All the world’s a stage

The word “revolutionary” gets thrown around a lot with reference to new music. But how do you measure just how revolutionary a musical style is? Who’s the greater innovator: Debussy or Stravinsky? Is serialism or minimalism a bigger break with the past? Here’s a possible criterion: do the critics go through all five Kübler-Ross stages?

The Kübler-Ross model is usually associated with death and the surrounding grief, but Kübler-Ross herself intended it as a representation of how people deal with any catastrophic information. So if an avant-garde vocabulary/technique/philosophy really has the shock of the new, we should see the results greeted with those five little words:

  • Denial: This isn’t music!
  • Anger: I’m insulted that this music is being inflicted on me.
  • Bargaining: Perhaps other people might accept this as music, but please don’t let it happen while I’m around.
  • Depression: If this is what passes for music these days, we’re in a sorry state indeed.
  • Acceptance: Hey, maybe this stuff isn’t so bad after all.

  • Note that the Kübler-Ross stages don’t have to happen in any particular order (although acceptance usually comes last). And some of these could be combined: denial and anger, for example (I’m insulted that you would try and make me think this is music).

    So what do the stages look like in the field? Let’s try everybody’s favorite bugaboo, Arnold Schoenberg.

  • Denial: Arnold Schoenberg’s famous, or notorious, Five Pieces for Orchestra are worse than the reputation that preceded them…. There is not the slightest reason to believe that their squeaks, groans and caterwaulings represent in any way the musical idiom of today or tomorrow or of any future time. (Richard Aldrich, New York Times, November 30, 1921)
  • Anger: The performance of a new string quartet by Arnold Schoenberg must also be mentioned…. [I]n the middle of the last movement people shouted at the top of their voices: ‘Stop! Enough! We will not be treated like fools!’ And I must confess to my sorrow that I, too, let myself be driven to similar outbursts. (Ludwig Karpath, Signale [Berlin], January 6, 1909)
  • Bargaining: I fear and dislike the music of Arnold Schoenberg… If such music-making is ever to become accepted, then I long for Death the Releaser. (James Huneker, New York Times, January 19, 1913)
  • Depression: How miserable would our descendants be, if this joyless gloomy Schoenberg would ever become the mode of expression of their time! (Hugo Leichtentritt, Signale [Berlin], February 7, 1912)
  • Acceptance: One likes to think that just as the Five Pieces paved the way for Pierrot Lunaire so the Variations are paving the way for a second masterpiece of a similar calibre. Even if this be not the case, the Variations remain among the most outstanding works written since the war and are undoubtedly the most important music Schönberg has written for twenty years. For whereas the post-war piano suites might have been written by any of Schönberg’s followers, the Variations could only have been written by the master himself. (Constant Lambert, Music Ho!, 1935)

  • (The first four from, where else? Nicolas Slonimsky’s Lexicon of Musical Invective.) In a similarly teutonic spirit, what about one of Schoenberg’s favorites, Brahms?

  • Denial: What is then nowadays music, harmony, melody, rhythm, meaning, form, when this rigmarole seriously pretends to be regarded as music? If Herr Dr. Johannes Brahms intends to mystify his admirers with this newest work, if he wants to make fun of their brainless veneration, then it is of course something else, and we marvel at Herr Brahms as the greatest bluffer of this century and of all future millenia. (Hugo Wolf, Salonblatt [Vienna], December 5, 1886)
  • Anger: I played over the music of that scoundrel Brahms. What a giftless bastard! It annoys me that this self-inflated mediocrity is hailed as a genius. (Tchaikowsky’s diary, October 9, 1886)

  • …and so forth. I would guess that a scrapbook of Philip Glass reviews would yield five pertinent examples without too much trouble, and a survey of “respectable” reactions to the coming of jazz in the early 1900’s would make a fine case study, as well.

    I find it hard to believe that I’m the first person to think of this, but a quick web search didn’t turn up anything similar. (I did find this article that analyzes Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra as a series of Kübler-Ross stages.) Anyone know if somebody out there has taken this beyond a mere blog post?


    1. I don’t know if such tactics have been applied to music criticism (until now!), but Mac nerd pundit < HREF="" REL="nofollow">Daring Fireball<> made reference to it in the context of <>software<> criticism. Not exactly the same, but a trend mayhaps?Also tangentially related, a composer is writing a suite for me with movements based on the Kübler-Ross model. But combining those two examples, that’s all you.

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