The Agony of Modern Music

Program notes

The Agony of Modern Music is a secular cantata for small chorus, soloists, two keyboardists, and percussion. I wrote the piece as a way of memorializing the intense passions aroused by the music of the twentieth-century. These passions, though not quite extinguished, are starting to move into the realm of history—becoming memories of disputes, rather than disputes themselves. The piece looks forward to a time when we will remember the passions surrounding twentieth-century music with a certain amount of detachment, no longer quite able to explain what all the fuss was about.

The first, third, and fourth movements are based on texts by composers and music critics: some polemical (Henry Pleasants, Arnold Schoenberg), some utopian (Karlheinz Stockhausen, Milton Babbitt), and some despairing (Arthur Honegger, Leonard Bernstein). The fourth movement counterposes a Shelley poem about death with Honegger and Bernstein’s ruminations about the death of music. The second movement is an abridgement of a chapter from Milan Kundera’s The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, in which Kundera somewhat bitterly compares Schoenberg’s musical utopianism to the sentiments motivating Soviet communism.

In writing the piece I tried to remain somewhat distant from the texts themselves. The music is largely tonal, and to that extent it does not endorse the idea that tonality is a thing of the past. But neither does it endorse the idea that musical avant-gardism was a “mistake,” a “wrong turn” or something to be embarrassed about. (The avant-garde is part of us, though perhaps not so large a part as some composers and critics imagined.) Rather than taking sides, the music implicitly suggests that we have reached a point where we can simply sing.

Instrumentation: Four solo singers, chorus, two pianos, synth, two percussion

Performers: The Gregg Smith Singers