Uneven tone mars volume

Sinan Carter Savaskan

Sinan Carter Savaskan on 20th century music. LEAVING HOME:A CONDUCTED TOUR OF TWENTIETH-CENTURY MUSIC WITH SIMON RATTLE By Michael Hall FABER AND FABER Pounds 20. This book is designed to accompany Simon Rattle's seven-part Channel 4 series which aims to "bring the music of our wonderful, infuriating century to a wider public". The title refers to the departures made by many 20th century composers from the solid "home" foundations of the previous three centuries in order to explore new frontiers in harmony, melody, timbre, rhythm and metre.

The book has the same plan as the television series. After a lucid and concise "View of the Century", the crisis in tonality (the break with traditional harmony) in the early years of the century, innovations in rhythm and tone colour, and music in eastern Europe and the United States are dealt with in separate chapters.

The last two chapters divide the period since the Second World War into two units - the so called "golden age" between 1947 and 1973, and the years of recession and uncertainty that followed. In the first chapter Michael Hall states that "nothing fundamentally new has emerged since 1973." But when we do reach the period in question, we discover that some of the fundamentally new and most important movements, and indeed the composers associated with them, have not been discussed. Spectral Music is the most important French contribution to the music of the second part of this century. New Simplicity, Neo-romanticism, and developments in computer-related music have, arguably, certain connections with the past, but the originality of these styles and genres and the amount of music produced in them, qualify them for a proper place in the history of modern music.

This unevenness of coverage continues throughout the book. Michael Hall is a highly qualified musicologist and writer, well-placed to produce an analytical survey of modern music. His book on Harrison Birtwistle and his recent Listening To... series of programmes for Radio 3 are remarkably comprehensive. He has an uncommon facility for explaining some of the most complex compositional techniques in a direct and uncluttered manner.

Unfortunately, Leaving Home lacks this consistency; the problem here seems to be one of editorial indecision about whether to make this book an equal companion to the television series or a more substantial complementary volume.

Some sections fit in perfectly with the former: the chapter on the Second Viennese School is easy reading with very light analytical touches. The glossary at the end is obviously aimed at a non-specialist readership with explanations for cadence, canon, consonance, grace note, modulation, tonality, etc, in a book where one encounters some of the most interesting and only recently available analytical charts for the personages rhythmiques of Messiaen's Turangalila Symphony.

Elsewhere, statements such as "[Ruth] Crawford was probably the first composer outside the Second Viennese School (Schoenberg, Berg and Webern) to make self-conscious use of rotational and bilateral symmetries in order to create balance in her music" take one by surprise.

The book concludes with no fewer than five pages devoted to the work of the young Thomas Ades, an absurdly disproportionate degree of attention, considering there is no space for a single mention of the music of the late Cornelius Cardew the most important and internationally influential experimental composer Britain has produced. Colin Matthews, Howard Skempton, John White, Michael Finnissy, Bill Hopkins, Chris Newman and Kevin Volans are all established composers with a great deal of originality and considerable international reputations; they and a large number of others have, to varying extents, "instigated trends or new ways of proceeding", but have not found their way into this survey.

But the most important omission is that of Julian Anderson. He is a contemporary of Ades, yet has received more undivided critical attention, as well as a constant stream of very respectable commissions. Anderson's genuinely original compositions are the outcome of an in-depth study of a vast array of musical sources.

Despite its shortcomings, this is a substantial volume: in some areas it has more up-to-date information than any other single book available at the moment, and it has the best illustrations to be found in any book on the subject (even though sometimes without captions - making it very difficult to appreciate the link between topic and visual illustration).

Editorial problems could be addressed and some rather basic errors corrected. A reference to Schoenberg's non-existent Brass Quintet opus 12 should be to the Woodwind Quintet opus 26. Frequent Shostakovich quotations are from that highly disputed secondary source material Testimony, and should be used more critically. The last section of Boulez's Repons was always the carillon section, and not the "Scriabin section".

A revised edition without the shortcomings of the present one, possibly detached from the context of the television series, could become one of the most useful and colourful reference books on 20th century music.

Sinan Carter Savaskan is a composer and deputy director of music at Westminster School. Related products and events include a performance of Stockhausen's work for three orchestras, Gruppen, to be broadcast on Channel 4 on November 3, two CDs of music featured in the programme from EMI (7243 5 66136, 7243 5 66137), and an eight-part series on Radio 3 about Simon Rattle's career.

Register to continue reading for free

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you

Sinan Carter Savaskan

Latest stories