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.
A remarkable German building project
In the centre of Berlin, a most spectatular building project is currently taking form: the reconstruction of the Berlin royal palace, the ‘Berliner Stadtschloss’, in the heart of the city at the end of the famous boulevard Unter den Linden. This project is interesting for new music, since it represents a change in the spirit of our times, until recently dominated by certain notions of modernity which are now increasingly being considered ‘outdated’; ideas which, in the postwar days, stimulated many composers to consider Europe’s rich musical tradition as being ‘out of step’ with the times, thus creating a mental field all of their own, disconnected from the central performance culture.
In the 19th century, and still long afterwards, Brahms was considered a ‘conservative’ composer, while Wagner and Liszt represented the ‘progressive line’, a notion which, with hindsight, was used by progressive composers like Schönberg to justify their own explorations which were presented as developments away from, and in the same time, rooted in tradition. In 1947 Schönberg wrote his famous essay ‘Brahms the progressive’ in which he showed that a return to the contrapuntal, imitative style (from which Schönberg took his cue for his own endeavors) was initiated by Brahms as a disciplined alternative to the coloristic and emotionalist excesses of ‘free’ romanticism. Schönberg wanted to show that he had digested the influences of both Wagner (in terms of tonal and expressive exploration) and Brahms (for his structuralist approaches), whereby Brahms was promoted as a ‘progressive’ composer so that modern ‘progressives’ like Schönberg could demonstrate their relationship to the traditional past, in the hope to get understood in a performance culture where the past was an impressive and oppressive presence.
But how ‘progressive’ was Brahms in reality?
For decades, Western culture has been reluctant to assign an inherent value or a purpose to art—even as it continues to hold art in high esteem. Though we no longer seem comfortable saying so, our reverence for art must be founded on a timeless premise: that art is good for us. If we don’t believe this, then our commitment—in money, time, and study—makes little sense. In what way might art be good for us? The answer, I believe, is that art is a therapeutic instrument: its value lies in its capacity to exhort, console, and guide us toward better versions of ourselves and to help us live more flourishing lives, individually and collectively.
Resistance to such a notion is understandable today, since “therapy” has become associated with questionable, or at least unavailing, methods of improving mental health. To say that art is therapeutic is not to suggest that it shares therapy’s methods but rather its underlying ambition: to help us to cope better with existence. While several predominant ways of thinking about art appear to ignore or reject this goal, their ultimate claim is therapeutic as well.
Graag wil ik op deze plaats verwijzen naar het essay van Adreas Kinneging: ‘Anders dan alle anderen’, over de invloed van de Romantiek op de hedendaagse Westerse samenleving, te vinden onder de titel ‘Een uit de hand gelopen idee’ (zie menu ‘Texts’ bovenaan deze site).
Van groot belang voor iedereen die in de problemen van de hedendaagse cultuur geïnteresseerd is.
In one of the more respectable German music magazines, the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik (New Journal for Music), set-up by Robert Schumann in 1834 and still in full swing, a devastating article has appeared in the 06/2013 issue about my book ‘The Classical Revolution’, tearing it to pieces with a vehemence, mostly reserved for religious quarrels among fundamentalists. The author: Konrad Boehmer, is a Dutch/German sonic artist, born in Germany in 1941 from a father working for the regime but nonetheless killed in the war, grown-up in the DDR, later-on fleeing to West-German Cologne which was in the fifties the centre of electronic celebration. Later-on mr Boehmer landed in Holland where he quickly became a member of the modernist establishment, the small circle of self-made revolutionaries who planned the Brave New World in music. I do not know him personally, nor have I ever done harm to him, I have not even mentioned him in any of my writings, since his works never gave me a reason to give them much attention. But I owe him my sincere gratitude for the efforts he put into the mentioned article, because it fully and wholeheartedly confirms and demonstrates what the problems of the modernist mentality were.
Since modernist ideologies have, helped by government subsidies, established themselves as expressions of ‘modern times’ (whatever that may mean), younger generations of composers who did not suffer from the postwar spiritual hangover found for themselves a great opportunity for moralistic preaching, where they would not be hindered by any musical understanding – since that, together with ‘conservative’ music-making, belonged to the past. The old repertoire as practiced in the ‘regular performance practice’, i.e. the central performance culture, could then be seen as merely ‘soothing people’, massaging the battered nerves of contemporary audiences suffering from the results of progress, with nostalgic and thus, ‘safe’ works from the past, blotting-out consciousness of reality, being carried-away by escapist dreams of a ‘better world’ which has never existed anyway.
The other day, a neurobiologist (who had recently published a book, doing away with the ‘romantic notion’ of ‘personality’ and ‘soul’), accused me of being merely a bag of neurons. ‘Speak for yourself’, I reacted, since her happy smile betrayed her accusation to be perfectly referring to herself, and went out for a walk to the stables.
Why are there so many people around with the burning wish to put the fluent, immaterial aspects of life down to physical phenomenae? As we know, the radio set is for the programme, not the other way around, and understanding the working of the human brain does not reveal anything worth knowing about the personality using this organ to interact with the world. Why are there so many musicologists, music theorists, composers, music aestheticians, pursuing the goal of explaining music in rational, scientific terms?
After the storms of 20th century developments in the arts, provoked by changes in society, wars and their aftermath, increasing industrialization and technological advance, and overviewing the multifarious cultural field today in the Western world, it may be appropriate to return to the fundamental question concerning the raison d’être of the arts: where are they for?
In spite of the complex cultural situation of today (which can only be fully understood after having become the past to future generations), the answer may be short and simple: the arts are there to make the world a better place, and in this sense ‘improving’ it.
In the last century, very often the concept of ‘progress’ was projected upon the arts as a measurement of quality: ‘good art’ was ‘progressive art’: if an artist did not commit some ‘groundbreaking’ artistic deed, his work was considered worthless. While progress in science is a fundamental notion, in the arts it is meaningless, because the nature of art has nothing to do with progress. There may be progress in terms of physical means, like the types of pigment used in painting that got more stable in the last century, or the availability of relatively cheap music notation paper during the 19C industrial revolution, or iron fittings in architecture to vault bigger spaces. Also the discovery of perspective by Bruneleschi in the 15th century was something of progress, like the invention of the ‘sfumato’ brushwork Leonardo da Vinci developed, and which gave painters the opportunity to create a hazy atmosphere on the canvas. But expression, artistic vision, the quality of execution has never been dependent upon the physical means of an art form: Vermeer has not been superseded – in terms of artistic quality – by Picasso or Pollock, Bach not by Mahler or Boulez, Michelangelo not by Giacometti or Moore, Palladio not by Gropius and Le Corbusier. And we can appreciate the brilliance of the ‘primitive’ masters of Flanders, who lived before the great surge of 16C inventions in Italian painting, as we can the music of Palestrina who had no clue of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven or Chopin, simply because he lived in an earlier time.