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CLASSICAL  December 2008

CLASSICAL December 2008

Subject:

The Agonies of a Modern Musician

From:

Steve Schwartz <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

Moderated Classical Music List <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Wed, 10 Dec 2008 12:57:03 -0800

Content-Type:

text/plain

Parts/Attachments:

Parts/Attachments

text/plain (63 lines)

Music After Modernism

Samuel Lipman
New York: Basic Books. 1979.
ISBN-10: 0465047408
ISBN-13: 9780465047406

Summary for the Busy Executive: A snapshot of musical history.

The late Samuel Lipman was one of the few serious music critics in this
country.  By "serious" I mean a philosophic, aesthetic analyst of classical
music untied to the chore of newspaper reviewing.  He wrote for Commentary
and also helped found The New Criterion, conservative both aesthetically
as well as politically.  I very seldom agreed with Lipman, but I have
to admit at the least that he asked the big questions, that he knew both
music and cultural history both widely and deeply, and that he assigned
a social importance to art other than entertainment.

Lipman began as a pianist, a student of Rosina Lhevinne and among other
things the soloist in the New York premiere of Elliott Carter's 1965
piano concerto.  By the time he wrote this book, he had given up an
active solo career.  Much of this book originates, I think, in that
letting-go.

The book mixes large cultural currents with quotidian details.  Its
thesis runs as follows: Modernism has come to a dead end.  Audiences
don't like Modern music, for the most part, although here and there one
finds exceptions that have made their way into general consciousness.
Performers don't usually perform modern works, and have little communication
with composers, mainly because they can't make a living playing anything
other than the Romantic chestnuts.  As a result, serious music lives so
at the margins of culture that those who consider themselves in the thick
of things usually know very little of contemporary work, and there seems
to be no way forward.  Western classical music is at this point dead,
doomed to constantly resuscitate the increasingly remote past.

Of course, Lipman wrote all this almost thirty years ago, and for its
time, it counted as a fairly acute assessment.  Things, as they say,
change, both for the better and for the worse.  On the one hand, meaningful
contemporary music has generally failed to penetrate the culture at
large.  Classical music of whatever period also fails, and its failure
is only relatively less.  Performers, who according to Lipman took center
stage in public consciousness of classical music (Yo-Yo Ma, rather than
Elliott Carter), have also become less vital.  On the other, certain
composers, like Reich and Adams, have connected with more listeners than
usual.  Indeed, against the odds, they can make a living from their
works.  Furthermore, the hegemony of post-Webernian twelve-tone music
has given way to a healthy eclecticism.  We judge music less on a priori
grounds these days.  A few new performers - Lang Lang, Hilary Hahn, among
others - have long-term recording contracts and even sell.

Lipman erred by falling prey to despair.  Unquestionably, the classical-music
world cannot continue on its old models, and it has begun to reinvent
its way.  It's had to.  We still have plenty of reasons not to congratulate
ourselves yet, but we also have reasons for hope.

Steve Schwartz

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