Could Your Music Be Mistaken for Brahms?

If not, thank a post-tonal composer.

Could your music be mistaken for Brahms?



Then show a little gratitude for post-tonal composers, and stop throwing them under the bus.

This is a pet peeve of mine: composers who identify themselves as essentially tonal composers— and they are, for the most part— but otherwise who have just enough unresolved dissonance in their music to let you know that they too are aware of the adventures that went on in the 20th century, and who trade on this just-enoughism to be considered “smart” enough to be hired in academia— who then turn around and throw post-tonal composers under the bus.  Perhaps the all-time champeen of this was George Rochberg.  Perhaps we could name this George Rochberg Syndrome.


As my piece “Rochberg the Progressive, Revisited” from Perspectives of New Music shows, Rochberg never completely parted ways with post-tonal techniques, particularly not in the famous (or infamous, depending on how you look at it) Third String Quartet which allegedly made the world safe for tonality again.  Not even in the middle tonal movement does he completely part ways with post-tonal techniques, as my analysis shows.

And then when one considers a piece like Rochberg’s Violin Concerto, or, better yet, his Sonata-Aria for cello and piano, composed later in Rochberg’s life, after he had said all the things he said about the “unfortunate” (to use his word) turn to post-tonality in the 20th Century, one really has to scratch one’s head.  There’s nothing in the Sonata-Aria that remotely sounds like functional Brahmsian tonality.  The most progressive classical radio stations in the land (which still play all Mozart 80% of the time) would not touch a piece like the Sonata-Aria It’s too dissonant.


Does it use tonal references?  Sure.  If pressed, would I be forced to declare the Sonata-Aria to be a tonal piece?  Yeah, probably, if pressed.  But the point is this: there would be no Sonata-Aria by George Rochberg if it wasn’t for the adventures undertaken by Schoenberg and Stravinsky and Bartok.

Many tonal composers— and I admit I’m picking on Rochberg because he’s not here to defend himself, and I don’t want to mention any living names, but I suspect composers reading this will know if the shoe fits for them or not— want to deploy a certain small amount of 20th-century techniques and then badmouth the pioneers who brought those techniques into existence.  They’ll change meters on the fly, use pointillist textures, bitonality or polytonality, or even dispense with tonal centers for a few bars here and there as a convenient way to get from Point A to Point B— and then claim in interviews that whatever Second Viennese or European Modernist or Exemplar of American Academic Serial 1960s and 1970s Tyranny is the worst of the worst.

Composers will make the point in dog-whistles, too.  They’ll make claims like “my music is completely fluid and organic.”  That means composers who use systems are bad, or who pre-compose are bad, even though even the most calcified tonal composer knows that there’s nothing like a quick tone row here and there to get one out of a jam.  (Never mind also that Heinrich Schenker proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that even the most fluid-sounding tonal music has large-scale architectonics at work if it’s any damn good, but no matter.)

Another one is “my music is never academic.”  That means abstraction is bad; never mind that today’s tonal composers routinely avail upon small sets and motives to carry the day, and those are abstract ideas.  Still another is “my music always has tonal centers.”  What this means is “sure, I use post-tonal techniques, but I’m not pedantic about it like Webern or Boulez or one of those bad guys.”  Never mind that the idea of completely egalitarian, non-hierarchical twelve-tone music is largely a myth, and that almost all post-tonal composers hierarchize their pitches and therefore “have tonal centers.”  It’s just that they arrive at their hierarchies largely through some idiostructural (individual piece-by-piece) means.

My broad point is this.  I’m proposing the “can your music be mistaken for Brahms” threshold of whether or not you get to complain about post-tonal composers.  If the answer is “no,” then shut up already.  You owe something to the post-tonal composers that brought about the techniques that you deploy liberally but to which you are not particularly devoted.  The composers you’re complaining about were purists, to be sure, and that may be a good thing or a bad thing or a little of both, but the main thing about their purism is that they had to push the envelope to the degrees that they did so that you could have the “changing meters on the fly” toy to play with in your pieces, so you could have the “octatonic” toy to play with, so you could have the “bitonality and polytonality” toy to play with, and so you could have the “occasional small post-tonal sets and motives” toy to play with.  To you they may just be tools in the toolbox, but to the purists, it was an aesthetic to which they were entirely devoted and for which they often really suffered.

If your music cannot be mistaken for Brahms, then show a little respect for the composers of yesteryear who made that possible.  Acknowledge the contribution post-tonal composers made to the music you are making that you are so quick to tout in your interviews and press-kits as being “mostly” or “primarily” or “essentially” tonal.  If you have to qualify the term “tonal,” then thank a post-tonal composer for the techniques you’re using.

-Robert Gross

One thought on “Could Your Music Be Mistaken for Brahms?

  1. Market forces in America censor university and conservatory composers such that they often have to write insipid music. To an extent, the major orchestras and opera companies also prohibit artistic freedom by programming only new works that pander to timid donors. So I empathize with those who are writing down to lesser sensibilities to survive, but you are right: they needn’t diss those who wrote actual modern music. And you didn’t even get into the use of extended techniques and timbral bells and whistles …


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