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.
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.
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.
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.