Bert Bailey wrote:
>In short, Kundera sees the widespread ignorance of contemporary classical
>music, our era's near complete indifference to it, as rooted in this
>trend and the shape that it took -- all curiously arising from the
>strength of Bach's music.
>Any views on this by those more learned about such historical circumstances?
>Anyone care to speculate about what may have prompted this loss of faith
>or confidence in the work of our contemporary composers?
This is a long post...forgive me...
A disclaimer...I won't say I am more learned...but this subject interests
The first question in my mind has to do with the notion of the veneration
of the past...and what makes that possible. One needs to preserve the
past if one is to rediscover it. I think of turning points like Petrucci's
printing of the Odhecaton in 1501.
The other notion that comes to mind is the sense of a need for order,
and order which can be conveyed. To this day...in most harmony and
counterpoint books, Bach's music is used to define common practice. Are
those basic concepts natural to our expression as humans. Many composers
and theorists believe they are, since much of what we call common practice,
can be seen as an outgrowth of the application of the natural overtone
series, where the first intervals one encounters are the octave, fifth
and third. However, in some ways, the music of someone like Palestrina,
is actually more "pure" in this respect...keeping in mind that the major
patron of music of that time, the church, placed some signficant
restrictions on the use of "dissonance." The importance of the interval
of the third being used to support the doctrine of the trinity.
Historically, the tritone...is the devil in music.
One might wonder why these notions arose...perhaps there is something
inbeded in our culture that supports these notions. Yet those same
relationships are not as valued in other musical cultures. While I have
not done any sort of systematic study, reflecting on my own exposure to
world music, the interval of the fifth seems to be a more universally
accepted basis for music than the interval of the 3rd...which would seem
natural for, in the overtone series, the fifth comes before the third.
Did the reintroduction of the music of Bach lessen the interest in the
music of Mendelssohn? No.
I would also question if there is a loss of faith in our composers of
today...there is such a wide range of expression to be found today that
I believe it is not as easy to generalize as we did back in the late
50's and 60's when, supposedly, serialism was king...yet we had many
composing tonal music. Perhaps there was a loss of faith when serialism
was king, but, I do not know why. Was it our changing attitude to art
music...seeing it is only being for "pleasure." or, was art music always
for "pleasure?" Did it have to do with the increasing costs of making
music which had art music being marketed as something for mass
consumption="pleasure?" At this point I usually insert that wonderful
quote from Koussevitzky where he warns about the notion of art music as
being a consumable...a notion made possible by its easy availability for
For me, the defining point in history, as per this "loss of faith," has
to do with Beethoven. In spite of the many highly critical reviews his
music could get, he was generally regarded as a master in his own time.
However, Beethoven had this "attitude." It seemed to me that Beethoven's
love of music and his belief in the power of its expression was so strong
that the expression of the composer became more important than pleasing
the audience. From my perspective, it is that notion, either conciously
or subconciously, that changed the course of music. But one also needs
to consider it was point in history where the rights of the individual
were being considered over the rights of the nobility.
It was a curious time...we still had an aristocracy which believed
training in music to be a part of being educated. In Beethoven's time,
increasingly, music was growing...consider the Third Symphony and its
length and instrumentation...it is unlikely some Count could have the
forces at his personal disposal to perform such a work...this is, of
course true for earlier works, but the Eroica was, for me, a statement
that the music was truly the domain of the composer.
To fully explore this, one would need to have more knowledge than I have,
and look at the changes in society, marketing, etc. The changes did not
happen overnight, but were slow in developing, but my own perspective,
based on my own experience and knowledge, suggest that from that time
on, composers seemed to be pushing the envelope of expression at a faster
rate of speed.
The next major break, seems to me, to have occurred as a result of the
political developments in Europe at the beginning of the 20th Century.
Perhaps in reaction to the notions of the Victorian era, and its hypocrisy
(denial of the basic instincts of our species), perhaps thinkers looked
inward to figure out that obvious contradiction. Perhaps in part that
led to political unrest, but for sure, it did give rise to some very
creative thinking and works which challenged the very nature of expression...
Schoenberg's Five Pieces and Stravinsky's Le Sacre, being amongst the
better known. For me, Stravinsky was saying..."hey folks...civilization
has come a long way, but lets not forget, we are still pretty primitive
creatures"...even if he did say it in some pretty sophisticated terms.
Lets face it, Stravinsky wasn't exactly a Baptist.
As to what happened after that...I look to the devastation of Europe in
both wars...how could artistic expression not reflect that horror, and
in many ways, looking for order at the same time as rejecting the "order"
which did not keep things "in order."...yet, the audience is not interested
in being reminded of that horror. The old ways didn't work, but why?
It seems to me that Freud was looking for answers, not on the level
of the macrocosm, but on the level of the microcosm, the mind of the
Please somebody shut me up...but to conclude...thank God...I don't believe
art music, or anything else can be viewed in isolation from the society
which gave rise to its creation. Similarly, I believe that "good"
art...not wanting to open that door...what is good art...will be relevant
to a society that is disposed to it.
As long as we see the function of art to be escape, or a "source of
pleasure" I doubt much of what was written in the 20th Century will be
appreciated. While some of Beethoven's music was the result of living
in times of great disillusionment, he always brought a sense of nobility
to his writing, somehow giving the notion that our species was ultimately,
good. I believe that, with art music, these days, being seen as something
that is supposed to give "pleasure," music that does not provide that
sense of "we shall triumph" or "they lived happily ever after" will not
be valued by many.