chapter  5
19 Pages

Canon as an agent of revelation in the music of Ligeti

ByAMY BAUER

Twentieth-century modernist composers from Stockhausen, Messiaen and Penderecki to Jonathan Harvey have proven that the language of modernism is compatible with religious expression, producing works of deep religious conviction and spiritual transcendence. But few would argue that most modernist composers pursued a more materialist and secular aesthetic. As Carl Dahlhaus noted, historical and cultural agendas drove the twentieth-century musical avant-garde towards a developmental model based on the notion of scientific progress.1 Within this model, successive avant-garde works served primarily as documentation of a problem history directed by instrumental reason toward a refined ideal. As a series of novel solutions to the problems of musical language and form, this history typically focused on compositional materials and processes at the expense of – and perhaps as a substitute for – hermeneutic meaning or function. One reaction to this extreme formalism was the growing political conscience of new music in the 1960s, which led journalists to routinely consign new works to opposed camps. At one end of the spectrum lay socially engaged composers such as Nono or Henze; at the other, composers like Boulez or Stockhausen were portrayed, and portrayed themselves, as solipsistically focused on their role in advancing contemporary musical language. Rarely did a work seem to point beyond its historical moment towards a more universal – much less spiritual – goal. Michael Tippett summarizes this position as one affecting modern artists in general, whose role has shifted from that of restoring the ‘spiritual order’ to presenting the ‘polarity of knowledge obtained through intellectual process (the knowledge of scientists) and that obtained from deep inner sensibilities (the knowledge of creative artists)’.2