The idea, that it is possible for new music in the West to connect with the great European/Western repertoire on a fundamental level, is a new one and – in the context of the developments of new music in the past half century – a radical one. Comparable aesthetics from the past which come to mind, like the neoclassicism of the early 20th century or the government-instructed traditionalism in Soviet Russia (which was merely a frozen tradition), are different. Neoclassicism is a view, from the standpoint of an innerly broken world view, back into history from which loose elements are taken and processed in a very different way, which gives the music a truly contemporary character, very different from its original context and reflecting the collective hangover from the First World War which broke a generally-accepted positive image of European civilisation. Therefore it was often elements from baroque which served as examples and ‘stolen’ material, seen as non-committing, ‘cool’ material, far removed from the emotionally-expressive climate of prewar romanticism which was associated with the emotional abberation of war and hatred. Neoclassicism had nothing of a ‘renaissance’ of the classical tradition, but was a selective historicism aiming at an emotionally distant music and putting order and structure in the foreground – defensive reactions to emotional ‘indulgence’. The Soviet traditionalism, surrounded by taboos about too many dissonances and too much complexity, was basically a more dissonant version of 19C music, and not a renewal of a tradition – it was an extension of a still living tradition; the conditions in which it had to function, turned the liberation from totalitarian control after the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989 into a late repetition of what had happened in the fifties and sixties in the West: atonalism, sonic art, ‘new complexity’, all the experiments which had already run their course in Darmstadt and Donaueschingen were new to the Russians, so now it was their turn to enjoy the freedom of total absence of any limitation.
The Renaissance concept which is the inspiring idea behind the work of quite some composers of today, is something else: tapping into the rich sources of musical life which were still present before the breakdown of Europe in 1914, and were still a stimulating force in the Interbellum, although with considerably less vigour. Therefore we see, in the work of these composers, not so much the baroque elements, or irony or sarcasm, or anything which reflects distance to the sources, but a wholehearted plunging into the underground. But because the background of this movement is not fully understood, we don’t hear very much of these works: they sound quite different from what is performed today of new music, which is much more accessible than some 20 years ago, but which is still clinging to a general aesthetic of the 2nd half of the last century – and almost always lacks the expressive qualities of pre-1914 music and certainly its high standards in terms of technique and sophistication.
Is this ‘new Renaissance music’ not simply an imitation, a form of Disneyfication of an existing body of old works? Sir Roger Scruton has already treated this question in his ‘Aesthetics of Music’ (Oxford University Press 1999), and his analysis makes clear that the dangers of cheap imitation must be overcome if ever a new expressive music is to be created. But this problem existed always in the field: composers in any age before the 20th century had to be authentic, and in a musically-aesthetic sense. If talents were lacking, their efforts did not overcome cheap imitation of what already existed. In a historic sense they were already automatically authentic, but such authenticity has no artistic value, because it is not an artistic category. The question of authenticity is not only an aesthetic one, but in the first place a psychological one.
Which are these new composers who seek to recreate the classical tradition, who want to restore musical values which had been lost in the last century, who really want to contribute to a true Renaissance of Western music? There are many, but here are mentioned a couple of the most conspicuous famous or (still) unknown: in France, Nicolas Bacri, Thierry Escaich, Richard Dubugnon, Guillaume Connesson. In England: David Matthews, James Francis Brown, Alan Mills, Peter Fribbins. In Russia: Alexander Smellkov. In the USA: Paul Moravec, Richard Danielpour, Jeremy Cavaterra, Lera Auerbach, Pierre Jalbert, Jonathan Leshnoff, Stephen Albert. And there are more, and not all of them would want to consider themselves as a member of a group or of a movement – they are all individualists farming their own particular garden. And there is, of course, the writer of these lines, who is considered a more extreme example of the idea. But this individualism makes the movement a true authentic one: the inspiration is there, the ideas are there, and the hard work to recapture musical values and to transform ideas into a personal musical language. None of the mentioned composers lacks authenticity and they all have in common two things: 1) a tonal language, i.e. they make use of notes which form relationships, creating an inner space and a forward momentum in the narrative; and 2) a type of expression which is direct and not hiding behind a screen of a stylisch foreground, like the 20C neoclassicism.
Is the music of all of these composers ‘classical’, can they be considered as belonging to the ‘classical tradition’? If we take the term ‘classical tradition’ in the sense in which we talk about ‘traditional or classical Indian music’ as different from other types of music, then yes, they all took-up the broad palette of music as it existed in the early 20th century and revive its values, but they don’t imitate that music – they transform what inspires them into a personal version, a personal interpretation. And it is this which is a normal, natural way of how a cultural tradition works: there is a common vocabulary and grammar, but very loosely so with lots of variations, and a personal selection of means which is welded into a personal form of expression.
Then the question arises how such an ambitious initiative – because very ambitious it is – can be related to the reality of the modern world. Doesn’t modernity demands its own expression, which can only be different from what artists, composers, felt some hundred years – or more – before? Aren’t these contemporary revivalists simply out of step with their own time? If we reflect a bit further upon this question, then it clearly appears that the question itself is wrong. History does not unfold according to some mysterious force which subjects humanity to its dynamics, but is the result of ideas and actions of humanity itself. As French poet René Char correctly said: ‘Our heritage has been bequeathed to us without a testament’. This insight removes once and for all any suspicion that a Renaissance of the classical tradition in Western art music is something ‘conservative’, is a mere ‘freezing’ of a cultural artefact which once was alive and is now put into a glass box, disconnected from the present world. In contrary, it can be argued that reviving a precious and rich cultural tradition from the past is a necessity in the 21st century, after a century which saw a breakdown of all values (or: most of them) from a premodern past, and the creation of a world in which almost everything was new and unprecedented, on all levels. Since the nature of the human species is not something simply to be constructed but embedded in its constitution, both biologically and psychologically, it has been clear that it is impossible to create a new human species – as we can see every day in the news where modernity clashes violently with the human condition. In such a world, values have to be found which carry human life forwards in what appears to be, empirically, ‘the best possible way’, and components of such way may be found in the past, which offers a wealth of experience of the human condition from which to choose. The very fact that music from past ages can still strongly move us and give us the experience of something that addresses our own, contemporary inner life, shows the universal values inherent in such music, which show the continuity of how humans experience life, and the ongoing search for meaningful values. Art, and in this case: music, can be a symbol of this search for value, and this means that reviving a rich and precious tradition is, in the given circumstances, the most modern and forward-looking thing to do.
A great, truly conservative obstacle is a still wide-spread and very restricted idea of progress. A poisonous fruit from the last century was the thought that progress means: things that are new are therefore better than the things that were. But this is a fallacy: such progress is a historical category and not an artistic one. The only progress which deserves that name, is qualitative progress. The former idea of progress was inspired by the progress made by science, where indeed newer things are often an improvement. But in the arts there is no progress: J.S. Bach has not been improved upon by Mahler or Shostakovich, let alone by Boulez or Xenakis. In the arts, the only progress consists of the accumulation of means, which offer the artists a greater palette of possibilities but in no way guarantee an improvement of artistic quality. Artistic progress is entirely qualitative, not historical, and this means that any aesthetic from any time is, in principle, a legitimate means to be used in contemporary creation.
This idea that, in the arts, history is not linear but a continuum in which one can freely dwell, has appeared in the context of postmodernism (a movement of ideas from the eighties onwards) which broke-down the linear Grand Narrative of modernism without offering anything of value in its place. The German postwar modernist composer Bernd Alois Zimmermann already proposed the idea of a ‘Kugelform der Zeit’ – time in the form of a globe – as a better concept of musical history, but without drawing the aesthetic consequences that it suggested; citations and collages as in Berio’s ‘Sinfonia’ can also be seen as the green shoots of a better way of looking at music and its potential for renewal. Today, modernism, postmodernism, and whatever trend following from their propositions, have run their course, and apart from the idea of a revival of the original inspirational forces, there is no single truly fruitful idea to be seen in the field of contemporary music. A Renaissance of the classical tradition, in the broadest sense, is the only option for a musical culture to renew itself and to re-establish its roots in a glorious past which is still fully alive in the present.
So, the recurrence of musical values and techniques from earlier periods, from before the onset of modernism, is a very modern attempt to revive the muse that had inspired ages of musical greatness, and can be called a revival of the classical tradition – classical in the widest sense and as something different from entertainment music and other sonic forms, like the sound art that was developed after the Second World War by Xenakis, Stockhausen, Boulez et al.
Another trend has to be mentioned, which is not the same as the Western revival movement as described here, but related to it, and an interesting and surprising result of the globalisation process of the last decennia: Asian composers who use all the techniques and structural principles of Western classical music but use as material elements from both the Western and Asian classical traditions. It is no coincidence that post-WW II composers in Japan and South Korea took postwar atonal modernism as an example: at the time, this aesthetic seemed to represent modernity and a ‘healthy’ break with the past. But this was not so strong an orthodoxy as in the West, as is shown, for instance, by South-Korean composer Isang Yun who infused his version of modernism with tonal elements and a decorative, colourful and harmonic sensibility inspired by Debussy (especially his Flute Concerto shows Debussyan traits). Composers from China try to combine their own traditions with Western technique or blend different elements from these two cultures; in Hong Kong – where cultural influences from the West and China happily meet – composers active today freely mix elements from East and West, and make their personal version of these influences. American/Chinese composer Bright Sheng, who grew-up during the cultural revolution, emigrated to the USA and became the last student of Leonard Bernstein, developing a personal language where Western and Chinese traditions harmoniously blend, with often striking and very expressive results, showing that if done with talent and imagination, seemingly different traditions can find a ‘middle ground’ where new life can emerge, creating something new and truly stimulating. This is not a revival of a classical tradition, but a creative combination of different classical traditions, and given the increasing interest and absorbtion of Western classical music in East-Asia – also supported by an increasingly sophisticated educational system – such creative blending opens doors to new developments, comparable to the revival of Western classical traditions. It seems that with the crumbling of modernist aesthetics and ideas and taboos, composers feel free again to explore whatever music to find the materials with which true life can be infused into their works instead of the forced, cramped, and so often unmusical attempts of postwar modernism and the cheap fabrications of simple ‘cross-over’ and poppish confections.
When all the flimsy and insubstantial forms of contemporary music which we hear nowadays in their occasional appearances on concert programs have been forgotten, this other brand of new music – the real new music of the 21st century: the rebirth of the musical spirit – will gradually be absorbed into concert life and will prove to be a necessary injection into the existing repertoire, helping classical music to survive in a new age where its values are needed more than ever.
A new book: ‘Saving the Muse; Regaining Classical music’s Relevance in a Troubled World’ will appear somewhere in the near future.