New Ears for New Music

Translated by Kenneth Chalmers

by Constantin Floros (Author)
©2014 Monographs VI, 232 Pages


20th-century music is characterized by a bewildering multitude of trends and movements. Often several movements co-exist in contradiction to each other, in a reflection of the century’s intellectual currents and social and political changes, and the reactions they prompted. In this book, renowned musicologist and author Constantin Floros provides a survey of the different styles and tendencies in new music, presenting the most important composers from Schoenberg to Rihm in a series of fluent and readable essays that will appeal to connoisseurs and non-specialists alike. For Floros, music and biography are inseparable, and here he puts music in the context of the social and psychological background of its time.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Preface
  • From Expressionism to Experiment – Directions and Tendencies in New Music
  • Arnold Schoenberg – Revolutionary, Humanist and Visionary
  • “Music is not to be Decorative; it is to be True” – Towards an Aesthetic of the Second Viennese School
  • The Problem of “German Music”
  • The Fate of Arnold Schoenberg and Alban Berg after 1933
  • Two Unknown Letters by Schoenberg and Berg
  • Beethoven and the Schoenberg School
  • Principles of Vocal Composition
  • Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder
  • The Melodramas of Pierrot lunaire
  • “God’s Eternity Opposes the Transience of Idols” – On Schoenberg’s Moses and Aron
  • Nationalism and Folklorism
  • Nikos Skalkottas – A Schoenberg Pupil in Berlin
  • Beyond Schoenberg and Debussy – Nikos Skalkottas’s 32 Piano Pieces
  • A Conversation with Luigi Nono
  • Olivier Messiaen’s “Theological Music”
  • Pierre Boulez’s Masterpiece Le Marteau sans maître
  • Fascinated by the Music of Ligeti
  • Ligeti’s Hölderlin-Phantasien. A Letter from the Composer
  • Iridescent Sound
  • “Folklore in Serious Music is a Lie” – Ligeti’s Relationship with Béla Bartók
  • Multicultural Phenomena in the New Music
  • “A Music of the Whole Earth, All Countries and Races”: Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Utopia of World Music
  • The Philosophy of Time and Pluralistic Thought of Bernd Alois Zimmermann
  • Alfred Schnittke and Polystylism
  • And Always for a Better World – Approaches to Hans Werner Henze
  • So-called Postmodernism
  • “No Artist Works at a Distance from Humanity” – In Praise of Wolfgang Rihm
  • Afterword
  • Notes
  • Selective Bibliography
  • List of Music Examples and Illustrations
  • Plates
  • Index

← vi | 1 → Preface

“Why are we not allowed to write such beautiful music as Johann Sebastian Bach?”

It is not just the literature and visual arts of a given era that are marked by a “Zeitgeist”, but music is as well. Intellectual standpoints and social and political upheavals, and the reactions they provoke, are all reflected in the music of their time. The defining characteristic of 20th-century music was a dizzying multitude of different paths, with several occasionally contradictory currents often co-existing. And all these developments, even those that seem independent, have their roots in the spirit of the age.

The fact of dissonance as a marker of new music is intimately bound up with the human suffering that dates from the time of the First World War onwards, and the 20th century is rightly known as the bloodiest in the history of mankind. Such experiences found compelling artistic expression in Expressionist music.

Iwan Martynow put forward the theory that between the two world wars, music moved between two poles.2 At one pole was despair, dread and hopelessness – the elements that permeate Alban Berg’s inspired works. At the other was levity and lightness, superficiality and entertainment. Music was widely taken to be play, masquerade, a trick, irony or pastiche, “music about music”. Much of what is termed Neo-Classicism or Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity) belongs to this category.

The trauma inflicted by two world wars, the Holocaust, the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and repeated crimes against humanity left a mark on music as well. Since 1945 at least, politically engaged music has consequently been a more or less continuous strong current.

The 20th century was particularly characterised by huge technological advances, by the spirit of invention and the joy of discovery – all symptomatic of a drive to develop the world of sound in every way possible, that resulted in experimental, inventive and innovative music. There were, of course, “retrogressive” tendencies too, associated with religious and spiritual needs, and a human desire for emotion and beauty as well.

This book provides an overview of the trends and directions in new music, and presents various aspects of the most important composers. My concern was to shed light on the contemporary historical, intellectual, psychological and social background to this ars nova as well. The music of the 20th century will be interpreted from this perspective for the first time in its entirety.

Originally, at a time when I myself composed, my intense interest in new music was as an artist. In 1960 I decided in favour of scholarship and gave up ← 1 | 2 → composing completely. Since that time, new music has been a constant field of research for me. Initially, I focused my efforts on research into the music of the Second Viennese School and the work and aesthetic of György Ligeti. Later I turned to other composers. At the end of 1992 Breitkopf & Härtel published my extensive book on Alban Berg, subtitled “Music as Autobiography”, and at the beginning of 1996 my book on Ligeti was published by Lafite in Vienna. I was lucky enough to have extended conversations with Ligeti, Hans Werner Henze, Luigi Nono, Friedhelm Döhl and Peter Ruzicka, and also got to know Wolfgang Rihm, György Kurtág, Arvo Pärt, Alfred Schnittke, Krzysztof Meyer, Roman Berger, Peter Michael Hamel, Anatol Vieru, Stefan Niculescu, Klaus Stahmer, Wolfgang Andreas Schultz, Manfred Stahnke and Wolfgang von Schweinitz personally. I would like to convey my heartfelt thanks to all those who have contributed to the creation of this book in any way: Mrs Nuria Schoenberg-Nono, Dr Claudia Vincis (Archivio Luigi Nono Venice), Dr Eike Fess (Arnold Schoenberg Center Vienna), Universal Edition AG, Internationaler Verlag Schott in Mainz, Verlage Sikorski in Hamburg, and above all Dr Kenneth Chalmers, for his conscientious and subtle translation. Michael Bock (Hamburg) was responsible for the formatting of the volume, and Michael Rücker and Thomas Papsdorf of Peter Lang Verlag provided valuable advice on printing. The original German version of the chapter “Towards an Aesthetic of the Second Viennese School” has been expanded for this English edition.

← 2 | 3 → From Expressionism to Experiment
Directions and Tendencies in New Music

“It is the interest in change that has accelerated change to its giddy pace”

Around 1320, the French composer and theoretician Philippe de Vitry wrote a treatise that would subsequently acquire wide renown, and which he entitled Ars Nova, with the intention of distinguishing the music of his time from that of the past, the so-called ars antiqua. Six centuries later, something similar happened in Germany. In 1919, the prestigious critic Paul Bekker talked about the “new music” that was superseding that of the late Romantics.2 The salient features of this new music were the extension and dissolution of tonality, atonality, as it was known, twelve-note composition and the “emancipation of the dissonance”. All were markers of a development that can mainly be traced through the works of the composers of the Second Viennese School. Arnold Schoenberg and his principal pupils, Anton von Webern and Alban Berg, represent the radical “modernists” of the first half of the twentieth century, the path that they took ultimately emerging from a conflict with the boldest achievements of “late-Romantic” music. In many of their late works, Wagner, Liszt, Bruckner and Mahler – to name only the leading composers – pushed music to the very brink of atonality, and in all four there are occasional, bold note-clusters and unresolved dissonances that anticipate Schoenberg’s early Expressionist period.

The question of whether music develops in parallel with the other arts continues to be debated. Many music historians deny it categorically. The Romantics were of a different opinion. Robert Schumann, no less, claimed that, “the aesthetics of one art are the same as another; only the material is different”.3 No one today could deny that there are at least similarities of expression between the arts of a given period. If we can take it that the characteristics of literary Expressionism are a strong need for expression, compression of material, concentration on the essential, and rejection of decoration, then the same applies wholesale to the works that Schoenberg, Webern and Berg wrote in their atonal period. It is significant that all three had a preference for Expressionist poetry; Schoenberg wrote Expressionist dramas such as Erwartung, op.17 and Die glückliche Hand, op.18, and is said to have commented, “Music is not there to decorate, it should be true.”4 It is surely no coincidence that most of the works that date from his atonal period are either vocal pieces, or take their inspiration from a text. Of each published opus of Schoenberg’s, up to op.22, it is interesting that only five are purely instrumental, while in Webern’s output, vocal works far outstrip instrumental ones.

← 3 | 4 → In his Harmonielehre of 1911, Schoenberg argued that art at its highest level should be exclusively concerned with reproducing “inner nature”.5 Wassily Kandinsky expressed similar thoughts in his near-contemporary ground-breaking book Concerning the Spiritual in Art, the manifesto of a new aesthetic that broke with the imitation of “external nature” and aspired to the “unnatural, abstract and to inner nature”.6 Kandinsky got to know Schoenberg and some of his works in 1911, and wrote enthusiastically about them: “Schoenberg’s music takes us into a new realm, where the musical experiences are not acoustic ones, but purely spiritual. This is the beginning of the ‘Music of the Future’”.7

A statement made by Schoenberg in his Harmonielehre is highly characteristic of the Expressionist artist. It reads, “That which is new and unusual about a new harmony occurs to the true composer only because he must give expression to something that moves him, something new, something previously unheard-of. That can also be a new sound, but I believe it is far more than that: a new sound is a symbol, discovered involuntarily, a symbol proclaiming the new man who so asserts his individuality.”8 The literary scholar Walter H. Sokel rightly denoted the Expressionist artist as a “Poeta dolorosus”,9 and it has to be said that the musical idiom minted by Schoenberg and his pupils expressed anguish above all. Its sounds are mostly codes for fear, loneliness, despair and dread. Helene Berg once defined her husband as “a specialist in setting the gruesome to music”10. Indeed, no other composer could have set Georg Büchner’s words “Der Mensch ist ein Abgrund, es schwindelt einem, wenn man hinunterschaut” (man is an abyss, you feel dizzy when you look down into it) in Act 3 Scene 1 of Wozzeck, or the eerie attic scene in the third act of Lulu so harrowingly. Adorno grasped an essential truth when he wrote, “The first atonal works are case studies in the sense of psychoanalytical dream case studies”.11 The emancipation of the dissonance does not seem to match serenitas, or exhilaration of any kind. In this light, Hans Werner Henze’s comment that the Second Viennese School as well as the post-Expressionist school had “no vocabulary of mirth” seems justified.12

The development of each and every art is determined by diverging forces, and the dialectic of advance and retreat has a part to play. While many composers train their sights on the future, others take their bearings from the past. Wagner, who coined the phrase “music of the future”, had set himself the goal of renewing the art of composition by every means possible, not least by “wedding” it to poetry. Brahms, on the other hand, was firmly convinced had music had already reached its highest point before him.

As an intellectual movement, so-called neo-classicism started in Paris, and quickly took hold in many areas of cultural life, literature, visual arts and music. The leading figures in the movement were Jean Cocteau, Guillaume Apollinaire and Erik Satie. As early as 1916, Cocteau had drafted his Esthétique du minimum and espoused economy of means. His call of “back to the classics” ← 4 | 5 → signified a plea for a return to “order” and “elegance”, and at the same time for a distancing from emotionalism. He repeatedly invoked the work of Picasso, whom he felt to be a kindred spirit, and repeatedly sought to contact Stravinsky.13 Apollinaire put forward something similar in 1918 in an essay entitled L’Esprit nouveau et les poètes. 1918 also saw the appearance, just as the First World War was ending, of Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony and Stravinsky’s The Soldier’s Tale, and two years later Stravinsky wrote his Pulcinella, a suite on themes by Pergolesi (and others). In 1913, with his Sacre du printemps, Stravinsky had appeared to many to be a revolutionary and enfant terrible; with these two later works he completed his departure from the style of his Russian ballets, bound up as they were with Russian folklore and traditions.


VI, 232
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2014 (April)
Postmoderne Nationalismus Multikulturelle Phänomene Polystilistik Polystilism Tonlität Zwölftonmusik Schönberg, Arnold Ligety, György Folklorismus Atonalität Rihm, Wolfgang Moderne Berg, Alban
Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2013. VI, 232 pp., 2 coloured fig., 11 b/w fig., 14 misc. fig.

Biographical notes

Constantin Floros (Author)

Constantin Floros is professor emeritus of musicology at the University of Hamburg and a prolific writer on diverse subjects. Among his monographs are volumes on the origin of Gregorian neumes, about Beethoven’s Eroica, Gustav Mahler, Anton Bruckner, Johannes Brahms, Alban Berg and György Ligeti.


Title: New Ears for New Music
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242 pages