The Enduring Presence of the Past

Future Symphony Institute

EDITOR’S NOTE: This chapter from the revised and expanded edition of John Borstlap’s noteworthy book, The Classical Revolution: Thoughts on New Music in the 21st Century, is reprinted here with gracious permission from Dover Publications, who published the book in 2017.

If we put the last century’s notions of “old” and “new” in a broader historic perspective, it becomes clear how short-sighted these notions were and how wrong it was to give them an aura of absoluteness, since these notions are, by their very nature, relative and flexible, and dependent upon context. When the painter, architect and theorist Giorgio Vasari wrote his Lives of the Great Artists (1568), a collection of biographies of Italian artists, he had to explain when discussing Bramante, Raphael, and Michelangelo what he meant by “modern,” since he knew that his audience would have questions about the “strange” idea that artists explored subjects and aesthetic forms which were a thousand years old and presented them as “new.” The rediscovery of the culture of antiquity as a source of inspiration and as a standard of quality was felt, in Renaissance times, as something new and dynamic. The influence of the culture of antiquity can be traced back to the 12th century when conditions favoured a more refined and sophisticated civilisation. This was not the first wave of Renaissance thinking, for Charlemagne had already stimulated interest in antiquity in the early 9th century, in a spirit of constructive reform, after the worst of the barbarism of the 7th and 8th centuries had subsided. Later on, in the medieval world, Italy’s culture was dominated by northern and eastern influences and for many people at that time, “modern” meant the latest developments of medieval culture imported from the prosperous north, especially Flanders. The concept of a “modernity” based upon ideas from ages ago was still controversial, but for the intelligentsia the works of poetry, science, and the visual arts of the Greco-Roman world were all superior to anything produced by contemporary culture, and the presence of Roman monuments, mostly ruined, reminded the Italians of a glorious past and inspired them to dream of a possibly comparable future.

The Renaissance interest in antiquity as a civilising influence is something fundamentally different from modern thinking. In the 20th century, progress was understood as a confident leap into the future: a projected utopia, only made possible by a drastic break with the past. The Past stood for Reaction, and the Future for Progress. By comparison, the ideas of the artists of the Italian Renaissance gives us an opposite picture. Although the relatively immediate past – the Middle Ages (also known as the Dark Ages) – was felt to be stagnant, the future held the possibility of recreating a distant past from a mythological era, which had already profoundly influenced the European intelligentsia. This potential recreation was considered something much better than the art of the Dark Ages, when the arts and crafts of Antiquity had eroded and their secrets were lost.

Assuming that Vasari’s view upon the developments he describes reflected a broader consensus among the intellectual and artistic elite of his time, it is clear that the driving force behind the changes in the arts and architecture from the beginning of the Renaissance onwards, was an urge to do things better than before, not to be more advanced in the sense of being “more modern” and for that reason “better.” Vasari clearly sees “early” artists like Cimabue, Giotto, and Simone Martini as still rather awkward, trying their best, and achieving the best that was possible in their time, but beginning an upward line through Lorenzo Ghiberti, Filippo Brunelleschi, and Sandro Botticelli to the “perfection” of his own time with brilliant people like Michelangelo, Tiziano, and Raphael. So, in Renaissance time, being modern was the result of being better, while in the 20th century being better was the result of being modern – it may be clear that the latter idea is nonsensical because it rests upon an assumed historical position, while in the Renaissance “being better” was achieved through artistic quality, an attitude which was not incompatible with “looking back” if in earlier times sources of inspiration and great examples could be found. An expression like Arthur Rimbaud’s “Il faut être absolument moderne” would be unthinkable in the 16th century, because of expressing a historicist intention prior to the creation of the work of art.

Was the Italian and, in general, the European Renaissance a reactionary, backward-looking, thus conservative period, with all the associations of dullness and conventionality? As we know, the opposite is true: this incredibly rich period meant the flowering of a spirit of invention and aesthetic sensibility, which lasted until the 19th century when this broad wave of inspiration-by-antiquity found a premature death through its codification in academic institutions, in a society that was changing fast in the industrial revolution and the development of the bourgeoisie as the main territory of cultural action. The rebellion against a petrified academic culture was the cradle of modernism: the creative forces of life had left the territory of “official culture,” which had suffocated innovation, and moved towards the margins of society, where neglected artists struggled to find new and freer ways of expression. The idea of “modern art,” reflecting contemporary life instead of idealized subjects, was born from dissatisfaction with a tradition that was codified, frozen in prescriptions of outward appearances of style and form, and thus had become superficial and untrue.

Thus in the 19th century, the urge of leaving conventional ideas about art behind, got the label “modern.” Since that trend eventually ended-up in the dead-end street of establishment modernism, the word “modern” no longer fits this urge, which, incidentally, also lies behind the motivation of new classical composers: what they feel as “conventional” was called “modern” in the past century. A good example which shows that being “modern” in the period before modernism did not involve the need to destroy the fundamentals of the art form, is the work of Debussy, who created an oeuvre which was shockingly untraditional in its own time, therefore very controversial. Debussy is often described as one of the “forefathers” of modernism, who (together with Schönberg) destroyed the orthodoxies of tradition and created a new and free musical paradigm. Boulez especially tried to show that some of the roots of his own sonic art were to be found in Debussy’s explorations. But Debussy never destroyed the inner workings of tonality and the underlying dynamics of tradition with their varied ways of achieving expression. In The Cambridge Companion to Debussy (Cambridge University Press, 2003), Boyd Pommeroy writes:

In keeping with the progressive spirit of the new century, Debussy succeeded in forging elements from the tonal practice of his predecessors into something radically new. At the same time, his tonal language, even at its least orthodox, never loses sight of the traditional principles that ultimately give it meaning. In Debussy’s music, tonal and formal processes continue to interrelate in ways not so fundamentally different from the tonal masterpieces of the preceding two centuries. To the extent that so vital an engagement with the tonal tradition went hand in hand with the creation of such strange and wonderful new sound-worlds, whose vivid modernity remains undimmed at the turn of another century, his achievement was perhaps unique.

Because Debussy never destroyed the fundamentals of music, his work proved immensely influential for composers who were looking for new paths to explore but wanted to avoid the deadlock of atonalism. As in the work of Stravinsky, it is the superb tonal sense which makes the expressive power of this music possible; it is no coincidence that the later works of Stravinsky, when he was influenced by the modernist trends of the fifties, are considerably less interesting. Like the great artists of the Italian Renaissance, Debussy was inspired by a dream of another world, but in his case it was not the stimulating nostalgia for Antiquity which for him stood for academic, and thus dusty, art forms; he detested everything “classical” in music, painting, and architecture. But nonetheless, his artistic temperament was classical through and through: perfectly balanced proportions, moderation in terms of expression, precise and concise craftsmanship, aristocratic style, and avoidance of everything cheap and vulgar. And, like the Renaissance artists who did not approach the art of Antiquity academically, he never undermined the mimetic basis of the art form. In contrary, he enriched it immensely and showed that freedom from classical forms could still preserve their spirit, as is eloquently shown in pieces like Hommage à Rameau, Mouvement, the symphonic La Mer, and of course the three late Sonates. In various articles and interviews, Debussy often mentioned the necessity of returning to the finesse and clarity of the French baroque which, for the French, is their Grand Siècle of classicism.

Looking backwards can easily go together with highly original creation because the process of interpretation operates on another level than the used style or materials; a really creative talent finds ways of combining elements from these two different levels in ever-changing syntheses. One could raise the question: if this is so, could then the musical modernism from the fifties and sixties from the last century not serve as material for contemporary interpretation? Could the work of Boulez and Stokhausen not play the same role as Antiquity for the Italian Renaissance artists? As we have seen, atonal music is not music but sonic art. And indeed, there are young contemporary sound artists who, within the field of sonic art, focus upon that period, and they call their work “new complexity.” The irony is that last century’s modernism cannot turn into a thing of the past without losing its identity, because it wanted so desperately to embody the future. Like the glass and steel cubes of modernist buildings, it cannot afford to become old, to become the past, because that is totally undermining its raison d’être. When the future becomes the past, the one cancels out the other and the result is emptiness. “New complexity” is an excellent example of contemporary conservatism, since that is the only impetus that is left: the conservation of an idea.

The same landscape may reveal very different aspects, depending upon the position from which it is perceived. Also, the past can take on different meanings, changing with the perspective we choose. Marguerite Yourcenar, author of the celebrated historical novel Memoirs of Hadrian, was well aware of the ambiguities of historical perception. She commented in a late interview:

If we look at history closely, leaving behind the academic and ideological clichés of our time, we conclude that every period, every milieu, had its own way of interpreting life… Although the human emotions are always more or less the same, made up of a certain restricted number of basic elements, they are open to thousands of variations, thousands of possibilities. So, if you like, the immensity of musical expression can be related back to the seven notes of the scale. You see these possibilities not only taking shape from century to century, but from year to year. After all, we don’t think the same as in 1950 any longer, and it is fascinating to find at a precise date in the past, the way in which problems have presented themselves, our problems, or problems parallel to ours. In this way, history is a school of liberation. It liberates us from a number of our prejudices and teaches us to see our own problems and our own routines in a different perspective. The past does not offer us an escape route, but a series of junctions, of different exits along the same way. If it may look as a form of escapism, it is an escape in the form of a leap of faith. The study of texts from antiquity has been such a stimulating leap of faith for Renaissance man, saturated as he was with medieval scholastic thought. The study of the Middle Ages was – up to a certain point – an inspiring “escape” for the romantic generation, bringing it back to the sources of popular poetry, to the original, European phenomenon, after the clarity, but also dryness, of the 18th century.”
(From: “Entretiens Radiophoniques avec Marguerite Yourcenar” by Patrick de Rosbo; Mercure de France, Paris 1980.)

In periods of change, a civilization needs to draw on the experience as embodied in its cultural and intellectual inheritance to be able to distinguish between irrelevant surface phenomena and meaningful developments: engagement with the riches of a culture is a learning trajectory, not of formulae but of achievements of the human mind which may teach us what is right, what is good, what is meaningful and why, and in which context. It is a learning process which develops our capacity to make value judgments, without which no meaning can be found. Achievements from past periods have to be preserved and to be kept alive in their function of intellectual and cultural resources so that they can be used, can be learned from, facing the challenges of the present. If the past is well understood, it will throw a light upon the world in which we live, a world which has long roots in the accumulation of life experience of numerous generations. The survival of this experience makes renewal possible, which is: the “injection” of life into inherited forms and concepts; creative innovation is only possible on the foundation of the capacity to make elementary distinctions and value judgments and this is learned by studying the achievements and problems of the past of human civilization.

How concepts of “past” and “progress” are being interpreted is dependent upon context. Artists, working at the beginning of the 21st century, may see a reflection of contemporary life experience in works of art which were made ages ago and if they find ways of artistic thinking in the last century exhausted, they may see this as a good reason for looking elsewhere for inspiration. When established forms of “contemporary art” have become a repetition of conventions and clichés – in short, a reactionary attitude – or worse, a serious decline, it is perfectly natural to inspect the achievements of artists of the past from “before the fall” and to learn from them. Nowadays many serious visual artists and composers look to a glorious past for examples to learn from, hoping to create an art which may help identify who we are, or who we want to be, and in which way we want to express and transcend ourselves. In the reality in which Western civilization finds itself today, the modernist and postmodernist chimeras of the last century are futile, unproductive, and irrelevant because they cannot contribute to solutions of problems which have surfaced quite recently and are so different in nature from the time which gave birth to modernism. As the 20th century wanted to liberate itself from a “compromised” past to create the Brave New World, the 21st century woke up to the sobering suspicion that much of that past could nonetheless be helpful in our present predicament. The fall of the Berlin wall and the end of the Cold War, in combination with the environmental problem and an increasing globalization of trade and information technology, have changed the world in a profound way. Europe faces the challenge of reformulating its identity in relation to the world, which is also a cultural challenge. And as far as new art is concerned, the lesson of the Renaissance could greatly help to find an effective way through the maze of conflicting notions.

Identity refers to an awareness and understanding of the past, both on the collective and individual levels. What defines the character of European civilization is its past cultural achievements and the best of the values they embody, how it deals with them, interprets them, and builds upon them, and how the inner security and conviction can be found which is the basis of all constructive action. In the 21st century, rebuilding culture – in its visual and musical forms – is a contemporary challenge with symbolic implications for the entire West. And to be able to prepare conditions for a cultural Renaissance, modernism and its puerile progeny has to be removed from their establishment position in the cultural field, and their funding channeled towards the new art which carries the creative fire which is needed to give to contemporary art the meaning and value it had before the onslaught of 20th-century barbarism.

It is obvious that the attempts of modernist ideologies in the last century to “cancel the past” is not only silly, but in the present times, dangerous. For instance, to understand and reformulate European cultural identity, knowing and understanding the past is crucial. As said, identity is the result of history. In Aldous Huxley’s celebrated novel Brave New World the authorities of a totalitarian state “cancelled” the past, knowing that an awareness of past experience would undermine the credibility and the power of the regime. Cancelling or rewriting the past, which is in fact the same thing, is the usual means of blotting out independent, and thus subversive, thinking in authoritarian societies like Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, and North Korea. The attack upon the past is an attack upon civilization and therefore upon humanity; the inhuman nature of much modernist “music” (built upon a break with the past) is only the logical result of such an ideology.

The break with the past not only destroyed a living tradition, but also gave form to what now can be called the “museum culture.” The distance between the present and the past seemed to turn artifacts and musical works from past periods into icons which came a long way from an inaccessible world, surrounded by a cult of veneration and commercial exploitation. In this museum culture, works of art (including musical works) are seen and listened to as objects in a glass case – in this way, their direct connection with real life seems to have vanished, their makers felt as aliens from a different planet with powers no longer attainable by modern man. There is a direct link between the exaggerated veneration of the masters of the past and the deeply felt inferiority complex of the artists of modern times. And without the nonsense of concept art and sonic art, the traditional museum collections and the traditional musical repertoire would not shine so brilliantly. The break with the past seemed to make a direct inner connection with an artistic practice impossible; instead of history as a source of accessible and useful examples (as it was in pre-modern times), it became “a different country” and a cult.

Therefore, the attempts of new classical composers to recapture this country as something of our own, is a courageous change of direction with the aim to splinter the glass of the museum culture’s cases, making a direct inner connection possible, and showing that the art of the past can be seen as something also living in the present. New classicism not only brings an old tradition to life again, it also makes a more direct emotional connection with the culture of the past possible – as if it were something not far removed in “another world.” It shows the culture of the “museum” as something which also lives in the present. As there is no reason to consider the “museum culture” as something totally removed from our own time, or to see it as something negative in relation to contemporary art (it is not its own fault that a cult has been created around its products and that so much contemporary art is so bad), new classicism should be welcomed as a reassuring signal that also in the present, meaningful art can be created. The whole idea of a museum culture as isolated from real life is being challenged by the current surge of mimetic art and music.

Meanwhile, there is a very good reason to support and cherish the islands of this so-called “museum culture,” where the accumulation of knowledge and understanding of human life and civilization is expressed not in a purely scientific way but in the form of experiences which involve the entire human being and are thus accessible to anybody who takes the trouble to enter this territory and learn to understand its various artistic “languages.” Fortunately, the reality is that the past still lives in the present, and if we want to maintain Western civilization and restore it according to its best ideas, we should be warned against utopias which cancel the humanistic and spiritual/expressive qualities of art. Purely materialistic and rationalistic philosophies of art inevitably carry in them the seeds of primitivism and barbarism. In these days, a classicism which draws its understanding of civilization from the lessons of the past seems to be the best possible attitude to counter utopianism and its tendency to dehumanize society and the individual.

Is this “conservative?” The answer will be clear: no, it is progressive in the sense that the Italian Renaissance was progressive, progressive in the sense of making things better, trying to achieve a better artistic quality, by following superb examples of a glorious past. This notion of “better” is only possible in a world view where hierarchical thinking in connection with value and quality is taken for granted. However, in an egalitarian society such as our Western one, where democratization has also been understood as applicable in territories like the arts, this is often considered as “elitist,” and thus un- or anti-democratic, an attitude which cannot result otherwise than in an undermining of creative ambition and marginalization of the best of talents. It is a sign of primitivism, of erosion, not of social “progress.” There is a link between the aristocratic, “elitist” attitude towards the arts in Renaissance times (and the ages directly following this glorious period), and the formidable quality of its art production – as there is between the modern democratic world and the deplorable state of its art as exhibited in the official, established public spaces and as supported by the state. The primitivism of “official” contemporary art and contemporary music is a reflection of the primitivism of the society which supports it – how could it be otherwise?

On this point it may be enlightening to mention the anthropologist Daniel Everett’s memoirs of his thirty-year stay with a primitive tribe in the Amazon jungle, the Pirahas (Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes, Profile Books / Pantheon, 2008). This isolated community lives the way their forebears lived for thousands of years and they share a couple of remarkable characteristics: they have a simple language and speak in short sentences; they do not believe in gods, have no idea of spirituality, and do not believe in an afterlife; they are not conscious of the past or the future but live exclusively in the present; they have a strong resistance towards outsiders which they dub “crooked heads;” they don’t use numbers but words for amounts like “a little” or “much,” but nothing for ten, or five, or one hundred; their society is like a commune: an egalitarian, non-hierarchical social system which seems to be quite effective for them; they are not interested in learning agriculture and are happy with their hunter/gatherer existence; they have no interest in producing artwork. The remarkable thing is that they are, or strongly seem to be, a happy people who see nothing wrong or “restricted” in their way of living and thus want to keep things as they have always been. Not surprisingly, they resist modernization. They are traditionalists and conservatives in the reactionary, un-creative sense, clearly forced to remain as they are by the strong limitations their natural environment brings upon them. Do these characteristics not sound familiar? Are there not quite some people living in the modern West with many of these characteristics (sometimes even including the hunter/gatherer mentality)? People for whom the total absence of culture and the territory of the mind and spirit is not experienced as an absence, but as a happy state of unconsciousness? One can find these tribes everywhere in the big cities of the West, where there are no limitations like those of the Amazon jungle environment.

It must be said that, apparently, the Pirahas are perfectly adapted to their difficult life in primitive conditions where their lack of civilizational interests can be excused. But to find these typical primitive characteristics in the midst of a so-called civilized and wealthy world is – to say the least – rather disturbing. It is not the primitive tribes in the jungles who need civilization, but many areas within the civilized societies themselves, who in their educational system often seem to fail to teach the basic tenets of what it means to live in a civilized world.

The artists and composers who dedicate themselves to the task of restoration of cultural traditions, including the civilizational values they embody, feel the need to contribute to the core of what the best of European civilization has been. The need for a restoration of European and Western culture and cultural identity in the broadest sense is felt everywhere and the pioneers of this new classicism are the first artists who have rightly understood the challenge of renewal of the Western world in the 21st century, a renewal which gives the best of the past its due and sees it as a springing board for a more civilized world and more civilized contemporary art. They deserve our attention and our support because they may find the themes and subjects which will symbolize the path taken by society as a whole.

About the Author

John Borstlap is a composer and author on cultural subjects, covering music and the visual arts. He studied at the Rotterdam Conservatory and took a Masters Degree at the University of Cambridge (England). His Violin Concerto won prizes at the Prince Pierre Competition in Monaco and the Wieniawski Competition in Poznan (Poland). John’s third symphony is due to be premiered by the Kammersymphonie Berlin in the coming seasons. Other orchestral performances are currently under negotiation in the US, Germany, and Vienna. In 2016 Borstlap’s new work ‘Feierliche Abendmusik’, a shared commission by the Dallas Symphony and the Hong Kong Philharmonic, was premiered by the respective orchestras under the direction of Jaap van Zweden. The recently released second printing of John's book “The Classical Revolution: Thoughts on New Music in the 21st Century” is included in FSI's recommended reading list and can be found in the bookstore on this site.

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