Writing off modernist music

He sits here, years too late, knowing everything. Music has turned out to be the very thing he was taught to scorn. All his fellow composers have scattered on the winds of changing taste. But the young are still here, still in a hurry for transcendence, still willing to trade Now for something a little more durable…

Orfeo, p. 251

Orfeo is Richard Powers’s 2014 Booker long-listed novel about a fictional composer, Peter Els, who loves classical music, is schooled in modernist music, and who accidentally becomes a bio-terrorist in his old age. It’s formally innovative and full of music, including a moving account of Messiaen composing Quatuor pour la fin du temps in a concentration camp. Yet for all its explosive writing and up-to-date references to terrorism and technology, the novel ultimately decides that true music is classical music, and anything else is dangerous. In the quotation above, tonality reasserts itself as ‘everything’ for Peter Els, while composers who have diverged from it are merely following ‘changing tastes’. His university education, Peter realises, was worthless: it merely ‘taught’ him to ‘scorn’ the true and universal beauty of classical harmonies. Twentieth century music is dismissed as a passing fad, while a form of ‘transcendence’ specifically equated with functional harmony is reasserted as a universal and ahistorical truth, different to the transient ‘Now’.

The novel doesn’t complicate this idea: this is an important moment of realisation for Peter at a climactic moment forming a crucial stage of the narrative resolution. Powers even has Peter blame modernist music for making him a terrorist: ‘I wanted music to be the antidote to the familiar. That’s how I became a terrorist.’ Orfeo is a recuperative and nostalgic text that holds up longstanding aesthetics and ways of living as right and true: it advocates classical music and the nuclear family, and its narrative – focalised through a white male composer and his white male artist friends – refuses to tolerate anything unfamiliar.

It’s hard to imagine a contemporary novelist writing off twentieth century literature or visual art in this way: complaining that Joyce, Woolf, or Van Gogh have damaged us, and that we ought to return to the ways of Austen, Chaucer, or Giorgione. Yet Powers does feel able to claim that modernist music was a mistake. Is this because contemporary discourses about C20th art music are so impoverished?

Dr. Gemma Moss is Senior Lecturer in English Literature at Birmingham City University.