Late last night I turned on Radio 3 and immediately realised I was listening to Stockhausen's Gesang der Junglinge. I first heard this electronic masterpiece in my teens - I felt totally by it captivated then and still feel that way. Then, as now, I felt lost in wonder as if I had been suddenly transported to a different planet.
Not everyone feels that way about the piece. It was followed by another piece, this time by Luigi Nono - his
Polifonica-Monodia-Ritmica for six instruments and percussion. I didn't know it - but I've made acquaintance with it now, and would quite like to meet it again...
To talk about music as a language is problematic but sometimes useful. Imagine if the most adventurous composers of the twentieth century were poets, not musicians. It is as if they had got together and decided that the poetry they wanted to write demanded a new language - the languages their audiences spoke simply didn't have either the words, the grammatical constructions or the sounds to say the things they wanted to say. So they created a language: some words and constructions they borrowed from past languages, others they created anew. New poetry was written and yes, the poets were right - armed with the new language they were able to write what they wanted to write. The excitement, the creativity - it was a wonderful time to be a poet.
But the readers of poetry were not impressed. They knew what they liked and they had no truck with new-fangled languages. The new poets were charlatans, they said. Anyone could talk gobbledygook - and make it rhyme. And if these new poets expected their readers to learn a language it meant they were elitists.
The poets pleaded with them. They insisted their new language was easy to learn. Children simply learn their parents' language without thinking about it, by listening. Simply listen, like a child, they said. That's what we did, to the voices in our heads. Simply listen, take your time, and all will be revealed.
But it wasn't that simple. New technologies created wondrous possibilities for the new poets but they also served the writers of light verse who wrote what they knew people wanted to read, in languages they already knew.
I'll stop there. I should add that I'm not a pessimist - to continue the analogy for a moment, many great poems have been written in that "language" and since we'd be worse off without them, I think they'll endure one way or another. I still think more people will grow to love them.
I began with Stockhausen and the sense I felt of being transported to another world. I'll end with Schoenberg, who finished his Second String Quartet in 1908. It was a radical piece, the first performance of which led to scene not unlike (but less famous than) the one that accompanied the first performance of The Rite of Spring. In the final movement a soprano joins the quartet and sings the words of a poem by Stefan George:
by Stefan George, trans. Carl Engel
I feel the air of another planet
the friendly faces that were turned toward me
but lately, new are fading into darkness,
The trees and paths I knew and loved so well
are barely visible, and you beloved
and radiant spectre - cause of all my anguish,
You are wholly dimmed within a deeper glow,
whence, now that strife and tumult cease, there
comes the soothing tremor of a sacred awe.
I am dissolved in swirling sound, am weaving
unfathorned thanks with unnamed praise, and
wishless I yield myself into the mighty breath.
A wild gust grips me suddenly, and I can
hear the fervent cries and prayers of women
prone in the dust and seized in pious rapture:
And then I see the hazy vapours lifting
above a sunlit, vast and clear expanse
that stretches far below the mountain crags.
Beneath my feet a flooring soft and milky,
or endless chasms that I cross with ease.
Carried aloft beyond the highest cloud,
I am afloat upon a sea of crystal splendour,
I am only a sparkle of the holy fire,
I am only a roaring of the holy voice.
11 months ago