James Levine set a trap for Milton Babbitt at a Babbitt's 90th birthday celebration at Weill Hall. Levine produced the event through the MET Opera Chamber Players. Tenor Niel Farrell &I opened the concert with Babbitt's Cavalier Settings. In a pre-concert talk, Levine was anxious to say, *your work* is the dominant, main line of musical development.
I cannot remember the exact words, but the concert was recorded. It would be nice to review the recording. Babbitt replied that we cannot speak in those terms.
Babbitt would likely be fine with a qualification:
*For me* your music answers a preponderance of needs and desires and builds upon musical priciples that became dear to me throughout my life. I consider my musical needs and desires to assume practically universal significance because I am James Levine.
We will be skewered for speaking in overly historicist, teleological terms. We are now very careful to avoid the mistake of ascribing a purpose to human evolution. Stephen Jay Gould, Dawkins, Hitchens, and others have taught us to beware. Arnold Schoenberg's language is under fire. Babbitt avoided that mistake. Babbitt was fortunate to have Ben Boretz and Boretz' Metavariations, which checked Babbitt's teleological impulses long before they got out of hand. Babbitt was prepared for Levine's provocation.
There are ways to describe Babbitt's line of musical development. Schoenberg began exploring combinatorial hexachords. Babbitt continued that exploration exhaustively. Can we think of combinatoriality as a vein of ore? The 20th C. saw an exploration of the musical usefulness of combinatoriality. As I see it, making it useful relies on putting it at the service of a very traditional musical principal--prolongation. When Babbitt called himself a Schoenbergian, it was his Schoenbergian sense of place within a phrase that for me is most salient. That is the Haydnesque side of Schoenberg that came across as too traditional for Leibowitz & Boulez. Composers who employ prolongation teach us that we relate to cyclical landings in a familiar place. The music teaches us to be at home there, pulls us away and back in a gratifying way. The problem with 20th Century musical development is that transposition ceased to be the large scale contrast. In some of Schoenberg's works, he holds on to transposition, and by insisting on it he has to hammer on arrivals to drive the point home.
Edward O. Wilson wrote a book called Consilience. It defines a shorter or longer biological leash. The leash does not determine our behaviors, but defines a range. Let's look at this leash and control of our musical behaviors. We are governed by biologically determined desires. Our musical desires are no less biologically determined. Humans, however, form diverse strategies to get by. There will always be composers pushing at the edges of musical relevance. In short, diversity is an asset that assures that there will be something for everyone. Most people stick to the tried and true. Others seek something more extreme. For most musical people, Baroque norms continue to suffice.
Reversion to the [Baroque] norm.
Andres Segovia felt threatened by communists and globalists. Franco was a comfort to him, but so were the Baroque pastiches of Mexican composer Manuel Ponce. Modernism was a threat to the value Segovia placed upon everything pre-1918. Segovia grew up with Spanish nationalist music, including Falla, Tarrega, Llobet, & Pujol. The end of that world was very upsetting.
Please see Hermann Broch's essay, Hugo von Hoffmannsthal and His Time. There, Broch explains that the political institutions that ended in 1918 were instated in the Baroque period. They are quasi-feudal. Their persistence relied upon a parallel persistence of Baroque artistic values. Those are the values that Mahler spoofs. The violent end of those artistic norms drove Schoenberg, Webern, Leibowitz, Messaien, & Boulez to burn artistic brideges. Ponce & Kreisler reacted with nostalgia. Schoenberg reacted with a hard break.
And yet Segovia was ambivalent. He would sometimes encourage Ponce to play up the modernisms. If someone's going to go down that path, best if it's his guy Manuel. The slow middle movement of Ponce's Sonata Meridionale is wonderfully polytonal. Moreover, it explores the whole tone symmetries. Ponce had a knack for focusing in upon that Romanticism that sounds new. It's still a mix-modal phenomenon, but not the familiar (overplayed and exhausted?) minor third cycle variety. Whole tone symmetries and also pan-diatonic (5-cycle) sounds--these are things he brought back from Paris.