My Views on "Classical" Music, Vindicated

Last August I wrote this:

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).

Then, this:

My litany of off-putting things about most “classical” music written after 1900 should have included dissonance, atonality, and downright dreariness. Music can be serious, but it needn’t be boring or depressing or just plain unlistenable. But a trip through the list of 20th century composers turns up relatively few who wrote much music that’s endurable. Among the many 20th century specialists in sheer boredom or cacophony are John Adams, Béla Bartók, Alban Berg, Pierre Boulez, John Cage, George Crumb, György Ligeti, Olivier Messiaen, Arnold Schoenberg, Igor Stravinsky, and Anton Webern.

Martin Kettle, writing in today’s Guardian, draws on Peter Van der Merwe’s Roots of the Classical: the Popular Origins of Western Music to make the following points:

[Van der Merwe] reckons that by 1939, the year of Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez, the flow of music that is both genuinely modern and popular had all but dried up. Van der Merwe nods towards Khachaturian, late Strauss and the Britten of Peter Grimes – and, er, that’s it. For the general public, he argues, classical music ceased to exist by 1950.

There will be an interesting argument about when and where the line can be drawn. That it can be drawn somewhere (1940, 1950 or 1960 hardly matters) is, however, beyond serious dispute. At some point in the past half-century, classical music lost touch with its public.

At the start of the 21st century, we can see what went wrong more clearly. What went wrong was western European modernism. Modernism is a huge, varied and complex phenomenon, and it took on different qualities in different national cultures. But an essential feature, especially as Van der Merwe argues it, was to turn music decisively towards theory – often political theory – and away from its popular roots.

The pioneer figure was Arnold Schoenberg, with his theory of the emancipation of dissonance (which, as Van der Merwe cleverly points out, also implied the suppression of consonance). But it was after Schoenberg’s death, in the period 1955-80, that his ideas achieved the status of holy writ.

The upshot was a deliberate renunciation of popularity. The audience that mattered to modernists (even the many who saw themselves as socialists) ceased to be the general public and increasingly became other composers and the intellectual, often university-based, establishment that claimed to validate the new music, not least through its influence over state patronage. Any failure of the music to become popular was ascribed not to the composer’s lack of communication but the public’s lack of understanding.

Not surprisingly, the public looked elsewhere, to what we are right to call, and right to admire for being, popular music. This embrace started in the early 20th century with ragtime and jazz and reached its apex with rock’n’roll, whose great years belong to that same period, 1955-80, when modernism ruled in the academy….

Classical music survived, after a fashion. But it has less to say about today. It endures overwhelmingly on the strength of its back catalogue and performance tradition, not of any new creativity. Having failed to persuade the public to embrace modern music, it has sustained itself only by rediscovering the music of earlier epochs and – though this is arguable – by learning the lessons of the modernist deviation.

I would draw the line much earlier than 1950, and I would certainly exclude the ponderous pair of Richard Strauss and Benjamin Britten from the list of “serious” composers who wrote in a popular style. Antonin Dvorák (1841-1904) was the last “serious” composer to do that consistently. After Dvorák, only George Gershwin succeeded very often in writing music that was both new and popular.

Can “classical” music make a popular comeback? Kettle has this to say:

[I]t is no longer anathema for composers to embrace popularity. The influence of American composers, for whom popularity is not a dirty word, and of composers from national traditions that survived the modernist onslaught (the Argentinian school, for instance) is perhaps a way forward. Van der Merwe, for one, believes that it is.

Classical music’s second coming, if it is to have one, could hardly be better timed. The popular music that once filled the place…vacated [by classical music] seems in turn to have largely burned itself out. Here, too, creativity is at its lowest ebb since the early 50s. The space awaiting good new music of any kind is immense.

But at least classical music has come up for air, and is asking the right questions. This is more than can be said of some of the visual arts, where the dislike of the public remains as striking and juvenile as ever. Even this, though, will not last. The need to create something beautiful that excites the public and goes beyond its experience is too strong to be frustrated indefinitely. It would just be nice to think it might resume in our lifetime.

It would be nice, but I’m not counting on it. “Serious” music and art are dominated by the academy. And the academy — for all its socialist cant — scorns “the masses.” Academicians (and their fellow travelers) would find it hard to maintain their air of mysterious superiority if they were to produce works that “the masses” could actually comprehend.