PhDr. Martin Flašar, Ph.D. /CZ/ - Masaryk University, Brno

The future has already passed. A few remarks on history, presence and future of music.


PhDr. Martin Flašar, Ph.D. /CZ/

Department of Musicology

Masaryk University, Brno




The history of 20th century music is swarming with examples of obsessions by the future at the expense of the present. As if the future lent legitimacy to the presence of musical thinking. Those days are thankfully gone. Musical prophets like Italian Futurists, Arnold Schoenberg, John Cage and many others became exhibits in the museum of music futurology. Today more than ever, we are reminded that the only givenness in music is her past. The past may or may not become a source of constructing the present, while the future will always remain only a projection of our wishes and desires.

In one of my last papers it has been stated boldly that the most contemporary music is probably the early music. I do not intend to follow the whole argumentation used in that paper, but what I found very inspiring for my present paper was the relation of contemporary music to different historical epoques.

In my point of view, three main categories following relations to music of different times could be distinguished in contemporary music:

  1. Utopian approach: contemporary music as a music of the future.
  2. Realistic approach: contemporary music as a contemporary music.     
  3. Nostalgic approach: contemporary music as an early music.



  1. Contemporary music as a music of the future

This approach was typical for all 20th century avant-gardes which presumed that the present time means a beginning of the future. It was very common that the avant-gardes entitled themselves to act in the name of the future. But under what circumstances can something yet non-existent legitimize present art?

Arnold Schönberg’s concept of dodecaphony can be mentioned as a well-known example. Omitting the fact that Schönberg can hardly be considered the inventor of serial technique in music, his prophecy concerning the impact of his “invention” turned out to be false. As he conveyed to his pupil Josef Rufer in 1921, through the invention of the dodecaphony the supremacy of the German music should be ensured for the next one hundred years.[1] This means by the way, that nowadays there are still six years remaining until the end of this supremacy.

Despite of the Schönberg’s importance in music history this statement can be considered arrogant and short-sighted. Provoking questions rising up from this statement could be: why should composer strive for any kind of “supremacy” in music or why German music should dominate other music cultures? Are not Schönberg’s attitudes motivated rather politically than artistically?


Every contemporary music which legitimizes itself through the future should be understood as highly suspicious, because it bases itself on pure belief rather than reason. There is no logical necessity for future development. When Schönberg argues by the future of music he behaves surprisingly irrationally.



  1. Contemporary music as a contemporary music

Well, what is then described by the notion of contemporary music? Edgard Varèse listening to newly created Iannis Xenakis’s composition Metastaseis (1953-54) stated that “this is the music of our times”.[2] Honestly, this verdict still remains quite enigmatic. Does it mean the same as for example Benedetto Marcello’s Teatro alla moda? Is that the music which conveys the common taste of the era? Obviously not. Varèse speaks here rather about music reflecting the experience of man living in the 1950’s, i.e. in the post-war Europe, in the midst of the Cold war and technological competition. Iannis Xenakis‘ music is derived from geometry and speaks the language of technology although it employs a large orchestra setting. Its sonic aspect tends to the noise expressed by musical means. With respect to the outrageous premiere in Donaueschinger Musiktagen in 1955 it is quite obvious that Xenakis‘ music did not meet the common taste even of the specialized audience.  

Rather surprisingly, there are numerous evidences of scandalous music premieres in 20th century when the audience did not understand the new music as contemporary. The audience often awaits the new music being older than it finally is. Perhaps it is caused by the fact, that the audience is expecting an innovation within the existing aesthetic and formal norms. But the really great composers are bringing a complete change of the aesthetic positions, forms and means of expression.


  1. Contemporary music as an early music

Early music or historical music was “invented” in 1829 when Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy performed J. S. Bach’s Matthäus-Passion in Berliner Sing-Akademie. This act was an important indication of the change of le goût (the taste) putting the old music on equal footing with the contemporary. From this moment onwards the volume of early music coexisting alongside contemporary music started slowly to inflate. The attention of 19th century artists and audience was no more attracted solely by a new music directing to the future, but also by new discoveries delving deeper and deeper into music history.  


Even more important seemed unprecedented act of Igor Stravinsky represented by his Pulcinella. Although Stravinsky evidently enjoyed the baroque music reminiscence, his critics were less indulgent. Theodor Adorno uses in his Philosophy of the New Music term “music about music” and speaks about Stravinsky “leading the music of our fathers by the nose”. He criticises him for being servile to the authorities of early music.[3]


Neoclassicism? A husk of style? Cultured pearls? Well, which of us today is not a highly conditioned oyster?[4], remarked on the same issue Stravinsky.

Later he added: “Pulcinella was my discovery of the past, the epiphany through which the whole of my late work became possible. It was a backward look of course — the first of many love affairs in that direction — but it was a look in the mirror too.[5]


By this act Stravinsky in no sense betrayed his radical position amidst first avant-garde. On the contrary, he proved his broad-mindedness and originality in choosing an early music material for his own appropriation.

By this choice Stravinsky probably overtook his times and contemporaries by more than forty years. His giving up of originality was highly original at the time.

The third, explicitly historicizing moment in 20th century music was the invention of the polystylistic music postulated in 1971 by Alfred Schnittke. His approach was closely related to the emerging postmodernism representing a return to historical values including idioms of early music. At the same time it articulated plurality as a new value contained in notions such as multimedia, multiculturalism, etc.


  1. Sentenced to past: final remarks

Postmodern condition (which we are probably still living in) comprises relativity of progress and of linear time. Observed from our present position it seems that the future has already passed. The reason of this discovery can be double.

Firstly, the early music became an area of the expected near future discoveries (i. e. newly discovered musical sources, new interpretations, revival of special play techniques).

Secondly, the concept of the New became during the second half of the 20th century obsolete and shabby. There is nothing more annoying and boring than the imperative of the New. The dictatorship of the New was easily substituted already by Stravinsky for the freedom of the Old. Perhaps it was him, who as one of the first recognized importance of the creative freedom which can in no case be replaced by imperative of the New.

Our contemporary music does not live by the future. The future has already passed. Designing the future belongs to the avant-gardes of the past. We are looking back into history and trying to handle the immense volume of the music composed in history. We lost the ability of forgetting, which used to be one of the most important conditions for creating the new. Our collective memory fixed by all imaginable types of media does not allow us to forget the past.

Furthermore, the volume of new music creation appears to be insignificant by comparison with volume of the old music from different times and places being immediately available to anybody of us nowadays. I am afraid, the music of our near future is sentenced to past. At least until the moment we will decide to forget it.      



Rufer, Josef. Das Werk Arnold Schönbergs. Kassel 1959, p. 26. 

Delalande, François. Entretiens avec Xenakis: „Il faut être constamment un immigré“. Paris:

INA-Buchet/Chastel, Pierre Zech éditeur, 1997, p. 56.

Adorno, T. W. Philosophie der Neuen Musik. Frankfurt a. M. : Suhrkamp Verlag, 1976, p. 168.

Stravinsky, Igor – Craft, Robert. Dialogues. University of California Press, 1982, p. 30.

Gardner, Howard. Igor Stravinsky: The Poetics and Politics of Music. AVANT, Vol. IV, No. 3/2013, p. 229.



[1]Compare Rufer, Josef. Das Werk Arnold Schönbergs. Kassel 1959, p. 26. 

[2] DELALANDE, François. Entretiens avec Xenakis: „Il faut être constamment un immigré“. Paris:

INA-Buchet/Chastel, Pierre Zech éditeur, 1997, p. 56.

[3]Adorno, T. W. Philosophie der Neuen Musik. Frankfurt a. M. : Suhrkamp Verlag, 1976, p. 168.

[4] Stravinsky, Igor – Craft, Robert. Dialogues. University of California Press, 1982, p. 30.

[5] Quoted by Gardner, Howard. Igor Stravinsky: The Poetics and Politics of Music. AVANT, Vol. IV, No. 3/2013, p. 229.

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