The trouble with new music is that it’s unnecessarily complicated, it has too many ideas in succession, there are too many unexpected harmonies, and it’s difficult to grasp the music on just a single hearing. That, at least, was the criticism of Mozart’s music during his lifetime. Other judgements of the young whippersnapper’s work included: "too strongly spiced,” "impenetrable,” "bizarre," "overloaded and overstuffed.”
When Beethoven’s new compositions were first published, they were also frequently denounced as “bizarre.” A performance of the Second Symphony led a reviewer to request that it be shortened. The “Eroica” was described as “for the most part so shrill and complicated that only those who worship both the failings and the merits of this composer equally could find pleasure in it.” A critic wrote that the Fifth “sets in motion the machinery of awe, of fear, of terror, of pain.” (And this one admired the work!) In 1823 a London newspaper declared of the “Pastoral” symphony: “We certainly never heard it through without rejoicing at its termination.” And finally, the Ninth was said to be nothing but “the obstreperous roarings of modern frenzy.”
Modern — we forget that every composer was modern when they were alive and putting their works out into the world. Johann Sebastian Bach was passed over for a musical appointment twice, and his music in general was described as “turgid and confused.” Going back in time, first to the 17th century, the great Monteverdi’s compositions were called “unbearable to the ear.” Music of the Renaissance was often condemned by the Church as being “lascivious,” borrowing, as it does, frequently from secular songs. And the Middle Ages was full of virulent complaints about new music and its horrors.
It seems as though we humans have a built-in resistance to the new. Perhaps this derives from our evolutionary history: Watch out for that berry, it could be poisonous. This feeling also varies across our lifetimes: as adolescents and young adults, our senses alive and finely tuned, our emotions deeply surging, what we experience is engraved on our souls; as we age, we continue to be in love with our earlier experiences, and we become less open to new ones.
But we can change that. Let us embark upon this coming weekend at Tanglewood, filled as it is with a heady mixture of old and new, familiar and unfamiliar, soothingly known and excitingly unknown, with an open mind. Without new music, an orchestra becomes a museu; a music festival like Tanglewood, a parade of warhorses. Together, they become a feast. We can compare old and new, hear the traditions transmuted into the modern world, set the known against the unknown.
Saturday’s Tanglewood program includes two new works and two that are established in the repertory. The new works are Jessie Montgomery’s “Starburst,” whose opening explosion is followed by a passage of coalescence before the exciting finish, and John Williams’s Second Violin Concerto, which will have its world premiere performance. These are followed by Copland’s “Quiet City,” a 10-minute pre museu of the composer’s incidental music for Irwin Shaw’s play of the same name. A solo trumpet represents the conscience of the young man who has abandoned his past for material gain. And the last work on the program is the spectacular “Firebird” Suite of Stravinsky. You might wish to ask yourself, Which is the more modern work: the John Williams or the Stravinsky?
On Sunday, the exquisite Third Piano Concerto of Beethoven and Schumann’s Fourth Symphony, which manages to integrate march music with lyricism and a scurrying energy, are enlivened by “Jeder Baum spricht,” (“Every Tree Speaks”) by the Iranian-Canadian composer Iman Habibi. This 2020 composition acknowledges the big Beethoven anniversary of last year by echoing both the nature emphasis of Beethoven’s “Pastoral” Symphony and the well-known opening motif of Beethoven’s Fifth. Here, the new shakes hands with the old.
This small sprinkling of new works sets the stage for next week’s Festival of Contemporary Music (slightly abbreviated this year) put on by the Fellows of the Tanglewood Music Center. This festival lays out a smorgasbord of new works for us to sample with open ears and an open mind. For surely we don’t want to go down in history with the Austrian emperor who said at the premier of a new opera, “Too many notes, dear Mozart, too many notes.”