Death and Transfiguration
Nicholas Cook – MUCIC- A Very Short Introduction
It is often claimed that the tradition of Western classical music is in a state of crisis. But the claim is too sweeping.
It is certainly true that there is a crisis in terms of what is often called 'serious' contemporary music (an unsatisfactory label, obviously, since it implies that music outside the concert-hall tradition cannot be serious), at least if crisis is to be defined in terms of audience statistics. The idea that progressive, new music must by definition be a minority taste - that only an elite will be able to appreciate it - is a historical phenomenon; it goes back to around the beginning of the twentieth century, when there was an explosion of self-consciously 'avant-garde' movements across the arts. The most conspicuous example is painting: reacting against the fossilized conventions of institutionally approved, 'academic' art, young painters developed self-consciously innovative and individualistic styles of work, and published manifestos in which they explained that their work heralded a new artistic movement (Orphism, Vorticism, Futurism, or whatever). And a similar pursuit of innovation spread to the other arts; the Viennese composer Schoenberg, for instance, was extremely self-conscious about the historic significance of his abandonment of tonality (the 'common-practice' system according to which music is organized around a central key or 'tonic'), and his subsequent invention of serialism. He even claimed that it would ensure the dominance of German music for another hundred years (the 'another', of course, is a reference back to Beethoven).
The serial method, which Schoenberg and his followers used from the 1920s, meant constructing music out of the same sequence of notes used over and over again, though it was done in such a way that the results were not as banal or obvious as this makes them sound (so you could use the sequence of notes or 'series' backwards or upside down, you could transpose it up or down so that it began on a different note, and so on). Nevertheless serial music sounded very different from tonal music. Listeners found that many of the familiar musical landmarks had disappeared. And the less the new music sounded like the old, the fewer people listened to it. Those who did listen became highly committed to it; modern music became ghettoized as its audiences became increasingly divorced from those who listened to the mainstream classical repertory. But Schoenberg and many of his contemporaries thought that this
was merely a transient, if unavoidable, phase: the history of music, they said, showed that audiences always resisted the unfamiliar, but in time they got used to it and learned to appreciate it. (Had not contemporary audiences rejected Beethoven's 'Hammerklavier' Sonata and Ninth Symphony?) Schoenberg himself looked forward to a time when, as he said, grocers' boys would whistle serial music on their rounds.
If Schoenberg really believed what he said (and it is hard to be quite sure about this), then it represents one of the most poignant moments in the history of music. For serialism did not achieve popularity; the process of familiarization for which he and his contemporaries were waiting never occurred. Instead, the label 'modern music' stayed stubbornly attached to the music of a period that passed further and further into history, giving rise to the absurd situation that concert-promoters today may reject as too 'modern' a composition that goes back to the time when our grandparents were children. Why did this happen? Maybe it was because composers like Schoenberg (like Birtwistle) believed too wholeheartedly in the nineteenth-century concept of authenticity, and so treated listeners with something bordering on contempt. (Nineteenth-century composers, by contrast, frequently gave listeners precisely what they wanted, even as they proclaimed the high-minded principles of 'art for art's sake'. The same might be said of progressive rock bands.) Or maybe it was because they believed that lack of popular acclaim guaranteed the seriousness and integrity of their work, and accordingly directed their music to a tiny audience of committed listeners, rather than to the public in general; certainly this is what is suggested by the Society for Private Musical Performances which Schoenberg set up in Vienna in 1918, to whose concerts only bona fide members were admitted, and then on condition that they neither applauded nor allowed any report of the music to appear in the public press. Or perhaps it is just that 'serious' contemporary music was elbowed out by a succession of developments in popular music ('light' music, jazz, rhythm 'n' blues, rock, and so on) that brought other types of contemporary music to unprecedented heights of popularity.
There is a sense, though, in which this rather dismal picture of modern music is misleading. I have presented it as a picture of failure, as if the criterion of success was that the music of Schoenberg, Birtwistle, and the rest should come to occupy the same role in our concert halls, record shops, and sitting-rooms as that of Beethoven and Brahms (or Michael Jackson and The Artist Formerly Known As Prince, for that matter). But there is no reason to assume that they should occupy the same slot. I spoke in Chapter 1 of the plurality of subcultures that has replaced the monolithic, institutionally approved culture of nineteenth-century thought. Modern music, or
rather 'modern music', flourishes mainly on the fringes of State subsidy and academia, and sometimes also of the entertainment industry (as in soundtracks for horror movies), but the point is that in those areas it does flourish. It is a niche product, certainly - but then you could say the same about the Beethoven/Brahms tradition. The difference is just in the size of the niche, and the degree of economic leverage associated with it.
In any case, even if the contemporary wing of the classical tradition is challenged in respect of its client base, so to speak, that is no reason for saying that classical music as a whole is in a state of crisis. To be sure, the tradition has become static, in the sense that its centre of gravity does not keep pace with the passing of time; if a few modern masterpieces join the classical repertory each decade, they are counterbalanced by the extension of the repertory backwards into the Renaissance and medieval periods - the field of so-called 'early music'. But this might be more logically presented as a growth than a decline of the tradition. And the development and dissemination of sound reproduction technology means that, on any conceivable statistical measure, classical music reaches an exponentially greater audience across the world than has ever previously been the case. What is more, it is heard in
performances of a quality altogether unattainable by provincial orchestras of the nineteenth century, and perhaps even by those of the capitals; a major reason for such problems as early audiences may have had with such seminal works as the Ninth Symphony. Berlioz's Symphonic fantastique, and Stravinsky's Rite of Spring was
almost certainly that they were played by under-rehearsed, underpaid, and probably puzzled musicians. Since sound recording had not been invented, however, we shall never know for sure.
It would be easy to go on in this vein. Within the last decade, for instance,
• the studiously unkempt violinist now known as Kennedy (aka The Artist Formerly
Known as Nigel) released a video of Vivaldi's The Four Seasons, bringing pop
promotion techniques to the classical repertory; he should probably be held personally responsible for its ubiquitous use today in telephone systems the world over. (How often have you had to listen to a tinny-sounding rendition of The Four
Seasons while on hold?)
• the three tenors - Luciano Pavarotti, Placido Domingo, and Jose Carreras - brought Italian opera into the pop charts following the adoption of their recording of Puccini's aria 'Nessun dorma' as the official anthem of the World Cup.
• the Third Symphony of the hitherto almost unheard-of Polish composer Henryk
Gorecki nudged Madonna out of the charts after being heavily plugged by Classic FM, the London-based classical music station.
• the pianist David Helfgott shot into public prominence following the release of
Shine, a film that traced his long fight against mental illness; audiences flocked to his performances of the classics, though the critics panned them.
But it is not really necessary to cite such exceptional cases in order to show how the music industry has successfully repositioned classical music as a largely profitable niche product - a major niche product - in contemporary consumer culture.
And for this reason it seems to me that rumours of the death of classical music have been greatly exaggerated. Lawrence Kramer, for instance, writes that
It is no secret that, in the United States anyway, this music is in trouble. It barely registers in our schools, it has neither the prestige nor the popularity of literature and visual art, and it squanders its capacities for self-renewal by clinging to an exceptionally static core repertoire. Its audience is shrinking, graying, and overly pale-faced, and the suspicion has been voiced abroad that its claim to occupy a sphere of autonomous artistic greatness is largely a means of veiling, and thus perpetuating, a narrow set of social interests.
And Kramer is by no means the only commentator to express such fears; in 1996 the opera director Peter Sellars even likened classical music to 'a cancer patient or an AIDS patient'. All the same, I think that the diagnosis is not quite accurate. Classical music is not dead, probably not even dying, and certainly not in Europe; GCSE and the National Curriculum have maintained the presence of classical music in British classrooms, and I have already referred to the classical music magazines that have proliferated on news-stand shelves since around the time Classic FM began broadcasting. But what has kept it alive is a dramatic transformation of its social and cultural role - a transformation epitomized by Classic FM, whose practice of excerpting single movements from classical symphonies outraged highbrow critics. The problem is that this transformation has been barely acknowledged in academic (and not-so-academic) writing about music, much of which still attempts to sustain an image of classical music - indeed an image of music in general - that is now beyond resuscitation.
In other words, if there is a crisis in classical music, it is not in the music itself, but in
ways of thinking about it - and it is these ways of thinking about music that form the central topic of this book. In particular, there are two habits of thought which are deeply ingrained in Western culture as a whole and which largely determine the way we traditionally think about music. One might be called the tendency to explain away time; it is this that leads us to think of music as a kind of imaginary object, something (and the word 'thing' is significant in this context) which is in time but not of time. The other is the tendency to think of language and other forms of cultural representation, including music, as if they depicted some kind of external reality. I have mentioned each of these in passing but they need explaining and illustrating at greater length, and so they form the topics of the next two chapters.
And yet, and yet... there are times when music of the classical symphonic tradition does not quite ring
true to me. Isn't there perhaps something a bit forced about Brahms's symphonies, say - at one moment
too noisily bombastic with their parade-ground rhythms, and at the next moment too self-indulgently
sentimental? I don't notice it so much with piano or chamber music (or opera, for that matter); the
problem lies with the public, sometimes tub-thumping, always self-conscious genre of the symphony. I
still admire the music as much as ever. But I used to just love it, and that's the difference, is it that the music is ageing badly, as Kramer fears? Is it because I'm hearing it increasingly critically, in the sense
that I describe in later chapters of this book - as something that isn't just 'natural' but brings with it the
no longer credible values of a defunct society? (Could this have something to do with the
stereotypically gendered construction of the public sphere in the nineteenth century? That would link
with the ideas I present in Chapter 7.) Then again, is it because in these days of public-sector
stringency the need for all those dinner-jacketed musicians seems too willfully extravagant, by
comparison to the lean efficiency and flexibility of today's pop groups, or early music groups for that
matter? (A lot of people find the subsidized extravagance of the opera house offensive.) Or does it
come from seeing the music on television, where those intrusive close-ups of the musicians crowd out
the music's own values (why else do we speak of 'seeing' it?), reduplicating what is already in the
sound and so rendering it banal? Could it even be a result of the shortening attention spans that conservative commentators blame on sound-bite politics and television commercials? As if nobody
could really take in anything longer than a four-minute pop single nowadays? (But then, conservative
commentators were making the same sort of complaints about the modern world back in Brahms's