tradition

Topic

view of Seaside, Florida

When orchestras rack their brains to discover the ways that they are relevant to their communities, they invariably come up with a wide range of replies that almost never includes their concert hall. Yet there is little else that could appear on that list that is as permanent and concrete as the daily encounter of a community with its concert hall.

Chef Spike Gjerde. Image courtesy of Woodberry Kitchen.

The prescriptions most loudly recommended for America’s challenged orchestras today stress complicity with the modern realities of speed, technology, and globalization. Shorter, quicker concerts geared towards shorter, quicker attention spans; the sensual and intellectual stimulation of novelty and fashion; harnessing technological innovation to prove that we can keep up; focusing our attention on bigger halls, bigger stars, and wider distribution, emphasizing the global and universal rather than the local and the particular – these are answers we hear over and over. But what if they’re wrong?

Giorgio Vasari: Six Tuscan Poets

It is a common criticism today, as it was in 1341, that to look “backwards” is to look upon something old and decrepit, outdated and dilapidated. Time for us moves only forward, and so paradoxically, while our civilization grows old, it is our past that we label as aged and the day itself as eternally young.

Aurélio de Figueiredo: Menina ao Piano, 1892.

As Edward Shils observed, tradition is best understood not as the “dead hand of the past,” but as “the hand of the gardener, which nourishes and elicits tendencies of judgment which would otherwise not be strong enough to emerge on their own.”

Emile Friant: Les Canotiers de la Meurthe, 1888.

A newspaper comment on something I recently wrote has given me a momentary illusion of having really got hold of what is the matter with modernity. For that serpent is as slippery as an eel, that demon is as elusive as an elf. But for the moment I thought I had him – or at least a perfect specimen of him.

Theodore Robinson: At The Piano, 1887.

The present-day abundance of classical music – of newly rediscovered works, consummate performances, thousands of recordings, and legions of fans – is a testament to its deep roots in human feeling. And it is a cause for celebration that so many people still feel drawn into its web of lethal beauty, in a world so far from the one that gave it birth.

Plan for a New Lincoln Center by the firm of Franck Lohsen McCrery.

Lincoln Center was to be an acropolis for New York; in a secular city, it was to be a shrine for the arts, a testament to man’s capacity to imagine and represent an ideal world of beauty and harmony, of self-discipline in the service of an ideal, of the communal celebration of man’s spiritual nature and noblest aspirations. Architects Quinlan Terry, Robert Adam, and the firm of Franck Lohsen McCrery present their plans to replace the crumbling structure.

Panthéon de Paris: Interior view.

Our distorted view of the relationship between modernity and culture has much to do with the idea that culture develops like a timeline: first this, then that – development from A via B to C and so on, with the implication and the hope that it is, in general, an upward line. If this were so in culture, we would end up with some obvious absurdities.

Ambrosius Benson: Le Concert après le repas, 1532.

The modernist composer György Ligeti said in an interview that he felt imprisoned between, on one hand, the past, and on the other, modernism – the avant-garde which he himself had helped into being but which he felt he had somehow to transcend, because “progress” meant to him having to “go forward” all the time on the line of historical development.

Raphael: The School of Athens, detail, 1509-1511.

Very few composers have philosophical gifts, and fewer still attempt to justify their music in philosophical terms. But it is precisely the absence of philosophical reflection that has led to the invasion of the musical arena by half-baked ideas. Without the firm foundations provided by a live culture of music-making, philosophy is the only guide that we have; and when good philosophy is absent, bad philosophy steps in to the gap.

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