Classical music and modernity


The longing for spring, for beginning with a clean slate, for the opportunity to begin something unhindered by other people’s work of yesterday, is deeply ingrained in the consciousness (and subconsciousness) of Western civilization. The curious and explorative spirit of Greece has suffused so much of Western thinking, that it is sometimes difficult to imagine a world without it, which sometimes shows in the rubbing of the West with the Islamic world and the civilizations of the Far East. Also, Christianity, with its promises of forgiveness, redemption, and the renewal offered by love, partly inspired the impressive developments that has given ‘the West’ such prominence, in spite of the abberations and devastating upheavels in its path. Interestingly, before postmodernism began to undermine its confidence, the West appeared to have arrived at some universal values which could be applied everywhere on the globe where people felt the appeal of progress and the urge to be liberated from circumstances which hinder any development to a ‘better life’. (We could think of ‘human rights’, ‘democracy’, ‘freedom from state suppression and control’, ‘social welfare’, and access to education, medical facilities and factual information.) What began as a local culture in Europe, has meanwhile developed to a global culture where the notion of ‘modernity’ keeps things moving at a seemingly unstoppable pace.

The idea of ‘universal values’ implies their timelessness: a concept which is considered and experienced as universal is lifted from time and place and has an intrinsic value in and of itself. Logically, such abstract value cannot be ‘developed’, ‘modernized’, as computer programmes can, since modernization is a phenomenon happening in time, developing from something into something that is better. Universal values like human rights can be implemented in different ways and in different contexts, but their nature stands above their realizations, somewhat in a platonic way – the abstract idea inspiring different realizations in the world.

The idea of ‘the modern’, which took hold in the 19th century both in the wider context of society and politics, and in culture, thus holds a promise for something better, for improvement, but along the way it also rediscovered the timelessness of universals. In the same century a hughe catalogueing of history began, widening the awareness of the achievements of the past, and in music the formation of a canon led to the central performance culture as we know it today. This cultivation of the past, leading to a better understanding of the European heritage in many fields, also led to confusion of identity, as can be witnessed in 19C architecture which spread into a delta of historicism, interpreting or imitating styles of former periods. In music, the incredibly rich harvest of music that the 19C produced, began to weigh heavily on new creation in the 20th century, when the more progressive, more modern composers began to extend the framework of the art form so much that it fell apart and opened the doors to approaches which can hardly be called ‘musical’. Modernity drove new music to and over the boundaries of the art form, creating new forms of art, but kept the canonic repertoire intact, a repertoire that was increasingly felt as an embodiment of universal values, disconnected from its time and place of origin.

It can be argued that the explorative mind of the West has discovered two fundamental truths: 1) that progress in many fields is possible and desirable, and 2) that there are universal values which are not subjected to the restrictions and the erosion of time and place. This implies that whatever universal value is felt in musical works, it may create some tension with modernity (if modernity is understood as the mindset which tries to improve things), since the discovery of universal value in music takes a rather long time of repeated hearing and testing, a trajectory within a value framework where the dynamics of music can be understood. As long as some universal value in a work is not really understood and confirmed, a musical work is subject to the eroding process of modernity which demands eternal renewal.

The idea of ‘renewal’ implies something that can become something better, that can be improved. But its realization depends upon context. When we look at musical life as it operates today – as far as this is possible at all, given the immense variety characterizing the performance culture – the impression is that ‘classical music’ as a genre is increasingly criticized for being ‘not compatible with modernity’ and that its audience is aging, without enough replenishment by the young, who are so much more involved in ‘the modern world’, where renewal and progress are the ‘cool’ slogans. With the maturing of the young, some awareness of the existence of universal values may appear, and then access to classical music may become a valuable option: when ‘the modern’ becomes a bit stale or unsatisfactory, some works from ‘the old culture’ can suddenly appear fresh and new – because of initially been ignored and unknown. There are many instances imaginable where the old takes-on the character of the new, where life experience is being revitalized by something that had been imagined, created and realized long ago. In other words, renewal and modernization can happen in very different directions. For the Renaissance humanists and artists the rediscovery of the culture of Antiquity held the promise of progress, improvement, and a fresh beginning. Cultural history presents many examples of the attraction of the past as a means of modernization, be it a real past or an imagined one (as in the invention and development of opera). This was not ‘conservatism’ but instead a form of modernity. 1)

The new music of today finds itself in a double bind situation: on one hand, it wants to embody its ever appealing ideal of renewal, exploration and progressiveness; but on the other, all the ‘progressive’ means developed in the postwar period that have meanwhile been established as badges of modernity, have become stale and conventional, have become old because they were aimed at ‘being modern’ (i.e. ‘of their time’), and ‘progressive’ on the level of sound material, and not on the level of universal values. That the ‘progressive musical means’ were not meant to develop universal values can be seen in the way in which the achievements of the past which had survived history because of these values, was rejected and any respect or commitment to them condemned as ‘nostalgia’. We may remember Boulez’s lifelong disdain for what he called ‘les invalides de la nostalgie’. It has become increasingly difficult for any intelligent person to maintain that things developed half a century ago are still at the cutting edge of exploration. And then, the presence of the central performance culture (the world of classical music as a genre), next door so to speak, where most of the attention and the money goes, and which still has iconic status supported by a canon, almost like a religion, is felt as an unfair pressure, like a large palace consuming all the attention, money and audiences, while the little laboratory next door where the ‘real creativity’ is supposed to happen, finds it increasingly hard to sustain its activities, all the more so because its explorations have got stuck in repetition of the gestures of the old avantgarde, an ‘old’ which was based upon an utopian ‘new’. The little laboratory, in short, begins to look like a very poor and derelict extension at the very back of the palace, and the comparison reflects quite badly on ‘the old new’.

Increasingly, composers of today feel that the way in which the idea of modernity has driven musical developments in the last half century can no longer be pursued, that it has reached something like a natural end, that postwar new music somehow has become a historical category. So, what next? Ironic postmodern games with half-hearted citations? May be interesting for one time but does not offer any possibility of serious development. Cross-over music, mixing the conventional Western ‘modern’ with pop or / and elements from non-Western traditions? Interesting and legitimate, but no longer Western music; it would mean that Western composers would leave their own culture behind – or, would merely hold one foot in it. For composers, still feeling committed to the idea of a Western art music, the question of ‘what next’ has become a matter of fundamental professional concern, both in relation to their own delevopment and to the fate of Western music in general – would it finally die and turn into a niche museum phenomenon? But which possibilities would be open to them? Rewriting old music, repeating the music of the canonic repertoire of the central performance culture, i.e. admitting defeat and succumb to the pressures of existence and identity? But that would be pointless, because that music does already exist. New music should be a contribution to the existing repertoire, and if this contribution can no longer be presented in a new musical language, it should be the personal interpretation of the composer which offers the experience of the new. It seems that, for the composer who still feels committed to the genre of Western serious music, there is one way open to him, a very difficult road – for obvious reasons – but one which promises at least the experience of a new beginning, a fresh morning of spring, and that is to seek the modern in a different direction.

It is hard for us to imagine that the movement at the end of the 18th century which has been catalogued afterwards as ‘classicism’, was felt at the time as highly ‘modern’ and a form of ‘progress’. The customary wig was put into the cupboard, women’s clothing became more free and thus more healthy, interior decorations were cleansed from the overgrowth of rococo curls, new buildings strove after noble greatness and simple lines showing overall structure, and music became what later-on was considered ‘classical’: noble, clear-cut, balanced, and both accessible and structurally subtle: Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert. All this was strongly influenced by a renewed interest in the culture of Antiquity, which was believed to embody universal values of truth and beauty, which could be picked-up again and stimulate new invention and development. Half a century later, to many people all this seemed old and stale again…. and in music, Wagner extended musical language to encompass both the means to express hitherto unplumbed emotional intensities and the classicizing interpretation of the Baroque in Meistersinger and Parsifal, after which Mahler, Strauss, Debussy et al found their way within the delta of varied developments following the gradual dissolving of the tradition of formal structuring of old. Both Debussy and Schoenberg – composers driven by a strong desire to explore modernity in music and who can be considered the arch fathers of modern music in the 20th century – discovered for themselves, later in life, the stimulating influence of the past and developed their own interpretation of ‘the classical’. So, modernity in music has taken-on many different forms, and this flexibility opens the way for infinite exploration. When the new of yesterday has become old, it may be the old of yesteryear that takes-on the appearance of the new, with its promise of renewal and a fresh beginning.

Seen in this way, it appears that the central performance culture (the world of ‘classical music’ with its orchestras, opera houses and chamber music concerts) is not an outdated museum culture but a highly modern phenomenon, which is also confirmed by its explorative branche of HIP (Historically-Informed Performance). It is a result of modernity’s discovery of universals, in the spirit that began in old Greece. This interpretation of modernity gives space to both future, present and past as a holistic continuum, and is fundamentally different from modernity as an ideology that wants to cut-off past culture, which can only result in selfdestructiveness.  The critique, from populist and oldfashioned modernist circles – these reservoirs of envy and ignorance – that ‘classical music’ does not deserve its status and (in Europe) its state funding, is entirely unjustified: it’s mere slander and has to be refuted by all means. Classical music is a symbol of Western civilization, embodying universal values and thus, an irreplaceable and inalienable part of global humanity. And, with a more subtle and viable interpretation of modernity, it can still inspire new creation.

But how would this look like, or better: sound like, in our own times? We could imagine a new music, embodying the modernity of our time – which cannot be the modernity of half a century ago – which would want to reconnect with the period before the Second World War which has been such a caesura (so, a reconnection with prewar, premodernist music which has been so pluralistic and fertile), or a reinterpretation of even older idioms which have taken-on the character of timelessness, a possibility as demonstrated by Ravel, the later Bartok, Shostakovich or the Stravinsky of the twenties and thirties. These people were not rewriting the past, but were inspired by it and (paradoxically)  found their own voice through absorbing the past, filtering it through their own individuality and thereby creating the new. That is exploration on a subtler level than merely extending the musical language and technical means. It is not coincidence that the music of Shostakovich has recently entered the canonic repertoire, where it has brought the experience of ‘the new’ because rather unknown before, or merely considered a local, state-forced traditionalism…. and that in spite of its often dark nature and obsessive sarcasm. Next to the ‘modern scene’ as found in the meanwhile established circles celebrating modernity of old, and next to the central performance culture which continues to celebrate the timeless, experiments explore the renewal of the past, not to rewrite it but to learn from it and to find new inspiration.

Classical music is here to stay – because it is modern for ever.


1) The importance of the past for life in the present and future has always been fully understood by the mature minds of humanity: ‘Not to know what happened before one was born, is always to be a child’. Cicero

© John Borstlap / 2015

One Response to Classical music and modernity

  1. Gustavo Artiles says:

    I’m glad I had once experienced the thrilling shock of the new in the 70’s when I discovered Machaut’s mass. And I heard it with Machaut’s ears. I guess this goes to support Prof. Borstlap’s position.

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