Music

Do you like dissonant and/or atonal music?

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January 24, 2021, 2:24 PM · This week I came across a quote by the composer Eric Korngold that turned my thoughts to the idea of dissonance, atonality, and the 20th-century experiments in new music.

The quote appeared in the liner notes for a new album by violinist Johannes Fleischmann:

Bad-mouthed by critics for the way his music adhered to a more old-fashioned and romantic sense, Korngold wrote in 1952: “I believe that my newly completed symphony (in F-sharp) will show the world that atonality and ugly dissonance at the price of giving up inspiration, form, expression, melody and beauty will result in ultimate disaster for the art of music.”

The writer of the liner notes, Jessica Dussen, went on to muse, “With adequate distance, it is gradually becoming possible to look back and ask whether he was, perhaps, right.”

Whew, strong stuff!

I do recall, as a college student in the ’80s, that the dominant feeling in academia remained that tonality was “out” and that composing students needed to explore innovations such as 12-tone music, atonality, experimental music, etc. Personally, a lot of those styles seemed like gimmickry to me, not really based on the physics or expressive power of music. At the same time, some of it led to interesting compositions, many that I like very much, even love.

Of course, dissonance has existed in most music of most times, but it tended to be used judiciously, like a passing cloud, to create tension or change the mood. Sustained dissonance and atonality was all the rage there for a while in the 20th century, and we still do hear it in the concert hall.

But do you like it? Do you think music is still evolving in that direction, or has tonality and consonance made a return?

I like pieces with dissonance, even sustained dissonance, when it serves an end. But I’ve been to concerts, even very recently, where I just wanted to walk out, where a “modern piece” seemed like an uninvited endurance test. And the “disaster for the art of music” in those kinds of experiences is that they have made me, and I suspect other classical music fans, less receptive to new music in the concert hall.

What are your thoughts about dissonance, atonality, and the direction of new music in this century and last? Please participate in the vote and then share your thoughts in the comments.

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