The State of Classical Music: Sick or Sic Transit?

The State of Classical Music: Sick or Sic Transit?
Mike Silverton
June 1999

Let’s begin by sorting terms: Big-C Classical encloses a span embracing most notably Haydn, Mozart, early Beethoven. Little-c classical takes in an entirety (in clumps that disperse like mercury under scrutiny) from Medieval, through Renaissance, Baroque, Rococo, Classical, Romantic, Modern, to Postmodern, i.e., today. The Politically Correct require no reminder that the edifice stands on a blood-soaked foundation of imperialistic, Eurocentric hegemony, the work in the main of the ruling class’s dead white male lackeys. Right on!, etc.

In 1829, Fanny’s brother, the former wunderkind Felix Mendelssohn, conducted J.S. Bach’s
St. Matthew Passion
, an event which is credited with having sparked a revival of interest in a composer who’d died some seventy years earlier. The swell is yet to subside. I snap up as they appear two spectacularly good complete-cantatas series, one from Japan, Masaaki Suzuki conducting (BIS), the other from Amsterdam, Ton Koopman conducting (Erato). Revivals are dandy, certainly, yet art-music lovers of Mendelssohn’s time fully expected to hear new music at the salons of patrons, subscription concerts and the like. Today, of course, concert subscribers look forward to quite the opposite and vote for novelty with their feet. That’s why clever conductors schedule new and, far less often, atonal works ante-intermission. Which brings us to two tendencies afflicting this haut-bourgeois world of symphony-orchestra organizations, particularly in the US, where Kulchur has had the more difficult time achieving détente with a far larger, and in music especially, pubertistic pop culture. Classical’s hub audience is long in the tooth and set in its ways: it favors the familiar. “If we must sit through a patch of new music, at least see to it that the vehicle provides a comfortable, well cushioned ride.” Thus do kitsch-crafters fashion careers. Dwight Macdonald’s midcult coinage nicely embraces the enterprise. For stylistically diverse examples of classical lite, we’ve Richard Danielpour, Philip Glass, Daniel Asia, Michael Torke, John Corigliano, Aaron Jay Kernis, John Adams, and others of like stripe. As an illustrative instance of midcult slumming, check out Michael Daugherty’s Metropolis Symphony, which draws its inspiration from Superman comics. We mention this cross-cultural excrescence not to disparage a cape-&-tights-draped ikon but rather to suggest that a formerly secure sense of things in their place seems to have evaporated under the sun of mass appeal and the sensibilities thereunto connected.

To allay the suspicion that your reporter is anti-American, we’d best have an exculpatory glance at midcult’s global complexion. Too briefly, England has its squishy-core minimalists, a senior figure, Michael Nyman, and then there’s the anachronistic John Tavener, steeped in a rather photogenic mysticism, for an eastward example of which, find Giya Kancheli’s hot-air balloons. Abundance notwithstanding, pretentious mediocrity isn’t an especially contemporary phenomenon. The masters whose music we revere nourished cultures also provisioned by journeymen nobody today troubles with, excepting discophiles, academics with specialist needs and pianists staking out a claim. If it’s ever thus, why the fuss? Because Western art music finds itself on a precariously new footing.

There are two negative forces at work, and I claim no originality in spelling them out. Like any authentic artform, classical music is organic; it self-refreshes or withers. Bach in his lifetime was seen as old fashioned, and so he was — a one-man summation of the great period we call Baroque. Two of Bach’s sons, Carl Philipp Emanuel and Johann Christian, children of the Enlightenment, greatly influenced forms soon to rise to yet greater heights: the keyboard sonata and symphony. Merely to contemplate Western art music in terms of transition — Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, Bruckner, Mahler, Schoenberg, Berg, Webern, and this only skims the Austro-German cream — is to sense the innovative strengths that drive it to where it stands today, if not to a halt, then off in a good half-dozen directions. Classical’s bounty of styles, its condition of fragmentation, springs from an impasse. Composers of periods past dipped for effect into the great Elsewhere: a dissonance introduced in order to be resolved, chromatic, modal, exotic harmonies enabling angst, Asia, the forest mysterious — any number of helpful devices in orbit about tonality. But nothing stands still. Chopin and Liszt expanded a palette Wagner took as far as he could. One has only to compare Don Giovanni toTristan und Isolde for an understanding of the evolution-driven logic foretelling atonality. A composer post-Wagner who apes Handel, absent irony or variance, ought to cut as absurd a figure as a living painter who models himself on Watteau. But does he? It’s that question again of having arrived at a standstill — a backward-looking standstill no less. In the interests of listener-friendliness, retrograde postmodernists offer up the past as-is, sometimes refreshed with up-to-date touches, sometimes dismantled, oft overstuffed, and not all that rarely, tongue-in-cheek. Some of it’s good, some of it isn’t. Workmanship’s not the issue.

When an artform evolves, its energies draw from a cultural imperative. It’s pointless to costume oneself as a dodo and waddle off into the arena quacking, “I’m back!” There is no going back in art music. The neo-Romantic, so called, in attempting to revive an earlier period’s heroic rhetoric — on the Schumann-Brahmsian model, say — hatches bloated capons. Absent the deus ex machina of transformative genius, repetition equates with pastiche. In doing what they do, postmodernist composers set out to “communicate” with other than mavens. No one questions the sincerity of this defection from the vanguard’s austerities. Perhaps at this point we should remind ourselves that a great many significant modernists declined to sign on with Schoenberg’s tone rowers. Stravinsky was no serialist (till quite late in life), nor Bartók, nor Janacek, nor Ives, nor Varèse, nor Partch, nor Messiaen, nor Cage, nor Feldman, nor Scelsi, yet each bore fruit in Terra Incognita. Like science and technology (to say it again), Western classical music builds upon itself. If it hopes to live, it cannot do otherwise. Yet one hesitates to describe a progression as progress. The Enlightenment instructs us to see progress as an embodiment of success, whereas art music’s irrevocable thrust — its vanguard’s imperative — has warped off into the margins of public indifference and hostility. In a driving energy’s absence, art-music ensembles have long since assumed a curatorial role, the concert hall as museum for the ear or, when actually trafficking in the new, foisting off banality asle dernier cri. Classical lite.

In one important respect, art music’s decline, its alienation from its base, rides astride developments with which a median audience declines to keep pace. There’s that but more: the Cold War isn’t over; the cadres, rather, have regrouped. As aspiration to world, hemispheric, national, county, municipal and/or village revolution fade, flower children long in the tooth take solace in academia, their peculiarly snug harbor, where they direct their attention (among other targets) to a high culture’s fabric. Before I proceed, a disclosure of bias: I’ve been listening to classical music for a ton of years and believe that nothing in the known universe compares. Influential academics (whom it pleases me to see as logorrhoeic philistines) find this notion of art as fare for the soul, or more to our purpose, of judging art in terms of quality, quaintly wrong-headed. Determinations of worth are merely an aspect of a hegemony’s dog-&-pony show. There’s nothing sublime about Shakespeare, whatever that word really means. We contemplate the texts as we would an onion, peeling away the pretense for a glimpse of what lies beneath. A bawdy limerick and love sonnet are of interest only in what they reveal or attempt to conceal. Aesthetic expression — literary, visual, aural — is scenery for cold, analytical, and in the main unsympathetic scrutiny. One’s sense of exaltation via the Kreutzer Sonata a militant feminist interprets as phallic preening or, as we are expected to sit still and absorb it, rape; an African-American studies applicant, as white-key domination; a post-structuralist post-grad, as aural moss obscuring the blight, etc. If it isn’t elitist, it’s racist or sexist, quite possibly all three, and several putrid things besides.

Suds trickle down. I’ve an audiophile analogy: we find disdain for the compact disc as a high-end position scattered about in general-interest media, where it’s accepted as received wisdom. Thus it is with academia’s left wing. The attack on assumptions of classical music’s inherent superiority finds practical expression in funding and attitudes. As a kid, I heard an enormous amount of classical, including new music, on radio, my table-model conservatory. One of these stations, WNYC, belonged to the municipality. Here the emphasis lay on off-center repertoire, much of it recent. The New York Times operated WQXR, where I went for more familiar fare. Though a commercial enterprise, WQXR broadcast symphonies and other time-intensive forms start-to-finish, no commercial breaks. A single movement was out of the question. The station even maintained in-house chamber players. Both stations exist today, though not as I knew them. How could they? Imagine a station like WNYC squandering reduced public revenues on music only a handful of dweebs wants to hear. What elitist nonsense!

An inexact parallel exists between the European model of a social-democratic welfare state and New Deal aesthetics, such as it was. “Good” music is beneficial. Rather than church, aristocracy or bourgeoisie, the state positions itself as art music’s patron. In Germany particularly, government-funded radio-symphony orchestras are still a going concern. A great many of the commercial-label CDs I write about are co-productions with media-culture apparats. Quite by chance, I received in the middle of these thoughts a Deutsche Grammophon CD of Pierre Boulez’s most un-neo-Romantic Répons, originally commissioned by Southwest German Radio. The work incorporates computer technology developed at IRCAM, a research facility devoted in the main to new music, at the government-supported Pompidou Center in Paris. In the US, a multicultural maelstrom takes precedence. With regard to high culture (and who can say that without smirking?), timidity’s the rule when animosity isn’t, vide the absurd congressional flap over Robert Mapplethorp’s whip handle en cul.

My title implies the skinny on where classical music is/isn’t going. That’s not quite honest. I’m not nearly so reckless as to predict the day one’s little world evaporates. In the safely vaguest of terms, I do think a shrinkage lies in store. In Haydn’s time, art music’s audience was relatively tiny. When the master visited London, connoisseurs attended his concerts, and great successes they were. At the uptown Guggenheim, filled to bursting with an art-opening crowd, my wife Lee and I found our way to a tidy, subterranean auditorium for a concert of music by a living American, Charles Wuorinen, a commendably feisty modernist. I looked about me and saw a lot of composers. And about as many fans. Lee, whose interest in music is at best casual, had a very good time. So there’s hope. I hope.

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