Editor’s note: This address was written for and delivered to an English audience,
though it remains entirely relevant to our own predicament.
Why does today’s Western art music strive so conspicuously for cultural relevance? Why are many of our university music faculties more concerned with cultural theory than with applied music? Why have we lost confidence in historical and applied models of musicology, and moreover in the tonal tradition that forms the basis of the greatest musical heritage known to mankind? In this talk, I will trace the roots of this malaise over the past century. I will explore the ways in which an explicitly Marxist agenda has caused Western art music to abnegate its past, and in doing so, to render itself marginalized in comparison to popular music of chiefly African-American origin. I will also show how political influence has played a large part in the contemporary perception of the Western musical heritage as elitist and thereby culturally taboo.
What makes for good music? Until the First World War there was a general consensus that Western societies valued music that was written with cogency, formal command and structure, and that communicates the higher values of those societies – in which respect we might refer to such words as nobility, beauty and complexity, by which latter term I mean the capacity to reveal hidden levels of meaning upon greater exploration. A major work of Western art music does not merely reflect the human condition, but inspires us beyond our own limitations towards the best of which we are capable.
The experience of good music lifts the spirits, challenges the mind and opens us to the riches of Western civilization. Even works of Western art music which may be considered of lesser stature have the capacity to accord enjoyment from their craft, proportion and charm of execution, in the same way that we may derive pleasure from an Agatha Christie novel despite being aware of its formulaic nature. In the best composers we discover a capacity to surprise and constantly renew their chosen forms with a distinctive individual voice. This renewal leads to organic development and also to experimentation, sometimes with dramatic and effective results.
Although an appreciation of music is probably innate to mankind, it would be a mistake to believe that Western art music will yield up its secrets without an appreciation of its context and techniques. Certainly we can appreciate music that is strongly rhythmic, or that relies on simple repetition for its effects, without much in the way of specialist knowledge. But when encountering a Bach fugue for the first time, many of the uninitiated will be put off by what appears arcane, impenetrable, and difficult to follow. To traverse the unknown region, a roadmap is necessary.
The roadmap comes in the form of understanding both the circumstances in which that piece came to be written – the details of the composer’s biography and the way in which the work in question fits into his output and the overall genre in question – and the means by which the piece makes its effect. The first consideration belongs to the realms of history and musical appreciation. The second belongs to the realm of musical techniques.
If our aim is merely to appreciate music at the level of the amateur, so that we can enrich our lives as a result, we need to go down both of these routes on the roadmap. If our aim is either to write music that is worthy of comparison with that of the masters, or to perform it in some way that does it justice, we need to travel further and explore more widely.
In doing so, we will discover that much of what we consider characteristic of Western thought as regards the melodic and harmonic components of music is in fact the product of observed phenomena of long standing. Writing in Dimensions of Paradise, John Michell says “Long before Pythagoras made his famous experiments with lengths of string and pipe, the relationship between number and sound had been noted, and ancient rulers specified certain lawful scales that had to be followed in all musical compositions. The reason for this was that they recognized music as the most influential of all arts, appealing directly to the human temper, and thus a potential source of disturbance in their carefully-ordered canonical societies.”
The Pythagorean method of tuning is, just like modern equal temperament, a form of syntonic temperament, in which each tuning is the product of powers of the ratio 3:2, giving us the cycle of fifths that is familiar within tonal harmony. Another fundamental of tonal harmony, the chromatic scale, originates in an equalized version of the harmonic series, and this equalization in turn owes its impetus to the just intonation established by Ptolemy of Alexandria. As was established by nineteenth-century theorists Riemann and Hauptmann there is nothing accidental or random about the basis of Western music, or indeed of what we have come to regard as hierarchical tonality. It originates in the observation of mathematical and acoustic phenomena and it is likewise a mathematical sense that illuminates our concepts of musical form, proportion and structure. Sir Thomas Browne had it correct when he said, “For there is a music wherever there is a harmony, order or proportion; and thus far we may maintain the music of the spheres.”
As may therefore be expected, the Western musical tradition places a high emphasis upon codification through a notated score and pre-composition. Indeed, the principal difference between Western and non-Western music lies in the West’s relative disdain for improvisation. Whereas Indian art music, for example, places improvisation at its heart, Western art music relegates improvisation to specific and relatively minor roles – chiefly instrumental cadenzas and melodic embellishments. Because of its codification, Western art music is concerned with music not merely as an act of the moment, to be experienced simply by those present, but as an act of legacy, whereby once a composition has been born, it can enjoy a future that is open to posterity, since its score can be interpreted and reinterpreted by successive generations. This codification is akin to the progression from the collective oral tradition of storytelling at the dawn of mankind to the individual authorship of literary work after writing was discovered. It follows that the interpretation of Western art music is therefore also a complex matter embracing distinct schools of thought and specific techniques with much scope for individual input.
We can see, then, that Western music places a clear divide between its art tradition of codified music and its vernacular tradition of uncodified or improvised folk music. We should not deny the appeal and importance of that vernacular tradition. Indeed, the interchange that occurred between national folk traditions and Western art music in the nineteenth-century brought about a renewal that was far-reaching in its influence. Composers such as Vaughan Williams, for example, not only employ actual English folk music as a basis for art music composition, but also write melodies that are inspired by the contours of folk melody, so that they sound as English as the models that inspired them. This, however, is a conscious transmutation. The use of a folk melody in Western art music is the act of the cultural observer and recorder from the world of codified music, not the act of an authentic folk music exponent for whom notation is incidental to the living improvisatory tradition of that music. Nevertheless, there is a justified claim to superiority for Western art music over that of the improvisatory tradition, in that its premeditation leads to greater melodic, harmonic and structural complexity and thereby to more profound possibilities of expression through an extended form such as the symphony.
The secure foundation established by Western art music has contributed to a flourishing of musical performance as well as high standards of music teaching and of musical literacy in the general public. Even as the growth of radio and television during the twentieth-century made concert-going less popular, the following for Western art music among all sectors of society remained strong, as witnessed by the continuation of the private music clubs (which were a leading employer of young musicians and those with a local, rather than a national, reputation), brass bands, music appreciation societies and amateur choirs and orchestras. Significantly, this was a participatory tradition. Western society viewed engagement with music, even at a modest level, as culturally enriching and as a hallmark of the educated man or woman. Further, music’s strong association with the Church was such as to mark music out as morally improving, for after all were the angels not depicted with harps?
One of the main aspects that characterizes the pre-1914 tradition of Western art music is its confidence. The majority of musicians and music educators were not generally beset by existential angst as to the justification for their art. Tonality was expanded, experimented with and challenged by such composers as Wagner and Debussy, but it would only be a small number of composers who, led by Schoenberg, would deliberately break with tonality. What has been described as the late nineteenth-century crisis of tonality is in fact an organic process that would find its logical conclusion not in Second Viennese School serialism, but instead in what might be described as tonal freedom, whereby composers such as Scriabin or Hindemith would retain a background context of tonally-derived melody and harmony while seeking to enrich that context through the extension of tonality into less familiar territory. In other words, musical renewal rested ultimately not with those extremists who sought to cast away tonality’s naturally-derived basis and replace this with an artificial construct, but with those who saw the horizons of tonality widening rather than narrowing. The music of Sibelius offers us many examples of this new approach to tonality, particularly in his Seventh Symphony. Other examples of such organic development would be the progressive tonality of Nielsen and the highly distinctive harmonic world of Robert Simpson which is firmly rooted in classicism and often based on the opposition of particular intervals or keys.
The theme of the replacement of an organic order with one that is artificial and man-made is not a new one in modern ideas. The idea of cultural struggle, in which an established order is subverted by direct opposition, is likewise familiar. These are Marxist concepts and should be seen as such. Let us be clear; the nineteenth-century crisis of tonality was manipulated for propagandistic purposes as part of a much wider cultural crisis in which Western civilization and culture and their established order came under direct attack from Marxism. The revolution that brought about atonality and serialism was the same ideological revolution that deposed Europe’s crowns and that, at its point of greatest early fulfilment, led to the Communist ascendancy in Russia. As one of its architects, Georg Lukacs, would write, “Who will save us from Western civilization?”
What Lukacs and his fellows abhorred above all was the unique and sacred nature of the individual within the Christian worldview. Lukacs was determined to reduce the individual to a common destiny in a world which, in his words, “had been abandoned by God.” Another leading thinker of this ilk, Walter Benjamin, tells us that “religious illumination,” must be shown to “reside in a profane illumination, a materialistic, anthropological inspiration, to which hashish, opium, or whatever else can give an introductory lesson.” He goes on, “Do not build on the good old days, but on the bad new ones.” If man were to lose his connection to the divine, his only remaining creative option would be political revolt, which, according to Benjamin and his colleagues, would bring about a Marxist revolution.
Of course these developments were not without reaction and resistance. However, what was to be remarkable was the way in which Marxist intellectuals of the Frankfurt School succeeded in the post-1945 period in discrediting conservative reaction by identifying it explicitly with the Third Reich. For the Frankfurt School, creativity was impossible, anyone who adhered to universal truth was an authoritarian and even reason was subject to the shifting sands of critical theory. Culture was to be abolished; a “new barbarism” was to be created through new cultural structures that would increase the alienation of the people. Before long, from the ashes of a war-torn Europe, a surprisingly broad intellectual coalition had formed that supported and funded the Frankfurt School and its front organization, the Institute for Social Research. This gave the Frankfurt School the means to set in place its intellectual undermining of Western civilization.
The major works in which this is done include Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment of 1944, which gives us the concept of a manipulative culture industry, and The Authoritarian Personality of 1950 by Adorno and others. This latter work was sponsored by the American Jewish Committee and sought to connect the Freud-derived concept of the authoritarian personality to conservative and fascist ideology, and to anti-semitism. It should not be thought that Adorno and Horkheimer were writing with the intention of protecting Jews from prejudice. Rather, they, along with Marx, were opposed to all religions, including Judaism. They wanted to destroy the principles of both Jewish and Christian civilization and force the “scientifically planned reeducation” of Americans and Europeans. While the overtly politicized conclusions of The Authoritarian Personality have since been comprehensively disproven, they were not disproven quickly enough to prevent their cultural influence becoming widespread in the post-war years and even today. Indeed, they remain foundations for many of the ideas that are dominant in today’s academy.
We should look particularly carefully at the legacy of Adorno. Adorno as a pupil of Schoenberg and Berg believed that composers should relate to the past as a canon of taboos rather than a canon of models for emulation. His concept of art was also structured on that of Marxist Kulturkampf, in that he saw the duty of art to be “corrosively unacceptable” to the sensibilities of the middle class, and therefore to be a succession of shocking, difficult and obscure events.
The Adornoist concept has the advantage of wrapping music up in an impenetrable web of self-meanings. It means that music structured on these lines is likely to be theoretically extremely complex, divorced from significant cultural reference, emotionally arid and exceptionally difficult both to play and to listen to. Of the thousands of works written during the post-war years in this style, not a single one has attained genuine public popularity. They speak only to an elite, and that elite is specifically ideologically driven. As far as many executant musicians are concerned, they are indeed tolerated but not loved. Indeed, many would say that one might just as well love industrial noise as the work of Stockhausen and the post-war Darmstadt School, for all its undoubted intellectual accomplishment. What is created is effectively non-music, non-art, because of its rejection of the musical values that I outlined at the beginning of this talk. It preserves something of the colour, the instrumentation, the dynamic variety of Western art music, but it ignores what David Hellewell has called “music’s unique language; the dialectic of notes.” Even Adorno admitted that atonalism was sick, but as he said, “the sickness, dialectically, is at the same time the cure…The extraordinarily violent reaction protest which such music confronts in the present society…appears nonetheless to suggest that the dialectical function of this music can already be felt…negatively, as ‘destruction.’”
Moreover, Adornoism gives itself a license to view the past through its own distorting Freudian prism; for example, Adorno believed that the chord structure of late Beethoven was striving to be atonal, but Beethoven could not bring himself consciously to break with the structured world of Congress of Vienna Europe. For Adorno, an individual such as Beethoven was not autonomous and acting with free will, but was instead the prisoner of unconscious historical forces. Such arguments are merely Trojan horses for Marxism, since they can rewrite history according to an unlimited degree of political interpretation.
The effect of this movement on Western art music has been disastrous. Because Adornoist music cannot exist without significant public subsidy and is explicitly Marxist in its aesthetic, the general tendency of governments to become more controlling with regard to the arts in the post-war period has had a field-day. Without the government supporting the Adornoists, they would have failed in a blink of an eye when subjected to the popular market. When William Glock became director of the BBC Third Programme in 1959 he presided over a decade in which the Adornoist avant-garde was given public support while dissenters were consciously suppressed. Yet this support achieved nothing in terms of producing a wider popularity outside the limited circle of initiates. Rather, it furthered the fragmentation of our musical culture and an alienation of the West from its cultural heritage.
A combination of centralising tendencies and Marxist ideology with a decline in support for composers who do not fit the Adornoist and government image of what they should be, has left multiple generations without access to new music in the classical tradition which has the prospect of speaking directly to them. I can assure you that this tradition has been there – in the music of such post-war figures as Howells, Ferguson, Arnold, Lloyd and Arthur Butterworth – all of which have written vital and much underrated music – but even though all but the last are dead, their music remains largely sidelined by the mainstream today. They have become a narrowly specialist taste, and one that is nowadays increasingly dismissed as socially elitist and thus contrary to the egalitarian zeitgeist.
The concept of an official line on what composition should be – so very Soviet in its way – has led also to a situation where it is axiomatic that musicians be if not actively Marxist, then at least tolerant of working within that ideological framework. This gives us “luvvies for Labour”; it also means that those who doubt the left-wing consensus are afraid to speak out for fear of losing their livelihoods. The constraining ideological framework is not always obvious; it is often a superstructure far above the head of the individual musician, but it is there nonetheless. Orchestras, for example, are highly unionized organizations; the Musicians’ Union negotiates standard fees and terms of employment for orchestral musicians, and it in turn affiliates to the TUC and the Labour Party.
As soon as the Frankfurt School saw the burgeoning of mass entertainment and popular music they seized upon it as a means of Marxist dialectic. One of the most interesting aspects of pop music is that it is concerned largely with a group aesthetic and with the reproduction of the same experiences – musical stereotypes – that are already established as commercially successful. For Adorno, this stereotyping meant that exposure to pop music disengaged the mind, making the experience of music less sacred and increasing alienation, a process which he called “demythologizing”. In addition, pop music was largely non-Western in its origins, consisting of commercialized versions of African, Afro-American and Afro-Caribbean folk music. Adorno says, “contemporary listening…has regressed, arrested at the infantile stage. Not only do the listening subjects lose, along with the freedom of choice and responsibility, the capacity for the conscious perception of music…[t]hey fluctuate between comprehensive forgetting and sudden dives into recognition. They listen atomistically and dissociate what they hear, but precisely in this dissociation they develop certain capacities which accord less with the traditional concepts of aesthetics than with those of football or motoring. They are not childlike…but they are childish; their primitivism is not that of the undeveloped, but that of the forcibly retarded.”
It is significant that every time mainstream pop music has tried to move beyond stereotype – as is the natural tendency of human creativity – there have been powerful forces dragging it back. Time and again during the 1960s and 1970s, jazz and pop music moved forward because of engagement with aspects of the Western art music tradition. The work of George Martin, Gil Evans, Charles Stepney, Claus Ogerman and those working in progressive rock drew directly on Western art music to create art music from the roots of pop music. In addition, an entire genre of music grew up – labelled “easy listening” – that presented jazz and pop music in arrangements that were considered more acceptable to those whose ears were attuned to art music. All of this resulted in a brutal record industry reaction in the late 1970s in which the nihilism and Leftism of punk and electronic music was vaunted and primitivism embraced once more. In the past two decades a further development has taken place, in which we are for the first time confronted by the phenomenon of all but the elderly having grown up in the post-1945 era and thus having been targeted since youth as consumers of pop music. This has allowed pop music finally to displace Western art music within the media and within our education system, as pop is now held by the decision-makers concerned to be culturally equal if not superior to its art music counterpart.
Those who perform Western art music have inevitably seen the landscape of their profession altered totally by this cultural shift. The former confidence in the cultural value of what they do has been replaced by an insecurity of purpose; a questioning of their very reason for existence. The contemporary focus on the physical appearance of classical artists and on short, memorable pieces as the vehicle for their success belongs to the world of pop. What it is not is the popularisation of classical music. Rather, it is the dumbing down of the Western art music tradition by presenting it with the same commercial values as pop music, with attendant assumptions of limited shelf-life and quick profits rather than long-term viability. What more can we expect when the Chairman of Universal Music Group considers that classical music is “rather unwelcoming” and “a bit like an elitist club”.
Artistic quality is now judged more on the basis of record company and media hyperbole than by an educated public, because that public has been systematically disempowered from the ability to exercise meaningful artistic judgement. The loss of the live concert experience as part of our culture has been more visible in Britain than on the Continent, but it is perhaps most obvious in the loss of community and amateur music-making dedicated to the Western art music tradition and even home listening in the form of the radio and recordings. Increasingly, that tradition is losing its hold as its exponents and enthusiasts become older and die off, being supplanted or even replaced altogether by pop music. One has only to listen to Desert Island Discs to become painfully aware that for many men and women who occupy leading roles in our society, who are otherwise educated and sensitive human beings, Western art music is something as remote to them as the planet Jupiter. Indeed, the Culture Secretary tells us that he never listens to Radio 3, and prefers Classic fM, which he finds “accessible and informal” – and this despite the fact that today’s Radio 3 falls over itself to dumb down, fetishize youth, and employ announcers whose gauche chumminess must be making Cormac Rigby and Patricia Hughes turn in their graves.
Shortly after the election of the New Labour government in 1997, those responsible for British music education were essentially told that they would be compelled to embrace the Government’s educational priorities. Those priorities were towards Leftist multiculturalism and political correctness, and to the replacement of education with vocational training in pursuit of a social engineering agenda. Institutions would no longer be permitted to be determinedly exclusive in their admissions policies; the focus on excellence was seen as “disenfranchising people”.
Interestingly, this development presaged the cult of the amateur and the disparaging of expert status that has since become such a prevalent feature of the Internet. It owes its roots, of course, to the prevalence of postmodernism, itself an ideology owing much to Marx. Once the idea that there are central concepts of value or meaning that run through all good music can be thrown aside, or that critical rationalism is a basis for assessing the worth of a statement that lies outside of the realm of pure opinion, the ground is clear for all sorts of phony replacements.
Above all, what is promoted is a closed, totalitarian arts system. It is a system where government funding creates an expensive elite based on ideology, not ability. It remains dedicated to the Adornoist means whereby Western art music is to be subverted: firstly by the promotion of art music whose ideology is that of alienation, which is by definition anti-populist, and where complexity and obscurity of method are valued highly. Secondly, pop music is endorsed by the arts establishment and with it the concept that anyone, regardless of ability, can become a pop star instantly simply through winning a television talent contest and receiving media promotion. Music education now gives less emphasis to the history and techniques of Western art music and more to free expression and improvisation. Indeed, there are in our schools, according to Sir Peter Maxwell Davies (Master of the Queen’s Music), “music teachers who thought that even to teach standard western musical notation was to indulge in extreme elitism, claiming that it would inhibit the children’s creativity, and was alien to the “working class values of ordinary people.”
Increasingly, cultural relativism is a third means of attacking the West; non-Western music is given equality if not priority with Western art music both in our education system and increasingly in arts funding. Concepts such as “diversity” and multiculturalism in general are part of this trend. In his excellent book, “Cultural Revolution, Culture War”, Sean Gabb reminds us that, “In October 2003, the Association of British Orchestras organised a symposium on Cultural Diversity and the Classical Music Industry, and effectively required attendance from every classical music organisation in England larger than a string quartet. Among those addressing the symposium was Professor Lola Young, Head of Culture at the Greater London Authority. She said: ‘We must change the look of the classical music industry.’ She was supported by Roger Wright, head of BBC Radio 3, who confessed that everyone at the BBC now underwent ‘diversity training.’” Practitioners of Western art music have a new-found obsession with “relevance” – they must make the case for their existence in a society that once considered them a vital element of their culture.
In a climate of austerity and cultural hostility, the vital structures that support and nurture Western art music have been placed under unprecedented stress. Local councils have discontinued elements of their music services and, driven by opposition to elitism, ended their support of assisted places at the junior departments of the conservatoires. Western art music classes and activities in publically-funded adult further education have been cut drastically. Meanwhile, the Church, once responsible for the development of young musicians through its choral tradition, has also increasingly replaced Western art music with pop. Our present Archbishop of Canterbury, who had African drummers and Punjabi music at his installation ceremony, has declined the customary office of vice-patron of the Royal College of Organists that his predecessors have held since the foundation of the College in 1864.
Let us move on to consider what is taught in our university music departments that concern themselves with Western art music – that is to say, those which have not closed under the recent funding pressures. Presaging New Labour by a couple of years came the movement entitled the “new musicology,” also called cultural or critical musicology, a jackdaw hybrid of gender and queer studies, cultural theory, post-structuralism, postcolonial studies and the theorising of Adorno and Benjamin.
What is notable in the “new musicology” is how little of originality it contains. It is as if someone were to gather up the most leftist elements of university teaching and then unite them in a single Marxist behemoth. There is psychology, of course, and pointless theorising as to whether one can tell whether Schubert was gay or not from his use of the German sixth. There is cultural theory a-plenty, the return of extended prose written in numbered paragraphs, and the meaningless, self-referential cant of structuralism and post-structuralism. Indeed, Professor Lawrence Kramer has said that in order to survive, musicology must embrace a network of “postmodernist strategies of understanding.” To appease the multiculturalists, ethnomusicology has now taken much of the space and funding formerly allocated to dead white males, meaning that the folk songs of obscure Third World tribes are now accorded the importance that the powers-that-be feel they deserve. Feminism of a particularly assertive kind has been allowed free rein, determining among other things that sonata form is sexist and misogynist. Here, we are no longer talking about music as music, but instead music, in the words of Professor Susan McClary, “as a medium that participates in social formation.”
What the new musicologists have done is effectively set up a straw man in order to justify their ideological lurch. That straw man is the idea that music has no meaning and no political or social significance. As Charles Rosen points out, with the exception of nineteenth-century critic Hanslick, it is doubtful whether anyone has ever actually believed this. Rather, there has always been what we might refer to as a divine fusion in the performance of music between what is deemed to be the composer’s meaning and significance and that overlaid or recreated by the performer, and then a third overlay of meaning and significance by the listener. Not only are those perceptions likely to differ between individuals, they may well differ among the same individuals on different occasions, depending on emotional state. Even the eminent may legitimately see different and contradictory things in a musical work.
The authoritarianism inherent in Adorno’s vision is equally prevalent in the new musicology. New musicologists usually seem to be telling us what to think and what to feel when we listen to music. By imposing meaning they present their opinion as dogma. By refusing to acknowledge the essential subjectivity that is at the heart of musical meaning they deny the individual the right to experience music in his or her own way and – heaven forbid – to use cultural references that are not chosen from the fashionable Left. The result is an edifice built on sand; once one does not accept the authority of the critic to dictate significance and meaning, much of what remains is merely ideological cant. Does the recapitulation of the first movement of Beethoven’s Ninth represent “the throttling murderous rage of a rapist incapable of attaining release”? Susan McClary published just that analysis, which to my mind is an excellent illustration of the way that this mode of discourse has a tendency to lapse into self-indulgent fantasy.
The aim of all this is, of course, to offer a further justification for the Adornoist position. By connecting music with other disciplines, links are created that are harder to break and that make music harder to isolate within the academy. By borrowing highly obscure modes of language and reference from those disciplines, and talking about music in terms of cultural or critical theory, new musicologists make it more difficult to discuss their work in anything other than its own terms, unless the critic stands wholly outside their viewpoint. They also fulfil Marxism’s inherent self-hatred by focussing on the effort expended in method and execution rather than the value or intelligibility of the results. And by ensuring that those disciplines chosen support the broadly Adornoist view – in other words that they support the concept of paternalistic, nanny-knows-best culture ruled by experts who tell the underclass what to like and what to think, they create a perfect ideological fit with academia’s Leftist zeitgeist and with the culture industry as defined by New Labour and left unchallenged by our present government.
What we are witnessing is effectively the continuation of the process that drove Western tonal music underground under the weight of post-war ideology. Traditional musicologists and music historians are no longer welcome in British academia unless they are willing to accept the new musicology. Indeed, Lawrence Kramer has said, “The theories that ground [postmodernist] strategies are radically anti-foundationalist, anti-essentialist, and anti-totalizing. They emphasize the constructedness, both linguistic and ideological, of all human identities and institutions. They insist on the relativity of all knowledge to the disciplines–not just the conceptual presuppositions but the material, discursive, and social practices–that produce and circulate knowledge. While often disagreeing with each other, poststructuralists, neopragmatists, feminists, psychoanalytic theorists, critical social theorists, multiculturalists and others have been changing the very framework within which disagreement can meaningfully occur.” Once you can control disagreement, there’s not much else that isn’t within your power.
I conclude, then, with an exhortation. To listen to and to play or sing Western art music is now a counter-cultural act. It is an act of profound rebellion against our politically correct Cultural Marxist zeitgeist as well as being a source of pleasure, moral and spiritual improvement, and enhanced appreciation of the connection between the human and the divine. Let us not be afraid to relegate pop music to its proper place, to embrace our Western art music heritage and to resolve to make it a central part of our lives as educated men and women. Whether in our local community or nationally, let us support those who perform and teach this heritage, and let us give particular attention to the riches that are to be found in the music of our own island and culture; supporting organizations such as the English Music Festival which celebrate it, and independent record companies such as Chandos and Hyperion who have devoted much time and expense to producing first-rate recordings of it. And let us never forget these words of Bulwer-Lytton: “Music, once admitted to the soul, becomes a sort of spirit, and never dies.” If we care for our souls as we should, let us nourish them with good music, and let us then become better people for doing so.
Brave and insightful. Has hooks like good music but needs to be revisited for deeper appreciation. Nothing against futuresymphony.org, on the contrary, they see the value here and I am grateful to them and will visit more often, but I wish this piece could get maximum exposure. I grow weary of the “how do we make the orchestra more relevant” crowd, though I suspect the sanity and logic here (as opposed to the DEFEND THE NARRATIVE AT ALL COSTS! hysteria) would be lost on most.
I think, an entirely correct description of the sources where much of the critique of Western classical music comes from. For young people, grown-up in the postmodern mist, all this may sound simply conservative, the first label that bubbles-up in the postmodern world view when confronted with some fragment of reality that is not determined by a human construct. (If ever there were a human construct without ties to reality, it is the postmodernist, poststructuralist Derridaesque world view: ‘There is nothing outside the text’, a description that is entirely appliccable for Derrida’s work and all the neo-marxist attempts to deny the meaning of music: there is no reality to which their texts refer, because that reality may be hierachical.)
But the preservation, restoration and protection of something precious is in itself not politically charged, as postmodernism would have it; it is not conservative or progressive, not left- or rightwing, it is merely common sense as our whole existence is based upon the preservation instinct, which also stretches-out into the mental and cultural field. The egalitarian world view which does not want to accept hierarchy, disconnects itself from reality. There are only particular types of context where equality is meaningful. We should be equal before the law, but that does not mean that all people are equal, or that all works of art or whole cultures are equal. The denial of Western classical music’s reality, its real status, is a rebellion against the invitation to develop and to put effort into something that may be worthwhile when understood.
Since emptiness cannot bring forth viable meaning, the entire cultural context as painted in this article will, eventually, peter out under the strain of real difficulties in society – after all, it is a form of decadence in a time and society which is affluent enough to not be bothered about nonsense and the waste of money on a self-appointed elite of cultural nitwits. Nature always restores itself, so we have to hope for a renaissance in the future.
Very well said.
Indeed, some fine material here, although I do have some reservations.
The very opening question “why does today’s Western art music strive so conspicuously for cultural relevance?” seems to me to be misleadingly phrased and would better read “why do some people in positions of power, in musical academia and elsewhere, seem determined to prioritise a perceived requirement for today’s Western art music to strive so conspicuously for cultural relevance?”
The notions that “the principal difference between Western and non-Western music lies in the West’s relative disdain for improvisation” and that “whereas Indian art music, for example, places improvisation at its heart, Western art music relegates improvisation to specific and relatively minor roles – chiefly instrumental cadenzas and melodic embellishments” are problematic and have an unnecessary and unwelcome whiff of potential divisiveness. Until the 20th century, almost all Western art music composers were also performers and their performances invariably embraced improvisation as well as written music text. Those great luminaries Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, Liszt, Brahms et al would, I suspect, have found a world devoid of improvisation not merely incomprehensible but also untenable and profoundly undesirable, as indeed would generations of organists. Whilst it is true that the composer as performer – and consequently the composer/performer as improviser – has been a rarer phenomenon in the past 125 years or so than was the case before then, “the West’s relative disdain for improvisation” seems to me to be an exaggeration.
Then we have the assertions that “composers such as Vaughan Williams, for example, not only employ actual English folk music as a basis for art music composition, but also write melodies that are inspired by the contours of folk melody, so that they sound as English as the models that inspired them. This, however, is a conscious transmutation. The use of a folk melody in Western art music is the act of the cultural observer and recorder from the world of codified music, not the act of an authentic folk music exponent for whom notation is incidental to the living improvisatory tradition of that music”. Elgar famously retorted to someone who accused him of not engaging with the folk traditions of his nation that he was one of the folk and created music, therefore he was a folk music composer. News, lasses, news was once thought by some people to be a Scottish folk song but it was so only to the extent that its composer was by name and nationality Scots, namely Francis George Scott. Whilst the remarks about Vaughan Williams undoubtedly carry weight, this was neither the only thing that he did when composing nor was it done with a view to somehow rubber-stamping it as “English music”, as though that might do it some favours; as Elgar’s music has long been thought of by some, though not me) as identifiably “English” despite his eschewing of overtly folkloristic elements, one might call into question what, if anything meaningful, is signified by “English” music beyond the prosaic fact of it having been written by English composers. Elgar spoke of his “finding” music in his beloved Malvern Hills, the implication being that music was there waiting to be found; this notion is not light-years from Busoni’s view of the composer as diviner, or even the idea of the composer being a vessel through which music inevitably passed, as expressed by those two diametrically different 20th century composers Stravinsky and Schönberg.
To the assertion that “music’s strong association with the Church was such as to mark music out as morally improving, for after all were the angels not depicted with harps?”, I can only note that the most important word therein is “was”, for its premise is as patronising and paternalistic as it is antediluvian – and that the reference to the depiction of angels with harps borders on the risible in that context, even though I accept that I’ve never seen any depicted with Strads, Willis / Harrison & Harrison or Bösendorfer 290s.
Then we have, perhaps inevitably, the phenomenon of “a small number of composers who, led by Schoenberg, would deliberately break with tonality”. That such an idea continues to support the status of Schönberg as the bogey-man of Western music 66 years after his death does at least afford some amusement and would doubtless have afforded a good deal more to Schönberg himself! However, some redemption follows in “what has been described as the late nineteenth-century crisis of tonality is in fact an organic process that would find its logical conclusion not in Second Viennese School serialism, but instead in what might be described as tonal freedom, whereby composers such as Scriabin or Hindemith would retain a background context of tonally-derived melody and harmony while seeking to enrich that context through the extension of tonality into less familiar territory”, though quite why Scriabin and Hindemith in particular is far from obvious, especially given the former’s leanings towards a kind of serialism during his final years.
I’ll refrain from comment about the remainder of the article beyond mention that “Adornoism”, “the new musicology” and many other constructs and issues referred to in it are factors that have sought to exert influences on musical composition and performance of which many have been and remain at best questionable and at worst damaging; they all deserve the salutary exposure and McClarification that the author gives them. The claim about Glock’s rôle at BBC is, however, a piece of disproportionate and disingenuous received “wisdom”; what both he and the Manchester school did included trying to drag England into the 20th century but never at the wholesale expense of the past, a notion perhaps closer to Boulez at his most polemical a decade or two earlier. George Lloyd might have had scores returned unopened by BBC but Malcolm Arnold didn’t do too badly at the height of the Glock era.
Interesting stuff, Mr. Hinton, but I must concur with the author regarding his point regarding “the West’s relative disdain for improvisation”. In India (certainly on a par with the Western musical system as regards its scholarly basis) essentially *relies* on improvisational skills to bring the raga to life. Today we have nothing close to this in the West. Here artists can and do make spectacular careers for themselves without ever deviating from the printed page. I find this regrettable, and hope for a return to the earlier aesthetic you mention in your note above, but I ain’t holdin’ my breath.
I meant to add that, rather than “breaking” with tonality, Schönberg and quite a few other composers extended and expanded it and our view of it (and, of course, Schönberg himself continued from time to time to write more overtly tonal music in any case). Tonality has been a mainstay of many Western musics (including much jazz, rock, pop, &c. as well as “classical” music) throughout the previous century and remains so today; it has never been “replaced” by something else.
Music and Culture
Even better if this would have been titled “Music and Politics”.
Modernism is effectively destroying traditions of classical music.
From Arnold Schoenberg, to Brian Ferneyhough… we have people who are killing the very traditions of western art music.
Everything is on its head. Music-institutions now have programs of modern, contemporary, avant garde; which is the complete negation of traditional cultural western art music.
Instead of the traditions of personal individuality, spontaneity and intuition embedded within a shared cultural feeling (think viennese walz, etc.); we now see these things completely blown to shreds, with constructions (cannot call it music anymore) that do not vibrate with the soul of humans; but instead notes are lumped together for for… yes for whom???? for their own sake, and the sake of the constructor (“composer”), that most important being, below whom audience and performer must bow down.
The true human is completely eliminated, and just an executioner, executing instructions, and navigating a foreign martian lunar landscape of pseudo-random constructions lumped together in this way or the other. There is no light, no understanding. It is complete alienation, but with one point of trust: the sheetmusic and its instructions, and the encouraging words of the creator (“composer”).
And so the system (sheetmusic and its instructions) is trusted and we consume intelligent-sounding liner notes and essays, which in reality are just pretentious, delusional sentences of make-believe.
Wow, no better way to destroy a culture, an identity, a collective remembrance… than to feed the people modernism, accompanied by intelligent-sounding (but traitor charlatan) philosophy.
We willingly bow down and consume both, feasting in “new worlds”, that corrode and wither away our souls, leaving emptiness, which we can hide behind big words from the philosophies that we can quote, such as:
“Soundscapes of mathematical dimensions beyond basic tonality… instead… reaching complex multilayered possibilities; enhancing the shape and form of expressive intent and possibilities whilst challenging the performer and audience to encompass that enlightenment; where ease and natural flow must go hand in hand to simultaneously create both form, container and fluctuation; fusing together seemingly contrary realms, …”
Truly impressive. What progress. What a brave new world. (Brian Ferneyhough, we bow down in honour!)
I was not at all surprised to find out that Brian Ferneyhough’s opera Shadowtime, has a libretto was written by Charles Bernstein, a jew; and the opera is about Walter Benjamin (a jew, who was associated with the Frankfurt School).
Brave new world, indeed. (Emptiness and loss of identity, shrouded behind big words with a wishful “promise of progress”.)