But to be honest, it was more than the bourgeoisie they had to worry about — it was the entire world. Therefore their laboratory experiment, in many ways understandable and exciting in its own right, deliberately avoided those aspects of musical communication that were primal, universal aspects of the human condition. They wanted to build a new culture, Khmer Rouge-like, out of the broken shards. This has been the mistake that modernists and Marxists in music and politics have made ever since. What began life in the post-war years as a deadly serious challenge to tradition and a Duchampian provocation is now enshrined in academia and cultural officialdom, with fences all around. To give an example: I agreed to adjudicate on a composition competition at a New Music festival in Hanover. They were all ready to send me the scores. I discovered that the deal usually was that "esteemed professors", when they were asked on to the panel, would have their music played at the festival. But then it became clear that none of my music was being played. When my representatives asked why, the explanation was, "Our New Music festival does not give a platform to tonal and conservative composers." Then why have you asked me to adjudicate? I pulled out.
The modernist hierarchy is still so powerful in places such as German radio stations and German and French New Music festivals that it acts like a politburo. And like all good politburos in recent times, it sees religion as an enemy to be confronted and defeated. This is why it is often airbrushed from official readings of recent musical history. But there is a huge untold story that is worth pursuing, with religion in the fault lines of this ongoing discussion.
It all comes back to Wagner. Although he was an unconventional religious thinker, his absolute ideal was a search for the sacred. The philosopher Roger Scruton explores this in Death-Devoted Heart: Sex and the Sacred in Wagner's Tristan and Isolde (OUP, 2004). The impact of this opera, not just on modern music but on other forms of modernity, was huge. In the past 100-150 years, there has been a steady line of major composers who were profoundly religious men or women in different ways. Stravinsky, who was as conservative in his theology as he was revolutionary in the music he made, had a great love of the Catholicism he encountered in the West and of his own Orthodoxy. He wrote masses, he wrote music for liturgy. He was a believer.
Schoenberg, the great modernist icon, reconverted to Judaism from Protestantism in 1933 and religious subjects became increasingly important to him in the last decades of his life. He was obsessed by the philosophical connections between silence and music. This is why John Cage studied with Schoenberg and then pursued his own religious paths through a discovery of the religions of the Far East. The interesting thing about Cage, with his aesthetics of silence, noise and music, was that his most famous or notorious piece, 4'33", which is 4 minutes 33 seconds of silence — a kind of rhetorical gimmick, but a real challenge to the culture in many other ways — was originally entitled Silent Prayer.
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