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 the modernist establishment which still chases the utopia of the last century. 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.
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.
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. 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 may help to revert the decline in creative thinking in the field of contemporary music.
The well-known architect Leon Krier, the great inspirator and theorist of a new, humane architecture and urban planning, based upon an interpretation of classical architecture, has said: ‘Classical architecture is atemporal, like mathematics’:
Further elaborations by Krier makes clear, that this transcendental quality is due not to the invention of proportions, but of their discovery. Both mathematics and classical architecture, and we can say: all classical art, demonstrates what the architect Steven Semes calls ‘the holistic nature of human perception’.
These are not wildly-groundbreaking opinions, but common sense, based upon empirical evidence and experience. In our time, such statements have taken-on the quality of revolutionary pronouncements because these common sense insights have become extremely rare and contested by the idea, that cultural achievements are mere human constructs, i.e. products of the conscious will and for that reason, as valuable as any other human construct. So, we can reject the idea of tonality in music and construct a very different system of coherence, as we can build glass-and-steel skyscrapers and assume we will live and work as happily in them as in a Viennese or Parisian city centre appartment. These 20C misconceptions are born from the idea that nature is something we observe from a distance and should be subdued to our will, without taking into account its nature, the nature of nature, so to speak. This misconception can also be streched to the territory of ethics, psychology, sociology, sexuality, you name it. It is the idea that there is no authority above the human mind, and even reality as such is often contested as something to be taken into account.
But the reality of nature, as human nature, is the basis of all we hope to create and achieve, in any field. That some proportions in architecture we recognize as better, more pleasing, closer to our innermost being and its longing for harmony, is not a human construct but a discovery of an already existing reality, of which we are an organic part. Hence the ‘holistic nature of human perception’.
Our inbuilt perceptive capacities of recognizing order and harmony makes it possible to recognize aesthetic qualities in works from other than Western cultures, because these capacities are universal in humans. This also explains the ease with which Chinese and Japanese musicians master Western classical music, in spite of the great differences in culture and history, and the enthusiasm with which African masks were incorporated, at the beginning of the last century, into European modern art – the attraction of the ‘pure primitive’ for the jaded tastes of an eroding urban cultural elite.
Walking through a classical architectural monument, which happens in time, is comparable to listening to a classical symphony, which gradually builds-up in the subconscious mind an image of interrelated spaces, masses, proportions and ornaments; Steven Semes has written about this comparison in this essay:
Wholeheartedly recommended…. because these thoughts teach us much about how to contribute to a renaissance of classical music.
But what do we mean by the term ‘classical’? Not the restricted historical period of ca. 1770 – 1827, but any music, which is based upon ‘the holistic nature of human perception’, and which contributes its individual version of the average language which offers so many different interpretations.
In ‘Classical Architecture, the Poetics of Order’ (MIT Press 1986), Alexander Tzonis and Liane Lefaivre explore classical architecture not as a cultural history in a linear narrative, but as a mental space where numerous different designs and applications are considered from a couple of fundamental aesthetic points of departure. For music, this exploration is very instructive, since it demonstrates comparable efforts by the creative mind to invent designs where conflicts and contradictions are solved in an overarching integrated whole, which is specifically stimulating because such designs reflect the instinctive drive in humans to arrive at some balance during the often conflicting and volatile trajectory of life, and to find something of durability and continuity that may glue together the broken bits of experience as they may be met. Especially in our time of confusion and cultural erosion, such explorations have become of the greatest importance.
Man kann in eine Kultur, sei sie auch noch so lokal entstanden, hereinwachsen, absorbieren, sich mit den Kulturwerten identifizieren. Die verschiedene Europäische Kulturen, wie von den verschiedenen Nationen ‘vertreten’, sind nicht ganz abgeschlossene Bereiche, aber nur verschiedene Betonungen von irgendwelche Eigenschaften die alle zusammen Europäisch sind, in der Urzeit aus Griechisch/Römischer und Christlicher Zivilisation entstanden und die sich weiterentwickelt haben, offen nach aussen und nach der eigenen Vergangenheit, und inklusive universeller humanistischen Werten, wovon man heute überall in der Welt die Reflektionen sehen kann.
On the website of Prospect, the British philosopher Sir Roger Scruton has written eloquently and profoundly on Wagner’s four-night opera cycle ‘Der Ring des Nibelungen’:
Wagner wanted to be an opera composer, plus cultural philosopher plus political agitator plus founder of a new religion: ‘Kunstreligion’, centered around his own works which – as in Christianity – focus upon redemption. (R. Strauss: ‘I don’t understand where I should have to be redeemed from’.) In most articles and essays about the Ring, Wagner’s antisemitism is always put on the table as proof of one of W’s most serious moral flaws, and the question, whether charicatures of ‘Jews’ can be found in the operas. Scruton leaves that question alone, simply dismisses it, and concentrates on the possibilities of meaning and message.
The current mobilization of right-wing protests against immigration and acceptance of war refugees in Europe, stimulated by ignorance and distrust of politics and media, is fed by two interrelated sources which are generally left untouched by the political parties in favor of both the EU and a controlled immigration: national identity and cultural identity. Both are emotional in nature, and the reason that the traditional political parties and the gigantic organisational structure of the EU prefer to avoid to tackle these subjects, is that they (the organizations) are strongly rationalistic in nature, due to the bureaucratic challenges of the modern world which requires management skills above all else. Scale requires bureaucracy, and bureaucracy by its nature does not indulge in philosophical and cultural questions. Also the very different histories of the European nations forces collaborations to be rational, as to not tread on sensitive toes and muddle the waters with old resentments and suspicions. The tragedy of the EU is that it wants to be an overall structure unifying these different nations, and it sees – logically – rationality as the only way to transcend borders, appealing to common sense, concrete interests, intelligence and argument, instead of patriottic emotions which have created so much havoc in the continent’s past. So, a large territory of potential disruption has been left unploughed, where in these days the seeds of all those burried resentments and suspicions sprout into a fresh jungle of dangerous sentiments, where the progeny of fascism (laying dormant for decennia) are easy to detect (as can be seen in the ‘Völkisch’ appeal of movements like the German ‘Pegida’).
The year 2013, celebrating Wagner’s birth in 1813, provoked a flurry of (extra) performances, articles and books in an attempt to understand, enjoy, and make accessible the life work of one of the most controversial European cultural icons of the 19th century. Reading the reviews of the newly-published books and some of the extensive essays in the (cultural) magazines, makes clear that it is Wagner’s personality and turbulent life, together with his dubious posthumous influence – especially his antisemitism – that receives most of the attention, as do the plots of his operas and their possible interpretations. The music as music however, is hardly treated, and if at all, rather superficially and piecemeal. But what the music, in itself, is, and how it works, and especially how it is possible that the music turns so many music lovers into helpless addicts, living from shot to shot to keep their dependence intact – a sort of happy surrender to emotional experience in the form of tones that often looks like a passionate love obsession that cannot be quenched – that seems to be a ‘mystery’, difficult to rationally understand and impossible to analyse.
The works of Morton Feldman (1926 – 1987) represent one of the clearest demonstrations of mourning in terms of sound, and often beautiful sound. In 2006 the American music journalist Alex Ross dedicated an interesting article to Feldman:
Some quotes from the article:
In a way, his music seemed to protest all of European civilization, which, in one way or another, had been complicit in Hitler’s crimes.
So, all the achievements of Europe thrown, indiscriminatingly, as a whole in the dustbin of history. A good example of postwar nihilism, quite understandable for a composer who first and foremost identified with being Jewish (not American?), and with the ambition of becoming the ‘greatest Jewish composer’ (surpassing Mendelssohn, Mahler and Schoenberg?).
He was a hard-core modernist to the end, despite his sensualist tendencies, and he did not conceive of art a medium for sending messages.
And yet, his work communicates his very personal emotional life experience – a sad and empty one, in spite of living in the USA and having not suffered any war atrocity.