Musicality of 20th Century New Music


  • Nikša Gligo



In the present contribution the author insists on regarding the New Music of the 20th cent. as one single phenomenon, thus disregarding e.g. attempts to separate the first half of the century from the second one. It is Arnold Schönberg who is usually taken as the initiator of New Music – primarily because he broke with the tradition of the tonal system and sought to found a new system in the dodecaphonic technique. The basic principles of the dodecaphonic technique have exerted a direct influence also on the formulating of the principle of serialized music as written in the early fifties. The blind alley of the total serialization is at the same time the end-phase in the attempts to estalish the musicality of New Music in terms of "historism", on the basis of its dependence on a given system. The unsuccessful realization of this "historicist" tendency, on the basis of which any New Music can be distinguished from any kind of music "in the tradition of a perfect system", gradually leads to a situation where the composer gives up his competencies for determining musicality. "The opening of the form" manifests this situation in several ways: the form no longer exists as something given, the "model", the relation between the particular and the whole is here not determined, the composer permits that the material may in a certain sense follow a course of its own, and for this reason leaves it to the performer and to the listener to determine the musicality of such "pre-supposed" music. In the final consequence, in the so-called "meta-musical phenomena" (unrelated to the "meta-music" as understood, e.g., by Xenaxis, B.A. Zimmermann and Stockhausen), there are lost also the last possible traces of the composer fs determining of musicality: the work as the homesite of musicality exists no longer, the writing down of the music is done in such a way that it cannot predetermine a public but only a private realization and not infrequently this realization needs not be carried out in sound (e.g. in "Prose Music" by L. Young, 1960). On the basis of such a definition of the 20th cent. New Music the second part of our contribution examines the possibilities of elucidating its musicality. After a re-examination of the possibilities of its "historicist" determination in the dependence on the system the conclusion is made that all the attempts (thus Schönberg's as well as, e.g. Hauer's, not to speak of total serialialization) are a consequence of the uthopian hope, or a result of the belief that there is just one kind of musicality which manifests itself exclusively through its dependence on the system inherent in the material (this stand is primarily characteristic of the Western culture until the emergence of New Music in the 20th cent., or rather until its breaking of the illusion of such an "exclusive" musicality). Theoretical considerations of the problems of musicality of New Music are faced with almost un surmountable difficulties, because the existing methodology and the conceptual apparatus become wholly unefficient when at grips with music that is not contained in the work, with music whose authorship is arbitrary and in which the compositional procedure cannot be a reliable way towards discovering and affirming its musicality. The 20th cent. New Music in fact requires a fundamental shift forward in the former conception of musicality in general, specifically in the sense of establishing its independence of the work, the composer's judgement, and the compositional technicalities in the usual sense of the term. Its "openness" and "freedom", its characteristic that it can be "pre-supposed", in fact demand that its musicality be proved and confirmed wholly within the sphere of private experience. This is demonstrated by its characteristic push towards privateness (which is after all the material background of its so-called "exclusiveness") and towards a highly agressive activism not permitting a passive waiting for something already known but requiring an active thinking-out of the sense of musicality in all the music composed so far. This "critical" attitude towards musicality in general and towards its own musicality leads to the conclusion that the New Music of the 20th cent., as here understood, is the last sanctuary of mind in the present unfriendly time and that therefore the discovering of New Music is a moral obligation for anybody who wants to attend to problems in this spirit.


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How to Cite

Gligo, N. (1984). Musicality of 20th Century New Music. Musicological Annual, 20(1), 75–100.