Who Killed Orchestral Music?

By Tom TeicholzJune 29, 2022

Who Killed Orchestral Music?

The War on Music: Reclaiming the 20th Century by John Mauceri

JOHN MAUCERI, founding director of the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra, is a composer, arranger, writer, and educator who has conducted the world’s major opera companies and symphony orchestras. For 18 years, Mauceri worked closely with Leonard Bernstein on many of Bernstein’s premieres. He has championed the work of composers banned by Hitler, in particular those who found refuge in Hollywood, and has written about and performed music from opera, musical theater, and music composed for film. His new book, The War on Music: Reclaiming the 20th Century, is a critical survey — and rethinking — of 20th-century classical music. It is also, in its own way, a manifesto and a cri de coeur that proposes to make contemporary classical music more popular and alive by reimagining its repertoire.

Presenting a history of classical music from the late 19th century to the 21st, Mauceri serves as an erudite guide, giving an easy to understand and very readable account, beginning with what to appreciate in the music of Brahms and Wagner. He explains the distinctive elements of Wagner’s “Total Art,” as well as the context in which Stravinsky created Le Sacre du Printemps (1913) and Schoenberg’s pioneering atonal compositions. Mauceri wants to disabuse us of the narrative in which one has to choose between Brahms and Wagner, or between Stravinsky and Schoenberg, pointing out the respect each had for the other’s work.

In successive chapters, Mauceri lays out how the 20th century’s cataclysms laid waste to classical music, paying particular attention to the deleterious effect of the authoritarian governments of Hitler, Mussolini, and Stalin and the equally stifling the impact of the Cold War. He also notes, as a sort of counternarrative, the rise of so-called avant-garde music, which Mauceri sees as being more loved by critics, academics, and intellectuals than by the ticket-buying public. Taken together, these political and cultural movements are the prime actors in what Mauceri dubs the “war on music.”

Mauceri’s argues that, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, opera and symphonic music were among the most popular forms of entertainment. Great compositions had been made by Mozart, Puccini, Verdi, Handel, and Wagner — a tradition eclipsed by World War I and ending around 1924, but still performed to this day all over the world. Following that era, the rise of the Nazi Party caused many of the most prominent composers of the day to be banned, either because their music was deemed “degenerate” or because they were Jewish (often both). Many Jewish composers escaped Europe, ending up in Hollywood, where they composed scores for film while continuing to write symphonic or orchestral music. At the same time, the music that critics, composers, and orchestra directors deemed new and worthy of commission and performance was ­atonal, minimalist, or electronic music — none of which, according to Mauceri, has proved popular.

How is it, Mauceri asks, that it is difficult to name even one great opera or symphony by a 20th-century composer? Why in the 19th century were there so many great composers in Austria, Germany, and Italy and none since? His answer? The Nazi and fascist regimes caused a talent drain, while the composers who stayed and worked under those regimes were tarnished. In a similar fashion, composers who remained in the Soviet Union were obligated to produce socialist-realist work that was accepted by the authorities but not by the wider world. Meanwhile, artists who were banned by the Nazis continued to compose music, but those who went to Hollywood and wrote for the movies were dismissed as sellouts, and when they continued to produce orchestral symphonies, they were deemed old-fashioned. By contrast, Wagner’s music, which had been embraced by Hitler, was rescued from banishment due to the efforts of his daughter, who had fled the Nazis.

The net result today, Mauceri argues, is that audiences are shrinking for opera and symphonic music, and the companies that offer them are not only increasingly financially challenged but also tend to perform the same hits of the classical canon (Beethoven, Bach, etc.) over and over again, with almost no 20th-century works in their repertoires.

In broad terms, Mauceri is correct. As great as Philip Glass’s Einstein on the Beach (1976) or John Adams’s Nixon in China (1987) seemed at the time, they never supplanted their predecessors. But exactly why opera and classical music declined in popularity, and why the 20th century did not yield works as great as in the past, is still a matter of conjecture. As Mauceri observes, the music that garnered critical favor tended to be modernist, minimalist, experimental, experiential, electronic, atonal, and drone works championed by what he calls “the avant-garde” — and often performed by French conductor Pierre Boulez.

In order to begin to reclaim orchestral music of the 20th century, Mauceri poses the following question: “If we put aside the unquestioned priority given to the avant-garde, the next wave, and the constant re-experimentation that gets so much intellectual attention, what does the remainder look like?”

When considering 20th-century orchestral music, Mauceri suggests that we have been looking in the wrong place. He argues that there are in fact great 20th-century composers — some who were banned by the Nazis (Korngold, Weill, and Schoenberg), some who wrote for the musical theater (Gershwin and Weill), and some that have written for film (and, more recently, for video games). “One of the critical pieces in the puzzle of 20th Century classical music,” Mauceri writes, “is the place assigned to movie music.” To the current repertoire, he would add such famed film composers as Max Steiner, Bernard Herrmann, Miklós Rózsa, Franz Waxman, Dimitri Tiomkin, Nino Rota, John Williams, Hans Zimmer, Danny Elfman, and Hildur Guðnadóttir. Mauceri places Elfman and Zimmer in a lineage that begins with Strauss and Wagner as composers of “the most heard symphonic music in history.”

Mauceri proceeds to ask and answer a series of questions that follow from his contentions about the development of 20th-century music. Why were the composers and compositions banned by the Nazis not “instantly embraced, indeed officially supported, after the war?” He provides several answers, including ongoing antisemitism, the anticommunist fervor of the 1950s and the Cold War, and an Oedipal and Darwinian drive to be done with the old and embrace the new (even if the new proves unpopular).

If the music of European composers was abandoned as part of the repertoire, Mauceri asks, then what replaced them? His answer is simple: nothing. Music composed for film has been dismissed as “not real music” because it is composed quickly, on demand, and in service of the gestures or actions on screen, while theater music, such as Weill’s, is derided as a “sellout.” Among the other attacks Mauceri lists are that such music was never meant to be heard in concert halls, was created for Hollywood producers who are uneducated in music, and was written for audiences that mostly don’t understand music at all.

Mauceri claims that the new music of the second half of the 20th century, at times chaotic, mechanistic, drone-like, or noise-filled, remained more intellectually interesting than enjoyable, thus insuring its rejection by audiences — and, with it, classical music as well. The net result as Mauceri sees it, is that great and popular classical music was artificially halted around 1924. As proof, he points out that, when the New York Metropolitan Opera and the Berlin Philharmonic held their millennium concerts in 2000, they performed almost no works from the 20th century.

While the war on music was clearly waged by Hitler, Mussolini, and Stalin (and Western classical music was also repressed by Mao during the Cultural Revolution), I’m not sure whether the avant-garde carries as much blame for the rejection of orchestral music as Mauceri would have us believe. Perhaps blame should lie with audiences who became addicted to the “shock of the new” or were increasingly ready to bathe in the balm of the old, rejecting contemporary classical compositions as quickly as jazz audiences abandoned swing or present-day music fans cling to classic rock.

It is equally hard to say if Mauceri’s curative prescriptions for classical music would actually work. I have attended evenings of film music at the Hollywood Bowl that boasted larger and more diverse audiences than one finds at Disney Hall, but those shows are often one-offs rather than a continuing repertoire. Whether an orchestral season that promotes composers for film or video games would do any better than the classical repertoire or whether works written for film, TV, or video games will prove as memorable and popular as the symphonies of Beethoven, Bach, or Handel or the operas of Mozart, Verdi, and Puccini, is unclear (and there is ample reason to be skeptical).

At the end of the book, Mauceri provides profiles of four composers with whom he had a personal connection — Weill, Korngold, Schoenberg, and Paul Hindemith — describing them as “composers whose music has cast both a shadow and a light on my life, encouraging the process of discovery and pursuit that became [this book].” His argument, I think, would have been better served had these experiences been integrated into the narrative, making it more personal and less an attempt at an authoritative tome. Similarly, I wished the book had provided a playlist (either in the appendix or available on a music streaming service) of those 20th-century works Mauceri finds most compelling.

Still, Mauceri deserves to be commended for what he accomplishes in The War on Music — a readable introduction to classical music, and valuable insight into those artists whom the Nazis banned. Whether you agree with the author or find fault with his polemic, his book does force the reader to ask important questions about the music played by orchestras in symphony halls and how we might further engage and expand their audiences. Mauceri ends on an optimistic note, arguing that classical music can be revived by contemporary audiences because “[w]e might all benefit from accepting without guilt the music we already love. […] It is yours, and because it is yours, it is great.”


Tom Teicholz is an award-winning journalist and best-selling author — just Google him.

LARB Contributor

Tom Teicholz is a contributor to Forbes and The Huffington Post.


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