Published by the Scarecrow Press, New York, in 2013
The subject matter of ‘The Classical Revolution’ is the current emerging of a new music, which is rooted in premodernist tonal traditions. In painting, figurative realism – which was marginalized by modernism (abstract art, concept art) but never entirely disappeared – is enjoying a revival; a couple of contemporary architects are increasingly successful in recreating something of the classical tradition in building (Krier, Terry, Adams, Greenberg), in spite of fierce opposition from a conventional establishment. And now also in serious music, ideas of revival and restoration are appearing – somewhat later than in the other art forms, as usual. There has already been written about new figurative painting and new classical architecture, but new classical music is still a rather virginal territory.
Classical music is often considered as an art form which embodies humanistic and ethic ideals, and is supposed to inspire moral awareness in its listeners. This aspirational vision of serious music is one of the results of the Enlightenment as it developed at the end of the 18th century, when in aesthetic theory ‘the artist’ became an ‘independent entity’ and no longer a mere craftsman in the service of church, court and nobility. This vision formed an important strand in 19th culture, where it had to struggle with the reactions its sometimes dry rationalism provoked, inadvertedly stimulating romanticism with its vague but profound emotional urges, so strongly disqualified by Goethe.
Some research in neuroscience appears to support the claim that confusion, resulting from listening to postwar avantgarde atonal works, is not due to lack of musical understanding and a conservative taste, but the logical result of works without structural patterns that relate to the mind’s hardwired, pattern-seeking abilities. But of course, acculturation plays a role, but not the only one.
There is an increasing number of observations demonstrating something of the emerging of common sense about the established art history of the last century, as found in an article on the website of ‘The Smart Set’:
20th-century modernism marked the transition from a world of regional civilizational artistic traditions to the bright, shiny, new, universal society of airports, hotels, and office buildings which are the same everywhere on the planet, with the same color-blob paintings in the lobbies and corridors and the same metal tripod or other abstract sculpture out front.
The Literary Review newsletter of 2/11/16 held a review of a biography of Jonathan Swift, exposing one of the striking cultural prejudices of the last century, which still hangs in the air of our own times:
“In his everyday life Jonathan Swift was fastidiously clean. In his writing, however, he was capable of what was disapprovingly called an ‘excremental vision’. Yet this at least showed him to be less hypocritical than his ‘grubbier’ contemporaries, who ‘refused to permit the filth, decay and human waste around them to enter the realms of verse’, suggests Freya Johnston in her review of John Stubbs’s ‘sensitive and capacious’ new biography of Swift.”
Pluralism and freedom of discussion are of fundamental importance for culture; where societies become dominated by populism and / or rightwing extremism, this pluralism is under serious threat, and the arts will become politicized, open to blackmailing and manipulation, of which history offers many examples. In the Western world, the freedom of pluralism is under threat, both in the USA and in Europe, where the central performance culture is an integral part of society, especially in the German-speaking lands. Will it be strong enough to resist the threats which are also appearing in the heartland of the classical repertoire?
While working on an extension of a chapter in my book, as a preparation for its 2nd edition by Dover – it is the chapter where a number of new tonal composers are mentioned by way of examples – there appear to be many more of such composers than imagined before. One wonders who else is out there, of whom hardly anybody has heard, and whose efforts are valuable contributions to the art form in spite of not being performed. Herbert Paul’s fascinating study ‘Two Centuries in One’….
….. already revealed the richness of the field, but my impression is that not all of these composers – having been performed, having enjoyed successes – will have achieved the artistic level that can survive the erosion of time, in other words: there will have been works which do not invite repeated hearing. But that goes for all music produced in any age, the general production provides the context within which the great works can blossom.
Authoritarian, rightwing regimes who want to increase their power over society as much as possible, use the disguise of ‘defending traditional values’ to achieve their aim. We are reminded of the tactics of the nazis in interbellum Germany, manipulating the volatile and traumatized population, especially the masses who lost their jobs, their security, their sense of ‘belonging’.
Why exactly does a modernist, or postmodernist, or contemporary ‘hip’ work that rubs shoulders with pop music, not fit in a classical orchestral programme that also holds, say, a Tchaikovsky symphony and a Ravel concerto? Why do audiences, used to a very varied ‘classical repertoire’ that covers a stylistic palette from Haydn to Hindemith, up till and including the Stravinsky of the ‘neo-classical’ period, react negatively, or at best: politely, but almost never enthusiastically, to such works? Can that only be explained as conservatism?
On 23rd of October of this year, Sara Trickey (violin), Sarah-Jane Bradley (viola), Tim Lowe (cello) and John Lenehan (piano) – all members of the well-known British ensemble The Sound Collective, will present an interesting programme at London’s King’s Place, including a UK premiere:
The ‘Trio for Strings’ is taking Viennese classicism as a point of departure, adding later elements to its idiom. It has been played various times before, but never in the UK.
Addendum December 2016:
The concert was a success, for all the three works, and excellently performed by The Sound Collective.
An interesting article in the Chronicle of Higher Education about the fruits of tradition, if correctly understood:
Quote: “You simply cannot transform tradition (a creative ideal) without first knowing it (a conserving ideal).” The article confirms the common sense insight that any achievement in any field is based upon mastering the rules by immersion in tradition, which is: the available body of works and their meaning. But what are these rules, and where are they for? Paradoxically, rules require discipline, concentration, learning, repetition, all restricting activities with clear limitations, but when gone through this stage, rules offer freedom. The British art nun Sister Wendy, a most brilliant mind in the field of art history, once said in one of her famous BBC documentaries: ‘I like rules… because you can move so freely within them’. One could go further and conclude, that mastering rules offers the possibility of transcending them and creating new things: not merely following rules but playing inventively with them, so that new forms can blossom; in this way, an artistic tradition develops in a lively balance between order and re-invention. In music, rules are the result of the discovery of innate laws, but these laws are flexible, like living things. The 20C explosion of multifarious possibilities in terms of musical language and the accompanying erosion of artistic quality and value, are related….. and a renewed interest in the concept of tradition (well-understood) may help to revert the decline in creative thinking in the field of contemporary music.