Making Sense about Classical Music

ArtsJournal.com recently ran a 10-day blog, “Critical Conversation: Classical Music Critics on the Future of Music”. It “tackled the question what/where/are the Big Ideas in classical music?” The blog “involved 13 prominent American music critics.”

One of the critics, Greg Sandow of the Wall Street Journal, is also a composer. Sandow’s home page is here. It includes a link to a page about his “Quartet for Anne” (his wife). You can hear it performed by the Fine Arts Quartet by clicking here. (It’s only about five and a half minutes long.) If this is the new direction of classical music, I’m all for it. It’s a hauntingly lovely piece reminiscent of Antonín Dvořák’s work.

As I’ve written before and will write again, Dvořák was one of the last great composers of the golden era of classical music, which began around 1700 and came to an end around 1900. What happened after that? Another participant in the blog, Kyle Gann of the Village Voice, had a few useful insights:

Throughout the 20th century, each new movement represented an advance in complexity and abstraction over the last. Serialism brought that process to a dead end….

[O]ne thing that composers of my generation have almost universally lost patience with is the presumption of historical inevitability. The idea that 12-tone music was the inevitable music of the future and that anyone who didn’t learn to write it was “useless” (Pierre Boulez’s word) left a bitter taste in our mouths. [Just as Boulez’s so-called music left a bitter taste in audiences’ mouths: ED]

But Gann and most of the other bloggers are hung up on compositional techniques; fusions with pop, rock, and jazz; experimentation with electronic music; the role of gender; the role of political ideas; the influence of Chinese composers; and on and on. All of which misses the point.

What happened around 1900 is that classical music became — and still is, for the most part — an “inside game” for composers and music critics. So-called serious composers (barring Gershwin and a few other holdouts) began treating music as a pure exercise in notational innovation, as a technical challenge to performers, and as a way of “daring” audiences to be “open minded” (i.e., to tolerate nonsense). But the result isn’t music, it’s self-indulgent crap (there’s no other word for it).

Thus I return to Greg Sandow, who is on the trail of the “next big idea” in a post headed “Truly big classical ideas”:

A new Big Idea would be very welcome, at least to me — a reintroduction of performer freedom, but to what now would be considered a drastic degree. You can find examples of this in old recordings, especially by singers. Look at Ivan Kozlovsky, one of the two star tenors at the Bolshoi Opera during Stalin’s rule. To judge from films and recordings, he’s clearly one of the greatest tenors who ever lived, measured simply by technique, breath control, range (all the way up to an F above high C, with Cs and C sharps thrown out like thrilling candy), phrasing, and expression….

But what makes him most unusual — and, to many people, quite improper — is that he sang at least some of the time like a pop singer, using lots of falsetto, almost crooning at times, and above all taking any liberty he pleased, slowing down and speeding up as the mood suited him. To my ears, he’s mesmerizing when he does that. You can’t (to bastardize an old cliche) take your ears off him. And when he does it in the Duke’s opening solo in the duet with Gilda from Rigoletto, he nails the Duke’s character as no other singer I’ve ever heard could do. You don’t just theorize that the Duke is attractive to women; you feel it, and want to surrender to him yourself. Or, perhaps, run away, which is exactly the kind of dual reaction a man like that would really get….

[Kozlovsky is] in part just a sentimental entertainer. But what sentiment, and what entertainment! And what perfect singing. When he croons “O Mimi tu piu non torni”…, some people might roll their eyes at the way he slows down at the peak of the phrase, but you can’t ignore his genuine feeling, or his perfect control as he slowly dreams his voice into the lightest of pianissimos.

Singing like that would be absolutely forbidden in opera today. No teacher, no coach, and no conductor would let any singer try it. And yet, if someone stepped out on the stage of the Met singing that way, the audience would go insane. The applause wouldn’t end. And opera would come back to life.

When I follow Sandow’s point to its logical conclusion, here’s where I arrive: Classical music, on the whole, would come back to life if more composers were to reject self-indulgence and write music for the enjoyment of peformers and audiences.