I have been involved in music for most of my life, mostly organ and choral music. Since then, my tastes in listening have broadened, and I tend to have a great affection for chamber music. My tastes have refined over the years from the grandiose to the intimate. This has happened in many aspects of my life.
Composition? I have succeeded in producing very little because I have felt blocked by the “establishment” and their “orthodoxy”. I studied harmony and counterpoint in musicology at school, and we analysed Mozart symphonies in very much the same way as poetry in our English literature classes. Music has harmony, melody, counterpoint and form. It is a language with its own grammar, vocabulary and literature. At the age of 16, I wrote an organ piece and since lost the only handwritten copy I had. I did a little motet on Videntes stellam for the Epiphany. More recently, I made the effort to overcome my “composer’s block” and wrote a setting of In pace in ipsum. I cannot deny it – I identify with neo-Romanticism from the beginning of the twentieth century, in more ways than only in music.
Are we not flogging dead horses, writing always in the same idiom until nothing original can be produced? Are there no more than twenty-six letters in the Latin alphabet as used for English, and yet we continue to write new things?
With extreme chromaticism in Germany towards the end of the nineteenth century, the break came in 1912 when Arnold Schönberg devised the idea of breaking totally with harmony. Thus we had atonal music, composed outside the rules of melody, harmony and counterpoint. As one person said to me in the 1970’s – “You need new ears for new music”. There was a book called Ear Cleaning designed to convert listeners and music students to atonal music. Atonal music sounds like something chaotic and random. It is noise without any order or law. I personally believe that this is not a matter of taste, but of objective laws. As the twentieth century wound on and the last of the Romantics had died (Rachmaninov in the 1940’s? Vaughan Williams in 1958? Herbert Howells in 1983?), atonality began to be imposed as an “orthodoxy”.
I am one of those who believe that the future of music depends on a return to melody and harmony. Some might see a “movement”, but I see it as something similar to Romanticism. Some of those men knew each other and were friends, but each had the attitude “be everything and join nothing”. Each of us is best on his own in these matters.
Like Romanticism, composers of tonal music situate themselves in a distinctive philosophy of life. It goes from a belief in objective beauty based on natural law, form, laws governing harmony and the use of dissonance and chromaticism. At school, we learn about melody and counterpoint, tension, suspension and resolution. A composer may take many years in finding and developing his personal style.
Tonality is based on the relationship between the notes that make up an octave (a given sound frequency and half or double the sound wave frequency number in Hertz). There are seven notes in an octave and the octave of the given note is the eighth. The relationship between those notes, where the tones and semitones occur, is called a mode. In medieval music and Gregorian chant, there are eight modes. In modern music, there are two: major and minor. From the eighteenth century, as music was written in a greater number of keys, instruments began to be tuned in equal temperament, the Pythagorean comma being divided by the twelve chromatic notes in the scale and made tolerable to the ear. At the same time, pieces of music could change keys as they progressed. This is called modulation, generally between the dominant, the sub-dominant and the relative minor, though special types of modulation came in during the nineteenth century like enharmonic modulation. In this way, there was a true development, as everything became more complex. All the same, a piece kept its main key and would almost always begin and end in the tonic of that key.
This was the tendency of the nineteenth century in everything. Go over the edge or rediscover simplicity and minimalism. As the twentieth century progressed, tonal composers have been marginalised and ostracised. Such composers were condemned to writing for the cinema or television, as was Vaughan Williams.
Atonal “orthodoxy” is being seriously challenged by composers with similar ideas in life to those of the Romantics. The great challengers were minimalists like Avro Pärt, whose music is of great sensitivity and beauty. The idea is not to return to nineteenth-century music, but to reinstate melody and harmony.
The greatest objection by atonalists to “traditional” music is the risk of pastiche, one era imitating another. This has been another cause of my own “composer’s block” and inability to venture into composition. I have called many things into question in my life. My singing teacher had a kind word to say, that we cannot reject our cultural history and tradition. Mine is English church music. Like Romanticism, we are called to live our identity whilst living in our time – not imitating the past but learning from it. The only way to learn composition now is to be self-taught, after a classical musical education in “techniques”.
After that, is is hard slog and occasional “inspiration”, and the reward of performing a piece and finding it enjoyed by others who love music.