My wife and I were coming home on the bus from Lincoln Center (we’d been to the movies, for once, at a theater near there, not to a concert). On the bus were people immediately identifiable as a concert/opera crowd, and we overheard one couple saying that whatever they’d come from was the best thing they’d seen in 30 years.
We couldn’t restrain our curiosity. What was that? we asked them. Salome at the Met, they answered, and even as we’d asked the question, we’d guessed the response. Nothing else at Lincoln Center has evoked that much excitement this year, from anyone. (We’re seeing it this weekend.)
As they told us why they liked it so much, something caught my ear. One reason why the opera was so compelling, they said, was the “discordant” music. It fit the story, they said.
In a way, you might think, that’s odd. A piece premiered 99 years ago still sounds discordant!
But that makes perfect sense. A while ago I heard the Mahler Third, with Eschenbach and the Philadelphia Orchestra, and felt almost torn inside — and fascinated! — by the way the music stretches (and sometimes almost rips apart) tonality. It struck me then that atonality, for anybody used to it, sounds pretty tame now. It doesn’t raise any issues; it can’t disturb me.
Tonality, though, is still with us. Today I listened to the second Shostakovich piano concerto; its tonal harmony sounded fresh as a daisy (and — speaking now of aesthetics, not harmony — the sass of the first movement seemed wildly up to date). Tonality, in fact, still sounds entirely normal. So anything that pulls and tears at it can still sound unsettling. Or, at least, music written when tonality was under siege reflects that struggle, and still can get to us.
I’ve written quite a bit about issues of tonal and atonal harmony in my NewMusicBox column. One piece that meant a lot to me was on the meaning of atonality — atonal music, I’ve come to think, is very rarified, and not much use for representing the emotions of everyday life. You can read it here.