Since the beginning of the current financial crisis in 2008, classical music as a genre has become – in the West – increasingly under pressure. But it seems that financial pressures are only bringing other pressures in relief: the pressures of ‘exhaustion of old repertoire’, the aging of audiences, and the critique that ‘classical music’ with its endless repetitions of the same works is no longer compatible with modern, progressive, egalitarian and multicultural society and does not deserve the elitist and high-brow status and position as expressed through its funding, privately in America and by the state in Europe. Serious music, be it the old repertoire or new music, needs strong arguments to justify its position and funding, and needs to be able to formulate its meaning and value for society as a whole. This can only be achieved by demonstrating its connection with the best of Western culture, with its cultural identity and with the community: its relationship with audiences.
In such context, the ‘new music scene’ is in a doubly difficult position. Where new music forms a separate territory with performances on specialist festivals and in specialist concerts entirely dedicated to new music, its relevance has become nugatory, and where it is occasionally performed in the context of the regular, traditional performance culture, it is mostly met by a polite tolerance rather than an enthusiastic embrace of a much-needed injection of new life into an art form which otherwise may wither away due to its character of a museum.
For anyone, suspecting that the critique of modernism in all its forms, as expounded in these pages, are just expressions of a reactionary, conservative, fascistoid and frustrated mentality, the following articles are wholeheartedly recommended. They demonstrate an increase of well-thought attempts to take distance from petrified biasses and conventions of the last century which dramatically hinder new developments in the arts, including (serious) music. Independently from each other, critics from left to right begin to see the cultural reality which is in front of us, but which seems to inspire infinite denial in the various cultural establishments. One of the first thorough criticism of certain forms of modernism came from the British philosopher and musicologist Roger Scruton, and his subtle but irrefutable damnations have often been explained-away as coming from ‘the conservative camp’. But now similar observations appear from many different sides, which show that they are not politically or socially determined but resulting from a profound dissatisfaction about what our culture is capable of producing today and a profound wish to find solutions.
“We are amazed and exhilarated by Beethoven’s formal achievements – like the first movement of the Eroica – because the material which they organize lives separately in us. Le Marteau sans Maitre gives no comparable experience, since it contains no recognizable material – no units of significance that can live outside the work that produces them. (Could there be an arrangement of Le Marteau sans Maitre for solo piano? A free improvisation for jazz combo? A set of variations for string quartet? A fragment whistled in the street?)”
Music is a complete representation of a state of mind.
We know the heart of our civilization through music in a way we cannot easily know through anything else. We communicate not just with other people, but with other generations. Like Bach’s St Matthew Passion. The fact that such things exist makes available to us a vision of the world that is not only superior to ours, but has an awful lot to teach us about what we could be.
Two quotes from texts by the British philosopher and aesthetician and musicologist Roger Scruton, that have to be read metaphorically, he does not want us to become like 18C Leipzigers. Classical music as an inspirational, aspirational and transcendent vision requires from both musicians and audiences a serious state of mind and receptiveness which is harder to acquire in our technologically-saturated times than in a time, when life was much slower, calmer and quieter. In comparison with the bordering-on-the-insane ‘celebration of modern life’ of Elliott Carter, the bland, obsessive mindlessness of Philip Glass or the puerile fake sixties-rebelliousness of Louis Andriessen, it is the seriousness of the music of David Matthews or Nicolas Bacri on which any hope for a future of classical music rests.
“Perhaps what is inexpressible (what I find mysterious and am not able to express) is the background against which whatever I could express has its meaning.” (Ludwig Wittgenstein)
This seems to be a quite expressive indication of the meaning of music…. which is not in the notes, but hints at the background against which they obtain their meaning. And this background is not meant to be the cultural framework of music – although that also plays a role in the formation of meaning, but on a more concrete, stylistic and technical level – but something of a psychic, transcendent nature.
For people, who have begun to have some doubts to whether established avantgarde music can live-up to the standards of excellence, expression and intelligence of music in general – as an art form, in the widest possible sense – it is recommended to follow-up the following links which will provide some enlightenment on the matter.
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.