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A Brief Statement about Twentieth-Century Classical Music

by Don Robertson (1997)

My condemnation of twentieth century Western classical music has upset a few people, and I have been asked to further clarify my position. I will do that just slightly here, but I will explain my position further in a much longer paper.

I think it is necessary to understand just what our position as a civilized society is now that we are entering a new millennium. During the 20th century, great progress was made in the development of our modes of communication and transportation. In short, technology was the product of the twentieth century: trains, planes, cars, phones, TVs, great weapons of war, and the web itself. Coupled with the great progress that we have made curing disease and saving human lives with medicines and surgery, technology has made the lives of many easier, more comfortable, more informed, and healthier.

However, now that we have reached this seeming pinnacle of success, it is clear to many that in reality, we have reached no pinnacle at all. The arts of the twentieth century in fact portray the fall of man over the past 100 years. Society is degenerating, coming apart at the seams. Except for our technology, we really have little to be proud of.

I look at contemporary American “culture” for example. If you were to portray it in a book and give it to people in the nineteenth century to read, they would be shocked and dismayed. This book would be about a people that had little moral fiber left. Intercourse had evolved into all kinds of perversions, all of which were filmed and made available for viewing on the large screen that dominated the homes of each member of society. Many families broke up in rage and hatred, and many children had only a single parent to live with. A great deal of time was spent in front of the “big screen” where hour after hour, violence was presented, and children played out this violence with ‘toy’ weapons. Meanwhile, music was piped into all of the vehicles, stores and homes, and this had degenerated into a cacophony of unspeakable garbage. Additionally, a lot of the music no longer was based on melody. “Singers” (who were no longer trained in the art of singing) mouthed foul words and were filled with hatred and anger.  And good food was no longer in evidence as people lined up at the counters of dirty little huts to indulge in patties of tasteless dough topped with processed cheese and canned tomato sauce, or to indulge in greasy and unhealthy paddies of processed cow meat that had been squeezed between buns fabricated from flour from which the basic, nutritious part of the wheat berry had been removed. Large quantities of an unhealthy, addicting beverage were consumed daily from plastic and aluminum containers that had nasty chemical reactions with this toxic beverage. Women’s breasts rarely fulfilled the function of feeding infants. Instead, babies drank hideous formulations from canisters, and breasts instead became objects of focus and fascination. Cities were polluted with fumes from the vehicles that choked the roadways, the drinking water was polluted, and people no longer prepared their own food. Finally, the dominant religion had become divided into hundreds and hundreds of different sects, all professing to have the “one truth,” but most without enough truth to feed the basic needs of man.

I apologize if I sound too pessimistic, too negative, but it is time for us to take stock of the awful state of civilization. We need to accept what we have become, because we are the ones that can make it better. And I pray that as we move into the twenty-first century, we as individuals became more awake, and that we learn the truth of this great life that we are living, this world that we live in, and that by learning the truth, we shall become aligned with the great positive forces that lie beyond our half-blinded eyes.

In general, the classical music that has been produced by our twentieth-century society is a music based on negativity. Not all of the music produced by our classical composers was negative, but negative music was the keynote of the century, with negativity spreading to popular music in the 1970s. The end of the century culminated with such a distortion as Marilyn Manson… music that is fully and openly corrupted. As the twentieth century ended, we calmly watched our children as they united with the energy of music such as this, and as they deformed their bodies with tattoos and piercing.

But back to the subject at hand. What do I think about the composers of the twentieth century?

Igor Stravinsky

After his very early, and ravishingly beautiful Firebird Ballet, he began evolving into an effete, intellectual composer who created clever, but distorted little gems of ugliness.

Arnold Schönberg

“The Father of Negative Music”: After his early romantic compositions Transfigured Night and the Gurrelieder, Schönberg turned to writing ‘atonal’ works. He finally invented a totally arbitrary technique of composition that he called “twelve-tone Composition,” and many composers who followed him–including Stravinsky–seriously adopted Schönberg’s system. Finally, this completely contrived, intellectual method of music composition was introduced into the educational system, where it was taught as the ‘new way to compose music.’ Schönberg’s influence helped show music students how negative music could be used to create negative emotions, and Schönberg’s twelve-tone system became the basis of much of the ‘dramatic’ music used in motion pictures and on TV today…the music of violence. Schönberg has ‘gone down in history’ as one of the greatest composers of the century, if not the greatest. He didn’t write great music in my book, however.

Bela Bartok

A very talented man, he wrote some beautiful pieces of music. My favorite will always be the Second Suite, Opus 4, a very early composition from Bartok’s youth. This opinion would shock most “informed” musicologists, and I would be considered an ignorant, uninformed individual. Bartok’s music is an amalgamation of positive and negative elements. His famous string quartets are a marvel of ingenuity, a brilliant tribute to the art of composition; however, they are morbid and depressing. When I look at the many photographs that we have of Bartok, he is almost always frowning. I believe that Bartok was a depressed soul: wounded and embittered.

Dmitri Shostakovich

Another brilliant, tormented soul who created some moments of beauty, but basically left behind a monument of his tortured life under the Butcher Josef Stalin in Russia. For more information, the controversal book Testimony: The Memoirs of Dmitri Shostakovich by Solomon Volkov must be read. (Also see the Addendum at the end of this article)

Aaron Copland

As an American composer, this man is an embarrassment to me. The fact that so many people seem to idolize Aaron Copland and his music is beyond my understanding. The only accounting that I can come up with is that people are so lacking in real music appreciation that they have no basis on which to judge this man’s pathetic music, a mixture of stilted “modernity” and obscenely contrived ‘showpieces’ filled with pseudo-American elements. It is always interesting to me to observe that when people talk adoringly about Copland’s music, they usually point out how much they love the “little melody at the end of Appalachian Spring.” This very nice little melody that Copland used in this composition was not his own, however. It is a traditional melody that he borrowed from the Shakers.

Sergei Prokofiev

Why so many people consider this man’s music to be really great is a mystery to me. It’s not that his music is really negative, it just doesn’t have much to offer, in my opinion.

John Cage

John Cage wasn’t much of a composer. If you needed to pin a label on him, ‘philosopher’ would be better. The man who brought us the first musical composition that had no sound represents the final decomposing of music, the final straw. After art music has become only chaotic noise, there can only be one thing left: the ordering of noise, and the rebirth of music.


Tony Palmer’s 1988 film on the life, times and music of the Soviet composer Shostakovich, with Ben Kingsley as Shostakovich and Terence Rigby as Stalin, was based on Solomon Volkov’s book Testimony. Ronald Pickup, John Shrapnel, Sherry Baines, Robert Stephens, Liza Goddard, Peter Woodthorpe and Murray Melvin are also featured. The London Philharmonic Orchestra is conducted by Rudolf Barshai.

This beautiful Andante from Dmitri Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No. 2 is a masterpiece of beauty and romantic feeling. This could have only come from a very deep place in the heart of the Russian composer who lived in a very difficult time.