Why did you program that 1945 Carter Sonata? Why the Ives, Bartók, Hindemith, Weisgall, Sessions, Copland, Shostakovich, Messiaen? The questioners observe that modernist forms and dissonances are unwelcoming, upsetting or incomprehensible (while being blissfully unaware that many of the very same musical techniques have become the norm in the underscoring for their favorite television shows and films). Why do I play these pieces? I want to take a stab at answering this query here in as non-technical a way as possible; those with graduate degrees in music may wish to close their browsers and look away.
The simple response: I have always had a strong affinity for classical music of the mid- to late 20th century, and you need to play what you love, regardless of perceived accessibility or marketability. This is apparently a rare enthusiasm, if one takes a relative scarcity of programming, radio airtime and recording to be indications of popularity. In any case, I know there are true reasons to be fascinated by this music, and understandable circumstances that have led to its neglect. Pre-millennium repertoire is a bit like the old state road that was mostly abandoned when the interstate came through; it takes much longer to get home, there are bumps and potholes to endure and all the trendy shops have moved away. Nevertheless, there are well-earned beauties to discover and relish along this overgrown byway, never to be seen at 80 mph.
If this music is so wonderful, why is it neglected? First and obviously, it is not Bach, Beethoven or Brahms. Though completely connected and indebted to the eras of music-we-love-to-hear, the various languages in use by even the early 1900’s (as in art and literature) necessarily began to reflect and comment upon the vicissitudes of modern life, the horrors of world war, the fracturing of centuries-old social orders. There is enduring beauty and necessary, scalding truth in these new expressions, but the old and powerful cult of consonance and familiarity, the limiting addiction to music as comfort, solace and escape has been hard to shake, even to this day. Second, a little thing called popular music blossomed around the same time, as another facet of modernism. A natural outgrowth of various folk music traditions, it eventually made as complete a split as possible with fine art music and never looked back. As in most folk music, its purpose was a non-complex expression of love or hardship, and was primarily generated as a means of entertainment and diversion. Over the last century or so, it has retained a maddeningly simple approach to content, harmony, rhythm and form, at least in comparison to contemporary classical music, relying on seemingly endless supplies of artistic individuality and ingenuity to sustain interest (I don’t include jazz in this rough assessment; I believe it has had an arc more similar to classical music in most ways). As an irresistible economic juggernaut, popular music forever banished art music to the corner of the classroom, where we stalwart few have been forced to write I must not play challenging music on the chalkboard 100 times. Not surprisingly, beginning in the 1960’s or so, various “postmodern” styles such as minimalism began to emerge, with varying degrees of success, in an attempt to fuse the classical and popular worlds–and as a means of survival. The nourishing importance of thoughtful, organic development took a back seat on the freeway to the 21st century, and seems more and more lost to the hyper kinetic, information-age audiences of today.
I fear we have left behind a wealth of wonderful music in this inartistic desire to appeal. It is my mission to celebrate this music, to the best of my abilities, because I believe it has something important to say to us, and always has had. So perhaps my true answer to the question is: I play this piece because as an artist I must, because I need it and I believe you need it, even if you can’t fully understand or appreciate the message it brings to you at this time.