By ERNEST MOSS
Last week we considered in the barest outline what the revolutionaries are doing with timbre and rhythm. But it is what they are doing with harmony that has provoked the most controversy. The commonest charge brought against their works is that they are dissonant and atonal (i.e., not in a recognisable key).
Now, as I pointed out some months ago in an article on music and mathematics, there is, to begin with, no absolute method of classing a group of sounds as dissonant or consonant, and also the use of less consonant (i.e., dissonant) combinations to stress the perfection of more consonant ones has been a common device throughout almost the entire history of polyphonic music.
The important thing to realise, and which I am convinced would throw con siderable light on disputes about harmony on systematic examination, is that the principle running through this relationship of dissonance to consonance, and also most relationships of key, is that we have the faculty of reminiscence.
If we did not remember the dissonance it could not increase our relish of the consonance. And similarly with the question of key, if we did not remember what had gone before, we should have no hold on a tonal centre. One of the problems before us then, in a consideration of new schemes of harmony, is how many sound relationships not objectively present at one moment of time trained reminiscence will enable us to perceive.
We may fail to perceive the harmonic unity of a piece because we cannot remember with distinctness what has gone before; a difficulty which might be overcome by several hearings. It is common, for instance, for people who are not familiar with his music to consider Bach dissonant.
Thinking in More than One Key
The device of the pedal note is proof that traditional composers believed in practice that it is possible, as it were, to think in more than one key at a time. And there is no evidence to show what are the limits to our perception by reminiscence of the relationships of the sounds of a piece of music whose nature we could never find out by examining it bit by bit at different points in time.
All this, no doubt, sounds complex. And it is the complexity of the subject that I want to stress in order to make clear that no one is justified in condemning a system of harmony which is not like the one he is used to on the grounds that that is the only possible one. It has been suggested, for instance, that the ancients whose musical pleasure, it is supposed, was limited to pure melody, were in fact enjoying an elaborate harmony caused by the interplay of harmonics (subsidiary sounds which make up the timbre of voice or instrument).
These are one or two points in a subject of vast ramifications and which, given due thought, will show that Schonberg is not ipso facto raving mad in building up chords with fourths instead of thirds, even though in practice the experiment be void They Mustn't Die For traditional evolution in music is dead, and musical composition also must die unless we can find a way out. I wonder if Mr. Mortimer agrees? (Mr. Mortimer's views have appeared on our letter page.) Let us beware, though, of taking what we don't understand on trust simply because it is novel. Constant Lambert has done a necessary work in Music Ho! even if his case is rhetorical rather than reasonable. One of the most notable performances in recent concerts was an exquisitely finished playing of the Haydn 'cello concerto by Raya Garbousova with the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Hermann Abendroth. So unhurried and gracious an execution we seldom hear. At the same concert the orchestra gave a massive and fiery performance of Brahm's Symphony No. 1, a work frightening at times and with a second movement which opens with glorious but unfulfilled promise.
Emma Redell gave a pleasant recital of songs at the Aeolian Hall, though her voice is inclined to be a trifle on the fruity side.
I went over to Fr. Mason's church at Streatham on All Saints' Day and heard his excellent choir singing a Palestrina and Byrd. However, once again we had to endure an organ during the consecration.