Bernard Holland Is A Serial Killer

Ok, sue me for being sensational. It’s only a pun. But it gets to the point. Bernard Holland has set his will against serial music, and atonality in general. Oh, and rational discourse.

Y’all already know about B. Ho’s last piece, to which we responded with due ridicule.

And then, just the other day, he wrote this editorial–already addressed by many a blog–where he takes the opportunity of composer George Perle’s 93rd birthday to wax idiotic about how atonality and serialism are unnatural, elitist, and generally against human nature. (I did warn all of you that this was coming…here and here and here.)

It would seriously stress me out to try to go into all the reasons why B. Ho. is not a great thinker. And that’s what it comes down to. The problem isn’t that he doesn’t enjoy atonal music. The problem is that he can’t formulate constructive or even rational thought regarding why he doesn’t like it. It literally sounds like he doesn’t know what he’s talking about.

But there are, however, signs of hope at The Times. T-Bone Tommasini appears to be responding, ever so subtly, to Holland’s comments. Which shouldn’t be a surprise. T-Bone is a pretty balanced critic. A while back, he even gave a lovely little music theory lesson, explaining to readers–in a manner consistent with the conservatory approach to music history–how western music got from Wagner to Webern. It’s a nice piece, and I might have made light of it, even though I def appreciated its message.

Then today, T-Bone shoots back with a review of The Paris National Opera’s staging of “Il Prigioniero,” a mid-twentieth century twelve-tone opera by Dallapiccola, where Tommasini seems at times to make pointed efforts to prove that dodecophony and atonal music are not just alive, but well-loved. He writes: I attended an enthusiastically received performance on Monday night…

Then, a little later on, he writes this about last week’s Paris Opera production of Wozzeck: Truly the music should hardly be more challenging to audiences than Berg’s “Wozzeck,” which was just presented at the Paris National Opera in a well-attended and successful production.

Hot. At least for now, Tommasini seems up for the task of keeping The Times’s classical discourse fair and balanced.

On a side note, T-Bone’s coverage of The Paris National Opera has been totally fierce. If you have any interest in the fate of opera in NYC, check it out. It’s a good glimpse into what Mortier will try to do at the City Opera. (Cross fingers!)



  1. Funny how all this broke out about a week after the thread on here where the one gentleman started dragging science in to why atonality/serialism isn’t any good. Why can’t some people just deal with the fact that there’s an audience for the Secoind Viennese School and their descendants–a smaller one than, say, the one that would show up for such things as La Fille du Regiment but an audience nonetheless. I sometimes get the feeling that they’re offended that people don’t denounce Boulez’ music like they do.

    I used to think that it was a good thing to mix-and-match programs, putting the more edgy stuff in a cocoon of Haydn and Brahms, but nowadays, forget that: I’m a segregationist! I don’t want to hear Haydn or Brahms under any circumstances, but to have to sit through them to get to something I do want to hear, well, the charm has worn off. I’m also tired of being blown away by something (say, the recent Esa-Pekka Salonen piece Insomnia that I heard at Disney Hall) and having the people around me act like they survived the firebombing of Dresden, such is their relief.

  2. “Funny how all this broke out about a week after the thread on here where the one gentleman started dragging science in to why atonality/serialism isn’t any good. ”

    The references to science, or anything other than music itself (“Serialism is broccoli! Wagner is ice cream!”) is nothing more than analogy. If atonal music were actually contrary to the laws of physics, it would be literally impossible to write or perform. Iin science, at least, anything contrary to the laws of physics, such as traveling faster than light, simply cannot be done. It is a very common practice to brand anything we dislike as “unnatural” — from gayness to atheism to librealism to vegetarianism or anything else that seems to threaten our privileged position in the world. Atonality is just one more example. Holland’s article was silly. Let’s just forget it and listen to the music we like.

  3. “Let’s just forget it and listen to what we like.”

    Great idea! I was debating whether or not to even write anything about it, but when I saw T-Bone’s subtle rebuttal, I thought it would be interesting.

    Then again, to allow this kind of inane dialog to pass unchecked could be more damaging in the long run.

  4. The references to science, or anything other than music itself is nothing more than analogy.

    “Nothing more than an analogy”? Um, no. From the thread that I referred to above:

    I think music perception studies are bearing this out – that there are evolutionarily-endowed cognitive constraints on our musical perception that make something like serialism less fitted to our intuitions than raga, medieval modes, slendro and pelog, Zambian pentatonic melodies etc etc – William Thomson has written quite persuasively and extensively on this in “Tonality in Music: a generative theory”

    I agree with “let’s just forget it and listen to what we like”, but, alas, though there’s still some residual sniffiness about tonality from the serialist camp*, since it’s clear in 2008 that serialism is not going to rule the musical world, the B. Ho’s of this world feel emboldened to write their “Ewwww, serialism” stuff. I’m simply tired of being told that I’m a bit of a freak because I prefer Birtwistle to Brahms.

    * I nearly fell off my chair when I read a Boulez quote along the lines of “I enjoy lisetening to Tchaikovsky at home, I just don’t want to conduct his music”. Woah! The mental image of Boulez grooving to the 1812 Overture cracks me up.

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