Modern Music and the Rush to the Exits

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Composer Douglas Moore (1893-1969)

From the February, 1943 WQXR Program Guide:

Prof. Moore as head of the Music Department of Columbia University is not only famous as an educator but also well known as a composer and writer. He is the composer of "The Devil and Daniel Webster" and as the author of "From Madrigal to Modern Music," is particularly well qualified to write on this subject.

Something has happened to take the sting out of the adjective 'modern' when applied to music. A few years ago a public which turned naturally to modern novels, modern poetry, modern painting and architecture practically rushed for the exits when a piece of modern music reared its ugly head in the concert hall. Only a devoted few in this country attempted to keep pace with the contemporary composers, and they were usually suspected of being either snobs or dangerous radicals. But it is all very different now. The biggest drawing card that the orchestras have at the moment is a brand new Russian symphony, written by a composer who was scarcely known to the large public a few years ago, Shostakovich. Stravinsky's Sacre du Printemps is practically a household favorite. A new American opera by Randall Thompson, broadcast last spring, has been repeated twice over the same station within six months, by popular demand. There are to be several concerts this winter in Town Hall, each devoted to the compositions of young and progressive American composers. Even the Town Hall Endowment Series, catering to a public conspicuously devoted to "standard brands," announces a concert of world premieres, chamber music of Copland, Gruenberg, Jacobi, Martinu, Milhaud and Piston.

All this sounds either as if modern music has been played so much that a taste for it is actually developing, or that the article itself is not as formerly advertised. Probably both causes are at work.

The League of Composers, which is celebrating its twentieth anniversary this year, is certainly entitled to much credit for unwavering devotion to the encouragement of contemporary music. When the top musical organizations of the country were at their reactionary worst, and the music which was played everywhere in Europe was almost unheard in our own concert halls and opera houses, the League, with its chamber, orchestra, and operatic performances and its admirably edited magazine Modern Music, stepped into the breach and kept the issue of the validity of contemporary musical thought before the public. The W.P.A. instead of going the easy way and sticking in the rut of program conventionality experimented with contemporary American composers, both in its orchestral programs and in its most happily conceived forums of chamber music. The record companies and radio stations which might have been expected to cling to the safe and sane showed courage and initiative in bombarding the public with the new music, and from all accounts have found enough encouragement from their patrons to keep it up.

In the long run the public which pays the bills is the determining factor in selection of all programs. Our concert and opera audiences and, even more, those devoted individuals who comprise their boards are still largely unconvinced as to the attractiveness of modern music. People have always preferred familiar music to adventures in the unknown, and the twentieth century has some pretty stiff competition from the great music of the past, probably now more widely known and understood than ever before. But there seem to be an increasing number of music lovers who have discovered that a piece of modern music may be easy to listen to as well as stimulating and provocative. No one will be converted to the cause by appeals for support or admonitions as to duty. The music itself must do it. One satisfied customer is worth a dozen pamphlets or articles. 

And this is apparently just what is happening. For a time it looked as if there were so much that was new in the way of musical resource, atonality, polytonality, primitive rhythm, meterless rhythm, neo-classicism and neo-romanticism that the composer became a sort of harassed laboratory technician, solving problems, concocting horrible mixtures by scientific formulae and forgetting the public that had no wish to serve as guinea pig but had a definite desire to enjoy its music. The laboratory period seems now to have disappeared overnight. Many useful ideas have come out of it and as a result, our music of the twentieth century will have a personality and importance all its own. But practically every composer of today has become aware of the fact that audiences exist, and that music is something communicable. It is vastly more satisfactory to address an audience than to write for each other's distinctly limited appreciation. And this does not mean writing down either. It simply means a realization that music lovers, nourished by a devotion to the traditional, can assimilate the new only when it is skillfully blended with the old and is intelligibly and attractively presented.

And so the public which has heard enough modern music so that it does not blench at a dissonance, and has learned that a living composer is not necessarily inferior to a dead one, and that not every symphony can be expected to be another Eroica nor every opera a reincarnated Carmen, is turning a more friendly ear to a group of modern composers who are basking in the unaccustomed warmth of sympathy and appreciation. The exits are still in demand but at least there is no more rush.