Beethoven celebration set to ignite the rebirth of ‘Tonality’

Keith Burstein rehearsing his Symphony No 1 ‘Elixir’ with the Kaunas City Symphony Orchestra, 2012

It seems that anytime you get classical musicians or composers together the topic, or really the flame inducing debate, of atonal vs. tonal music comes up. The flames of this debate are set to be fanned via a new work by composer Keith Burstein marking the 250th anniversary of the birth of Ludwig van Beethoven, who is considered by the composer to be ‘the exemplar of a radical composer who wrote memorable melodies.’

Entitled, Memories of Bonn, Symphonic Poem No 1, Burstein’s latest work will be performed by the London Chamber Orchestra (LCO) at Cadogan Hall, London, on 25 March 2020. Conducted by the LCO’s Music Director, Christopher Warren-Green, the piece not only celebrates the birth of Beethoven but promises to ignite the rebirth of tonality of which Burstein is a fervent champion.

‘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…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.’ — Burstein

Burstein is far from alone in his belief that tonal music should return to the contemporary fore. He is not only supported by the great Estonian composer Arvo Pärt but has also enjoyed the sustained support over many years of internationally renowned pianist and conductor Vladimir Ashkenazy — in fact, it was Ashkenazy who suggested he wrote the Symphonic Poem. The new piece seeks to reflect the complex confluence of history and culture that Burstein experienced in Bonn when he attended a premiere of his music there in 2016, while inevitably evoking Beethoven and Burstein’s own ‘Super-Tonality’.

‘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…I 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.’ — Burstein

Yet Burstein’s sometimes outspoken stance has led to friction between himself and others in the contemporary classical music establishment. For example he became involved with a group who booed a Sir Harrison Birtwistle opera in 1994, an action that produced the most incredible outcry and rumble in the press that went on for years –– captured on television below:

As Burstein says ––‘Let the spirit of music not remain locked in the ivory tower of atonalism. The unimpeded voices of the whole world must be heard in music that endlessly conjures light from darkness’ –– his new commission is set to do just that and while the debate will no doubt rage on perhaps tonality will rise again sooner than expected.

Keith Burstein’s Memories of Bonn, Symphonic Poem No 1 will be performed by the London Chamber Orchestra 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.

25 March 2020 | 7.30pm

For more information and to buy tickets, visit

Freelance journalist covering fine art, photography, film and tech. UK based

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