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Music: Fort-Holder

3 minute read

About 15 years ago, when modernist composers were making heyday, the most puritanical modernists of all were the Viennese Atonalists.* While their fellows boisterously and good-naturedly jounced the sacred applecart of musical structure, the Atonalists systematically bored into that structure like so many worms. Their music was as painful and persistent as a dentist’s drill.

Most relentless Atonalist was gloomy, bald-headed Arnold Schöberg, who in his time influenced at least half the younger composers of Europe. Other eminent Atonalists, all Schöberg disciples: Anton von Webern, who wrote orchestral pieces like the slight whine of a determined mosquito; the late Alban Berg, who wrote the atrabilious opera Wozzeck; Ernest Krenek, who once relapsed so far into cheerfulness as to write an imitation jazz opera called Johnny Spielt Auf.

Atonality is no longer as fashionable as it was, and even No. 1 Atonalist Schönberg, who is now in Hollywood (but not of it), has begun to put slightly more melodious whistles in his work. Not so, his disciple Krenek. Last spring Composer Krenek, in an article in Musical America, deplored the reaction of his contemporaries, exhorted them to turn back to the stern old days of esthetic revolution, of completely tuneless music.

Last week on a beautiful Indian Summer afternoon, Composer Krenek’s latest opus, a musical pie called Piano Concerto No. 2, was set before Boston’s dowagers and debutantes at a Boston Symphony concert in Boston’s Symphony Hall. Stocky Ernest Krenek himself sat hungrily up to the piano. Conductor Koussevitzky was ill, so it fell to Concertmaster Richard Burgin to dish it up. When the pie was opened and the bats began to squeak, the audience could hear that Composer Krenek had been true to his atonality, and in his own fashion. A dozen Bostonians got up and left; of those who remained some were puzzled, some worried, some tolerantly amused; a few politely applauded.

When it was over, U. S. Composer Roy Harris, who had sat it out, sniffed: “I should say the piece was 19th-Century German Romantic.” Confused Bostonians, looking everywhere but under the seats for the romanticism, found a will o’ the wisp clue in their program notes, where Composer Krenek’s own words told them: “At the end of the piece the piano seems to remove all traces of solidity, the orchestra reverts to the indistinct sounds of the high violins which introduced the work . . . leading the music back to the remoteness whence it came.”

*Atonalism, not to be confused with such cacophonies as occur in Stravinsky’s Sacre du Printemps, can be roughly compared with Abstractionism in painting.

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