This paper is forthcoming in the proceedings of the conference: Mimesi, verità e fiction, Edusc, Roma 2008
This speech has been delivered on Friday, March 30th, 2007 at the Pontifical University Santa Croce in Rome  
the article as .doc-file

The Shock of the Old –

Towards a New Timelessness in the Arts


Nikolaus Schapfl, Mag.art., composer


On the whole there are three different styles of music today:
A serious music which claims the role of the high culture for itself and remains, besides, only a separated special area, a ghetto meeting a vanishing low interest in the whole music life—briefly: music the people are not living with (Boulez, excerpt of Notations- Très vif. Listen to this example: external sound link

Secondly, light music, which may be mostly, even if not always, a culture of the banal or the belly—but who can deny that there are some profound and impressive pop songs which can make a real artistic statement with considerable force?

And thirdly an area of tonal and experimental soundtrack for movies which emits, indeed, often much elevating aesthetics, but—by definition—has its centre outside of itself, acting as a background on the threshold of consciousness, even if there are pieces—seemingly more and more less—which have successfully made their way onto the concert stage (Listen: John Williams’ main theme of Schindler’s List).

The question rises in a striking way: Where is, actually, that new music by which the people’s longings for beauty, for an elevating general view, for the experience of the heights and depths of human life, for the union of emotion and intellect, are expressed?
Which structures and forces are dominating this Status Quo and how can young composers force themselves to the freedom to create greater art?

1. Status Quo

1.1. Conviction and Survival of the artist

For a «full time» artist—for somebody who earns his living by this service—the aesthetic and stylistic considerations of cultural philosophers, critics, musicologists etc. are not only nice-spiritual or an object of discussion without any consequence for life, but a real basis of life and work: His conviction is connected to his survival. This may count also for some university teachers for instance, who have—or who think they have—to stand for opinions that are not very much more than politically correct.

1.2. The «Zeitgeist» as rule – The spirit of the time

Within the discussion among musicology, universities of music, concert-organizations (opera-houses, festivals, concert halls), music critics, PR and industry there arises the SPIRIT OF THE TIMES (Zeitgeist), a kind of medium in which we swim, a kind of instruction for the perception of the world and the topical rules of the game.

1.3. The usual division into high-culture and mass-culture

Today, the actually originated, contemporary composition is divided in E- and U-music: Serious- and Entertainment-Music. This division is a basis not only for the theoretical adoption but also for the financial assessment by the copyright societies:
a) Serious Music (is today a Ghetto and a battle place).
After and parallel to the late-romantic period (Wagner/R. Strauss), mainly by the so-called 2nd Vienna School around 1920, a new ground outside tonality has been broken, the more with energy the more it encountered resistance. Music ought to be freed from insistent but narrow ways of thinking. This «new» music was consequently reduced to the dissonant spectrum forgetting the fact that not only dissonance but also harmony are ageless parts of its nature. But the everlasting desire for tonal expressions, for melody and harmony, which reveal their beauty even more in the contrast to dissonance, could not be extinguished, even not after 80 years of a strict reeducation. Meanwhile, tonality found a living expression in the entertainment music, regrettably by dismissing its high artistic status. A composer who wanted to deal with the high culture had to obey to the new ideology which now narrowed the spectrum to the dissonances.
This strange situation has been lasting until today: 1) High-level music is—by ideology—identified with atonality. 2) Beauty in music has become a phenomenon of passed eras and is no longer a part of contemporary life.
The consequence is: In concerts the Sandwich-technique has been established which means: «Beetween two Mozart´s one Ligeti» in order to prevent the audience from leaving after the pause.
For example: At the Mozart-Woche in Salzburg, January 28th 2007, between two Mozart´s (KV 415 and KV 338) the concert for piano and orchestra by Ligeti was played. Musicians on the stage as well as many of the listeners among the international audience stopped their ears because it really was beyond all bearing. The Salzburger Nachrichten called it two days later: «for advanced listeners».
The composer Wolfgang Rihm (*1952) reveals himself being aware of this problem when he says: «Die Kürze von Stücken der neuen Musik bediene die Funktion neuer Musik als zeitgenössischer Konzert-Ouvertüre – nach deren 12-minütiger Dauer das Sättigungshauptstück des Abends, eine Sinfonie von Beethoven oder Bruckner, zu folgen pflegt» («Bloß nicht mit Prothesen winken», Die Welt, February 1st 2003. – The shortness of the pieces of the New Music confirms its function as an Overture which—after about 12 minutes—is followed by the evening´s «main-fulfilling-piece», normally a Beethoven or a Bruckner.)

b) Pop Music (entertainment music for the masses, often—not always—a culture of the banal).

Somehow located between Serious- and Pop-Music:
c) The tonal and experimental movie score: Film music which mainly is a background and no absolute music having its centre in itself. The growing of the optical culture means a loss of abstraction and spirit.
What is experienced as beautiful, fulfilling, elevating often is called «second rate», while a composer wanting to create high-culture has no alternative if he wants to be taken serious as to offer nihilism, deconstructivism («All is nothing»), an institutionalized «being free of any statement». If he wants musical beauty he is said: Go to movie... Go to pop!
Here are some examples of vain words by contemporary, influential composers: «a mastership of the material… A transparency and an ornamentizism…, it goes into the inner, into the open, ... sound colours of a wide-scale composition consciously avoiding clichés.»

1.4. The longings of the listeners, the musicians and the composers are different to the ZEITGEIST

We all are longing for the beautiful, for the Tremendum et Faszinosum, for the true life, the beauty, to be moved by drama, love, death, liberation. We cannot do in a different way. It’s the force of the shot arrow, our life. Art is making visible, leading to an experience of the image of God in man. The greatest a human being can experience is to see God like He is. Thus art is an expression of this longing and means to somehow give a presentiment.

2. The Ageless

2.1. A necessary Avantgarde

The timeless or ageless always is the new, the authentic. It is always valuable and senseful, is the inexhaustible source of the desired, of the perfect. A good avantgarde must release from any locking or imprisoning rules. Avantgarde is in the good sense «provocation», it «calls out» from the routine. Talent means for an artist to accept the challenge of truth and to answer to it.

2.2. A destructive Avantgarde

The important composer Helmut Lachenmann (*1935), a representative of extreme atonal music and noise-art, once said to me about my opera The Little Prince that it’s good made and very successful. During a dinner, while I sit at his side, he told me—he whispered into my ear: «In the fifties the communists came to us and said: “You must destroy the civil way of thinking!”» Also Hans-Werner Henze (*1926) stated in the sixties: «The music today has to support socialism.» Theodor W. Adorno and the Frankfurter Schule contributed a lot of theory. For them, music had to play an essential role within the process of change.

"… «artists», also those without any ability and mainly those who consciously refuse any handicraft and mastership but want to provoke, to shock, to torture by atonality, disharmony and ugliness, completely infiltrated the world of Art within the sixties and seventies. By medial power and sociological eloquence they dictated the end of harmony, tonality, symmetry and beauty. The representation of the Beautiful, of the True, of the Good was condemned because it was said to make «uncritical» and to stabilize the «system» instead of destroying it. (…) «The reactionary music», Adorno writes, «has to be ruthlessly attacked by all means of polemic.» (...) Concerning to Adorno «the new music» has to participate in the class war. The 1929 founded Francfort branch of the «International Society for New Music» was—for Adorno—the «Revolutionary International» in music. What Marx represented in sociology for him, Schoenberg was in music, and thus art should be a servant of the civil struggle within a totalitarian marxistic ideology. Adorno’s aesthetics on duty of a neo-marxistic culture struggle against the values of the civil society became the programme of many «creatives» in the wake of the 68-revolt." 1

My youth as a composer has been marked by this experience of intimidation, of bringing-into-line, of mobbing. For the fact that those ones will be attacked who do not «function» some statements may serve as a proof:
«I find you incredibly encouraged» (Gudrun Ebel, Sopran, Opera Nürnberg, 1990),
Listen: Tota pulchra es, Maria –

«Are you really allowed to do this?» (Günther Firlinger, Mozarteum, composer and professor, 1993).

Listen: The King – Scene 6 from the Opera «The Little Prince» –

«This piece has been written with courage» (Christoph Stephinger, Basso, State Theatre Gärtnerplatz, Munich, 1998).
«Are you not treated with hostility?» (Philipp Kölmel, Munich, film composer, 2002).

2.3. The common perception of all human beings

At the same time one realizes—while sitting together for a beer with musicians of orchestras, opera-singers, professors of music-universities—that the experience of horror caused by this atonal music is common to all of them as well as that one of oppression linked to it.
Thus, the doctrines of subjectivism, relativism, diverging pluralism, maintaining the lack of an objective truth, are fairy tales. More than the difference in taste there is a common perception and accordance about the good and the beautiful.
Because he needed sounds backing the state, Stalin forbid to Shostakovich the western avantgarde-style, while in the Western world tonality was attacked as a flagship of christian-occidental culture.
The problem of the atonal music which still today goes for the only established serious high-cultural music, is not its essence but its totalitarian claim. Darkness and despair shall be the only content of a monopolized culture. What is not negative goes for «old» and reactionary. Relaxation, sublimity, are prohibited.
The young, well-adapted composers are using the musical language of the fifties without knowing its original impulse. They are brought into line and—subsequently—they demand this followership from their successors.
But we composers can use the atonal language as means of expression for the cryptic, for the abyss. (Listen: The Little Prince «The drinker»).

3. Tonality and Atonality

Within the well-tempered tune we have twelve tones. (I don’t speak of the quarter tones here). Through these twelve tones the whole scale between consonance (1, 8, 5, 3) and dissonance ( -2, +7, -9, tritonus a.s.o.) is opened up.
Atonality is restricting itself on a part of the spectrum, on that of the dissonance, often going until the dissolution of the chroma, which means going until noise. The advocates of the exclusiveness of the atonality seek to completely condemn consonance, often as a principle, but always in relation to the Mayor-Minor-tonality which has happened to be peeled out during the whole history of music.
I find the pioneer effort of Schoenberg, Berg and Webern really good. But I prefer not to renounce on melodies and harmony for the serious music. In the seventies it has been maintained on the music universities—or it was the politically correct way of thinking—that the Mayor-Minor-tonality is only a consequence of education, of inculturation, and that we finally are going to get rid of it and to start to move freely in the dodecaphonic space. Schoenberg had foretold that the children would sing his melodies in the street. Such prophecies are not pronounced anymore.

4. The Secondary Culture – The Culture of the Secondary

Within the last decades nearly no works have been originated surviving their premiere. There hardly are composers who still have lived after 1950, whose works have entered the repertoire. Exceptions are above all Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Bernstein… Pulling this time-border closer to 1970, it is getting harder to find a single opera or orchestral work which is played only approximately as often as a classical work.
In contrary, the number of stagings of the so-called «Regietheater» where classical operas from the era before 1900 are deeply changed in their meaning, have increased. Works of today which remain in the public memory of today—I ask for correction—are not known.
The title New Art has become a label for something which is always the same: ugly. The Avantgarde of the establishment has not changed since decades—a very old avantgarde. While the importance of new art is stagnating, the work of opera- and festival-chiefs, of PR-specialists, museum-directors and critics is getting more and more predominant. New operas are often played only once at festivals, so «Das Mädchen mit den Schwefelhölzern» by Lachenmann during the Salzburg festival 2002, while «Die Liebe der Danae» by Richard Strauss had been played five times and «Turandot» seven times. And I didn’t talk about Mozart yet.
I don’t attack anybody. I commit myself to the goal that living music of today which is loved by the musicians and the listeners is getting a chance. During the whole performance of Lachenmann’s opera in 2002 in Salzburg there was a continuous exodus of the listeners out of the house. I can tell many examples of that kind.
There are exceptions: «L’amour de loin» by Kaija Saariaho has been performed several times 1999 in Salzburg and was a great success. Regrettably this is not the case as to the most performances of contemporary music. The organizers—or may I call them representatives of the establishment or administrators of the empty halls—feel themselves attacked when these points are spoken out. In reality it seems to me that composers have the right not to want to repeat all this. The history is full of examples showing prosecutors disguising themselves as prosecuted ones.

5. The situation of a young composer since the middle of the 20th century

She or he is urged to compose a music complying with the ruling aesthetics, in this case, with the cult of the ugly, the negative, the absurd, the despair. An art that is not nihilistic is considered to be politically incorrect.
The important Austrian composer Ernst-Ludwig Leitner, professor at the Salzburg Mozarteum, expressed the dilemma: «If you are obeying to the ruling aesthetic, you are integrated, but integrated is, what the audience does not want to hear.»

6. The freedom of the art

The artist has to swim against the current. As illustration I may present two press-articles. Both have as subject the same piece, the same concert-hall, they both appeared in the same newspaper. Three years lie between the two performances.
The first concert took place on February 29th, 2003 in the Philharmonic Hall Gasteig in Munich. It was sold out (2387 seats). The public reaction on the performance was enormously positive, many bravos, standing ovations, not a single Buh-shout. The world-premiere seven months ago in the Great Hall of the Mozarteum in Salzburg has been described by the Vienna Standard as a «triumph for the performers as well as for the composer and his score».
1st critic: Süddeutsche Zeitung, March 2nd, 2004.
(Excerpt): «(…) It can be expected of nobody—no matter whether child or adult—to listen to the way Nikolaus Schapfl has put into music the book. (...) At the beginning Schapfl is flirting with touching elements coming from musical. Then all becomes more and more optional, an unpleasant mash of incomprehensive vocal parts mixed up with such a placative orchestral music that one was wishing having given one’s brain to the wardrobe. One cliché is following the other one—the embarrassing climax is a choral about the words: “The adult people are decisively very strange!” On this it can only be agreed.»
The second critic appeared in the same newspaper at the occasion of the performance of the same piece in the same—again sold-out—hall three years later on February 4th, 2007. (Meanwhile the opera had been performed 17 times more in five more big cities and in total by five different orchestras.)
«Stunning» – Süddeutsche Zeitung, February 8th, 2007.
«(...) There is a lot to hear and to be amazed at: Schapfl has composed a particularly colourful music for his opera and proves—for a composer of his generation—an outstanding courage for the tonal consonance. (...) Opulent melodic which fascinates immediately (...) and impressively catches both the fairy tale—atmosphere and the philosophical background.»
The opera-director of a German State Theatre did not let himself be impressed by the first critic and took the piece into the programme of his house shortly after February 2004.
This shows that the freedom of art is existing. Nor brutal methods nor much more effective hidden methods finally can prevent it.

7. The end of The Modern

The philosophy of modernism—as well that of the «2nd modernism» which only is a perpetuation of the meaninglessness of the 1st modernism becoming an institution—does even not want to have a meaning. For it important is only an all covering rule.
A part of the essence of modernism is the belief, that man can «make» everything. «To be susceptible» and «to receive» something are strange ideas. Everything is feasible within a plan and can be sued for as a demand.
During my studies some teachers of composition used algorithms—a kind of calculating instruction. They used to show these lists when they intended to emphasize the value of a composition. But these algorithms did not have anything to do with the music’s expression. It would be the same to play at dice with letters and to expect a sense. (This was the expressed goal in for instance Boulez’ Structures: To avoid any human and personal gift—a thing which may be fit for an experiment but not for an all covering rule.)
Something like inspiration, a sudden idea, breath were not only considered to be strange but were refused. The results were very hunted, unnatural, terribly stretched sources of boredom, conglomerates of sounds and noises where it doesn’t matter where you start, whether at the point where you had finished yesterday, or where it would continue after tomorrow.
This way of composing is the kind of the secondary culture. The composer does not have to struggle with his work and has a lot of time for political contacts. He does not have to wait for good ideas, for a life scooped out of the secret, to be hungry and to long for it. By this, art is robbed of his human dimension and becomes a technocratic absurdum lacking any spirit, expression and wit. It is a composing against the human nature. But there are composers integrating more and more harmony.
The reception of Rachmaninov for instance is a history of refusal during the whole 20th century. Critics and musicologists who wanted to be considered as serious, had to show a big portion of aghast speechlessness towards such a «reactionary, narrow-mindedness». At the same time he was subsequently found in the concert programmes while many of his acknowledged contemporaries are forgotten today. Concerning to Stravinsky there was told that he had got the curve at the end of his life which refers to the dodecaphony practised by him later. Today, mainly his early works are living: Petruschka, Firebird and Sacre du Printemps.
Artists who want to create something which will remain are not orientating themselves to the secondary culture (theatre directors, PR, critics and a certain kind of stage directors). This demands courage that many are not wanting to summon up. They prefer to put last their convictions.
I often have been asked: «Can one live on it?» My experience is: From the «miracle of life» in the work of art astonishingly results the «miracle of survival» of the artist.

1 Joachim Hoefele -  Moritz Nestor, «Ideologen der Frankfurter Schule, Teil 2: Theodor W. Adorno [1903-1969]», Zeit-Fragen (www.zeit-fragen.ch), s.a. pp.7-8.