What kind of books do I turn to for pleasure reading in my spare time? Why, wrong-headed polemics on musical subjects from several decades ago, of course! (Music Ho, anyone?)
Supposedly incredibly controversial in 1955, Pleasants's book plasters its manifesto on the back jacket. "Modern music is not modern and is rarely music. It represents an attempt to perpetuate a European musical tradition whose technical resources are exhausted, and which no longer has any cultural validity. . . New music which cannot excite the enthusiastic participation of the lay listener has no claim to his sympathy and indulgence. . . The evolution of Western music continues in American popular music, which has found the way back to the basic musical elements of melody and rhythm, exploited in an original manner congenial to the society of which it is the spontaneous musical expression."
Gack. How tiresome. And yet you hear poorly developed versions of the same arguments from the sort of concertgoers who are determined to dislike all twentieth-century concert music on principle, and from modern pundits who should know better. And so the book is of more than historical interest.
The basic problem with Pleasants's criticism becomes apparent in the first chapter. To wit: his ears are on backwards. To describe Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf and Ravel's Bolero as "fleetingly attractive novelties" is so totally wrong-headed that this is the only possible explanation. If someone had helped him to adjust them correctly before he wrote the book, we could have been spared years of fruitless argument. But it's too late, and we're stuck with it. Darn.
Here, basically, is the problem. Pleasants doesn't like twentieth-century concert music himself. That'll happen. But he projects his own lack of aesthetic sympathy onto faceless audience members, who he quotes as saying things like "I can't say I liked the new symphony, but then I don't understand modern music". As a performer, I can provide innumerable examples of twentieth-century works that excited genuine interest and enjoyment in lay audiences, dating from the beginning of my career as a church musician to the all-Messiaen concert I attended last night. And so Pleasants's idea of the state of modern music, a group of cognoscenti forcing bad music upon an audience that hates it but is too afraid to say so, is the reverse of reality. Audiences will accept all but the most extreme of modern musical constructions given a suitable frame of reference and a congenial environment; the ones holding them back from doing so are the performers, concert promoters, and other members of the "cognoscenti" who are too afraid to program modern music at all. Often, their musical education prevents them from fully appreciating the music themselves; their classical training makes them see all music through a lens of common-practice harmony and makes it impossible for them to accept music which differs from their textbook harmonic and formal narratives. It's the musicians that joke about the inaccessibility of modern music, not the public: the musicians have lost the ability to hear with lay people's ears and are really joking about the music's technical difficulty, and the public has never heard the music.
I actually intended this to be a short post. Whoops! I did break it up with a picture, though. I'm learning.