The Relevance of Classical Music, Part I

Future Symphony Institute

As Sir Roger has explained elsewhere on this site, the relevance of classical music lies in its irrelevance in relation to practical, worldly concerns. If classical music has an educational quality, it is to be sought in something like the education of the imagination, as that which helps to humanize and refine the emotions and to stimulate ethical and moral awareness. This last expectation is a fruit of the Enlightenment, born of speculations that art has a moral/ethical component and welcomed as a new accolade for artists who were looking for liberation from servitude to court, church, or nobility. Since Beethoven, the idea that serious art music, and especially the “abstract”/“absolute” variety represented by symphonic writing, has an ennobling spiritual influence has appeared in many writings about musical aesthetics. (Of course there is music that serves more mundane purposes, such as entertainment or songs that accompany manual labor and the like, but that is not our subject here.) So, the high art variety of music may be irrelevant to practical, worldly concerns, but it is very relevant to the formation of the personality and thus can function as an important stimulant in educational processes.

But what do we mean by “classical music?” Does traditional art music in cultures other than our Western one count? For the sake of our argument we will consider only Western classical art music as it is practiced in our central performance culture, since the music of other cultures operates in a very different historical and social perspective. Western classical music can be divided into two categories: 1) all serious music from Gregorian chant onwards, up to and including music of the late Baroque era; and 2) the music from the second half of the 18th century onwards, up to and including 20th-century classical music. This distinction is based upon performance practice and instruments. The regular, classical performance world has developed from the classical repertoire as seen from a 19th-century perspective: Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven formed the basis of a performance culture that set standards in both performance and composition quality, and for the first time in Western history, works from the past began to form a venerated canon, to which new works began to relate, both in terms of performance practice and composition, however obliquely at times. In the 20th century, the music of pre-classical times was explored, and a new performance practice was created next to the central performance culture: the Historically Informed Performance practice (or HIP). The study of lost ways of performance led to both the attempt to create an “authentic” rendering of scores (which were often rather poor in information density) and the building – or rather, reconstruction – of pre-classical instruments together with the re-creation of the art of playing them. All this comprises the Western classical tradition, which continued alongside the development of 20th-century atonal modernism. That in turn created yet another category: the field of sonic art – or, as the Germans have appropriately named it, Klangkunst. (This purely acoustical art form will not be part of these deliberations for reasons that will become clear in the course of the argument; but it will be dealt with in part II of this essay.)

All Western classical music thus described has been intended to communicate something – but what? Not clear information, as one might communicate using language. It was meant to create an effect in its listeners that embraced more than the perception of its sounds alone; it was meant to have an effect deeper than words, deeper than rational thought, and touching the emotions and that mysterious thing which the poets call “the soul.” Music was considered, by its composers as well as by its performers and audiences, to be an expressive art – an art that had to “say” something that could not, or could only inadequately, be put into words. In these terms, we must think not only of Romantic music, but also of quasi-abstract works like Bach’s Goldberg Variations, which express something very different than does a Schumann song cycle or a Mahler symphony. These incredibly beautiful and introspective variations could be understood as a expression the composer’s meditative reflections on the order of the universe, or on the religious vision of the world and the human soul. (The German poet, novelist, and cultural philosopher Goethe said of the Goldberg Variations that it sounded like God musing on Himself.) All this points towards the obvious conclusion that classical music was meant to create an effect on the inner life of the listener, bypassing language and reason, and touching those layers of inner awareness that we might relate to intuition, dream, instinct, and soul. Where words were used, as in church music, it was assumed that music would render the deeper meaning of the texts, making the message more emotionally powerful and therefore more convincing than if the words were simply recited alone. The setting of religious texts was therefore carefully monitored by the religious authorities and, where necessary, restricted by rules which kept the clarity of the words intact. In the Lied tradition of the 19th century, it was accepted that the music was directly expressing the emotional dimension of the text, thereby doubling the effect of the words; the same with opera which attempted to engage the audience with a combined spectacle of words, stage action, music, and the creation of some sort of stylized reality.

In spite of the many successive changes in style, form, purposes, and social and political circumstances, serious art music in the West has always been relevant, i.e. it was a fully integrated part of the best that the culture of a time and place could offer. The ambitions which drove composers, performers, and commissioning patrons were always focused upon “the Best,” in any and every sense. Relevance has never been an issue, and it would have been very difficult for a composer or performer in those periods to articulate the relevance of his art, as it would have been hard for a fish to explain the relevance of water. So it was until our own time: with democratization and emancipation of the masses, social mobility, technological progress, the development of an extensive media culture, and the abundance of information channels and distribution networks, authority no longer goes unquestioned. And classical music, as an art form that costs a lot of money (in Europe, mostly from the tax payer’s purse), is – for the first time – coming under pressure to justify its existence and its funding. This is, by all means, not an altogether bad development, since it forces musical professionals to rethink what they are doing and to what purpose. In a time where all the parameters of our civilization are shifting, and especially considering the current rise of populism everywhere in the Western world – a populism that is hostile to anything that may give the impression of “elitism” – it is of the greatest importance that the nature and purpose of classical music be articulated and argued, that it be protected from erosion and attacks based upon ignorance and misunderstanding.

There are already many efforts underway to make classical music more accessible and to counter the impression that this is a museum culture for the happy few, like the numerous educational and “community projects” that orchestras all over the world have initiated. And in general, they seem to work well. One is sometimes surprised to discover that “classical music” is being presented as something that it is obviously not: hip, easily understood, and entirely in touch with modern times. In 2010, Holger Noltze, a music journalist and lecturer at the Technical University in Dortmund, published his book Die Leichtigkeitslüge (The Lie about Easiness), in which he criticized the way that classical music is increasingly presented to potential new audiences as something “easy.” He explains that complexity is an inherent quality of the art form, and claims that culture should be allowed not to be easy at all – that it can be painful at times for the audience, that it may hurt, and that this demonstrates its power and meaning. He has nothing to say against the element of entertainment in classical music, but claims that something important is lost when all of it is approached as nothing more than another form of aural fun. The book stirred up public opinion in Germany – and the fact that it was written in the Holy Land of Classical Music at all is a phenomenon which invites serious reflection. If even in Germany, the European country that sees itself as a “Kulturnation,” there are rising doubts about one of its greatest cultural assets, we all have to worry. So there is indeed a problem with classical music as a genre, a problem that goes to the heart of its nature and meaning and which can be best described as the problem of relevance in the context of the modern world, in relation to modern life which is in many ways so different from the art form and the times and places of its birth.

The problem which Noltze describes – making classical music “easy” – grows out of the idea that this art form is old, that it comes to us from premodern times (at least the heart of its repertoire does), and that the only way to make it relevant for modern times is to make it in some way compatible with the modern age. That means, not only making it “easy,” but also combining it with elements which typify our world today: visuals, media’s various cultural artifacts, a promotional cult surrounding it like that of pop music marketing, performers who adopt the images of pop idols complete with “bling,” and new concert halls which outdo each other in their efforts to look like futuristic space ships from sci-fi TV series or computer games. Central to this approach is the reassuring suggestion that classical music is as quickly digested and understood as all the other offerings of modernity. These are all attempts to rescue the art form from its historic shelter and to bring it into the bright daylight of our own time, with its intense and evanescent life experiences.  But here we touch the real problem which is ignored in these attempts: the real nature of the art form is its interiority.

We could point towards classical music as a repository of emotional knowledge and civilizational values, as an emotionally uplifting experience, as a signifier of cultural identity and a symbol of ethical awareness, but since these things have different meanings for every individual, it is much better to describe the art form in a way which includes all of these things: as offering an alternative to the modern world, contrary to the idea that classical music should be a reflection of the modern world. Where modernity draws modern man out of his own inner realm, classical music offers a place of inner restoration, anchoring one’s Self and creating a point of orientation and awareness from which the outward, modern world can be seen and dealt with. In this way, it protects the Self from being constantly bombarded with contradictory and confusing stimuli that cannot be properly digested because there is no coherent filter to manage them. So then, classical music is not a form of escapism but a balancing act to keep the inner world sane.

But how is this possible at all – the repertoire of classical music has been created in a time and place where the rattling of passing carriages was the worst sonic distraction, where none of the raging noises of modernity could even be imagined? In those times, people had enough time on their hands to reflect upon life, upon their experiences, to be aware of their own reactions to them, and to quietly contemplate the perspectives of the past, present, and future. People had the time and the attention to allow ideas to sink in, to mature, to take on individual and collective form; craft had a long trajectory of development accompanied by constant reflection. The result of such a life was that the experiences of interiority were close to the surface and artists were strongly aware of them. The “interior world of individual experience” was the normal wavelength on which they operated. And since music is an abstract art, i.e. non-conceptual, composers could embed their experiences in the structures of their music, where those experience shed their temporality and specifics to become universal.

This means that the “old repertoire” which forms the mainstay of classical music, together with its aesthetic values, has never become old at all, but remains as fresh as ever, reflecting interior experience which is accessible to every new generation. In our modern world this interiority has become rare and something to be wrestled from the modern world; the noisier the world becomes, the more valuable the realm where people can restore their inner balance and awareness of individuality.

The implications of the true nature of classical music as the art form of universal interiority are drastic: they call not for its adaptation to modern life, but instead offer an utterly contrasting experience that makes classical music an indispensible part of the modern world. It is the very thing the modern world desperately needs if it wants to preserve the common sense and equilibrium it needs in order to function at all.

Continue to Part II.

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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  • Another excellent read, thanks John ! I was lucky enough to know the British Composer James Stevens for the last part of his life. James had been educated by the best (Benjamin Frankel, Nadia Boulanger, Darius Milhaud and more) and was perfectly placed to have an important perspective on Art music and its functions. Like you, he stressed that music is an abstract art form, so cannot really be talked about in specifics. In fact it can hardly be talked about at all, usefully at least, as its effects on the listener are purely subjective. He also spoke of the fact that the best music should be a dialogue, a constant to-and-fro-ing of ideas, like a conversation. Your words above make me realise that this dialogue is in fact not only a conscious one, but also an unconscious one between the soul of the listener and the composer. This is why the symphony (or Digitiphony perhaps in my case) has the power to offer such deep effects on our souls and is more important than ever in this modern epoch full of stress and endless distraction – for dialogue that is by necessity 30, 40, 60 minutes or more as in a large scale musical work has the power to affect much more decisively than a 3 minute soundbite (or less, as increasingly becoming the case in a world of social media’s truncations). The only thing he believed which was different to what you say above is that he believed the term ‘Classical Music’ should not be used in the way it is nowadays, as it in fact only refers to a narrow band of historical musical time which is now well past. He preferred the term ‘Contemporary Concert Music’ though personally I feel that term is slightly lacking too as it does not take into account the power of recorded music not performed live. Perhaps finding a new definition for modern, longer form Art Music may help us to find a more relevant perspective on it for modern times ?

    • The term ‘classical’ is loaded with problems….. but I have used the term in the way ‘classical Indian music’ is used as distinct from popular music, so: serious art music – but ranging from the earliest beginnings in medieval times till and including 20C and 21C music based upon tonality and the concept of communicative interiority. I don’t think that is a narrow concept. Other terms, like ‘serious music’, or ‘art music’, or ‘traditional music’ have again other overtones which do not justice to the art form. ‘Classical’ has the associations with durability, continuity, and timeless ness. As Leon Krier says: classical art is atemporal, like mathematics. This may sound a bit on the cool and abstract side, but if you think about it, it makes sense: even the most daring, idiosyncretic art reveals its classical nature (in the sense of atemporal) soon after its appearance, however radical it may seem at first. The works of Michelangelo were radically personal in their time, but became classical already during his life.

  • That makes me feel slightly better about referring to my own music as ‘classical’ when I am pressed into putting it into a category, so thank you John. I think, by default, that is what seems to happen anyway, and is how people understand the term, despite James Stevens’ literally correct definition.

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