1950s, ranged from the ritualistic smells and bells of John Tavener to the Schumann-recomposed-by-Ives Romanticism of Robin Holloway; from the transcendental complexity of Brian Ferneyhough to the quirky simplicity of Judith Weir. If the Establishment still seemed nonplussed by the teenage brilliance of Oliver Knussen at the beginning of the decade, by its end it seemed more prepared to welcome the equally precocious George Bejamin. And for those who wanted no truck with the Establishment anyway, there was a variety of "experimental" activity going on around such figures as Cornelius Cardew (then in his Maoist phase), all of it documented in a 1974 study by a young critic called Michael Nyman who was shortly to have a go himself.

Merely to list a selection of the names then in action, and to recall the range of often outstanding pieces they produced, might seem to call into question more pessimistic memories of the Seventies. As for the somewhat ad hoc selection comprising the London, Cardiff and Birmingham programmes of the upcoming instalment of Towards the Millennium, yet again these seem to teeter between a genuine historical survey and Sir Simon Rattle's desire to indulge his favourite party pieces. True, the London Sinfonietta's South Bank concert on 1 March, juxtaposing Ferneyhough's incredibly detailed meta-cycle Transit (1974) with the mesmerically pulsating "emptiness" of Steve Reich's Music for 18 Musicians (1975), encapsulates at least two of the decade's more extreme tendencies. And if Tippett's Fourth Symphony, Arvo Part's Tabula Rasa (1977) and The

Triumph of Time (1972) by Birtwistle are now frequently enough performed for one to wish for more searching choices, the chances to hear Tavener's less familiar Requiem for Father Malachy (1973), Morton Feldman's quietist Rothko Chapel (1972) and that luxuriant Takemitsu idyll A Flock Descends into the Pentagonal Garden (1977) remain welcome enough.

All the same, some way should have been found to insinuate the increasing sense of uncertainty against which the "high" arts attempted to carry on through the Seventies. Within a few years, and stoked by the computer revolution and the CD explosion, the music industry would become globalised to an unprecedented extent. Soon "accessibility" would be exalted as the sole absolute value - a symptom, in itself, of the degradation of democracy into mere consumerism - and the pursuit of serious musical thought increasingly marginalised by the marketing of what the critic Dick Witts has aptly called "pretend classical" with the promotion of such bland talents as John Adams as contemporary masters and the colonisation of supposedly classical wavelengths and record listings by the triumphant classic-lite kitsch of Karl Jenkins, James Horner and Dave Heath.

`Towards the Millennium: The 1970s': 26 Feb-16 Mar, Birmingham (0121 212 3333), Cardiff (01222 878444), London (0171 960 4242)