There is a thrilling sense of ambition behind the Southbank Centre’s major festival for 2013. The Rest Is Noise is billed as a “retelling” of the story of the 20th century, primarily through its classical music. The centre will host 250 concerts, screenings, talks and debates that will seek to make sense of an era that we well remember, but that is also full of things we would like to forget.
The season is based on the highly acclaimed eponymous book by the New Yorker writer Alex Ross, which attempted to entwine the radical departures of 20th-century music with the wars, revolutions and general air of discord that inspired them. Much modern music is unashamedly difficult; but why wouldn’t it be? The scale and rapidity of social change in the 20th century blew the minds of our grandparents and parents, whether they were reading the latest dispatches from the Somme or imbibing LSD. Casualties of war, casualties of acid. The collateral damage of the 1900s was devastating.
The concert series alone is full of strangeness and foreboding. In the first half of the year alone, there is a programme of Berlin cabaret and a programme of music composed in the Nazi concentration camp of Theresienstadt. Plenty of cause and effect to be disentangled there.
The shocks that were delivered by the first performances of Salome and The Rite of Spring will be revisited and assessed, while the brassy clamour of the Roaring Twenties promises to bring the house down. These musical landmarks will shape the whole of the Southbank’s cultural landscape in 2013: for the first time in history, a major orchestra, the London Philharmonic, will play music from only one century for the whole of a year.
The festival will tell us as much about the state of music as about the turmoil of the 20th century. Jude Kelly, the Southbank’s artistic director, said as much at the launch of the festival this week. It is important, she said, “to shift classical music into a place where it is essential to contemporary thinking”.
While novelists, playwrights and artists continue to make an indelible mark on the culture of their time, the same is not true of contemporary composers. It is rare, said Kelly, for a performance by someone like Thomas Adès to take place with proper regard to its context. Somehow, classical music has become unmoored from the throb and flux of daily events. It will be not the least interesting part of the festival to explore why that might have happened.
At Tuesday’s launch, only details for the first half of the season (and the century) were given. Which made it easier for the elephant in the room to sneak out of the back in his leather jacket and winkle-pickers. The truth is, midway through the last century, classical music was ambushed by rock and roll, an art form that was uninterested in reflecting the complexity of social change, but determined to give us a good time.
The more that classical music conductors withdrew into formal experimentation – 12-tone serialism and all the rest – the more they left the field open for other kinds of music to anchor themselves to the contentious issues of the fast-moving times. And where other art forms approached abstraction with an abandonment that resulted in lush and sensual works – think of Pollock or Rothko – much classical music of the time appeared severe, doctrinal, unapproachable.
In a promotional film for the festival, British composer Peter Maxwell Davies says: “I hated that people hated what I was doing – but I was determined to keep doing it until they didn’t.” The admirable uncompromising vision of the artist, or plain arrogance? Whatever you decide, it remains the case, for the postwar era at least, that classical music lost some of its power to engage people.
Gillian Moore, head of classical music at the Southbank, said she looked forward to a performance of Luciano Berio’s Sinfonia, a piece that she said perfectly “captured the spirit of 1968”. But the spirit of 1968 was nothing if not a populist one and far better served, some might say, by James Brown’s “Say it Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud” or the Rolling Stones’ “Street Fighting Man” than by a piece that few people have even heard of.
Of course, the last thing the world needs is yet another paean to the works of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. Popular culture, buoyed by a powerful industry, can look after itself. That is just as well, as it too now needs to cope with a sense of creative decline. The Southbank festival is right to narrow its focus on the triumphs and tribulations of classical music.
But I will be fascinated, when it announces its programme for the latter half of the century, to learn how it deals with figures such as Duke Ellington, Frank Zappa and Radiohead. Will it acknowledge, as composers such as Philip Glass do, the power of the electric guitar riff and thumping bass drum to speak so eloquently of their time?
When Kelly asked Vladimir Jurowski, the LPO’s principal conductor, to recommend a single piece of music to someone who is “frightened” of the works of the 20th century, he gave two answers. The Rite of Spring would serve for someone who knew absolutely nothing of the subject, for its rootedness in classical heritage. But aside from that, he plumped for Stockhausen’s Gruppen, a piece that requires no fewer than two additional orchestras for its performance. It was commissioned and commenced in 1955, just a few months after Elvis recorded his first hit songs in Memphis’s Sun studios.
What ambitions both men had. What a century it was.
The Rest is Noise festival at the Southbank Centre begins on January 19, www.southbankcentre.co.uk
More columns at www.ft.com/aspden