Classical Music’s New Golden Age

EDITOR’S NOTE: This essay is reprinted here with the gracious permission of City Journal, who first published it in the Summer 2010 issue of their magazine.

Anyone inclined to lament the state of classical music today should read Hector Berlioz’s Memoires. As the maverick French composer tours mid-nineteenth-century Europe conducting his revolutionary works, he encounters orchestras unable to play in tune and conductors who can’t read scores. A Paris premiere of a Berlioz cantata fizzles when a missed cue sets off a chain reaction of paralyzed silence throughout the entire sorry band. Most infuriating to this champion of artistic integrity, publishers and conductors routinely bastardize the scores of Mozart, Beethoven, and other titans, conforming them to their own allegedly superior musical understanding or to the narrow taste of the public.

Berlioz’s exuberant tales of musical triumph and defeat constitute the most captivating chronicle of artistic passion ever written. They also lead to the conclusion that, in many respects, we live in a golden age of classical music. Such an observation defies received wisdom, which seizes on every symphony budget deficit to herald classical music’s imminent demise. But this declinist perspective ignores the more significant reality of our time: never before has so much great music been available to so many people, performed at levels of artistry that would have astounded Berlioz and his peers. Students flock to conservatories and graduate with skills once possessed only by a few virtuosi. More people listen to classical music today, and more money gets spent on producing and disseminating it, than ever before. Respect for a composer’s intentions, for which Berlioz fought so heroically, is now an article of faith among musicians and publishers alike.

True, the tidal wave of creation that generated the masterpieces we so magnificently perform is spent; we’re left to scavenge the marvels that it cast up. The musical language that united Bach, Schubert, Mahler, and Prokofiev finally dissolved into inaccessible atonalism by the mid-twentieth century; subsequent efforts to reconstitute it have yet to gather the momentum of the past. But in recompense for living in an age of musical re-creation, we occupy a vast musical universe, far larger than the one that surrounded a nineteenth-century resident of Paris or Vienna. We can hear the beauty in the poignant chromaticism of Gesualdo and the mysterious silences of C.P.E. Bach, no less than in the by now more familiar cadences of Beethoven and Brahms.

And at a time when much of the academy has lost interest in history, contemporary classical-music culture is one of the last redoubts of the humanist impulse. The desire to know the past has grown white-hot among certain musicians over the last 50 years, resulting in a performance revolution that is the most dynamic musical development in recent times.


A twenty-first-century music lover plunged into the concert world of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries would find himself in an alien land, surrounded by strange customs and parochial tastes. Works that we now regard as formally perfect were dismembered: only a single movement of a work’s full three or four might ever be performed, with the remaining movements regarded as inessential. Musical forms, such as the sonata, that are central to contemporary performance practice were kept out of the concert hall, considered too difficult for the public to absorb. And the universal loathing directed by today’s audiences at the hapless recipient of a mid-performance cell-phone call would have struck eighteenth-century audiences as provincial, given the widespread use of concerts and opera as pleasant backdrops for lively conversation.

But the greatest difference between the musical past and present is what we might call musical teleology: the belief that music progresses over time. That belief had consequences that many contemporary listeners and musicians would find shocking. Throughout much of Western history, older works held little interest for average listeners – they wanted the most up-to-date styles in singing and harmony. Seventeenth-century Venetians shunned last year’s operas; nineteenth-century Parisians yawned at the elegant entertainments written for the Sun King. Composers like Bach, today viewed as cornerstones of Western civilization, were seen as impossibly old-fashioned several decades after their deaths. In his 1823 Life of Rossini, Stendhal wondered: “What will happen in twenty years’ time when The Barber of Seville [composed in 1816] will be as old-fashioned as Il Matrimonio Segreto [a 1792 opera by Domenico Cimarosa] or Don Giovanni [1787]?” Stendhal’s musical crystal ball obviously had its flaws.

Berlioz was in many ways a musical teleologist himself, but he fiercely opposed the widespread outcome of the belief in musical progress: the posthumous rewriting of scores. Performers and publishers unapologetically revised works that we now regard as transcendent, seeking to correct their perceived deficiencies and bring them up to newer standards of orchestration and harmony. After describing a particularly brutal mauling of The Magic Flute for its 1801 Paris premiere and a dumbing-down of Carl Maria von Weber’s Der Freischütz, Berlioz erupts: “Thus, dressed as apes, got up grotesquely in cheap finery, one eye gouged out, an arm withered, a leg broken, two men of genius were introduced to the French public! …No, no, no, a million times no! You musicians, you poets, prose-writers, actors, pianists, conductors, whether of third or second or even first rank, you do not have the right to meddle with a Shakespeare or a Beethoven, in order to bestow on them the blessings of your knowledge and taste.”

Conservative pedagogues altered scores as well – on the ground that they were too modern. Berlioz headed off at the last minute what he called “emasculations” to Beethoven’s avant-garde harmonies that the influential music critic and teacher François-Joseph Fétis had surreptitiously introduced into a forthcoming edition of Beethoven’s symphonies.

For all Berlioz’s efforts to preserve the score’s integrity, however – during a performance of Gluck’s Iphigénie en Tauride, he shouted from the audience: “There are no cymbals there. Who has dared to correct Gluck?” – he could not dislodge the practice of “improving” older works of music. Virtuosi added to a piece whatever fireworks the composer had carelessly neglected to include. In 1837, Franz Liszt had a pang of conscience over his habit of pumping up his performances of Beethoven, Weber, and Johann Nepomuk Hummel with rapid runs and cadenzas. He briefly saw the error of his ways: “I no longer divorce a composition from the era in which it was written, and any claim to embellish or modernize the works of earlier periods seems just as absurd for a musician to make as it would be for an architect, for example, to place a Corinthian capital on the columns of an Egyptian temple.” But he soon fell off the wagon and went back to crowd-wowing revisions, reports Kenneth Hamilton in his mesmerizing study of Romantic pianism, After the Golden Age.

Over the course of the nineteenth century, the concept of a musical canon emerged and displaced the zeal for new music in concert programming. Yet the updating of scores continued. Gustav Mahler added new parts for horns, trombones, and other instruments when he conducted Beethoven’s symphonies. An influential edition of Beethoven’s piano sonatas by the pianist and conductor Hans von Bülow recommended that pianists substitute Liszt’s ending of theHammerklavier Sonata for Beethoven’s own, “to give the closing measures the requisite brilliancy.”

Even in the canon-revering twentieth century, the teleologists remained cheeky. Arnold Schoenberg explained his reorchestration of Handel’s Concerti Grossi, op. 6, as remedying an “insufficiency with respect to thematic invention and development [that] could satisfy no sincere contemporary of ours.” At the start of a 1927 recording of Chopin’s Black Key Étude, the pianist Vladimir de Pachmann announces: “The left hand of this étude is entirely altered from Chopin: it’s better, modernized, more melodic, you know.” A contemporary listener, drawn to Beethoven, Handel, and Chopin precisely for what is unique in their voice and sensibility, can only marvel at the confidence with which earlier generations declared such music in need of improvement.


In the second half of the twentieth century, a performance practice broke out that rejected, in the strongest possible way, the teleological understanding of music. An overwhelming drive possessed certain conductors, instrumentalists, and singers to re-create the music of the pre-Classical era – from the medieval through the baroque periods – as it was performed at the time of its composition.

These musicians discarded the modern steel-strung and -armatured instruments that had evolved in the nineteenth century and learned to play the gut-strung, fragile instruments of the Renaissance and baroque periods. They pored over music treatises, prints, and other historical materials to discover, say, how a seventeenth-century violinist attacked his instrument, how he handled the shorter, curved bow of the period, how he phrased and ornamented a line, how much vibrato he used. Needless to say, any thought of “modernizing” a score’s harmonies or orchestration was out of the question. These history-obsessed musicians didn’t want to bring the music of the past into the present; they wanted to enter the past on its own terms. The stylistic particularities of older music that, according to the teleologists, limited its potential, were for these revolutionaries its very essence.

The results were a revelation. The sound of these performances of Bach, Handel, and Vivaldi was light and nuanced; the music pulsed with energy. Trading the large modern orchestra for small baroque ensembles of temperamental instruments was like exchanging a leather-upholstered Cadillac for a frisky, unbroken colt. The premodern horns – unreliable and highly prone to indiscretions – blared out with a glorious astringency. The timpani shot from the orchestra with hair-raising force. Conductors emphasized the dance elements in baroque music, inflecting certain beats within measures as a courtier might beckon to his dance partner. An unfamiliar and seductive voice – the countertenor – emerged to take on roles in baroque operas and masses that castrati originally sang.

This “early-music” movement (also known as “period-instrument” and “authentic-performance”) was a deliberate strike against the classical-music establishment. It provoked a counterreaction and a sharp philosophical debate about the nature of performance and the proper role of historical knowledge in music-making (see appendix). Listeners and performers remain divided over whether the music of Bach and Mozart is best realized by a nineteenth-century-era orchestra using contemporary methods of expression (violinist Itzhak Perlman maintains: “I’m certain Haydn and Mozart would have adored our modern approach to phrasing and vibrato”) or by a small period-instrument ensemble seeking to re-create earlier performance techniques.

But regardless of such disagreements, the value of the movement to our musical life has been indisputable. It has unleashed arguably the most concentrated rediscovery of lost music in history. Composers that had lain silent for centuries – Jean-Féry Rebel, Johann Friedrich Fasch, Heinrich Ignaz Biber, to name just a handful – are heard again. Hundreds of groups of specialists are busily digging into twelfth-century plainchant and thirteenth-century troubadour traditions. Unfamiliar repertoire by overly familiar composers is also being restored. The Naïve label, in one of the greatest recording projects of the early-music movement, is releasing all of Vivaldi’s operas. A wind blows through these magnificent, mostly unpublished works, but even when the rhythms are most propulsive, a deep melancholy pervades the music. Naïve’s recording of the haunting duet for mezzo and chalumeau (a proto-clarinet) from the oratorio Juditha Triumphans, “Veni, me sequere fida,” is alone a contribution to civilization.

The public’s ear for this music has expanded accordingly. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, a few aristocratic salons hosted private performances of Renaissance and early baroque music, but outside those elite settings, there was no commercial demand for pre-Classical music. Today, by contrast, enough people are eager for works from remote eras to put the medieval a cappella ensemble Anonymous 4 on the top of Billboard charts. Jordi Savall’s Renaissance music group Hesperion XXI brings audience members to their feet during performances. Early-music festivals have even reached Missoula, Montana, where Heinrich Schütz’s Musikalisches Exequien was performed in March 2010, and Indianapolis, which offered Spanish ballads from the time of Cervantes in June 2010. The New York vocal group Polyhymnia invites its audience to “glimpse behind the tapestried walls of the ducal court at Munich, to hear the psalms kept for the private use of their patron,” assuming in their listeners the same desire to know the past that animates the performers themselves. Amateurs also perform this previously discarded music. Camps teaching medieval chant are ubiquitous, from Evansville, Indiana, to Litchfield, Connecticut. Reed, viol, and lute players can brush up on their skills at the Summer Texas Toot in Austin; San Jose, California, hosts a workshop for recorder players.

The movement has also demolished one tiresome credo of classical-music critics: that the way to revitalize the concert tradition is to program contemporary music. It is surely the case that the concert repertoire, derived from a narrow slice of the musical universe, is in desperate need of new music. But the critics are wrong in defining “new music” exclusively as contemporary. The public could not be more unequivocal: it finds little emotional significance in most contemporary classical music, especially that produced in academic enclaves. The early-music movement offers two alternative definitions of “new music”: the standard repertoire, such as Mozart’s symphonies, performed in entirely new ways; and unknown repertoire from the pre-Classical period. Though the reinterpretation of the standard repertoire has had the biggest commercial impact, it is the second definition of “new music” that should animate concert programming today. Countless compelling works, not just from the pre-Classical period, cry out for rediscovery: Haydn’s Sturm und Drang symphonies, Dvořák’s piano music, and virtually unknown composers such as Zdeněk Fibich. Thousands of listeners, frustrated by the constricted concert canon, would eagerly support the performance of unknown old music.


The caliber of musicianship also marks our age as a golden one for classical music. “When I was young, you knew when you heard one of the top five American orchestras,” says Arnold Steinhardt, the first violinist of the recently disbanded Guarneri Quartet. “Now, you can’t tell. Every orchestra is filled with fantastic players.” Steinhardt is ruthless toward his students when they’re preparing for an orchestra audition. “I’ll tell them in advance: ‘You didn’t get the job. There are 250 violinists competing for that place. You have to play perfectly, and you sure didn’t play perfectly for me.’ ”

The declinists who proclaim the death of classical music might have a case if musical standards were falling. But in fact, “the professional standards are higher everywhere in the world compared to 20 or 40 years ago,” says James Conlon, conductor of the Los Angeles Opera. A vast oversupply of students competing to make a career in music drives this increase in standards.

Much of that student oversupply comes from Asia. “The technical proficiency of the pianists from Asia is staggering,” says David Goldman, a board member at New York’s Mannes College of Music, where applications are at a record high. “They arrive here with these Popeye arms, and never miss a note.” Asia has fallen in love with classical music; many parents believe that music training is an essential part of their children’s development. “The only way to survive when you’re in a pool of literally hundreds of thousands of other Asian kids is to outwork your competition,” says Tom Vignieri, the music producer of the effervescent NPR show From the Top, which showcases school-age classical musicians.

Far Eastern countries are trying to build up their own conservatory system to meet the demand for music training – Robert Dodson, head of the Boston University School of Music, recalls with awe the Singapore Conservatory’s 200,000 square feet of marble – but so far, demand outstrips supply. When Lang Lang, today an internationally acclaimed pianist, was admitted to Beijing’s Central Conservatory in the early 1990s, he was one of 3,000 students who had applied for just 12 fifth-grade spots. And those 3,000 were the cream of the 50 million children who study music in China, including 36 million young pianists.

For now, the West’s conservatories continue to attract Asia’s top talent. Nineteen-year-old Meng-Sheng Shen, a slender freshman at Juilliard, dreamed of a concert career while still a piano student in Taiwan. “In Taiwan, I felt: ‘It’s not that hard to win,’ ” he says. In New York, however, “you see a lot of people who play really well,” Shen marvels, and so this acolyte of Chopin, Liszt, and Rachmaninoff has recalibrated his plans to include the option of teaching as well as concertizing.

Plenty of young Americans, too, are pursuing training in the nation’s 600-plus college music programs, whose unlikely locations, such as at California State University, Fresno, testify to the far-flung desire for musical sublimity. An efficient talent-spotting machine vacuums up promising young oboists and violinists from every Arkansas holler and Oregon farm town and propels them to ever-higher levels of instruction and competition.

The poise and exuberance of these budding performers can be breathtaking. At the 2007 finals for the Metropolitan Opera’s National Council Auditions, a young tenor’s eyes shone with the erotic power of commanding that massive house, a smile of mastery playing over his lips, as he flung out the high Cs of “Ah! mes amis” from Donizetti’s La Fille du Regiment. (The moment was captured in the documentary The Audition.) A self-possessed black pianist from Chicago, Jeremy Jordan, coolly unfurled the feathery arpeggios and midnight harmonies of his own virtuosic transcriptions of Wagner, Richard Strauss, and Saint-Saëns at a Juilliard student recital this year. Beneath Jordan’s laconic demeanor lies a deep belief in classical music. “It’s not as if kids don’t like music like this,” the lanky 20-year-old insists. “Liszt, Wagner, Chopin – it’s beautiful; it just takes one hearing.”


But however vibrant classical music’s supply side, many professionals worry that audience demand is growing ever more anemic. Conlon calls this imbalance the “American paradox”: “The growth in the quantity and quality of musicians over the last 50 years is phenomenal. America has more great orchestras than any country in the world. And yet I don’t know of a single orchestra, opera company, or chamber group that isn’t fighting to keep its audience.” The number of Americans over the age of eight who attended a classical-music performance dropped 29 percent from 1982 to 2008, according to the League of American Orchestras (though attendance at all leisure activities plummeted during that period as well, including a 36 percent drop in attendance at sporting events).

Recent conservatory graduates, struggling for work, find their commitment to a music career tested almost daily. “The culture seems to have a shrinking capacity for what I love,” says Jennifer Jackson, a 30-year-old pianist who studied at the Peabody Institute in Baltimore. The audience has a limited ability to follow serious music, Jackson says. “To make a profit, you have to intersperse lots of things that people can handle musically.”

These perceptions, however valid, should be kept in historical perspective. Much of today’s standard repertoire was never intended for a mass audience – not even an 1820s Viennese “mass audience,” much less a 2010 American one. Nineteenth-century performers regarded the music that constitutes the foundation of today’s repertoire with trepidation, since they feared – rightly at the time – that it would prove too challenging for the public. Composers wrote sonatas and chamber works either for students or for private performance in aristocratic salons, not for public consumption. True public concerts – those intended to make a profit – resembled The Ed Sullivan Show, not the reverential communing with greatness that we take for granted today. Light crowd-pleasers – above all, variations on popular opera themes – leavened more serious works, which were unlikely to be performed in their entirety or without a diverting interruption. At the 1806 premiere of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in Vienna, the violinist played one of his own compositions between the concerto’s first and second movements – on one string while holding his violin upside down. Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony premiered at Paris’s leading concert venue in 1832 with romances and tunes by Weber and Rossini spliced between the third movement and the choral finale, according to James Johnson in Listening in Paris.

By the end of the nineteenth century, public concert practice more closely resembled the norm today, with symphonies and sonatas usually performed in their entirety and without other works spliced into them. Many soloists began performing marathon recitals of highly demanding works. This programming of exclusively serious music for public consumption in the late nineteenth century was no more consistent with how that music was originally performed than it is now, and it represented as much of an unforeseen advance in the listening capacities of the public.


Today’s classical-music culture differs from the past in one more important way: recording technology. No composer before the advent of the gramophone ever anticipated that his music would be endlessly and effortlessly repeatable. At best, he might hope that his musician friends would give a few additional performances of his latest piece before new styles and works superseded it. The ease of repetition that recording technology enabled puts an enormous strain on the excessively limited canon that emerged from the nineteenth century – one that could have proved fatal. Yet not only have Schubert’s piano sonatas and Chopin’s nocturnes, Beethoven’s string quartets and Brahms’s intermezzi, survived the move from the private salon to the public concert hall; they have triumphed over the potentially stupefying overfamiliarity inflicted on them by instant replay and the accumulating weight of hundreds of thousands of performances. The exquisiteness of this music is such that it continues to seduce, decades and centuries after its expected eclipse.

The radical transformation of how people consume classical music puts the current hand-wringing over an inattentive, shrinking audience in a different perspective. Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony premiered before an audience of 100 at most. These days, probably 10,000 people are listening to it during any given 24-hour period, either live or on record, estimates critic Harvey Sachs. Recordings have expanded the availability of music in astounding ways. The declinists – led by the industry’s most reliable Cassandra, the League of American Orchestras – do not account for how recordings have changed the concert culture beyond recognition.

Recordings have also, it is true, taken a toll on the communal, participatory aspect of music-making. But the explosion of classical music on the Internet has revived some of that communal element. The ever-expanding offerings of performances on YouTube, uploaded simply out of love, demonstrate the passion that unites classical-music listeners. A listener can compare 15 different interpretations of “Là ci darem la mano” at the click of a mouse, all – amazingly – for free. Organized websites, such as the live classical-concert site, are creating new ways of disseminating music that will undoubtedly reach new audiences. Even with recording technology’s impetus for passive, private listening, the percentage of amateur musicians studying classical music has risen 30 percent over the last six years, from an admittedly small 1.8 percent to 3 percent. Many of those nonprofessional musicians, as well as their children, are uploading their own performances onto the Web.

Contrary to the standard dirge, the classical recording industry is still shooting out more music than anyone can possibly take in over a lifetime. Has the pace of Beethoven symphony cycles slowed down? We’ll survive. In the course of one month arrive arias by Nicola Porpora, an opera by Federico Ricci, a symphony by Ildebrando Pizzetti – three composers previously known only to musicologists – Cherubini’s Chant sur la Mort de Joseph Haydn, and Haydn’s The Storm. This cornucopia of previously lost works is more than any of us has a right to hope for.


The much-publicized financial difficulties of many orchestras during the current recession also need to be put into historical perspective. More people are making a living playing an instrument than ever before, and doing so as respected and well-paid professionals, not lowly drones. There were no professional orchestras during Beethoven’s time; he had to cobble together an ensemble for the premiere of his Ninth Symphony. Even mid-twentieth-century America had no year-round, salaried orchestras. In 1962, most concert seasons were half a year long.

But under pressure from an increasingly militant musicians’ union and with an infusion of funding from the Ford Foundation in 1966, many orchestras started paying their players annual, or close to annual, salaries. In part to justify those higher salaries, orchestras expanded their concert seasons and the frequency of concerts within each season. Neither Beethoven nor Brahms envisioned that a single orchestra would perform three or four concerts a week, critic Joseph Horowitz notes in Classical Music in America, much less that its members would draw six-figure salaries. The low pay of a typical late-nineteenth-century musician made possible the huge orchestral forces that Bruckner and Mahler summoned as a matter of course. Today’s composers usually write for much smaller ensembles, having been priced out of the symphonic form by unionized wages.

Nevertheless, professional orchestras in the US today dwarf in number anything seen in the past. In 1937, there were 96 American orchestras; in 2010, there are more than 350. Where union restrictions don’t exist, the music scene is even more vibrant. Volunteer adult orchestras outnumber professional orchestras two to one. New youth ensembles launch every year; there are now nearly 500 in the United States. Though Los Angeles County alone has more than 40 youth orchestras, the leading state in student involvement is Texas, where more than 57,000 high school musicians auditioned last year for slots in prestigious all-state music ensembles.

Chamber-music groups have also proliferated in the last 50 years. Arnold Steinhardt recalls that back when he was studying the violin, you could count on one hand the number of string quartets and other ensembles: “Chamber music was not a profession then; it was for people who weren’t good enough to have a solo career.” Nowadays, new quartets form constantly, many associated with colleges and universities. It took nearly the entire nineteenth century for the string-quartet repertoire to broaden its appeal beyond a narrow band of connoisseurs; today, the audience for chamber music extends far beyond traditional urban centers of culture. Iowa City hosted a Haydn quartet “slam” last year in honor of the 200th anniversary of the composer’s death. String players from ages eight to 78 performed all 83 of Haydn’s quartets.

It is fair to ask whether the foundation-fueled postwar expansion of orchestras artificially and unsustainably pumped up the supply of musicians and ensembles. But there is ample evidence of a continuing unmet demand for classical music throughout the country – especially in places that can’t afford the salaries and long seasons that America’s unionized musicians expect. This March, the New York Times’s invaluable Daniel Wakin chronicled the travails of the Moscow State Radio Symphony Orchestra as it slogged through a poorly paid nine-week bus tour to smaller cities and towns around America – places like Ashland, Kentucky, and Zanesville, Ohio, which are “hungry for classical music programming.”

It’s even harder to spot a demand deficit at the other end of the glamour spectrum. Though Wagner fans incessantly lament the shortage of Heldentenors, the source of the problem is not a decrease in capable Siegfrieds and Tristans but the mushrooming of Ring cycles in China, Russia, and Japan, among other locales. Likewise, as Plácido Domingo explains in a collection of interviews called Living Opera, hand-wringing about singers who find themselves pushed too early into roles for which they are not yet ready reflects the worldwide increase in theaters and opera companies, which require a constant supply of singers.


However bounteous today’s classical-music culture is for those already inside it, the number of children who have the opportunity to be captivated by classical music is still much lower than it ought to be. “The arts fell out of US schools in the 1980s; all the music is gone,” James Conlon observes in Living Opera. “Now we have a generation of adults who make money, accomplish what they think is the fulfillment of life, but they’ve never had any contact with the classical arts – neither music nor literature. For me that’s a national disgrace.” Most leading music institutions have energetic outreach programs to try to compensate for the loss of public music education. But some school bureaucracies make no effort to accommodate these programs.

The public schools’ sclerosis has fueled the growth of community music schools that offer low-cost private lessons and ensemble work to children and their parents. The schools, heirs to the music program for immigrants at Chicago’s Hull House, are particularly important in urban areas, where arts education has withered far more than in suburban and rural school districts. Philadelphia’s buoyant network of schools trains thousands of students each year.

Such endeavors could reach far more children if they enjoyed better funding. That will require changing the priorities of America’s patron class, says Leon Botstein, the president of Bard College and conductor of the American Symphony Orchestra. “What is different today is that the nation’s elite, the very rich, don’t care about classical music,” he observes. “The patron class is philistine; instead of Andrew Carnegie, we have Donald Trump. Some rich guy with a hedge fund wants to be photographed with Angelina Jolie, not support the Cleveland Orchestra.” Bill Gates didn’t help matters when he proclaimed gratuitously: “I have no interest in giving to opera houses.” Younger philanthropists seem to be following Gates’s lead in spurning the arts, write Matthew Bishop and Michael Green in Philanthrocapitalism. The celebrity-bedecked Robin Hood Foundation enjoys extraordinary cachet on Wall Street; organizations that promote classical culture, far less so.


Two of the best hopes for building future American audiences may come from outside the country. Gustavo Dudamel, the 29-year-old Venezuelan conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, is the closest thing the classical-music world has to a Leonardo DiCaprio. His tousle-headed exuberance, thousand-watt smile, and undoubted conducting skills have thrilled the press and public and created huge interest in his future career.

But it is Dudamel’s past that may be his most important contribution to classical music. Dudamel is the most famous graduate of Venezuela’s initiative to teach slum children to play classical instruments, and in so doing to develop the self-discipline that will carry them out of the ghetto. More than a quarter-million poor children in Venezuela enroll in the nearly 200 youth orchestras that belong to El Sistema Nacional de las Orquestas Juveniles e Infantiles de Venezuela (“El Sistema,” for short). In 2002, another El Sistema graduate, the double bassist Edicson Ruiz, became at 17 the youngest musician ever to join the Berlin Philharmonic. The brainchild of José Antonio Abreu, a left-wing economist committed to “social justice,” El Sistema could not be a stronger rebuke to the multicultural dogma that currently governs American education and welfare programs. Its premise is that all children should be exposed to the West’s highest artistic accomplishments. “The huge spiritual world that music produces in itself ends up overcoming material poverty,” Abreu has said. “From the minute a child is taught how to play an instrument, he’s no longer poor.”

Dudamel’s charisma and hip Latino ethos could make it safe for Silicon Valley moguls to fund classical-music education without worrying about accusations of elitism. Perhaps the sight of Venezuela’s Simón Bolivar Youth Orchestra playing its heart out could persuade even the liberal Ford Foundation to return to its roots in classical arts funding. “We have lived our whole lives inside these pieces,” Dudamel says. “When we play Beethoven’s Fifth, it is the most important thing happening in the world.”

Thanks to the publicity around L.A.’s new conductor, an initiative headquartered at the New England Conservatory of Music now trains music postgraduates to start local El Sistema programs worldwide. But much more could be done. Why not a Play for America program, modeled on Teach for America, that would send music graduates into poor communities to teach and perform for two or three years?

The other source of future classical-music demand is China. “I’m very hopeful,” says Robert Sirota, head of the Manhattan School of Music. “If China graduates 100,000 pianists a year, it changes everything.” The best predictor of attendance at classical concerts is playing an instrument. Asia’s passionate pursuit of music training for its children will create not just tomorrow’s professional musicians, of whom there is no dearth, but tomorrow’s audiences as well. And like El Sistema, the phenomenon of countless poor young Asians practicing fanatically for the privilege of a career performing Scarlatti and Rachmaninoff torpedoes the image of classical music as the bastion of wealthy white elites. When the 12-year-old Lang Lang competed for the first time with Europeans, he worried that their heritage would give them an interpretive advantage. “It’s your native music as well,” his father reminded him. “It belongs to anyone who loves it.”


Music records the evolution of the human soul. To hear how the elegance of the baroque developed into the grandeur of the classical style, which in turn gave way to the languid sensuality and unbridled passion of Romanticism, is to trace how variously human beings have expressed longing, desire, triumph, and sorrow over the centuries.

Not everyone will hear that changing sensibility; some may find the soul’s echo elsewhere. But the present-day abundance of classical music – of newly rediscovered works, consummate performances, thousands of recordings, and legions of fans – is a testament to its deep roots in human feeling. And it is a cause for celebration that so many people still feel drawn into its web of lethal beauty, in a world so far from the one that gave it birth.

Appendix: The Early-Music Quarrel


By the mid-twentieth century, nearly all performers respected the letter of the score and dedicated themselves to realizing its spirit as well. But to the early-music advocates, the establishment musicians seriously misunderstood that spirit, at least regarding the pre-Classical repertoire.

Over the course of the twentieth century, the baroque composers – above all, Bach and Handel – had been taking on more and more weight and waddling ever more ponderously, as mainstream conductors assimilated them to late-Romantic performance styles. Early-eighteenth-century works sounded suspiciously Wagnerian – with long legato lines and a smooth, creamy sound, performed by ensembles many magnitudes larger than anything ever marshaled during the baroque or classical eras. Conductor Ivan Fischer recently recalled a Leopold Stokowski performance of Bach, after which musicians left the stage to pare down for Bruckner, the epitome of late-Romantic gigantism. While massive ensembles may have magnified the spiritual force of the music for some listeners, the orchestral inflation at the very least obscured the intricate contrapuntal writing for different instrumental voices. With a chorus of 200, no one is going to hear the flutes delicately doubling the sopranos’ line in a Bach oratorio.

In rejecting this supersized sound, the early-music acolytes (whose first modern wave included Gustav Leonhardt, Frans Brüggen, Nikolas Harnoncourt, Ton Koopman, and Christopher Hogwood) embraced a fallen historical consciousness, compared with the prelapsarian innocence of mainstream musicians. (The authenticity movement had late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century antecedents, but those early experiments never achieved critical mass.) Where the great titans of traditional twentieth-century performance – conductors such as Wilhelm Fürtwangler and Otto Klemperer – assumed a continuity between the past and the present that guaranteed the fidelity of their interpretations, the early-music advocates saw discontinuity. The essence of the music of the past was no longer intuitively available to us but required historical research to recover, they believed. A gulf separated Bach’s world from ours; we could no longer assume that modern performing traditions expressed his intentions.


The early-music movement quickly attained commercial success and just as quickly provoked a backlash, primarily from musicians who objected to the implication that their performances were inauthentic. Some objections were aesthetic: these old instruments sound weak and thin, critics said; stronger models have superseded them for good reason. We need a revival of period strings as much as we need a revival of period dentistry, one wag observed. In a 1990 interview, violinist Pinchas Zuckerman called historical performance “asinine STUFF… a complete and absolute farce. Nobody wants to hear that stuff.”

Other objections were normative. “Musical archaism may be a symptom of a disintegrating civilization,” musicologist Donald Grout wrote at the start of the modern period-instrument movement. A composer of early music, if he came back to life today, would be astonished by our interest in how music was performed in his own times, Grout asserted. “Have we no living tradition of music, that we must be seeking to revive a dead one?” the composer would ask.

The most interesting challenges to the historical-performance movement, however, have been philosophical. Historically accurate performance is unattainable, critics like Richard Taruskin of the University of California at Berkeley charged. There are too many stylistic unknowns, too many variables regarding tempo and phrasing, to think that treatises on technique or illustrations of musicians playing an instrument can lead to the movement’s Holy Grail: the way a piece sounded at its creation. Further, the very idea of an authentic performance is incoherent, the skeptics said: Which performance of a work should we view as authentic? Its premiere? But what if that performance – or every subsequent one during a composer’s lifetime – failed to realize the composer’s conception because of inadequate rehearsals or mediocre musicians, as Berlioz so frequently experienced?

The naysayers pointed out that the context of musical performance has changed so radically from the pre-Romantic era that we cannot hope to re-create its original meaning. For most of European history, music belonged to social ritual, whether it accompanied worship, paid homage to a king, or provided background for a feast. A large concert hall filled with silent listeners, focused intently on an ensemble of well-fed professionals still in possession of most of their teeth, has no counterpart in early-music history. Early-music proponents, the detractors added, are highly selective in their use of historical evidence. No one today conducts the operas of Jean-Baptiste Lully, for example, by pounding a staff on the floor, as conductors did in the court of Louis XIV to try to keep time in an ensemble of less-than-perfectly trained musicians.

Taruskin launched the intended coup de grâce. The predominant early-music style has nothing to do with historical evidence, he charged, and everything to do with the modernist aesthetic. The style’s fleet rhythms and transparent textures are a reaction against the excesses of subjectivity and expression characteristic of Romanticism; the shaky historical arguments on its behalf are just after-the-fact window dressing.


Several of the arguments against the period-instrument movement had bite. They reflect the skepticism regarding the possibility of knowing the past that dominates today’s universities and that gets used (improperly) to justify junking the study of history, philology, and literary tradition. The proponents of period performance heard and considered these sophisticated objections. Then something wonderful happened. They responded, in essence: “Yeah, whatever.” They tweaked their rhetoric, junked the term “authenticity” and anything else that sounded too authoritarian – and went right on doing what they had been doing all along. That is because their hunger for the past – for discovering how the musicians at the Esterházy palace interpreted crescendi or how much vibrato a cellist performing Bach’s cello suites in the 1720s would have used – was so great that no amount of hermeneutical skepticism could extinguish it.

The influential restorer of French baroque opera, conductor William Christie, exemplifying this attitude, lamented in 1997 how little we know about the hand gestures used in ballets and operas in pre-Revolutionary France. Gestural art is “a field that is painful for me right now,” he told Bernard Sherman in Inside Early Music. Christie’s pain is precious. It comes from an instinct in short supply in the rest of the culture: the belief that the past contains lost worlds of expression that would enrich us if we could just recover them. The desire to learn how a shepherdess in a Rameau opera may have inclined her hand to Cupid is an attribute of an enlightened humanity. (Unfortunately, Christie has since abandoned the project of re-creating baroque opera stagings and choreography, leaving the Boston Early Music Festival and Opera Lafayette as the sole ensembles committed to courtly theatrical sensibility as well as musical practice.)

An early informal truce between modern-instrument ensembles and the historicists has long since broken down. According to this unwritten understanding, the historicists would claim the pre-1800 repertoire, while leaving nineteenth-century works to the modern symphony orchestra. It was not long, however, before the proponents of historical “authenticity” marched all the way into the twentieth century, blithely piling one historical anachronism onto another, as if to confirm Taruskin’s skepticism regarding the evidentiary basis for their work. Period-instrument groups such as the Philharmonia Baroque and the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique use the evocative Waldhorn in Brahms’s works, for example, even though Brahms himself could not persuade his contemporary brass players to give up their spiffy new valved horn for that difficult ancient instrument. In addition to adopting “historical” practices that didn’t exist, the historicists ignore widespread nineteenth-century performance traditions that did exist. There has been no movement to revive “preluding,” for example, in which a pianist improvised chords and arpeggios before breaking into the actual published score of a work, because such behavior would too forcefully violate contemporary concert norms. Nor has the habit of teleologically updating scores been adopted. This paradox points to the conceptual meltdown point of the authenticity movement, where it becomes clear that the most unhistorical practice in the history of music is the concern for authenticity.

Such conundrums do not subtract from the enormous contribution that the early-music movement has made to our experience of music. Traditional orchestras, especially in Europe, have subtly changed their sound and approach to the standard repertoire in response to the competition. Sadly, we will never know whether the period-instrument movement has come close to past performance style (though Taruskin is wrong that historical materials cannot provide meaningful guidance). But the effort to recover our musical past remains a noble one.


The Post-Modern Ear

In Gurrelieder, Verklärte Nacht, and Pelléas et Mélisande Schoenberg showed total mastery of tonality and of late romantic harmony, and these great works entered the repertoire. But by the time of the Piano Pieces op. 11 Schoenberg was writing music which to many people no longer made sense, with melodic lines that began and ended nowhere, and harmonies that seemed to bear no relation to the principal voice. At the same time it was clear that Schoenberg’s atonal pieces were meticulously composed, according to schemes that involved the intricate relation of phrases and thematic ideas, and this was another reason for taking them seriously.

In due course meticulousness took over, leading to an obsession with structure and the quasi-mathematical idiom of twelve-tone serialism, in which the linear relations of tonal music were replaced by arcane permutations. The result, in Schoenberg’s hands, was always intriguing, and often (as in the unfinished opera Moses und Aron, and A Survivor from Warsaw) genuinely moving. Schoenberg’s pupils Alban Berg and Anton Webern developed the idiom, the one in a romantic and quasi-tonal direction, the other towards a refined pointillist style that is uniquely evocative. For a while it looked as though a genuine school of twelve-tone serialism would emerge, and displace the old tonal grammar from its central place in the concert hall. Figures like Ernst Krenek in Austria, Luigi Dallapiccola in Italy and Milton Babbitt and Roger Sessions in America were actively advocating twelve-tone composition, and also practising it. But somehow it never took off. A few works – Berg’s Violin Concerto, Dallapiccola’s opera Il Prigionero, Krenek’s moving setting of the Lamentations of Jeremiah – have entered the repertoire. But twelve-tone works remain, for the most part, more items of curiosity than objects of love, and audiences have begun to turn their backs on them.

It should be remembered that those experiments were begun at a time when Mahler was composing tonal symphonies, with great arched melodies in the high romantic tradition, and using modernist harmonies only as rhetorical gestures within a strongly diatonic frame. In England Vaughan Williams and Holst were working in a similar way, treating dissonances as by-ways within an all-inclusive tonal logic, while in America inputs from film music and jazz were beginning to inspire eclectic masterpieces like Roy Harris’s Third Symphony and Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. A concert-goer in the early 1930s would therefore have been faced with two completely different repertoires – one (Vaughan Williams, Holst, Sibelius, Walton, Strauss, Busoni, Gershwin) remaining within the bounds of the tonal language, the other (Schoenberg and his school) consciously departing from the old language, and often striking a deliberately defiant posture that made it hard to build their works into a concert program. Somewhere in between those two repertoires hovered the great eclectic geniuses, Stravinsky, Bartók and Prokoviev.

The contest between tonality and atonality continued throughout the 20th century. The first was popular, the second, on the whole, popular only with the elites. But it was the elites who controlled things, and who directed the state subsidies to the music that they preferred – or at least, that they pretended to prefer. From the time (1959) when the modernist critic Sir William Glock took over the musical direction of BBC’s Third Programme, only the second kind of contemporary music was broadcast over the airwaves in Britain. Composers like Vaughan Williams were marginalised, and experimental voices given an airing in proportion to their cacophony. During the 1950s there also grew up in Darmstadt a wholly new pedagogy of music, under the aegis of Karlheinz Stockhausen. Composition, as taught by Stockhausen, consisted in random outbursts that could be described, without too much strain, as groans wrapped in mathematics. The result makes little or no sense to the ear, but often fascinates the eye with its nests of black spiders, as in the scores for Stockhausen’s Gruppen or the 6th String Quartet by Brian Ferneyhough.

The trick was successful. Stockhausen’s works received and still receive extensive, usually state-subsidised performances all across the world. His older Austrian contemporary, Gottfried von Einem, who was at the time writing powerful operas in a tonal idiom influenced by Stravinsky and Prokoviev, was in comparison ignored, not because his music is trivial, but because he was perceived to be out of touch with the new musical culture and exhibiting dangerous vestiges of the romantic worldview.

Those days are past. It is now permissible to like Sibelius and Vaughan Williams, and to believe that they are superior – which they clearly are ­– to Stockhausen and Boulez. It is permissible to reject the notion that tonality was made irrelevant by the atonal school, and to recognise that some of the greatest works in the tonal tradition were composed in the middle of the 20th century: Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, for example, Strauss’s Four Last Songs, Britten’s Peter Grimes, major symphonies by Shostakovitch and Vaughan Williams, Aaron Copland’s Clarinet Concerto and Appalachian Spring. Some of these – the Rachmaninoff and the Strauss – could be seen as extracting unexploited remainders from the tonal tradition. Others – Britten  and Copland – were more actively engaged in renewing the tonal tradition, drawing out new kinds of melodic line and novel harmonic sequences.

In The Philosophy of Modern Music (1958) Theodor Adorno argued that tonality was nothing but the exhausted remainder of a dead tradition. But by the time he wrote it was atonality and not tonality that was exhausted. The radical modernist idiom was kept going by Darmstadt, by the system of official patronage and by the fact that real musical education, which used to be a household requirement, had been effectively destroyed by the invention of broadcasting and recording, so that few people felt confident in questioning the radical avant-garde. But the real experiments – those that drew freely on the tonal tradition and on the eclectic spirit of Western civilisation, like the Turangalila Symphony of Messiaen, the remarkable Star-Child oratorio by George Crumb, and the triple concerto of Michael Tippett – entered the repertoire without any need for the critical hype and institutional support enjoyed by Stockhausen and Boulez.

There is another reason for the brief ascendancy in those days of the avant-garde, and one that bears heavily on the future of Western music. During the course of the 20th century a wholly new kind of popular music emerged. Nobody can say, in retrospect, that the waltzes and polkas of Strauss or the operettas of Léhar and Offenbach belong to another language and another culture than the symphonies of Brahms or the music dramas of Wagner. Strauss (father and son), Léhar, Offenbach are now counted in the “classical” repertoire, just as much as Wagner, Brahms and the other Strauss. And the distinction between popular entertainment and high art is internal to their repertoire: the Overture to Die Fledermaus and the Hungarian Dances of Brahms surely stand side by side. They reach back across a century and a half to the dance suites of Bach and the ballets of Rameau – serious celebrations of joyful and light-hearted ways of being.

Only in the 20th century did popular and serious music finally divide, and the principal reason for this was jazz. The origin of this remarkable idiom is veiled in obscurity, though it is evident that it absorbed, along the way, both the syncopated rhythms of African drum music, the blues notes that come from attempting to unite the pentatonic and the diatonic scales, and the chord grammar of the Negro spirituals. The jazz idiom showed a remarkable ability to develop, so that an entirely new harmonic language grew from it, and soon became the foundation of a new kind of popular song and dance. It was this quintessentially American idiom that most got up the nose of Adorno during his time as an exile in Hollywood, and which served as his proof that tonality was destined to degenerate into short-breathed melodies and repetitious sequences.

It is true that improvisation around a “jazz standard” is a very different thing from the far-ranging musical thinking that we find in the concert-hall. A work that returns constantly to the same source for refreshment, and goes on “forever” precisely because it goes on only for a moment is a very different thing from the symphony that develops thematic material into a continuous musical narrative. But Ravel, Gershwin and Stravinsky showed how to incorporate jazz rhythm and melody and even jazz harmonic sequences into symphonic works that had some of the long-distance complexity of the classical tradition. Meanwhile there emerged a new form of popular music, on the edge of jazz, but reaching into the world of folk melody and light opera. This was the idiom of the Broadway Musical and the American Song Book. Brilliant musicians like Cole Porter, Hoagy Carmichael, and Richard Rodgers became household names, with songs that our parents knew by heart, and which defined a new kind of taste. This was music to be sung around the house, which normalised the emotions of ordinary people as they endeavoured to cope with the new world of machines, gadgets, social mobility, fast romance, and easy divorce. Thus began the great fracture in the world of music between “pop” and “classical”, in which it became ever more important for the critics to side with the classical tradition, and to find something that distinguished modern composers in that tradition from the “easy listening” and “light music” that filled the suburban bathroom.

For a while, therefore, there was an added motive for composers to take the path of radical modernism, and so to give proof that they belonged to the great tradition of serious musical thinking. A composer like Boulez, ensconced in the madhouse of IRCAM in Paris, could be, as Hamlet put it, “bounded in a nutshell and count himself king of infinite space”. Insulated from the vulgar world of musical enjoyment, sending out musical spells into the electronic ether, the composer began to live in a world of his own. That it should be Boulez who received the accolades and not Maurice Duruflé or Henri Dutilleux is explained by the enormous publicity value of difficulty, when difficulty is subsidised by the state. The radical modernists had succeeded in persuading the official bodies that they were keeping alive the flame of high art in the face of an increasingly degenerate pop culture. And for a while, following the transformation of rhythm and blues into a universal idiom of song and dance by Chuck Berry, The Beatles, and The Rolling Stones, it seemed as though they were right. What did this new popular music have to do even with the comparatively refined language and domestic charm of the Broadway musical, still less with the symphonic and operatic traditions?

But then the whole thing collapsed. Impassable divides have an ability to survive in the old hierarchical culture of Europe; but they don’t last for long in America. Composers like Steve Reich and Philip Glass had no desire to separate from their hippy friends, or to lose the most important benefit that makes the life of a composer worthwhile, namely money, and the audience that provides it. There emerged the new idiom of minimalism, in which the harmonic complexities of the modernists and those of the great jazz musicians like Monk, Tatum, and Peterson were both rejected in favour of simple tonal triads, often repeated ad nauseam on mesmeric instruments like marimbas. The result, to my ear utterly empty and the best argument for Boulez that I have yet encountered, succeeded in entering the repertoire and gaining a young and enthusiastic audience. This music is written for the concert hall, but uses the devices of pop: mechanical rhythm, unceasing repetition, fragmented and constantly repeated melodic lines, and a small repertoire of chords constantly returning to the starting point. It has joined the world of “easy listening”.

Whether Reich and Glass entitle us to talk of a new and “postmodern” idiom in the world of serious music I doubt. For this is not serious music, but a kind of musical void. Listening to Glass’s opera Ekhnaton, for instance, you will be tempted to agree with Adorno, that the musical idiom (let’s not speak of the drama) is utterly exhausted. But then along came John Adams, whose mastery of orchestration and knowledge of real tonal harmony began to redeem the minimalist idiom, and to bring it properly into the concert hall. And other American composers followed suit – Torke, Del Tredici, Corigliano, Daugherty – writing “tonal music with attitude”, inserting advanced harmonic episodes into structures that make thematic and rhythmical sense. In Britain a new wave of tonal composers has also emerged, some of them – like James Macmillan, Oliver Knussen, and David Matthews beginning as radical modernists – but all moving along the path mapped out by the great Benjamin Britten, out of the modernist desert into an oasis where the birds still sing. Such composers learned the lesson taught (however clumsily) by Reich and Glass, which is that music is nothing without an audience, and that the audience must be discovered among young people whose ears have been shaped by the ostinato rhythms and undemanding chord grammar of pop. To offer serious music to such an audience you must also attract their attention. And this cannot be done without rhythms that connect to their own bodily perceptions. Serious composers must work on the rhythms of everyday life. Bach addressed listeners whose ears had been shaped by allemandes, gigues and sarabandes – dance rhythms that open the way to melodic and harmonic invention. The modern composer has no such luck. The 4/4 ostinato is everywhere around us, and its effect on the soul, body and ear of post-modern people is both enormous and unpredictable. Modern composers have no choice but to acknowledge this, if they are to address young audiences and capture their attention. And the great question is how it can be done without lapsing into banality, as Adorno told us it must.


The Clothes Have No Emperor

De mortuis nil nisi bonum: of the dead, nothing unless good. But you can take it too far, re-inventing someone who was a power-hungry manipulator, by allowing no one to speak for him save his partisans, many of whom owe their careers to promoting him. As the French say, on a ras le bol with Pierre Boulez, whose death in January has called forth such a spate of idolatrous prose that the sceptics among us have begun to wonder whether French culture is not after all as dead as its critics say it is, if this minor composer and intellectual impresario can be lauded as its greatest recent product. Yet no one in the official channels of cultural appraisal has sown a seed of doubt.

Boulez has three achievements to his name. First, his compositions, presented to the world as next in line to the serialism of Webern, and the “place we have got to” in our musical evolution; secondly, his presence in French culture, diverting government subsidies away from anything that might seem to endorse ordinary musical taste towards the acoustic laboratory of the avant-garde; thirdly, his work as a conductor, for whom clarity and precision took precedence over sentiment. His dominating presence in French musical life is proof that, once the critics have been silenced, the self-appointed leader will be accepted at his own valuation. Condemning all competitors as “useless”, and hinting at a revelation, a “system”, that authorised his doings as the musical Zeitgeist, Boulez was able to subdue whatever timid protests might greet his relentless self-promotion. His disciples and acolytes have spoken abundantly of his charm, and it is clear that, once the period of initial belligerence was over, and his opponents had been despatched to the dust-heap of history, Boulez was a smiling and benevolent occupant of his self-made throne. But did he rule from that throne over fertile territory, or was this sovereignty an expensive illusion?

Boulez’s manipulation of the French subsidy machine has been explored and exposed by Benoît Duteurtre, in a book published in 1995: Requiem pour une avant-garde. Duteurtre tells the story of the steady takeover by Boulez and his entourage of the channels of musical and cultural communication, the new power networks installed in the wake of May 1968, the vilification of opponents, the anathematising of tonal music and its late offshoots in Messiaen, Duruflé, and Dutilleux, and the cultural coup d’état which was the founding of IRCAM. This institution, created by and for Pierre Boulez at the request of President Pompidou in 1970, reveals in its name – Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique ­– that it does not distinguish between sound and music, and sees both as matters for “research”. Maintained by government funds in the basement of its architectural equivalent, the Centre Pompidou, IRCAM has been devoted to “sound effects” created by the avant-garde elect, whose products are largely, to coin a phrase, “plink selon plonk”. Absorbing a substantial proportion of a budget that might have been used to sustain the provincial orchestras of France, IRCAM has produced a stream of works without survival value. Despite all Boulez’s efforts, musical people still believe, and rightly, that the test of a work of music is how it sounds, not how it is theorized.

Boulez did, from time to time, produce music that passed that test. He had a fine ear, and no one can doubt that every note in every score was intensely thought about – but thought about, and thought about as sound. Boulez’s was an acoustical, rather than a musical art, with meticulous effects and sonorities produced in unusual ways, according to arcane theories that are inscribed on the hidden side of notes held close to the chest. He burst into the concert hall as a young man in order to heckle the last attempts at tonal composition, dismissing all who were not serialists, and presenting his seminal Le marteau sans maître in 1955 as showing the direction in which serialism must go.

The instrumentation of that work – alto voice, flute, guitar, vibraphone, viola and percussion – reflects the composer’s obsession with timbre and sonority, used here to prevent simultaneities from coalescing as chords. With time signatures changing almost every bar – a 2:4 here, a 5:16 there and so on – and grace notes dropped into every staff, the score resembles a palimpsest from an alchemist’s recipe-book, and the composer’s refusal to describe the serial organisation, insisting that it is obvious and apparent to the ear, has led to a quantity of learned literature. The writers of this literature largely assume that Le marteau is a masterpiece and the turning point of post-war music, because Boulez himself has said so – not in so many words, for he was far too modest for that, but because he pointed speechlessly to its evident perfection.

In a hard-hitting article the American composer and musicologist Fred Lerdahl has told us what the fuss is all about.* The inability of the critics to discern the organisation, serial or otherwise, of Le marteau, Lerdahl argues, is the direct result of the fact that the listening ear is organized by another grammar than the one here used (ostensibly, at least) by the composer. Here is what Wikipedia has to say about this episode:

Despite having been published in 1954 and 1957, analysts were unable to explain Boulez’s compositional methods until Lev Koblyakov in 1977. This is partially due to the fact that Boulez believes in strict control tempered with “local indiscipline,” or rather, the freedom to choose small, individual elements while still adhering to an overall structure compatible with serialist principles. Boulez opts to change individual notes based on sound or harmony, choosing to abandon adherence to the structure dictated by strict serialism, making the detailed serial organization of the piece difficult for the listener to discern.

The Wikipedia article chooses there to close the discussion, with a reference to Lerdahl’s article. But it misses the real point. As Lerdahl argues, serialism construes music as an array of permutations. The musical ear looks for prolongations, sequences, and variations, not permutations, which are inherently hard to grasp. Hence music (music of our classical tradition included) presents events that grow organically from each other, over a repeated measure and according to recognizable harmonic sequences. The “moving forward” of melodic lines through musical space is the true origin of musical unity and of the dramatic power of serious music. And it is this “moving forward” that is the first casualty when permutations take over. Add the “plink selon plonk” of the acoustical laboratory and the result is heard as arbitrary – something to be deciphered, rather than something to be absorbed and enjoyed in the manner of a conversation.

You can test this quite easily by comparing one of the many modernist masterpieces that Boulez condemned with a rival composition by the great man himself. From the beginning, in Le marteau, to the interminable instrumental twiddles of Pli selon pli, Boulez gives us music that has little or no propulsion from one moment to the next. The fundamental musical experience – fundamental not just to our classical tradition but to all music that has been sung, played, and danced from the beginning of time – is that of virtual causality, whereby one moment seems to produce the next out of its own inner dynamic. This is the primary experience on which all rhythmic, melodic, and harmonic invention depends, and it is absent – deliberately absent – from Boulez.

To say this is not to display an attachment, whether or not “bourgeois” or “reactionary”, to the old forms of tonality. It is to make an ontological observation: to say what music essentially is. So take a piece every bit as adventurous in its sonorities as Boulez, in which traditional tonality is marginalised, but which nevertheless adheres to the principle of virtual causality in musical space – say the violin concerto of Dutilleux, or the powerful chaconne movement from the same composer’s first symphony. At once we are in another world, a world that we know, moving with the sounds we hear, and hearing them not merely as sounds, but as movements in a space mapped out in our own emotions. I have to use metaphors in order to describe this experience – for reasons that I make clear in The Aesthetics of Music. But they are metaphors that we all instinctively understand, since they invoke the phenomenon of music itself.

There is a reason for referring to Dutilleux, apart from the fact that it is the 100th anniversary of his birth. For he was, in his own way, every bit as adventurous as Boulez, with the same desire to take music forward into the modern world, to build on past achievements, and to take inspiration from the great achievements of French music, painting, and poetry at the beginning of the modern period. In the 1960s and 70s he was dismissed by Boulez and his entourage as a “bourgeois” composer, smeared as a “Nazi collaborator” (in fact he was active in the resistance), and excluded from the privileges of the true avant-garde. But his music, unlike Boulez’s, has a regular place in concert programs, and speaks to the ordinary musical listener in accents that are both new and (with a certain justified effort) comprehensible.

If we look back at Boulez’s presence in French culture, during the years around 1968 when he was the Gauleiter of the avant-garde, we must surely understand him as the instigator of a false conception of music – not only of the place of music in high culture, and in the civilisation that is our greatest spiritual possession, but of the nature of music itself. He deliberately, and in my view uncomprehendingly, undid the distinction between musical tone and acoustical sound; he mathematized and scientized a practice that is meaningful only if it is seen as a creative art, and he justified every kind of intellectual pretension, just so long as it was intellectual, and just so long as it could be seen as the latest attempt to épater le bourgeois.

Of course he was a true musician too. Faced with real music he had an instinctive grasp of how it might be performed so as to reveal all the currents of thought contained in it. As a conductor he set an example that many have wished to follow, and with reason. Still, even there, his personality showed itself. His meticulous version of Wagner’s Ring cycle shows a conductor who appreciates in thought what can be understood only in emotion. And this version will always be appreciated as a monument to our times, a kind of revenge on Wagner, which is also, when taken together with Chéreau’s marxisant production, a revenge on Germany. Seeing Boulez in that way, I think, we reduce him to his real size, and can begin to appreciate his true historical significance, as a by-product of a disastrous war.

* “Cognitive Constraints in Compositional Systems”, in John A. Sloboda, ed., Generative Processes in Music, Oxford 1988.


Teaching Judgement

Twenty five years ago I took up a position as University Professor at Boston University. I was asked to teach a graduate seminar on the philosophy of music – a request that I welcomed, since it gave me the opportunity to work on themes that had interested me for many years. The seminar was heavily subscribed, and it was immediately clear on entering the classroom that the students were all on my side. This is, or was, the normal experience in an American University. The students wanted me to succeed, since my success was theirs. But it was soon also clear that we had entirely conflicting conceptions of the subject. I assumed that we would be discussing the classical tradition, as the great repository of meaning that has done so much to define our civilisation. I assumed that the students would be ardent listeners, maybe also performers, who had been moved to ask, in the wake of some intense experience, what does this music mean? Why does it affect me so deeply and why has my world been so radically changed by hearing it?

It was only after I had introduced the topic with a recording of Mendelssohn’s ‘Hebrides’ overture that I realized what a difficult position I was in. Of the 30 or so students in the classroom, only two had heard the work before – this work that I and my classmates at Grammar School had known by heart at the age of 16! Of the remaining students only half could say that they had heard much classical music, and almost all had assumed that I was going to get a discussion going around hip-hop, heavy metal and the pop groups of the day, such as U2, Guns and Roses and AC/DC. How was I to do this, when I was as ignorant of their favourite music as they were of mine? How was I to introduce the difficult concepts of musical aesthetics – musical movement, representation, expression, the distinction between work and performance, and so on – when the only examples that were fixed in my students’ memory had come there from the world of musical ephemera?

Two things soon became clear, however. First, students encountering classical music in the context of study quickly understood that it is serious, in a way that much popular music is not. Secondly, all of them became aware that when music is properly listened to, judgment of some kind is unavoidable. Listening is a time-consuming and intellect-involving process. It is not the same as hearing something in the background. Listening means singling something out for special attention: you are absorbing, interrogating and evaluating what you hear. Whether the music is worth this kind of attention is a question that arises spontaneously in all who listen seriously.

Taste in music is therefore not like taste in ice-cream: it is not a brute fact, beyond the reach of rational argument. It is based in comparisons, and in experiences that have had a special significance. However impoverished a student’s experience, I discovered, it will not, under examination, remain at the level of ‘that’s what I like’. The question ‘why?’ pushes itself to the foreground, and the idea that there is a distinction between right and wrong very soon gets a purchase.

Those schooled in jazz improvisation understood free improvisation as a discipline, in which chord sequences must be understood as encoding elaborate instructions for voicing and rhythmical emphasis, as well as for the notes of each chord. They knew that one and the same sequence will sound natural and harmonious, or jumbled and awkward, depending on the movement of the voices from one place to the next. With a little bit of attention all my students could begin to hear that the voice leading in U2’s ‘Street with No Name’ is a mess, with the bass guitar drifting for bar after bar.

Jazz improvisation lays great stress on melody, and on the punctuation of melody by semi-closures and ornaments around a note. Pop, however, is increasingly devoid of melody, or based on repeated notes and crooned fragments of the pentatonic scale, kept together by the drum kit, as it drives the bar-lines into the chords like nails into a coffin. Students would quickly recognize the difference between the standard entry of a pop song, over a relentless four-in-a-bar from the drummer, and the flexible and syncopated melody introduced without any background beat by the solo voice in Elvis’s ‘Heartbreak Hotel’. In the one case the rhythm is as though added to the music, coming into it from outside, and without respect for the melodic line. In the other case the rhythm arises internally, as it were, being precipitated out from the melody.

Pointing out those purely formal differences among pieces of popular music, I discovered, took students a long way towards recognizing what is at stake in the art of listening – namely the ability to absorb many things at once, and to understand the contribution of each part to the whole. Almost all my students had come to the class with a desire to understand why so much of the music they heard elicited the ‘yuk’ feeling, while every now and then a song touched something in themselves that really mattered – something they would want to share with someone close to them. So they were ready for the distinction between music that is put together from ready-made effects, and that which grows from its own melodic inspiration. Gradually they became aware that songs can have a moral character, not by virtue of their words only, but by virtue of their musical setting. Even in the world of pop there is a clear distinction between kitsch like Toni Braxton’s ‘Un-break my Heart’, immensely popular at the time, and straightforward sentiment, as in the Beatles’ most memorable numbers from a quarter of a century before.

Teaching students to make those judgments, even of music that I had to brace myself to listen to (those were the days when Madonna was at the height of her power), opened the way to an interesting dialogue between us. I was particularly struck by the Heavy Metal fans, of which my class contained a few. Metal was just beginning to gain a following. It was conceived from the outset as an assault on popular music from a position within it – a kind of subversive rebellion against the norms of weepy sentimentality and gross seductiveness, a reaffirmation of the masculine in a feminised culture. The often psychedelic words, croaked with ape-like Sprechgesang over hectic drumming, the improvised melodies in the virtuoso riffs, often on two guitars in heterophonic conjunction, the irregular bar-lines and asymmetrical measures – all this was like a great ‘No’ shouted onto the dance floor from the jungle. The true Metal fans could talk about its merits for hours, and it amazed me that they had such a precise knowledge of the chords required at every moment, and of the importance of the bass line in maintaining the tension behind the voice. The words, it seemed to me, were pseudo poetry: but it was nevertheless as poetry that they were judged, since the gasping and croaking that produced them were expressly meant to neutralize all expectations of a melodic kind.

Teaching students to judge meant teaching them to listen, and it was never long before their listening extended to the classical repertoire. Jazz enthusiasts had no difficulty in making the transition, but almost all of my students had a problem with the attention span demanded by classical music. Both Jazz and pop are cyclical in structure – the same tune, chord sequence, riff or chorus comes round again and again until it comes to a stop or fades out. Classical music is rarely cyclical in that way. It consists of thematic and harmonic material that is developed, so that the music moves constantly onwards, extracting more and more significance from the original musical impulse. Should it return to the beginning, as in the recapitulation of a sonata-form movement, or the returning first subject of a rondo, it will usually be in order to present the material in a new way, or with new harmonic implications. Moreover, rhythmic organisation in classical music is seldom of the ostinato form familiar from pop. Divisions within the bar-lines reflect the on-going melodic process, and cannot be easily anticipated.

Such features, I discovered, are for many young people the real obstacle presented by the classical idiom. Classical music demands an extended act of attention. No detail can be easily anticipated or passed over, and there is no ‘backing’ – that is to say, no beat to carry you through the difficult bits. (We are all familiar with the attempts to rectify this – Tchaikovsky’s 5th with drum-kit backing, which is perhaps the most painful of all musical experiences for the lover of the classical repertoire.) Among modern composers there are several – Steve Reich and John Adams for example – who cultivate ostinato rhythms in order to reach through all the obstacles to the pop-trained ear. ‘A Short Ride in a Fast Machine’ ranked high on my students’ list of favourites, precisely because it sounds like a jingle of shiny ornaments on a sturdy rhythmical Christmas tree.

My students, I realised, were educating me as much as I was educating them. They were showing me what it was that drew me to classical music, and why the search for that thing is worthwhile. They made me conscious of the thing that my music possessed and theirs for the most part lacked, namely argument. Music in the classical tradition embodies meaning in the form of melody and harmony, and instead of repeating what it has found works on it, extracting its implications, building a life-story around it, and in doing so exploring emotional possibilities that we would not otherwise have guessed at. And musical arguments of this kind invite judgment: they place themselves in the centre of our lives and invite us to sympathise, to find a resolution for our own conflicts in the resolutions that they provide.

Eventually most of my students came to appreciate this. But it was the Metal fans who saw the point most clearly, since their music had been for them exactly what Mozart had been for me, namely a door out of banality and ordinariness into a world where you, the listener, become what you are. And I took comfort from the thought that, at my age, when they had put Metal aside as a youthful folly, they would still be listening to Mozart.


The Symphony: A Moral Vision Revealed in Music

EDITOR’S NOTE: This essay is reprinted with gracious permission from Standpoint Magazine, where it was originally published in October 2015.

A few days after the première of my Fourth Symphony at the BBC Proms in the Royal Albert Hall I was given an advanced copy of Lewis Lockwood’s new book Beethoven’s Symphonies: An Artistic Vision (W.W. Norton, £20). My purpose here is not to review the book but to flag up just how vital it turned out to be in my ongoing obsession with the idea of the symphony, past, present and future.

Lewis Lockwood is regarded as one of the major Beethoven scholars and is presently the Peabody Professor of Music Emeritus at the University of Harvard. The bulk of his new book introduces each of the composer’s nine symphonies, all individual and different in their magisterial genius, and paints a vivid picture of the creative context of each. Lockwood recalls much of the political and social upheavals of the time, ranging from revolution and war to the development of European concert life.

Beethoven’s symphonies have come to be seen as the pinnacle of artistic achievement in music. The distinguished art historian Alessandra Comini described Beethoven’s music as having “revelatory dimensions”. The composer himself described his work as a divine art, and Lockwood points out that Beethoven regarded his symphonies as “not merely products of high craftsmanship, but . . . expressions of a moral vision, a deeply rooted belief that great music can move the world”.

The composer saw his life and work as a mission and a vocation, as many artists have done in centuries and generations gone by. The fact that the modern, and now post-modern, world with all its pessimism and scepticism, has nothing convincing to contradict this assessment of the high-minded inspiration behind Beethoven’s greatness points to the unique unassailability of the composer’s achievements and eternal reputation.

The idea of the symphony has had its bar set extremely high by Beethoven and he has inspired the most ambitious composers in the two centuries since. His influence can be detected in all the major composers in the genre, from his immediate contemporaries like Schubert and then through the decades – Mendelssohn, Schumann, Brahms, Bruckner and Mahler. Even the ones who self-consciously and deliberately turned away from prevailing traditional formal patterns towards programme music and the symphonic poem display the mark of the master – Berlioz, Liszt and Richard Strauss. Wagner’s transformation of opera into “music-drama” shows the impact of a lifetime’s study of Beethoven’s instrumental music, and in particular his Ninth Symphony. Lockwood reminds us that “Wagner grew up in the 1830s under Beethoven’s spell, as he openly confessed.”

I have been asked why composers still want to write symphonies today. Haven’t all the best ones been written already? Is the form and idea not redundant in the 21st century? Hasn’t modernism (and post-modernism) moved the “cutting-edge” agenda away from the tried and tested? Is it not just nostalgia and conservatism to fall back on an idea from the past? Every composer has considered the possibility of writing a symphony and the questions that will be asked of him or her. Some decide it is not for them, but a surprising number in recent years and in our own time have persevered with the concept.

Hans Werner Henze wrote ten. Alfred Schnittke also wrote ten, and so far Peter Maxwell Davies has also written ten. Michael Tippett wrote four. It was obviously a viable form and concept for these titans of modern music. But there are many others who would never have given the question a second thought – Boulez, Birtwistle, Lachenmann. Is it just the more “conservative” composers of our time who are interested in the symphony? No doubt there will be strident voices from the avant-garde hard-line who would maintain just that. But what makes Maxwell Davies conservative? Perhaps this leads to the impossibility of defining the word and idea. Can anything be a symphony now? Galina Ustvolskaya’s Fifth Symphony is about ten minutes long, scored for only five players and involves an actor reciting the Lord’s Prayer in Russian. Her Fourth Symphony is for voice, piano, trumpet and tam-tam and lasts only six minutes. Concepts of musical conservatism and radicalism have a tendency to wax and wane in our own time, so who knows how the self-proclaimed radicals of our age will be viewed decades hence?

The origin of the word symphony is from the ancient Greek (symphonia) meaning “agreement or concord of sound”. It can also mean “concert of vocal or instrumental music” or just simply “harmonious”. In the middle ages there were instruments called symphonia which could be anything from a two-headed drum to a hurdy-gurdy or dulcimer. It begins to mean “sounding together” in the work of Giovanni Gabrieli in the late 16th and early 17th centuries in his Sacrae Symphoniae.

It is this meaning of symphony that is attractive to many, as it can open up possibilities unconstrained by Germanic, Romantic (or even Classical) origins. Stravinsky used the term a few times, most interestingly in his Symphonies of Wind Instruments from 1920. Note the plural. It comes from a very different place – there are no string instruments, and it is one movement which lasts only nine minutes. It has a solemn, almost funereal character, with a chorale seemingly evoking Russian Orthodox chant – an austere ritual, unfolding in short litanies. It must have baffled its original audiences. Indeed its world première in London was greeted by laughter and derision. I have conducted this a few times and love its episodic nature. It doesn’t develop in any expected “symphonic” way, but through a series of fragments, juxtaposed and expanded on each sounding.

An earlier challenge to or broadening of German symphonic principles was Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique of 1830. This is programme music, but what a programme! The music is psychedelic, hallucinatory, opium-fuelled even. It is an interesting riposte to those who see the symphony as the pinnacle of absolute abstraction. Composers can be inspired by the strangest things. Here is a weird story of poison, despair, hopeless love, nightmare, witches, devils and public execution – the composer’s own! We also see subjective impulses coming to the fore in the inspiration and explanation of the work, in particular Berlioz’s fascination with the English actress Harriet Smithson.

His work was written only three years after Beethoven’s death and Berlioz must have recognised a similar revolutionary spirit in the work of the master. My boyhood dreams were shaped by Beethoven’s symphonies and in particular his third, the Eroica. The sheer drama and romance of this work is compelling and people talk of its convulsive impact on the history of music. Lockwood reminds us of this and its astonishing effect at its first performances. Those two stabbing E flat major chords at the beginning of the first movement, which grab the listener by the scruff of the neck, are so simple and so bold. But then the melody begins in the cellos, outlining the E flat major triad, immediately veering off to a note that you least expect – C sharp – incredibly distant tonal territory in a musical world and era expecting careful modulations between closely related keys. So right from the first few seconds of the work, Beethoven is presenting us with a so-far unparalleled tension. The opposition in purely musical parameters is taking us into uncharted territory, where resolution and irresolution coexist side by side.

Most people know about the dedication story of the Eroica. Beethoven originally intended to dedicate the score to Napoleon Bonaparte but withdrew this violently, tearing the dedication page off, on hearing of Napoleon’s self-proclamation as Emperor. I have always been heartened by Beethoven’s rejection of a tyrant and his recognition of the true nature of revolutionary fervour as destructive, divisive and corrupt. It is a lesson from history to all artists not to put their trust in politicians and rabble-rousers.

The 20th century saw a procession of artists who were beguiled and seduced by evil men. There was no shortage of poets and writers ready to praise Lenin and Mussolini especially, but also Stalin, Hitler and Mao, even into our own time. In my own country our most prominent poet Hugh McDiarmid, beloved of Scottish nationalists and socialists even today, wrote not one but three hymns to Lenin. He also admired Mussolini, arguing in 1923 for a Scottish version of fascism and in 1929 for the formation of Clann Albain, a fascistic paramilitary organisation to fight for Scottish freedom. As late as June 1940 he wrote a poem expressing his indifference to the impending German bombing of London, which was not published during his lifetime:

Now when London is threatened
With devastation from the air
I realise, horror atrophying me,
That I hardly care.

In 2010 the Canadian academic Susan Wilson unearthed some correspondence in the National Library of Scotland between MacDiarmid and Sorley MacLean, his friend, fellow poet and fellow radical political thinker. In these letters, as late as 1941, it is revealed that MacDiarmid regarded Hitler and the Nazis as potentially more benign rulers than the British government in Westminster.

He was known for his controversial views as a young man. In two articles written in 1923, “Plea for a Scottish Fascism” and “Programme for a Scottish Fascism”, he appeared to support Mussolini’s regime. But the revelation of ambivalent, even pro-Nazi sentiments during WW2 has come as a shock.

These are sobering recollections for Scots, but also for artists generally. Hugh MacDiarmid’s art and his wild, radical, “progressive” idealism can be difficult to disentangle. Artists can be agents of good in society, but we can see that some of them end up supporting evil, blind to the roots and inevitable ends of their thinking.

I wonder what Shostakovich would have made of MacDiarmid’s shenanigans. The Russian’s Fifth Symphony came in the wake of Stalinist purges, the gulags, quotas for punishments against “anti-Soviet” dissidents, millions disappearing, murdered and imprisoned. He could have taught MacDiarmid and the Western fellow-travellers something about utopian fervour and its consequences. He wouldn’t have needed to say a word – the sometimes plangent, sometimes overwhelming blasts of his Fifth Symphony say nothing but imply everything.

There is here a particular modern genius, born in the abyss of political nihilism and despair which produces music that can be heard and understood in different ways. This skill, this facility saved Shostakovich’s skin, but delivered a sarcastic and subtle blow against Marxist totalitarianism. They say that there was a 40-minute standing ovation for this work at its première in Leningrad in 1937. The audience seemed to realise that the music spoke of their pain, tragedy and desolation. Some wept in the slow movement, some said they could feel all the disappeared: they would have known friends and family taken away and murdered by the Communists.

In various 20th-century symphonies we can detect the foreboding of the times – the fear and destruction of war and political oppression. There are some works which, in retrospect, have been regarded as barometers of their era, including a couple performed in this year’s BBC Prom concerts. Elgar’s Second Symphony was written in 1911 and some detect in it the melancholy tread of civilisational collapse. Mahler’s Sixth Symphony was written a few years earlier and is known as his “Tragic” Symphony, full of loss, culminating in literal hammer blows of fate. Furtwängler described this work as “the first nihilistic work in the history of music”. This is a limited analysis of a score which certainly has its fair share of darkness and hopelessness, but also has so much more. The final movement is like a stream of consciousness, astonishingly vast and unusual, with no set sonata pattern or design, strange recapitulations or no recapitulation at all. Like the Berlioz it is hallucinogenic and nightmarish, but it is only at the very end that the music becomes truly despairing.

Perhaps the crucial and central point in Beethoven’s legacy, flagged up in Lewis Lockwood’s exploratory new book, is his moral vision – a prophetic lesson which was to grab the imagination of composers over a century later. These more modern works, like their Beethovenian models, give the impression of having to be written – a compulsion even beyond the will of their creators. I am reminded of this every time I conduct Vaughan Williams’s Fourth Symphony, for example. He saw this piece as pure music, unlike his first three. It is also more severe and angular in its language, not immediately inviting like some of his other music. It is not conventionally beautiful and seems troubled. Written in 1935, two years before Shostakovich’s Fifth, it seems to detect the coming storm in Europe. Later the composer said of it: “I’m not at all sure if I like it myself now. All I know is that it’s what I wanted to do at the time.”

Vaughan Williams went on to write a further five symphonies. I have also reached my number four. My first three symphonies employed programmatic elements, whether exploring poetic imagery or literary references, but my fourth, premièred by the BBC Scottish on August 3 under the work’s dedicatee Donald Runnicles, is essentially abstract. I was interested in the interplay of different types of material, following upon a fascination with music as ritual that has stretched from Monteverdi through to Boulez and Birtwistle. There are four distinct archetypes in the symphony which can be viewed as rituals of movement, exhortation, petition and joy. These four ideas are juxtaposed in quick succession from the outset, over the first five minutes or so. As the work progresses these are sometimes individually developed in an organic way; at times they comingle, and at others they are opposed and argumentative in a dialectic manner.

The work as a whole is also a homage to Robert Carver, the most important Scottish composer of the high Renaissance, whose intricate multi-part choral music I’ve loved since performing it as a student. There are allusions to his ten-voice Mass Dum Sacrum Mysterium embedded into the work, and at a number of points it emerges across the centuries in a more discernible form. The polyphony is muted and muffled, literally in the distance, as it is played delicately by the back desks of the violas, cellos and double basses.

The symphonic tradition, and Beethoven’s monumental impact on it, is an imposing legacy which looms like a giant ghost over the shoulder of any living composer foolhardy enough to consider adding to it. Some turn away in terror and even disdain, preferring to carve out a rejectionary stance. It might be the safer option. Others can’t help themselves. Perhaps not fully knowing what writing a symphony “means” any more, some of us are drawn towards it like moths flapping around a candle flame. We might get burned. I feel a fifth coming on. Dah-dah-dah-dum.


Le Violon d’Ingres: Some Reflections on Music, Painting and Architecture

EDITOR’S NOTE: This essay is reprinted with gracious permission from the Newington-Cropsey Cultural Studies Center, who originally published it in American Arts Quarterly, Spring 2006, Volume 23, Number 2.

Sitting in his studio at the French Academy in Rome, the painter Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres picks up his violin and begins to play. His interest in the violin is both musical and visual. The instrument he plays is a composition of molding profiles drawn from classical architecture – torus, scotia, bead and cyma recta – culminating in a spiral resembling the volute of an Ionic capital. The proportion of neck to body of the violin is that known as the Golden Section, a ratio thought to underlie many natural forms as well as the proportions of Greek temples. The anthropomorphism of the instrument is surely not lost on the painter, as his eyes move between its sinuous curves and those of the odalisque taking shape on the canvas next to him. He draws the bow across the strings and produces consonant intervals that correspond to the simple whole-number ratios first demonstrated by Pythagoras in the fifth century B.C. The violin traces out an arc of melody that seems a sonic analogue to the linearity of the artist’s drawing. The music is all beauty of line, and so is the painting. At this moment, the musical and the visual experiences fuse into one.

Violin by Johann Christoph Leidolff, Vienna, <small srcset=
1749. Image credit: Harald Fritz.” width=”336″ height=”417″> Violin by Johann Christoph Leidolff, Vienna, 1749. Image credit: Harald Fritz.

So familiar is the story of the great painter and his nearly equal dedication to music that the French phrase le violon d’Ingres has come to refer to an avocation at which one excels. At least in the case of the visual and musical arts, it seems that the “vocation” and “avocation” are not simply two independent pursuits – there seems to be a profound connection between them, and that is how they are often experienced by those who are blessed with such multiple gifts. But, while few would deny a strong relationship between musical and visual forms, the character of that relationship is hard to describe.

For example, many musicians and composers have observed that the key signatures are associated with different colors. Alexander Scriabin contrived a “color organ” – an early precursor of a 1960s psychedelic light show – to accompany performances of his music by projecting the colors corresponding to the score’s harmonies. A few decades later, Olivier Messiaen based his music in part on “chordal colors,” such as “golden yellow, blue of Chartres, violet purple, green and red, orange tint, violet amethyst, mauve and pearl gray.”1 Even less exalted musicians find that they recognize the key in which a piece of music is being played by its “color” as much as by the absolute pitches they hear. The problem is that composers and musicians cannot agree on which colors go with which chords – it seems to be different for each individual – and yet they all attest to this coincidence of harmony and color.

In more extreme cases, some people experience an intense cross-over between their senses known as synesthesia, in which sounds are “seen” and objects – including shapes, buildings or pictures – are “heard.” This is now recognized clinically as an involuntary neurological phenomenon affecting a small number of people, including, famously, the composer Scriabin (and possibly Messiaen), the painter Wassily Kandinsky and the novelist Vladimir Nabokov. Distinct from this clinical designation is the use of synesthesia as an idea or metaphor to explain the visual correlatives to heard music reported by musicians, and musical correlatives to visual and spatial form reported by artists and architects. Some researchers suggest that we are all synesthetes, but only some of us are consciously aware of “the holistic nature of perception.”2 Using this synesthetic metaphor as a starting point, I want to explore some ways a musical interest might affect the work of a visual artist, especially an architect, since that is my own discipline. As we shall see, painting and architecture have parallel – albeit somewhat different – relationships with music.

Ingres was not, of course, the first or last painter with a serious involvement in music. Vasari, in his Lives of the Artists, tells us that Leonardo da Vinci performed for the Duke of Milan on a lyre “that he had made himself, mostly of silver, in the shape of a horse’s head, so that the sound would be more sonorous and resonant.”3 There are tantalizing passages in Leonardo’s Treatise on Painting, in which he calls music “the sister of painting,” and continues: “You will say that music is composed of proportion, and in answer to that I say that in that respect it imitates and follows the example of painting.” Unfortunately, we know little about Leonardo’s musical life, his Treatise on Music is lost, and only a few scraps of musical score in his hand have survived, although contemporary accounts tell of his great skill as both composer and performer. Not surprisingly, given his technological and scientific approach to whatever interested him, his musical activity extended to suggesting technical improvements to numerous musical instruments and even inventing new ones.4

A scientific bent also characterized Thomas Jefferson, who, like his younger contemporary Ingres, was an “above-average amateur violinist,” but who, like Leonardo, also had a technical interest in the design and construction of musical instruments. His music library included scores by Corelli, Vivaldi, Handel, Boccherini, Haydn and Mozart.5 Jefferson did not record his thoughts about the relationship between music and architecture, but his superb design for the University of Virginia always brings to my mind the counterpoint, cadences or tempi of those graceful colonnades and arcades, and the ascent up the Lawn to the Rotunda seems a perfect crescendo. Although it is unlikely that Jefferson knew of it, his endlessly subtle and beautiful Lawn has always seemed to me a built correlative of its near-contemporary, Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony.

Frank Lloyd Wright was an able pianist who admitted that his architectural language was shaped by his musical understanding. Wright was particularly devoted to Beethoven, whom he called a great architect, referring to the Eroica as a “great edifice of sound.”6 There is indeed something of Beethoven’s familiar building-up of complex textures from simple motives that pervades Wright’s work almost throughout his career, from the early Prairie Houses and Unity Temple to the late Marin County government center. Another important modernist, Louis Kahn, often spoke poetically, if cryptically, about music and its relation to architecture. Former students recall his not infrequent habit of humming a theme from Mozart to make a point in an architectural design jury. In his most celebrated works, such as the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, the library at Exeter Academy or the Salk Institute in La Jolla, California, Kahn shares with Wright an interest in the expressive power of abstract form – space, mass, line and detail – in a way that seems profoundly musical.

Among architects who have sought to revive the Classical tradition in their work, Léon Krier, a leading crusader against the modernism of both Wright and Kahn, nonetheless shares their musical interests. Another accomplished pianist, Krier has a particular devotion to Chopin, which might seem surprising in relation to his design work. At first glance, his robust and enigmatic designs – including his own house at Seaside, the Town Hall at Windsor or the newly completed building for the School of Architecture at the University of Miami – have little of the exquisiteness we associate with the Polish master of the piano. And yet Chopin also evokes a Michelangelesque terribilità in some of the Preludes and Ballades, and close study of Krier’s designs reveal a sense of fantasía and melancholy often overlooked by critics.

Admittedly, these examples are anecdotal and superficial, bordering perhaps on cliché. But, like many clichés, they point to an underlying truth, namely that we often find it natural to speak of the architecture of music or the musicality of architecture. What is the source of this connection? Goethe’s famous definition of architecture as “frozen music” is suggestive, but not very specific. My sense is that there are three fundamental points of intersection between music and the visual arts: the first is the analogy between tonality and perspective, the second is their common interest in proportion, and the third is their non-representational, nonverbal expressiveness.

Renaissance theories of pictorial perspective construct an apparent three-dimensional space in a two-dimensional medium by defining the location and orientation of each object in the visual field with respect to an independent geometrical system. In Western music since the mid-seventeenth century, tonality similarly establishes a metaphorical space within which each tone has a location, orientation and sense of movement. Leonardo da Vinci, who developed techniques for perspective drawing still cited today, noted in his treatise that music’s harmonies “are composed of the simultaneous conjunction of its proportional parts, which are destined to be born and then die in one or several harmonic spaces.”7 Music may be fleeting in time, he is saying, but lingers in a remembered space of the hearer’s own making.

This space is not simply an abstract diagram in our minds, but is experienced as an analogue to our daily physical space, whose three dimensions are mirrored in the musical dimensions of harmony, melody and rhythm. A sound becomes a tone when it assumes a character within a harmonic, melodic or rhythmic context and a hierarchical position with respect to other tones. Philosopher Roger Scruton points out that “a tone has implications in these three dimensions, which correspond to three kinds of expectation that are aroused or thwarted in musical experience. A tone arouses ‘vertical’ and ‘horizontal’ expectations – the first being harmonic, the second melodic and rhythmic.” Through what Scruton calls “metaphorical transference,” these musical dimensions conjure a “space” through which we can imaginatively walk, finding in it such spatial attributes as intimacy or grandeur, a soaring upward or cascading down, a sense of compression or release. Scruton describes our musical understanding as revealing “a first-person perspective on a world that we know is not ours. Neither is it anyone else’s. It is a creation of the imagination, and retains the impersonality of the imaginative act.” We hear music when “sounds are transfigured into movements, harmonies, rhythms—metaphorical gestures in a metaphorical space.”8

In an architectural analogue to musical space, commuters entering Grand Central Terminal in New York from 42nd Street pass through a low vestibule into the generously proportioned Vanderbilt Hall, continue through a Piranesian passage where ramps lead to the lower levels, and finally emerge into the great concourse, a crescendo worthy of Beethoven. It is not only the spaces themselves that impress us, but the way the elements enclosing them are organized compositionally. We see walls, floors and ceilings punctuated by openings and organized proportionally by the classical orders – the exact opposite of randomness. In the same way, a musical space has a hierarchical structure – “the essence of which is groups combined within groups” – parts forming wholes which are themselves parts of larger wholes, extending from the microcosm to the macrocosm.9 Just as pictorial-spatial perspective orders the structural hierarchy of an architectural work, so the sonic perspective afforded by tonality orders the individual tones into coherent music.

Music and architecture, then, are constructed with respect to both perceptual and metaphorical space and time, but as mirror images of one another. In music, tonality uses a temporal sequence of tones to construct a metaphorical space in which time seems suspended; architectural perspective uses a spatial sequence of fixed rooms to suggest a journey unfolding in time. In each case, it is the interweaving of space and time that is essential, one being given to the senses and the other being provided by the imagination. Perhaps it is this synchronization of sense and imagination that makes the experience of both perspective and tonality so satisfying.

Testing the analogy between architecture and music, Hersey translated the proportional ratios of Bernini's Baldacchino into musical intervals and these into a melody. The musical quality of the resulting tune is debatable, but it is notable that the melody is tonal and consonant (Architecture and Geometry in the Age of the Baroque, University of Chicago Press, 2000).
Testing the analogy between architecture and music, Hersey translated the proportional ratios of Bernini’s Baldacchino into musical intervals and these into a melody. The musical quality of the resulting tune is debatable, but it is notable that the melody is tonal and consonant (Architecture and Geometry in the Age of the Baroque, University of Chicago Press, 2000).

Music and architecture are linked by a second kind of geometry, that which orders figural shape and proportion rather than space. Since ancient times, we have understood that a common set of numerical ratios may be used to describe a series of pleasingly shaped rectangles, based on the relations of adjacent sides, and consonant musical intervals, based on the lengths of the strings that emit those tones when plucked. In other words, sounds have shapes and shapes have sounds, a kind of naturally occurring synesthesia. A common terminology was developed to describe these ratios; for example, the ratio 2:3, or sequialtera (Latin for “more by half” – or two plus half of two), denotes both a rectangle with sides in this proportion as well as the musical interval of a fifth.10 Recognition of common geometric and musical proportions retained a central role in the Western artistic imagination from Vitruvius to well into the nineteenth century.

John Hersey’s recent book Architecture and Geometry in the Age of the Baroque shows how the coincidence of musical and geometrical consonance may be reflected quite literally in the designs of such artists as Vignola and Bernini. As an example, Hersey develops “intervals, chords, and melodies out of the geometric envelope of Bernini’s baldacchino” by translating its constituent rectangles into musical intervals. I must say that I am not overly impressed by the musical value of the tune Hersey derives from Bernini’s composition, but the demonstration is nonetheless illuminating.11 Looking at the matter from the other direction, years ago I attended a performance by the harpsichordist Davitt Moroney at which he analyzed the counterpoint in one of J. S. Bach’s fugues by relating its composition of subjects and countersubjects to the arcaded wall treatment of the classical room in which he was playing, using the moldings and elements of the room to clarify the fugue’s musical structure. While the room, of course, did not explicitly manifest specific patterns derived from the piece, the analogy between the musical and spatial architectures was effectively illustrated.

While both musical and architectural proportions are rooted in geometry, I believe there is not necessarily a one-to-one correspondence between them. Attempts by composers to write music according to a predetermined architectural pattern of beats or intervals have, in my hearing at any rate, not been particularly effective; and architectural designs rigidly composed according to prescribed musical ratios, to my eye, lack the liveliness we ascribe to an architectural design when we say that it sings. One reason for this non-correspondence is perceptual: an architectural composition, more often than a musical one, must compromise with contingent reality; hence we have the optical corrections of the Greek temples that adjust the ideal configuration of columns and entablatures to compensate for the distorting effects of human vision.

In truth, music and architecture each have their own proper proportional procedures that keep recurring, whether consciously applied or not, and the actual patterns so recurring are not necessarily mutually transferable between the two art forms. I believe the analogy between them goes deeper than ratios regulating intervals or dimensions. Musical and architectural structures both arise from their relation to a common measure.12 In classical music this is usually a reference tone – the tonic or tonal center; in classical architecture, a module or ratio – such as a recurring rectangle, column diameter or the Golden Section. The consistency with which this common measure is applied in each respective art is the key to its expressive structure, allowing for the establishment of a norm built into the individual work, violations of which then become significant.13

Our recognition of proportional consonance in both music and architecture leads to another, even deeper truth: we are drawn to things that are made in the same way we ourselves are made. A harmonious chord and a well-proportioned structure mirror back to us the constructive harmonies of our own bodies, and by extension, of the cosmos itself. Such was the point of the classical doctrine of the “music of the spheres,” which was taken quite literally from ancient times until the birth of modern astronomy in the seventeenth century. Modern cosmology debunked this ancient picture of the cosmos as mysticism, a view paralleled in Schoenberg’s dismissal of tonality as an arbitrary convention and the modernist architects’ dismissal of the classical orders as relics of an exhausted past.14

In recent decades, however, there has been growing scientific interest in the formative power of naturally occurring patterns as a far more complex cosmology slowly emerges. Scientists are interested in pattern and proportion once again. Neuroscience is beginning to reveal ways in which pattern-recognition is built into the complex and subtle mechanisms of the brain. From this viewpoint, classical music and architecture are analogous, not just because they reflect one another, but because they reflect us and the way our minds work. It should come as no surprise, then, that both music and architecture today are engaged in retrieving their respective traditional languages: melody, tonality, proportion, ornament, the classical orders – the whole lot.

These reflections lead to a final relationship uniting music and architecture: their non-representational mode of expression, that is, their abstraction. This is a property that is not necessarily shared by painting to the extent that it is representational, which music and architecture cannot be. The painter’s depiction of his subject – that is, content outside of the painting itself – potentially communicates thoughts about the subject that might be put into words. Whatever music Ingres played on his violin, it did not express definite thoughts about a non-musical subject that could be restated in words. Architecture, too, may be intensely expressive, communicating strong feelings purely by manipulation of “space, mass, line, and coherence” (to borrow Geoffrey Scott’s terms),15 but it cannot say anything definite about a non-architectural subject.16 This is why architecture needs decorative painting and sculpture to introduce narrative content, and why music relies on sung or spoken words for the same purpose. So while Ingres’s appreciation of the affinities between music and painting may have led him to reflect on their differences in this regard, an architect like Wright or Kahn might reflect on the similarities between music and architecture for the same reason. I think this is why an architect who is also a musician might think about architecture differently than one who is also a painter.

Their common wordless expressiveness is perhaps what most links music and architecture in my own experience. Why can I be reduced to tears on hearing Bach’s “O Mensch, bewein die Sünde Gross” or upon stepping into Michelangelo’s vestibule to the library of San Lorenzo? Paradoxically, the first is music in a major key (which we tend to associate with “happy” content in contrast to the “sad” minor keys), and the second is simply an arrangement of columns and niches around an oddly configured stairway, seemingly without explicit emotional associations. And yet, the response in both cases was immediate and profound. The emotional effects of music and architecture are simply ineffable, but it is also now clear that the modernist abandonment of traditional tonality and perspective rendered both arts capable of communicating only anxiety and disorientation. Only in a system in which consonance and dissonance can be distinguished, and in which consonance is the norm, can we find and express a fuller range of human emotion.

Like many people, from an early age I found that music provided a doorway into my own feelings, without which those feelings may have been much less accessible. As childhood passed into adolescence, architecture joined music in this role, and both of them now occupy central places in my life, in which feeling and reasoning seem to work together productively. Perhaps had I been blessed with talent in painting and poetry instead, I would say the same thing; but something about the wordlessness of music and architecture bring them into an intimacy and immediacy of enjoyment that I cannot help thinking is unique to them.

I don’t know if Ingres ever had any thoughts like these, but he might have mused to himself along similar lines as he drew the portrait of his friend and fellow Academician, the composer Charles Gounod, or later, when Gounod sat at the piano and accompanied the painter-violinist in some new music the composer had brought with him. To me, the lovely phrase le violon d’Ingres connotes much more than a glorified hobby. It expresses recognition that all the arts and all our human faculties – despite their individual characters, distinctive requirements and separate domains – are fundamentally one.


1 Olivier Messiaen, The Technique of My Musical Language (Paris: A. Leduc, 1956). The quotation about “chordal colors” is taken from the composer’s liner notes for the recording of his “Méditations sur la Mystère de la Sainte Trinité,” released by the Musical Heritage Society, MHS 1797/98.
2 Richard Cytowic, “Synesthesia: Phenomenology and Neuropsychology: A Review of Current Knowledge,” PSYCHE, 2 (10), (July 1995).
3 Giorgio Vasari, Lives of the Artists (Penguin Classics, 1965). p. 261.
4 Carlos Velilla , “Leonardo da Vinci and Music,” Jacqueline Minett, trans., Goldberg (online music magazine:
5 Helen Cripe, Thomas Jefferson and Music (Charlotteville: University Press of Virginia, 1974).
6 “Frank Lloyd Wright on Record” (audio recording of interview in New York, June 5, 1956), Caedmon Records, TC1064.
7 Quoted in Velilla, op. cit.
8 Roger Scruton, “Understanding Music,” The Aesthetic Understanding (New York. Methuen, 1983), pp. 77–100.
9 Molly Guston, Tonality (New York: Philosophical Library, 1969), p. 85.
10 John Hersey, Architecture and Geometry in the Age of the Baroque (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2000), pp. 9–10.
11 Hersey, op. cit., pp. 46–51.
12 Guston, op. cit., p. 83.
13 Guston, op. cit., pp. 88–89.
14 Robert R.Reilly, “The Music of the Spheres, or the Metaphysics of Music,” The Intercollegiate Review (Fall 2001), p. 12.
15 Geoffrey Scott, The Architecture of Humanism: A Study in the History of Taste (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1999).
16 Roger Scruton, “Representation in Music,” The Aesthetic Understanding (New York: Methuen, 1983), pp. 62–76.


Redeeming Film Music

There is a kind of listener who first becomes acquainted with the symphony orchestra through film music. And many such listeners want to hear the music again – willingly attending concerts devoted to scores whose original function was to compensate for absent dialogue, and which were heard in fragmented versions that faded in and out of the drama.

So what is the status of film music among the musical arts, and how should it be judged? You often hear the expression film music used pejoratively. “It’s just film music,” said of some new symphonic piece, suggests an overblown pursuit of effect at the cost of structure, of atmosphere at the cost of musical form. But perhaps those who criticize music in that way are clinging to a parochial and outmoded conception of concert-hall listening. Maybe film music is the way forward for the tonal grammar and polyphonic architecture that are now so rarely heard in works by the musical avant-garde. Maybe film music is the only safe refuge for the ordinary musical ear, in a soundscape blasted by jagged orchestral explosions and wearisome post-modernist sound effects.

One thing is certain, which is that the most successful film music today exhibits a quite extraordinary level of competence. Melody, harmony, voice-leading and orchestration are all as good and professional as can be. John Williams’s Harry Potter scores and Howard Shore’s evocative music for The Lord of the Rings exhibit a mastery of harmonic sequences, polyphonic organisation and orchestral effect that would be the envy of many a composer for the concert hall. Some of the skills employed by such composers can be learned and there are schools devoted to teaching them. But there are also, in such composers as Williams and Shore, original effects, haunting passages of melody or quasi-melody, and a post-Mahlerian sense of just how much can be added without sacrificing polyphonic clarity – all of which are marks of a true musician.

At the same time, when favourite passages are extracted from their original context and presented in the concert hall, almost invariably it sounds to us as though something is missing. The melody that seemed so apt and touching on the screen sounds banal or even fake in the concert hall – witness the melodies given to Hedwig’s flight by Williams, so brilliantly orchestrated that you notice their emptiness only when your ears are turned fully upon them. It is when you hear this kind of music in the cold, lifted clear of the drama and presented as something complete in itself, that you begin to sympathise with those censorious advocates of the avant-garde who say, “No, you cannot compose like that.”

Such critics will tell us that tonal chord grammar, even if touched up here and there with Wagnerian chromaticism and the occasional Mahlerian dissonance, has, in Schoenberg’s words, “become banal.” It wasn’t always banal. But when used without the fresh melodic material and ingenuous musical narrative of the great masters it is no longer true art but pastiche.

It is not only in music, of course, that we hear this kind of criticism. The accusation of “pastiche” is used ad nauseam to block any attempt that architects might make to build in the traditional manner. But it has a special authority in music criticism, thanks to the polemics of Schoenberg and Adorno. Moreover, in the case of film music the charge often seems to stick. This stuff, however technically accomplished, seems so often to lack the core of sincere inspiration, the heartfelt and heart-stopping theme, and the inspired development that unfolds that theme’s potential.

Adorno, who was the first to launch a full scale assault on the block-buster scores of Hollywood, saw film music as the last degraded product of the vice instilled by Wagner: the vice of putting effect before cause. Film music, as he described it, used stock devices and ready-made sequences to add a musical halo to whatever was being presented on the screen. Its whole purpose was to add emotion where emotion is lacking, to puff up the empty drama with easily decipherable messages as to what the audience should at any moment be feeling. As Nietzsche put the point in his no-holds-barred assault on Wagner: espressivo at all costs.

But Adorno also saw film music in another way: as part of the capitalist assault on high culture. All the music, all the forms of entertainment by which he found himself surrounded in his exile in California, were the products of the capitalist culture industry – whose purpose it was, in Adorno’s eyes, to reduce art to a commodity, and to provide in the place of the free expression of critical consciousness the “fetishes” that conceal reality behind a veil of illusions. The musical fetish requires no hard work of aesthetic judgment, no painful exploration of the value and significance of our states of mind. It merely releases us into a warm bath of sentiment that, being unreal, costs nothing. As we respond to the kitschy climaxes on soaring violins, we congratulate ourselves that we are deeply moved. But, Adorno tells us, we are not moved at all, except by the image of ourselves being moved.

Those deep criticisms, expressed in an inspissated language that was Adorno’s most lasting contribution to the Marxist repertoire, do not carry weight with everyone. But they suggest, nevertheless, that the adjectives often used to dismiss or marginalise music for films – corny, sentimental, fake, kitsch, laid on with a trowel – are identifying a real and pervasive aesthetic fault. And the fault, you might think, comes from the attempt to herd people towards a crowd emotion, to neutralize our critical faculties, to say, “Come on, join in, let the tears flow.”

Or is this all just the snobbery of the avant-garde, a kind of musical elitism that belongs to an age from which we have recovered, now that our innocent distractions, once dismissed as “mass culture,” can be enjoyed for what they are, namely fun? Two observations are pertinent here. The first is that it is only some film music that conforms to the “blockbuster” style. It is only the epic narrative, with heroes, battles, the underlying war between good and evil, and (in the grown-up version) the rescue of desirable women by courageous men, that can call forth the full orchestral sound, usually amplified these days by wordless choirs. And here it is undeniable that there is a repertoire of clichés that film composers do not hesitate to use, and whose nature as cliché is far more apparent in the concert hall than in the course of some heroic battle between good (=good-looking) and evil (=ugly) on the screen. The wordless choir is one of them, chanting its ancestral calls to sacrifice over agitated strings and sustained chords on the brass, as the heroic soldiers of the good bravely hold their ground against the forces of evil, mounted on digital monsters that can be killed by nothing short of a power cut.

Star Wars Lego Orchestra from Jason Weinberger on Vimeo.

We should remember, therefore, all those films that have used small musical resources, not to compensate for the schematic nature of the plot, but in order to enhance an atmosphere that originates in the drama. Bernard Herrmann’s creepy modernist score for Hitchcock’s Psycho is a case in point. Hitchcock’s drama in no way depends on the music: but if there is to be music for such a gruesome tale, this is it – sparse, icy, setting the nerves on edge like a diamond-edged cutter going through steel. Or, to take a less extreme example, the gentle sadness of Erik Nordgren’s score for Bergman’s Wild Strawberries – a solo violin above a small chamber ensemble, never intrusive, but always picking up the threads of regret and loneliness as the old Professor’s life unravels, so as to unravel them a little bit more.

The second pertinent observation is that film scores seem not to survive for long outside the context created by the original screen-play. They inspire a following, of course. But it is a following that associates them with a particular film and a particular story. Of course, this is not always true. There are film scores that have survived because of their intrinsic musical virtues – Prokofiev’s Lieutenant Kijé, as well as his grand oratorio on the theme of Alexander Nevsky; Walton’s music for Henry V, and (a particularly telling example) the Sinfonia Antartica of Vaughan Williams. But these survive as free-standing musical works, composed according to principles that do not depend on the action that originally accompanied them.

Film music can be fruitfully compared to ballet. Most of the great ballet scores have been, by now, detached from their first choreographies. There are some, of course, that are indelibly associated with the original poetic idea – Swan Lake, The Firebird, Daphnis and Chloë – but many more have survived through manifold changes in the choreography and the libretto. The Rite of Spring is perhaps the most famous example. Stravinsky’s score is a triumph of rhythmic, melodic and harmonic order, which won its place in the hearts of musical people whether or not they had an interest in the ballet as an art form, or in the particular attempts, from Nijinsky onwards, to provide a way of dancing to this score.

Why are film scores and ballet scores so different in this respect? Why do ballet scores have such a long and vivid life in the concert hall, achieving a status – especially in the modern era – equal to the greatest of the purely orchestral compositions that changed the course of music? Here is a thought: while dancers dance to the music, the film score follows the action on the screen. In ballet it is the score that sets the pace, governs the action and in general controls the overall order and movement of the work. In film the score is subservient to the action, can survive only because it adds what the action leaves out, and then survives only as a kind of after image, the memory of something that has vanished over the horizon of perception.

Those thoughts do not, of course, justify the use of film music as a pejorative term. Perhaps we should be grateful to John Williams and Howard Shore for showing us that it can still be done – that we can still use the tonal language to create music that resonates in the hearts of ordinary people. Perhaps we should be more suspicious than we tend to be, of those musical censors who leap to dismiss whatever is spontaneously likeable as cliché, and whatever touches the ordinary heart as kitsch. Nevertheless, we still need guidance: what is the path, between avant-garde censoriousness and musical cliché, and how can a serious composer follow that path, without some listener in the concert hall turning to his neighbour and whispering, “Film music”?


Beauty in Music: Inspiration and Excellence

Reprinted with gracious permission from The Society for Classical Learning, where it first appeared.

I. Beauty in Music

“[A]nd the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and he became a living soul.” Genesis 2:7

Rhythms, melodies, harmonies speak to us of immaterial things

The modern world is full of false dichotomies. There are divisions between reason and revelation, fact and value, and male and female that require careful definition so that the desired joining of the two is possible. The division between the material and the immaterial, that is, the body and the spirit, is one of these. Genesis 2:7 speaks of forming Adam from the ground, and breathing into him the breath of life, or the spirit. Two things indeed, but curiously, the result of the combination of these two is the living soul. The one thing that seems clear here is that the soul is alive, and that it somehow is the combination of the two elements of matter and spirit.

The manner in which one walks can show the point of intersection between the physical and the spiritual – that is, the interface between the sensation of literal movement in sight and sound and the conclusions drawn about the intangible personality, mood, and emotional state of the walker. When the tempo of the walk is varied, observers draw different conclusions about the walker’s state of mind. What does tempo have to do with intangibles such as intention, friendliness, or confidence?

Plato’s famous lines in the third book of The Republic speak of how the musical modes are linked directly to the various character traits he is either for or against in his ideal City.

‘And which are the harmonies expressive of sorrow? You are musical, and you can tell me.’
‘The harmonies that you mean are the mixed and tenor Lydian…and such like.’
‘These then,’ I said, ‘must be banished…’

These modes are the basis for both melody and linear harmony, and when combined with rhythm made a place for music that was far larger in scope than that we offer today. That scope is nothing short of soul-shaping. In the conclusion to the Preface of his thoughtful book on musical aesthetics, philosopher Roger Scruton sees this scope:

It came as a surprise that so dry a question as “what is a sound?” should lead at last to a philosophy of modern culture. Had I thought more about the Pythagorean cosmology, and the true meaning of harmonia I should perhaps have known beforehand, that the ordering of sound as music is an ordering of the soul.

Plato seems to be recommending nothing short of government-run musical censorship. Our present-day enlightened embrace of all musical expressions is not so much the result of a hard-fought battle for individual freedom as a belief that music has no such powers to shape and affect the soul. If we really believed that music had the effect of training the next generation to be dissolute, irresponsible, and cowardly, we might find ourselves censoring music.

Listening to music is not the same activity as listening to sounds in general. The difference between them is that we listen to sounds in order to know the thing making the sound (the sound of a car or the sound of a baby crying), but we don’t listen to the sound of music to hear an oboe playing, or a guitar strumming. Rather, we listen to hear the sound it is making. We may recognize the sound comes from an oboe, but we want to hear what the oboe is playing. There is the source, but there is meaning in the order of the sounds themselves. The goal, when we listen to music, is to hear what it is saying: the contours of the melody, the harmony, the rhythm speak to us of a musical event. These elements are the medium by which the communications come – these elements are the language of the composer/performer.

Beauty is partly the correspondence between the material and immaterial

When we do hear these elements, we verbalize the experience in terms that are similar to other aspects of life. We describe personality traits, emotions, ideas, moods. Often unconsciously our minds are looking for patterns, symmetries, orders, and expressions that will speak to us of meaning. These physical sounds correspond to these intangible aspects of human experience. If there is a shape or trajectory to the experience of hurt in a broken heart, or the experience of awe before a King, it may be that composers can capture something of it in the various elements of a composition. The beauty of the work is partly the result of this perceived correspondence. There is something fitting, right, correct, or profound in a successful work that is beautiful, but to be able to perceive this correspondence, we need another element.

The imagination exists not so much for the purpose of making things up, but for recognizing correlation, relation between things – seeing connections. It is not by accident that we agree that the rhythm discovered in a brisk walk to the podium reflects confidence, or urgency, while a broken rhythm implies indecision, distraction, anxiety. We have experienced the connection between these things so often that we have learned to become fluent in this language.

Imagination is an organ of perception with which we can make this correlation: it pairs the physicality of a perceived music with human moods, characteristics, states of mind or personality. Just as we have linguistic metaphors, we also have musical metaphors. We describe the aspects of music in non-musical terms all the time: loud sudden outbursts may imply anger; melodies can be described as languorous, angular, smooth, tender, demanding, or questioning. These are by their linguistic nature metaphoric – the sounds themselves have none of these characteristics. Music is by its nature disembodied so if we are to speak of what it expresses, we are forced to use metaphoric language. The imagination grasps these relations. Could it be that our imaginations are not “making things up,” as much as recognizing a truth in correspondence? When we find just the right metaphor, when we hit on the right combination and communicate it precisely, it is part of the experience we call the perception of beauty.

The telos of music

Music is thought to be an entertainment, a diversion, a mood-setter, or a time-filler. But for the ancient and medieval scholars, music was a window through which one could see the created order, as well as a way of training the soul toward integrity.

The beauty of music is one of the sources of Plato’s hierarchy of love in the Symposium and in The Republic:

And therefore, I said, Glaucon, musical training is a more potent instrument than any other, because rhythm and harmony find their way into the inward places of the soul, on which they mightily fasten, imparting grace, and making the soul of him who is rightly educated graceful, or of him who is ill-educated ungraceful; and also because he who has received this true education of the inner being will most shrewdly perceive omissions or faults in art and nature, and with a true taste, while he praises and rejoices over and receives into his soul the good, and becomes noble and good, he will justly blame and hate the bad, now in the days of his youth, even before he is able to know the reason why; and when reason comes he will recognize and salute the friend with whom his education has made him long familiar…
…Thus much of music, which makes a fair ending; for what should be the end of music if not the love of beauty?

Plato taught that a love of music instilled a love of beauty that spilled over into all areas of life, leading up the hierarchy to love of justice. Roger Scruton has written, “…beauty is not simply a redundant addition to the list of human appetites. It is not something that we could lack and still be fulfilled as people. It is a need arising from our metaphysical condition as free individuals, seeking our place in an objective world.”

If the telos of music is beauty, how then do we teach music? By training our students’ imaginations, starting with how to hear the elements of music. The elements of Adam were matter and spirit, fused together to make a living soul that reflects the Imago Dei. The elements of music are: rhythm, melody, harmony, form, texture, and timbre, fused together to make a composition that can reflect the ideas, experiences, the very humanity of both composer and listener. Knowing what to listen for, we begin a new way of listening for the student. The ability to discern, to distinguish, to perceive the language of music is the beginning of genuine taste about music, and taste is a facet of wisdom. So music is forming our souls; it really does matter what we listen to, and what we offer in our services, just as it matters what our churches look like, and how our liturgies are designed, not only for didactic purposes – to have our theology correct – but to link the harmony of the Trinity with our daily lives.

So where does music come from? Is there more to music than emotional expression or mood setting?

II. Inspiration

“…I have called by name Bezalel…and I have filled him with the spirit of God, in wisdom, and in understanding, and in knowledge…” Exodus 31:2

The Greek Muses

Many of the Greek writers mention the Muses. Homer, Socrates, and others speak of them, but Hesiod is the one who speaks of the specifics that are commonly held. There are nine:

Calliope – eldest, epic poetry
Clio – history
Erato – love poetry
Euterpe – music
Melpomene – singer of tragedy
Polyhymnia – sacred poetry and geometry
Terpsichore – dance
Thalia – comedy and pastoral poetry
Urania – astronomy/astrology

These nine sing their inspirations. The Muses inspired far more than the subject of music only. Their subjects include all of our human artistic and intellectual pursuits, and the inspiration for each was conveyed by way of song. The very word music is taken from Mousike Techne (“the work of the Muses”). Nearly everything that we today refer to as “the arts and sciences” were, in the Greek mind, inspired through song by the Muses, and that inspiration leads Homer to compose The Illiad, leads Thucydides to write The Peloponnesian Wars, leads Sophocles to write Oedipus Rex, and leads Pythagoras to discover musical harmony and the music of the spheres. What comes is an approach which is so inspired, that is, that resonates with the truth to such a degree, that it will feed philosophers, scientists, and artists for millennia: the prerequisite for beauty is harmonia – the fitting, right, and mathematically sound interrelations of disparate objects. These Nine Muses were the keepers of the secret knowledge of harmony, and the significance of this knowledge and its power and influence over all of life are symbolized by the fact that they are the daughters of Zeus himself.

Beauty can be reflected in painting, sculpture, photographs, but there are arts such as plays, films, and music that include another aspect of human experience: time. As soon as you introduce the element of time, one’s perception of the work requires the ability to remember what has already occurred. Memory thus becomes a significant aspect in the immediate apprehension of these arts. To lose your memory is to lose yourself. If you can’t recall your identity, every effort must be made to rectify the situation. Memory is essential to identity. It is also essential to apprehending music, for exactly the same reason.

Music traces a pattern in the mind that lingers after the music moves on. The memory holds that trace, and the composer counts on our capacity to do so in order to describe the pattern fully. Like words in a sentence, we encounter music as moments in linear succession, but musical patterns are made without words; that is, the pattern is not literal but rather more like patterns in architecture or a garden because they too are each apprehended in succession. The Greeks gave one answer for both the questions: Where does music come from, and what part does memory play in its perception? We know that the father of the Muses is Zeus himself, but we seldom hear about their mother: her name was Mnemosyne (“Memory”). So, for real inspiration, great knowledge, for our right creative gifts to be released to do their jobs, to comprehend the nature of tragedy, epic, history, science, dance, even theology, we need the authority of Zeus, but we also need the knowledge of what has gone before – we need memory. This memory is not only of the previous words and notes in the artwork to which we presently attend, but the knowledge of our own history. What have great artists of the past done? How are we inheritors of their wisdom?

How then do we teach music? History. We need to remember. But there is one more thing to consider.

III. Excellence

“Finally, brothers, whatever things are true,… honest,…just,… pure,…lovely,…of good report, if there be any virtue, and if there be anything worthy of praise, think on these things.” Philipians 4:8

Our day is as much the product of history as any other day. We are the inheritors of a relatively new field of study called aesthetics. It is a modern word, first coined in the 18th century, and discussed at length by Immanuel Kant and others until eventually the whole line of inquiry was relegated to the subjective world of values, to join her sister faith in that limbo. As a result, in the last 225 years, our culture has assumed that beauty first is only a matter of individual experience, and eventually, a matter of purely personal preference. Once the goal is mislaid, it is impossible to gauge whether a work is growing closer to it, so the loss of a telos requires the loss of a concept of excellence. Innovation and technical ability soon take the place of real imagination, correlation, and beauty.

Thus, the loss of what the ancient Greeks and Christians, as well as the Medieval Christians, thought of as excellence in art in general and music in particular is really a modern loss of confidence. The literal meaning of confidence suggests acting con fide (“with faith”). A lack of faith in God leads eventually to a lack of the ability to produce “simple predication” (as Richard Weaver would say). At first we lose the ability to say, “This is the point of art.” Then we lose the ability to say, “That is beautiful and that is not.” Then “that is art and that is not.” And eventually we find we can only say, “There is nothing more to art than the shock of the new; the expression that forces an audience to respond.” Reinstate faith, and we find ourselves led back to a definition of beauty that finds its source in the perfect character of God, and once He is our standard, “better” and “worse” are meaningful categories again. Beauty is the goal of art – I don’t say “prettiness” is the goal – I say beauty.

Then what is this beauty? How many philosophers have run aground making rules about beauty? What we need are not so much cultural standards by which to retroactively judge the beauty of an object; what we need is a useful foundational principle and definition of the word “objective.”

Objective beauty is simply that which is found in the object rather than in the response of the viewer/listener. Thomas Aquinas held that beauty was defined both by the characteristics of the object and the effect that object has on the viewer/listener. Ultimately, the Christian view of beauty will include both aspects in imitation of higher models, but when one’s day is dominated by the subjective side of the spectrum, as we are today, a reintroduction of the opposite side is welcome. We must reintroduce the study of form. When one describes the contours of the piece of music itself, the way it is composed, the way it is performed, the form it offers for contemplation, the meaning of the words chosen, one is describing the object itself, and the resulting opinion offered based on these things should be called “objective.” Don’t make the mistake of hearing “objective” as a synonym for “truth” as some will assume. The truth is far more illusive, and we have hardly scratched that surface with this approach. But what we have done is regained a category for musical discussion that requires thought. What we need is a definition of objective that leads to a fuller understanding of the work instead of considering a work based solely on whether or not we are moved by it. Teaching objectively about music means that we will address three aspects (at least):

Performance (an evaluation of the virtuosity of the performer)
Composition (an evaluation of the means of musical expression)
Content (an evaluation of the message or statement of the work)

All three of these require study, and that study will not only reveal what there is to know about the piece of music in question, but also will hone the sensibilities of the listener to be increasingly able to discern and explicate music. Over time, exposure to this sort of approach feeds our starved imaginations on excellence, and we find that instead of having to tell students not to listen to music that we might consider bad for them, they find they simply aren’t all that interested in the trivial, the base, the coarse. There would be nothing more encouraging for a music teacher than to hear a singer screaming his one-dimensional song of pain and passion, longing to be taken seriously, only then to see his student yawn and change the station.

A Theological basis for excellence

What then would be a basis for a Christian school intent on teaching excellence? We teach that taste is more than personal preference; it is a facet of wisdom. Taste is the ability to discern between what is good and what is excellent. Discernment comes more by way of regular exposure and experience (as a master trains the wine-taster’s palate or the piano tuner’s ear) than with rules and requirements. What is needed is a master teacher who can not only know music but make connections from music, by the imagination through metaphors, to the realm of human experience, and finally to real theology.

Any work of art requires an element of unity and of diversity combined. The Greeks debated about the one and the many, but great works have both elements. The reason is that the Creation itself reflects both unity and diversity in each of its categories (such as tree, fish, man), and we find we are only satisfied when the two are present. Too much unity? Tedium. Too much diversity? Chaos. Why should it surprise us that both the Creation and our tastes are created by a God who is ultimately both perfect unity and harmonious diversity in His Trinity?

The basis for the work of art-making is found in the doctrine of the Incarnation. We are taking invisible things such as ideas, experiences, feelings, and making them perceivable through the various physical media we use (clay, film, stone, paint, music).

Even the basis for an understanding of why we need musical education is theologically based. Our imaginations are damaged by the Fall as well. Through the study of music (or art in general) we grow in our abilities to see connections between things. In modern thought the damage done to our tastes is ignored by simply relegating the entire category of beauty to the dustbin of subjectivity, but a kind of human maturity can come as the result of taking the claims of beauty seriously. The reality is that we are aesthetically damaged as well as in every other way, and the only way back to fuller humanity is through prayer and a rethinking of the definition of taste for His glory.

Education is more than teaching about subjects; it is the training of the sensibilities to love that which is worth loving, attaching the heart to the good. Music has been taught in the Classical and Medieval worlds as a means of shaping the soul to live the good life. We need to rekindle an appreciation for music in that way, rather than offering either standardless popular music or esoteric academic music. I am convinced that if we were to take the connections to our theology seriously we would find we could reintroduce the general public to the concert hall again, as the music there would be relevant again.

So, how then do we teach music? We do it by way of comparison. Compare the works of our composers in the past and the present, and offer the foundation of criteria to evaluate the object, beginning with the performance, the composition and the content. Then, include the aspect of making music, by piano, orchestral and band instruments, and choral singing. The composition makes use of the form and elements of music, and that, with a sense of what the music is saying, leads the performer to his interpretation. It is what makes music meaningful to all concerned.

IV. Conclusions: a sacramental view of the world

“For judgment I have come into this world, so that the blind will see and those who claim to see shall become blind.” John 9:39

The Naturalism that disallows serious consideration of the supernatural has led to many unforeseen consequences, not the least of which is the loss of the spiritual purpose of material things. When Jesus calls himself the vine and us the branches, he has opened our eyes to an aspect of the Kingdom of God, but in speaking so, he has also given a great honor to vines. Without the supernatural dimension in our thinking, we may still have vines, but on closer inspection, we will find that vines have lost something in the transaction. They are somehow less grand.

In the same way, a sacramental view of music grants a special honor and significance to music – a position that allows us insight into the mind of God and his Creation by way of harmony.

The combination of a sacramental view of the world with a holy imagination can feed the soul with visions of the transcendent through the details of the world. This is beauty – the correspondence of the material object with the transcendent spirit – a resonance of harmony heard through the din of the fallen world. Please note I do not say in spite of the fallen world – although it is that at times – but even by way of the fallen world. This is the power of God: to show His harmony even through the elements of brokenness around us.

A sacramental view of the world suggests a metaphoric relationship between the physical and the spiritual, and this in turn gives rich depth to metaphors of all kinds, including musical ones. It also gives us a purpose for art and music: beauty. Beauty is at least in part the recognition of the correlation of matter and spirit, and we need to teach the next generations to unpack those metaphors – to see sacramentally. This requires the inspiration of God the Holy Spirit, the true Muse the Greeks could only guess about, and the gift God gives us of an imagination.

Beauty has lost its way in the 20th century in that we have lost our connection with the transcendent – that is, you cannot have the experience of seeing through the objects of this world into the next if you no longer believe there is a next. Naturalism, that seemed so optimistic in the 18th century, now appears a dead-end intellectually. Nature apart from her Creator becomes meaningless matter, and sadly, human enterprise can aspire to nothing higher than that same soul-less existence. The modern man (and I include the post-modern man in this) is haunted by his own humanity, seeing the ghosts of meaning, significance, ecstasy, profundity, joy, in the daily grind of his life. When he stops to reflect, he senses the musical rhythm in his breathing, his heartbeat, his walking pace; sometimes there seems to be more to eating meals than sustenance; he catches the notion of harmony in a well-run football play; perhaps a momentary glimpse of unity where he most expects diversity, say in his marriage; or diversity where he most expects unity, say in his twin children; he may even lift his head from anxiety long enough to find a certain joy in the rhythm of sleeping and working, or maybe looking back on a long life, discern even a kind of melody in his days, a certain beauty in the rise and fall of his fortunes, each connected in a line to the others in ways that couldn’t be seen while going through them.

This is what music is for. More than simply a means of distraction from the hard aspects of life – like a sort of emotional drug used to deaden us or entertain us while we rest – music has the ability to outline something of the actual experience of living. It speaks of the human condition because it is, like any metaphor, the use of the physical material of this world to draw attention to that which transcends our present moment. It has the ability to both reflect our experiences and shape the way we see them.

Music education then, has the ability to remind us of the relation of this matter and spirit, shaping our souls to love the beauty of harmony. This is why the ancients educated by way of music and gymnastics. This is why music has always held the position it does in the Quadrivium. Musical education leads to a love of harmony in all things.

How do we teach music? The elements, the history, the comparisons of excellent works, and finally the extension of this harmony – which is the beautiful relation of disparate things – to all aspects of life: to justice, to marriage, to virtuous business relations, to love of those who are different than yourself, to math, science, philosophy, and ultimately to the Triune God Himself. The beauty of harmony tunes our affections to virtue, love, and the mind of God.

Music rightly understood cannot save our souls, but what writer and critic Donald Drew has said about great literature applies to music as well, “after experiencing it, there will be more of a soul there to save.”


Works Cited

Plato. The Republic, Book III.
Scruton, Roger. Aesthetics of Music.
_______. “Beauty and Desecration,” City Journal, Feb. 2009.


Tonality Now: Finding a Groove

Published with special thanks to Hilary B. and Kate Miller who made it possible.

The ear is a biological phenomenon; but the human ear is also a cultural product. It has a history, a perspective and an interest of its own. The ear of the modern concertgoer is unlike the ear of a medieval chorister, and both are distinct from the ear of the pop fan who never takes his speakers from his ears. Until we understand this fact we will not be able to address the question that is of such importance to classical music today, which is that of the renewal of tonality.

Some people listen to music; others merely hear it. The assumption on which our musical culture has been built is that people will listen to musical sounds, and listen to them for their own sake, treating them as intrinsically significant. All music lovers listen in that sense, regardless of their taste. This does not mean that listening is a single phenomenon, or that it cannot be changed through education. Just as you can educate the eye to look for the meanings that painters endeavour to put on the canvas, so you can educate the ear to listen for, and to hear, the effects that composers intend.

Animals too listen: they prick up their ears and stand still, attending to the ambient sounds. But they are doing something different from what we do, when we listen to music. They are seeking information. It is not the sounds that interest them, but the things that cause the sounds. Like us, they use their ears to gain knowledge of the world, and the sounds that they make are signals of other things – their emotions, desires and responses. Even bird-song is to be understood in that way. Birds neither sing nor listen for the sake of the music: they are expressing their territorial instinct, and taking note of others doing the same.

When we listen to music it is also true that we are interested in information – who is making the sound, where it is coming from, why it is sounding now, and so on. But those interests are extraneous to the musical experience. A completely unmusical person could be interested in music for those reasons, as could an animal. When we listen to music as music, we are focusing on the sounds themselves, hearing in them a particular kind of life and movement. And this is a far more mysterious thing than at first it seems. Often, if you focus too closely on the causes of the sounds, you lose track of the music. Brahms’s 2nd piano concerto opens with a phrase on the horn, followed by a rising arpeggio on the piano that breaks into an answering phrase. To hear the musical line you have to think away the physical location of the sounds, to forget the man blowing in one corner of the orchestra and the woman striking keys in the other. You must hear the horn summoning that arpeggio, which rises up in the same space as the horn’s melody, but from somewhere below it, presenting its answering phrase in the space vacated by the horn. Where is this space? Nowhere in the physical world. And when we listen to these sounds as music we are focusing on a movement that does not occur in the place where we are.

Only because we human beings are capable of certain special acts of attention do we encounter music in the sounds that we hear. Maybe the tone deaf hear only sounds, and cannot perceive the order that reveals itself to the musical ear. But musical people are listening in another way from the unmusical. They don’t hear through the sounds to some mysterious cause that eludes those with less acute hearing. What they hear lies in the sounds themselves. It is not a hidden cause or a faraway commotion. It is as present in the sounds as a face is present in a portrait. But it is not identical with the sounds, any more than the face in the picture is identical with a collection of pigments. The order we hear in music is an imagined order, and it is only because we attend to the music in a certain way that it is revealed to us.

Listening is not the whole of musical appreciation. There is also playing, singing along, dancing. But in all those activities we find some equivalent of the mysterious process that occurs in the soul of the musical listener: the process that fills a sequence of sounds with movement, life and order. It is in these terms that we should understand our tonal tradition, and also the interest that we bring to it in the concert hall. When playing an instrument you might be the sole audience. Nevertheless, it is your nature as a listener that governs how you play, and even if your body responds to the rhythm so that the movement of the music takes place also in you, this happens because you are a listener, someone who can hold sounds together in his imagination and who can hear the order that binds each sound to its successor.

Undeniably, listening has a history, and a pre-history too. Just how the habit of making and listening to music arose is a deep question, and evolutionary psychologists have offered various not very plausible theories in response to it. In its first occurrence, it is natural to assume, music must have been a social phenomenon – a form of ‘joining in’ through which the tribe experienced in heightened form the solidarity on which it depended for survival. When people sing and dance together they have an experience of ‘belonging’ which depends on no family ties or prior affections, and which therefore can be used to incorporate strangers into the community, to prepare otherwise mutually suspicious people for combat or hunting, and to mark the rites of passage in which the community as a whole has a stake. Not surprisingly, therefore, singing and dancing are universal features of tribal societies, and occur at just the places and times where the need for solidarity surfaces.

This does not, however, tell us very much about listening. The very fact that listening can occur in private, without the experience of ‘joining in’, might lead us to think that it is a late arrival on the human scene, a mark of the separation of the individual from the community, and of the growing ability of humans to put observation in the place of participation. Even if the performer and the dancer must listen to their music, the art of listening without joining is, it might be suggested, a later development, something that did not have to occur, and which supposes a new and more sophisticated attitude to the collective life of the tribe.

Whatever its pre-history, however, listening in silence brought with it not only a new attitude to music, but also a new kind of music. Music began to be written down and worked over; it became established as an art whose products could be repeated and admired in other places and at other times. The movement heard in sounds was now isolated for study, and understood in terms of its inner logic. New complexities arose as people began to distinguish separate but harmonising voices, and in due course there emerged the instrumental, choral and vocal music of our classical tradition, which demands acts of attention that can occur only if the audience maintains a posture of collective silence, and only if the urge to dance or to sing along is suppressed.

It is from those developments that the symphony and the concert arose. And it is not too fanciful, I think, to compare the rise of silent listening to the advent of silent worship in church, temple and synagogue. What must originally have been a collective dance or song in honour of the god became in time a largely silent ritual, in which the presiding priest conducted the ceremony, performed the sacred actions or recited the holy words, whether or not with the aid of a choir. The congregation could join in from time to time, but only in ways specified by the rite. For long moments the ordinary worshippers remained motionless in silence, their eyes and thoughts fixed on the ritual at the altar. The priest mediated between two worlds, the everyday world, and the world beyond, the spirit-world, to which the thoughts and hopes of the congregation were directed. And in due course the question arose whether such mediation was necessary, and whether people could not put themselves immediately in the presence of God, and receive his blessings through pronouncing prayers of their own.

Not surprisingly, therefore, the history of instrumental music and that of the cult of listening are interwoven with the history of the Church and the priesthood. You entered both the church and the concert hall from the world of business, laying aside your everyday concerns and preparing to be addressed by the silence. You came in an attitude of readiness, not to do something, but to receive something. In both places you were confronted with a mystery, something that happened without a real explanation, and which must be contemplated for the thing that it is. The silence is received as a preparation, a lustration, in which the audience prepares itself for an act of spiritual refreshment. This is perhaps one of the most important differences between the concert-hall experience and the Rock concert, in which the audience falls silent, if at all, only because it cannot compete with the noise from the stage. Like a football match, a Rock concert takes place in an atmosphere of excitement. Even if the result is a kind of listening, it is one in which participation, rather than contemplation, is the background sentiment.

In our attempts to understand the place of the symphony hall in our society today we should be aware of that great difference between the symphony and the Rock concert. The first is more akin to a religious service, in which a mystery is repeated in silence, while the second is more like a collective celebration, in which everyone joins in and there is no mystery at all – only life, expressed and accepted for what it is. The music of the concert hall tends to start from small beginnings and work to a climax. It is a kind of reasoned extrapolation of a primal thought, in which the listeners are invited to move and develop with the music, much as they are invited to move and develop with a religious service. Your feelings at the end of a great classical symphony have been won from you by a process which involves your deepest being. In the usual Rock concert, the excitement, and the message, are contained in the very first bar. Rhythm, tonality and the main spurt of melody are thrust immediately into the ears of the listener. There is a ‘let’s go!’ feeling to the music, and an invitation to leave aside all those long-winded and difficult emotions that have hesitation as their initiating mark.

But there are also significant similarities between the two events. In both there is a centre of attention – the people who are making music for the sake of the audience. And in both there is, or has been, a shared legacy of rhythmic, melodic and harmonic devices. While the symphony is more akin to a religious mystery, and the Rock concert to a tribal dance – although a dance that is constrained by the space and by the focus on the stage – both depend on musical movement, melodic progression, rhythmic beat and harmonic closure. The chords that occur in the Rock concert could also occur in a tonal symphony, and while, by the standards of the concert hall, the melodies of Rock music are for the most part truncated and ephemeral, they work in the same way – by bringing the listener into their movement. They work towards closure, and usually the melodic closure is a harmonic closure too, a coming to rest on the tonic of the key.

I don’t say that all Rock music is like that. But such is the paradigm case, from which the many experiments depart. And it is built around the same basic grammar as the great classical symphonies – the ‘common practice’, which extracts repeatable and recognizable harmonies from the diatonic scale. That is the thread by which young people today can be brought to enter, with experimental footsteps, the sacred place of the symphony hall. But first they must take off their ear-phones. And how do we make that happen?

It is not a question of replacing one musical taste with another – something that often happens through education and an expanded acquaintance with the repertoire. It is a question of replacing addiction with discrimination. If you look back at the critiques of tonality articulated by Schoenberg, and subsequently by Adorno, Bloch and others, you will find a repeated emphasis on the ‘banality’ of the common practice. This banality clings not only to melodies and rhythms, but also to individual chords. The diminished seventh, Schoenberg tells us in the Harmonielehre, has ‘become banal’. You just can’t use it any more: its once thrilling effect has gone from it; the chord has lost its aura through too much and too predictable use. (Though people went on using it nevertheless – there are three diminished sevenths in a row in Berg’s great Lyric Suite for string quartet.) It is as though a groove has been worn in musical space, and if you slip into it you are trapped by it, sliding along with no escape. All the effects of the common practice, Adorno argued, have become like that.

The same kind of groove is chiselled in the human psyche by addictions. When rewards are too quickly and too easily obtained, the path to them becomes entrenched and closed against divergence. The addict slips into the groove unresisting, and is carried to the goal without the possibility of escape from it. This happens with substance abuse, with pornography, with the anger-addiction of the Islamists, who slip into the God groove at the first hint of an excuse. And it surely happens with music too. When rhythms, harmonies and melodic lines are taken from a predictable repertoire and offer no resistance to the person who nods along with them, and when the experience is available at the push of a button, a groove is chiselled in the listening part of the brain, and the entrance to that groove lies always open. How to close that entrance? And if we cannot close it, what then?

The first step in the cure of addiction is well known: the addict must confess to his condition and express a desire to be released from it. The various ‘12 step’ programs that have been proposed, in the wake of the pioneering work of Alcoholics Anonymous, all depend upon this first step. And it is this first step that is the hardest to achieve. The pop addict must first be brought to listen to something other than his addiction. And how can that be achieved without removing the earphones? Only if he can be brought into a shared space, and encouraged to listen, with others beside him, to another kind of sound than the one that lies along that open groove, will the process of recovery begin. For this reason, it seems to me, music education must begin in school. It should be one task of a symphony to organize school-day concerts, to show children that there is another and more grow-up way of listening to another and more long-range kind of music.

It is for the same reason that we should refuse to go along with those who disparage the common practice, who say, with Adorno, that tonality is a dead language, which should be learned only as Latin is learned, in order to appreciate the beauties of a world that has gone. We must be prepared to show young people that the coal face from which their addictive songs have been chipped contains other, more beautiful and more interesting seams of meaning, and that behind the glittering surface lie treasures that are worth far more than the superficial dross.

American composers have made their own distinctive contribution to this enterprise. From Gershwin to John Adams it has been normal to take some aspect of the popular music of the day and to show its connection to other and more long-term ways of musical thinking. Just as Gershwin rewrote jazz sequences in the language of counterpoint, so does Adams lift the ostinato four in a bar of the Rock group into an orchestral empyrean, where the flat-footed dance gives way to a gravitationless rhythm that moves and develops with the harmony. Adams uses the tonal language, not to make the kind of profound statement of a Beethoven or a Bruckner, but nevertheless to lift the young ear out of its groove and to make it listen.

If those thoughts have any merit, then they suggest a program of musical education that is still available to us, and in which the American symphony, and the American tradition of democratic openness, can play a vital part. But they also suggest that we should not let ourselves be bullied by the avant-garde into filling the concert hall with original noises and inexplicable sound effects. New music is of course necessary if the symphony is to live. But it should be music in which each note is joined to its neighbour, so that life can move between them and we the listeners move in sympathy too. It is that experience of moving in sympathy, yet without really moving, that is the ‘real presence’ in the consecrated space of the symphony hall. And to lead young people towards it is not only our duty, but also their salvation.

Just for fun

My Sister’s Piano

EDITOR’S NOTE: This essay appears in the author’s book The Classical Moment: Selected Essays on Knowledge and Its Pleasures, published by St. Augustine’s Press in 2014. We reproduce it here with the generous permission of the publisher.

My sister Norma Jean has a Baldwin Grand Piano. She acquired it when she and her husband were living in Phoenix in about 1982. It has since moved to Texas, Wisconsin, Oregon, and twice in Southern California. For ten years before Phoenix, she had a console-type piano. Before that, ever since I can remember, she had an upright piano that belonged to our mother. My mother died in 1937, when Jeannie was about six years old.

And Fran, my mother’s next older sister – my mother had thirteen siblings – told Jeannie that when she was younger, my mother was the only one in the large family who could play the piano. Her parents used to love to hear her play, which she did at family occasions like Christmas and family reunions. This would have been in the big farmhouse outside of Pocahontas, in Iowa.

I can vaguely remember this upright piano. My mother had taken it with her when she married our father. I was old enough to recall her playing in the house on Main Street in Knoxville, also in Iowa, not long before she died. While I am something of a klutz with regard to music, I was given piano lessons while my mother was still alive. I often have wondered, had she lived, whether I would have learned to play. But my sister Jeannie as she grew up inherited the piano. We all knew it was hers. She learned to play. One of our Schall cousins recalled Jeannie playing when she was quite young. She became better and better as the years went by. She minored in music in college at San Jose State.

When, some five years after my mother’s death, my father remarried a lovely widow with two daughters my own age, I recall often that Jeannie would play in the big front room in the Washington Street house in Knoxville. She, with our new stepsister, Jeanne Louise, would sing together at Christmas and indeed often. I can still hear them laughing and singing together. Christmas to me means, in terms of memory, Jeannie playing the songs of that season on that piano that had belonged to our mother. Sounds somehow can make things more real than sight. I recall my father sometimes singing, but never realized till now when I think about it that what he sang was probably from the piano that mother played.

When our family moved to San Jose in California in 1945, the piano was boxed and shipped with the other household goods. In a way, that piano still gives me nightmares. When the truck arrived, it backed into the narrow driveway of the McKendrie Street house. My father, brothers, some neighbors, and the truck driver came to the point of unloading the heavy paino. They used a sort of steel track on which to slide the boxed piano down to the ground from the truck. I was stationed next to the house with some bushes alongside.

As the piano came down, it began to tip off the railings in my direction. I could not hold it up. Fortunately, it fell against the bushes and house, thereby saving Schall, at an early age, from being smashed by his sister’s piano. It taught me a first principle: “You can never be too careful unloading pianos.” If I close my eyes, I can still see the piano tipping over my way. Every human life, I suppose, includes a near-miss or two. We call it luck or providence, no that luck does not fall under providence in a sound philosophy.

After Ordination and my early Roman time, I have been in my sister and brother-in-law’s home almost every year no matter where they were. It is always something close to my being to sit quietly as my sister plays her Baldwin piano. She has collected a considerable amount of sheet music over the years. While she lived in Medford, in Oregon, she used to play in various senior citizens’ homes. She would often comment on the effect of music on those good souls almost too old to remember anything; how they would light up on hearing some song that they knew.

Jeannie plays a wide variety of music – classical, church, Protestant hymns, Irish, western, Spanish, popular, from various decades. As I listen to it, her music always – how else to put it? – refreshes my soul. How very nice to have such a sister who will play for her brother! Jeannie usually knows when the song she is playing was written, by whom, who sang it, what movie or play, if any it was in. Sometimes she will also sing it, if it is sing-able.

Jeannie does much of her own arrangements, which she learned to do from a course which she once took while they were living in Simi Valley. She plays in her parish on an electronic piano. I am not much of a fan of electronic instruments. I cringe when I go into a church for Mass to find a line of electronic guitars and keyboards waiting for me. So I am glad the Baldwin is simply a classic piano, even though her church piano sounds fine.

Over the years, I have often taught courses that include Plato, Aristotle, and Augustine, each of whom wrote a treatise on music. At first, I never took seriously what the classical writers said about music. I was somewhat puzzled by the amount of space that music took in the Republic and in the Politics. Indeed, they said that a change in music will signify a change in polity. What finally woke me up, I think, was the chapter on music in Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind. I have known families who send their children off to rock concerts as if they are just another “entertainment.”

But Bloom too has read Plato. Music is not just another “entertainment.” I often realized while listening to my sister that music does move one’s soul. Listening to her play can change one’s whole mood. As Aristotle says, music will reproduce in us the motions in the human voice under emotion. We are formed by what we hear, whether we know it or not. A disorder in music leads to a disorder of soul. This subtle influence is why Bloom said that the real educator of youth today is not the school or the parents but the music-makers. Robert Reilly’s essays in his Surprised by Beauty on whether music can be sacred have also taught me much. The association of music and divinity is not merely accidental.

By now everyone has noticed that we have a pope whose brother is a Kappelmeister. Benedict himself plays Mozart on the piano just because he loves it. This ability is not a requirement for the Office, I suppose, but it surely does not hurt it. Reading between the lines, one senses that Benedict is rather annoyed by the awfulness that we too often hear in church music in recent decades. Indeed, he says as much. “Is it just a difference in taste?” we wonder. Benedict seems to think that one of the main consequences of revelation is in fact beauty, including, perhaps beginning with, beautiful music.

The notion of the “heavenly choirs” in which we will all participate is, I suppose, both profound and amusing. “You mean all you do in heaven is sit around and sing?” Surely part of the answer is, “Well, yes, of course.” There is probably on this earth no experience quite like singing a Haydn or Bach Oratorio in a large choir with full concert orchestra before a silent, riveted audience. Music is not an occupation but a celebration of something beyond itself. Let us hope, in any case, that the heavenly choirs are closer to Mozart than much of the raucous music we hear. Still, I think of my sister’s piano. It means that any home can have its own music played by someone within it. German and Czech families will often have string quartets midst their members, at least in the days that the Germans and Czechs had children. Eric Voegelin, himself a lover of music, once remarked that no one needs to participate in the aberrations of his time. This is true of music too, something I learned listening to my sister play her Baldwin Grand Piano.


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