Eric Block

Keith Burstein interview: Tonality, Beethoven and Memories of Bonn

A new work by composer Keith Burstein, marking the 250th anniversary of the birth of Ludwig van Beethoven, will be performed by the London Chamber Orchestra at the Cadogan Hall in March. Burstein is renowned for his fervent championing of tonal music, as opposed to the atonal style which has dominated classical music teaching and composition for over a century, and Memories of Bonn looks set to ignite the ongoing controversy surrounding the pre-eminence of atonality.

You have composed a new work entitled, Memories of Bonn, what was the inspiration behind this? You mention a 24-hour trip to Bonn and how you absorbed feeling about the city as it is now. Can you tell me how this experience relates to Beethoven’s music and his life?

My visit to Bonn was both my first visit to Germany and also very short (just 24 hours). This gave me a snapshot of a place whose cultural and political significance had resonated with me all my life. The resultant perceptions and memories from the experience are therefore particularly dense and complex and vivid. On the one hand, there was, for me, if you like, the still centre of Beethoven, and the radical vision of his music with its humanitarian spirit of liberation. You think of the ninth symphony and its call “be embraced ye millions” and also of his tearing up of his dedication of the Eroica Symphony to Napoleon when he found the liberator to have become tyrant, of his opera of emancipation Fidelio. Above all, it is Beethoven’s stated aspiration to – through his music – speak ‘from the heart, to the heart’ that most inspires me, as a composer who wants to reconnect, through tonality, with audiences lost to the century-long immersion in atonality.

But then, alongside this, was the Bonn of today: which, on first glance, seemed a place which swirled with both history and nostalgia, but also a keen energy and intimation of the future; a kind of crossroads where many different flows met and were being re-formed. There was the sweep of the Rhein, the old Palace, and the 60s tower where the world leaders stayed when Bonn was the Capital of West Germany during the Cold War years. All that grandeur. There was also a penumbra of refugees around the station, of the lost souls of today; yet there was also a simmering energy. Where will this energy go?

You are a very prolific composer, however I was a little surprised that many of your works seem not have been performed publicly. Can you tell me why that is?

Actually, nearly everything I have completed has been performed; to quite a surprising degree, given that I have not always endeared myself to the culture of which I am a part – that of new classical music – by dint of my stated belief that tonality underpins all music, and that therefore it is the natural domain within which to create new works. Indeed, tonality and music are congruent and the same. I further believe that the basic structures of consonance, the tonic triad, are related to the harmonic series (the notes that vibrate above any pitch); these vibrating intervals being the octave above, then the perfect fifth, then fourth, then major third, then minor third, then another minor third – giving the dominant seventh – then major second. This forms a beautiful consonant harmony. These structures are from nature – they are not a human construct – and therefore tonality is a natural phenomena which we no more escape than we escape white light. It is simply the environment we are within. The human brain and ear have therefore formed a relationship with these structures which we can use to organise sound with emotive purpose – in other words, create music.

To me this became self-evident early in my career – but it had explosive implications. Atonalism now just seemed a very chromatic form of tonality. Tonality is the great ocean of all music the world over – and it must also be on other worlds. Yet none of these observations endeared me to the atonal dominated culture I was in. Despite that – maybe because of it – I gained very high-powered supporters, including the great Estonian composer Arvo Part, and also the illustrious musician Vladimir Ashkenazy, who has been a great friend and mentor. Most of my unperformed works will be works in progress – of which there are a few, including several operas and a new symphony as well as a planned piano concerto for a wonderful young player Evgeny Genchev – not yet even begun.

You have long been involved in the debate between tonal and atonal music. I see that as a young man, at the Royal College of Music, you were an advocate of atonality. Can you explain why you changed your mind about its merits? Are there atonal works that you believe have compositional merit, and which have advanced the cannon of classical music?

I began my career by forming an ensemble the Grosvenor Group to perform contemporary music. I was exploring the terrain and what I found was a culture somewhat stuck in a set of mannerisms I began to see as limited and exclusive.

I was a great fan of certain composers among the avant garde – most notably Karlheinz Stockhausen, whose works I still admire. He was a visionary and a mystic who used sound in wonderfully inventive ways. In a sense what I took from the then avant garde was this willingness to question everything – but then used that to question them, and myself above all! After about ten years of this exploration of the atonal music, I had not found a pathway forward and began to compose full time myself. To my surprise my own music emerged at once intensely tonal but also feeling new. I had no fear of resonating the idioms of the past – because tonality is not of the past, it is infinite. Just as the 26 variables of the alphabet give us infinite expression, so too tonality gives infinite expression musically. I now found I could reconnect with the vast stream of all music preceding atonality, to create music which could follow on beyond atonalism. I called my new music Super-Tonality – showing that it was looking forward, while accepting the past. The desert created by atonalism can now be watered with new life.

You have said that you believe that music with melody, humanity and soul is something which is alien to composers of atonal music, and yet this seems to be what the public most desires to hear. Can you explain why it has such a powerful hold over the musical establishment, even when it seems at variance with what audiences want?

Atonalism was a valid expression of its day, but its day has past. What remains however is a powerful establishment, and of course many resist change if it upsets their world. It’s understandable but change is inevitable. We have to allow music to again express the whole experience of humanity. Music cannot be locked in an ivory tower; its generous heart must sing, without limit or constraint. There will always be a conservative status quo that sees no need for change. That’s when revolutions happen. The world of new classical music is ripe for such a revolution – it’s long, long overdue. It will be done by many different people working in many different ways. I hope I’m part of that – but whether I am or not, it will happen soon. Indeed it’s already in process. For my part, the more my music sounds like film music the happier I am. Film music is where the great Romantics went while tunes were forbidden in the concert hall. John Barry, Morricone, John Williams, Bernard Hermann – these are great film composers. Of course, concert music does something different, but these film composers kept music itself alive. Music which is both great and ’embraces ye millions’.

Do you feel atonal music has run its course? And if so, can you ever envisage a time when it will be relegated to a footnote in the development of musical composition?

Of course. It had run its course by about 1980 – but things sometimes take a while to change. It’s such a huge change that must follow now. Because, of course, the challenge isn’t just to write tunes (although that is about the most subversive thing you can do right now), but it is to find that combination which Beethoven exemplifies to be both melodious and radical at the same time. That’s the new Holy Grail. What is modern and revolutionary now will happen in tonality. Atonalism, and its endless derivatives, is utterly washed up. A quantum leap is needed, not some wishy-washy pandering to the critical establishment, with a watered down semi-atonal nothingness that tries to please the critical establishment. You may please the critical establishment but not serve music or the world.

Many years ago, you appeared on a news programme where yourself and a few other tonal music devotees protested against the concert by Sir Harrison Bertwhistle. This caused considerable controversy. Is it something that you now regret?

That was the moment to bring this question to the wider public and it succeeded in doing that. There was a live relay on Newsnight – and that was the first time many watching will have heard of Birtwistle, so it didn’t do his work any harm! I’ve conducted his music and I can still enjoy it. By the way, it wasn’t a protest against a concert. It was some limited booing after a performance of an opera by Birtwistle. I made sure there was no disturbance to the performance. I recently attended a Stockhausen festival on the South Bank and found his works still resonate deeply with me, several of which I have performed. This is not to do with individual composers, its far bigger than that. It’s a question of allowing the portals to be opened up again to the greater domain of tonality, of which atonalism is just a small subset. It’s to do with the freedom of the human heart to express itself, and to not be confined by coteries. It’s to do with the liberation of the human spirit itself, to express for the whole world the endless aspiration of the human heart towards freedom and the love of the whole of humanity.

While there is pertinence to this, considering that Beethoven’s Ode to Joy is the EU’s Official Anthem, one of the reasons cited for the referendum result was that the establishment – the elites, if you like – had become disassociated from the people that they are elected to represent. Do you see this as analogous in any way with the classical music establishment’s adoption to atonal music flying in the face of public demand?

I don’t want to limit my position with a political analogy, because it would be to trivialise the musical issue. Brexit was a hugely complex moment which polarised the country to a dangerous degree. Music, and art in general, floats above these issues – although I have written operas set in geopolitical context, but the operas themselves reach for the transcendent. That is the purpose of art: to find what is transcendent in human experience and encapsulate that in a manner that enables others to see those transcendent patterns that bring meaning.


                                Keith Burstein’s Memories of Bonn, Symphonic Poem No 1 will be performed by the London Chamber Orchestra on March 25th, at the Cadogan Hall, 5 Sloane Terrace, London SW1X 9DQ. It will be conducted by the LCO’s Music Director and Principal Conductor, Christopher Warren-Green.

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