IV. The Five S’s
In classical circles, we’ve spoken with hushed reverence for over a hundred-fifty years about the ‘Three B’s’: Bach, Beethoven, Brahms (though when first coined it was ‘Berlioz’, not Brahms) – a shorthand for the ‘essentials’, the canon, the meat and potatoes of classical repertoire, without which there would be no reason to return, again and again, to this endlessly rewarding artform. One might wonder why these three rather than others (especially Brahms), but even today this triumvirate well represents the three bedrocks of Classical Music as we still think of it: pre-Enlightenment Sacred Music, Viennese High Classicism, and Nationalist (particularly German) Romanticism. And for all its achievements, there is not a single composer or musical movement among the Three B’s twentieth century successors that supplanted The Three B’s in the public imagination. For classical music, the 20th century is still an aftershock from the reverberations of more seismic periods.
Even so, that simple fact has never stopped classical musicians from waging an endless variety of idiotic ideological battles; atonalists fighting against tonality and both fighting against aleatoric music, historically informed performers fighting against traditional performers when they’re not fighting among themselves. It’s difficult to stop the thought that these battles seem like the desperate attempts of a certain type of music lover to avoid the one simple musical fact of our time: the music we call ‘classical’ is obsolete to new developments - the world has long since left classical music behind. In a hundred years, it’s highly likely that no one will listen to much by Boulez or Stockhausen or Cage, because there probably are/will be free jazz musicians, electronic musicians, conceptual artists, who have/will have made music which sounds almost exactly like theirs, only better and without all the ideological bullshit which accompanies them. In a hundred years, no one will care whether Bach is performed after the manner of Gustav Leonhardt, Karl Richter, or Joshua Rifkin. The fact that Bach will survive at all into a completely different cultural age will be its own victory and is by no means guaranteed.
For a century or more, endless ink’s been spilled over ideological battles that matter only to academics spoiled by tenure and the students coerced into pleasing them. The only factor keeping these fights so vicious is the lowness of the stakes. If these questions were of any consequence to the larger world, the infighting of the ‘classical’ world would have long since ceased.
Politically and socially, many classical musicians would like to think themselves on the vanguard of progress. But whether or not they choose to acknowledge it, the simple fact that they choose to belong to the world of acoustic instruments like the piano, the orchestra, the choir, means that they are the very paragons of arch-conservatism in today’s music world. Anyone devoting themselves to classical music at any point past World War I is proclaiming allegiance to something that by its very definition is a preservation of the past. Who needs to learn to read music, to master theory, to perfect an instrumental technique, when music just as potent (perhaps more?) can be made by someone who can barely carry tune and can play three chords on a guitar. THAT is the progressive point of view. In the twentieth century, to insist on any greater credential than a shade above incompetence is to be the very model of a conservative. I do not say that with disdain, in fact, it’s a welcome development. After the 20th century, great music is no longer the exclusive prerogative of obesessives who spend entire lifetimes honing their technique. The result is much great music-making that is less melodramatic and more balanced.
Whether or not one agrees with that statement, what can't be denied is how electronics changed music forever - moreso than any development since musical notation. From the time music began to be written down, a thousand years of ‘art music’ evolved over the centuries, honed with ever greater complexity, accumulating ever greater knowledge of how to create formal structures, harmonic ingenuities, rhythmic patterns, and instrumental colors. But with the invention of electronic recording, everything music once knew had to be forgotten.
It was a reset button, and in an instant a millenium’s worth of accumulated knowledge of what music was capable of expressing was erased. By 1925, an entire library of the musical greatness you heard in the concert hall could be heard by you and millions of others in your own homes: and for the first time, records could let you experience soul-stirring depths which you once either had to make for yourself or travel for hours to the nearest concert hall – all with a mere flick of a few switches and dials. For deeper experiences, you could hear entire Beethoven symphonies and near-complete Verdi operas. For lighter-hearted moments you could hear the Russell Hunting Co. perform Gilbert and Sullivan. For brasher ones you could listen to John Philip Sousa lead his band, and if you were really feeling wild you could listen to Scott Joplin play his hits.
But no invention does precisely what its inventor intends. Eventually, the creation gets away from the creator. Along comes Louis Armstrong and after 1923, everything which we thought we knew about music we no longer know. For the first time in modern history, you don’t have to have a good voice to sing well. You don’t have to have any new harmonic ideas, so long as you play old ones with lots of spirit and rhythm. You don’t even need to compose anything! All you need to do was play what you felt at any given moment within the framework of a few chords, and your work is done. It’s less labor intensive, yet it just might be more meaningful than any result that comes from decades of exquisite conservatoire training.
For the first time since Beethoven, the rules of music were completely rewritten. And it’s highly possible that Pops rewrote them far more completely than Beethoven ever did. What were ‘real’ musicians to do? One day, the high priests of Beethoven and Wagner woke up to find themselves transformed into monsters, no longer venerated, no longer thought by the world to be the purveyors of Holy Art. Art, once something only achievable by a chosen few who must undergo decades’ worth of initiation, was now something expressible by anyone. The world’s most aristocratic pursuit was now a democracy.
As in all grieving processes, it took a long time to move on – many still haven’t. In 20th century classical music, I can count five fundamental reactions to the ascendance of the ‘amateur’, all completely different from one another, yet all corresponding disturbingly well to Kubler-Ross’s five stages of grief, and each stage can be explained by a particular composer. What we now call Classical Music has left people behind at each stage of the process. Only in recent decades has it shown any sign of moving on. But ‘classical music’ will not, cannot, move on, until the people left by each station’s wayside move on with it.
S1 – Denial – Sibelius.
(Tapiola – his final work before the thirty year silence from Ainola)
Until the end of World War II, Jean Sibelius was the world’s most venerated living composer. Yet from 1927 until his death 30 years later, he did not publish a single note. From the success of the 1890’s until his silence in 1927, the music of this Romantic Nationalist firebrand grew ever more hermetic, ever more expressive of nature (rather than human beings), and ever more inwardly focused, until it simply dissolved into silence.
What made Sibelius stop composing? Was it the pressure of being the final hero among living great composers? Was it the changing climate of contemporary music? Was it simply the fact that he had achieved the ultimate success and needn’t ever struggle to write another note if he didn’t want to? The world will never know.
What the world does know is that Sibelius spent his thirty year dotage on his state-granted estate in Rural Finland – never issuing the Eighth Symphony which he’d promised the world. After World War II, the esteem of other musicians dropped precipitously. Sibelius, once thought the epitome of progress, was derided by more avant-garde musicians as a musical Antichrist. Yet until his death, he still had a large – but older – following, always ready to proclaim him as one of music’s true titans – eager for the new work that never came.
It’s hard not to see the entire story of 20th century classical music in Sibelius. The music that was once so venerated became a museum; worshipped by an ever dwindling band of admirers, derided by more progressive types as reactionary and stodgy. Yet the museum never closed. Sibelius, like classical music itself, is still just barely a force in world music; hobbling along on the musical stock exchange, waiting all too patiently for a new generation to take notice and buy futures – yet there are legitimate doubts that anyone ever will. Actually, Sibelius’s stock has come back in recent years, but like classical music, it is for qualities which nobody noticed in him during his heyday (more on that in part V).
Among the descendents of Sibelius number all those blue-haired listeners who would like to turn back the clock on every development which classical music underwent since it ceased to be the world’s dominant music. The rest of the world moved on, but in many concert halls, the world is precisely as Sibelius left it, still waiting for his eighth symphony.
S2 – Anger – Schoenberg.
(The Golden Calf, from Schoenberg’s Serialist Opera, Moses und Aron, said to be Schoenberg’s depiction of the idolworshippers who worshipped a God other than his. Re: almost all of us.)
In 1923, the same year that Louis Armstrong began recording, Arnold Schoenberg explained to his pupils his new system of composing, the serialist, or ‘Twelve-Tone’ composition in which no note may be repeated until the other eleven have had their chance. He promised that this system ‘would ensure the supremacy of German music for another hundred years.’ a statement all too reminiscent of another Austrian… Like this other Austrian, he considered himself the carrier of ‘a prophetic message revealing a higher form of life toward which mankind evolves.’ He claimed Mozart and Brahms as important musical ancestors, but his mission was far higher than any to which they professed. I could line this section only with egomaniacal quotes from Schoenberg, who was, in his artistic way, every bit as authoritarian as any brownshirt; brownshirts assaulted persons, Schoenberg assaulted individual creativity, and there are graveyards filled to capacity with the unachieved promise of composers and their students who felt compelled to write music like his.
Like all the authoritarians of the Austro-Germany from which he hailed (and whom, one must acknowledge, reviled and were reviled by him), he detested modern permissiveness. Anything in music that smelt of inclusiveness was an accommodation to the mob. He regarded any deviation from his beliefs to be an appeasement of a monolithic evil, and that evil was popular taste. Among the descendents of Schoenberg numbers any music lover (usually to be found in academia) with a positivist, Hegelian view of music, which believes that any music – be it ‘classical’ or ‘popular’ – built on principles which differ from Schoenberg’s, or Webern’s, or Boulez’s, to be inferior. Also among his descendants number any number of academic dogmatists who insist that a certain way of performing music is the only correct one, or that only a certain type of training and systems of analysis is legitimate. These are all quintessentially modern form of religious fanaticism, a modern religion for music lovers who could never deal with modernity.
(A Survivor from Warsaw)
Like many of his compatriots, Schoenberg was a German nationalist who only realized where his authoritarian leanings would lead when they were turned on him. He had an uncanny prescience about the Holocaust, warning friends about the coming reckoning from the moment Hitler ascended to power. There is a true greatness to Schoenberg’s music, but it is a narrow greatness, which is obsessed with confronting the horrors of his epoch on their own terms yet admitting none of the joys. I have no idea what Schoenberg thought of Adorno’s statement ‘To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.’ Yet I can’t imagine him disagreeing. In the world of Schoenberg, there are no consolation, only the reward of having seen mankind’s beastly nature for what it is. To see music through Schoenberg’s eyes is to see a world without saving graces.
S3 – Bargaining – Stravinsky.
(The Ebony Concerto. One of Stravinsky’s brilliant, if somewhat condescending, responses to Jazz)
Like all classical musicians, all five of the composers listed here have at least a foot in previous eras even as they live in our own. But by embracing other eras so fully as Stravinsky did, he seems to have at least begun the process of acclimating classical music to our own time.
In many ways, Stravinsky was not a composer in the traditional sense. So much of his material is based on the material of others – folk songs, the work of other composers, the techniques of other historical periods – that he represents perhaps the first of an entirely new kind of composer. Just as so many great ‘popular’ artists gained much of their power from reconceptualizing material written by songwriters for hire, or arrangers, or other singers, Stravinsky gained his power from reconceptualizing material of other composers. His early pieces gain much of their power by shaping Russian Folk Songs in modernist casts, Stravinsky then moved on to recast the work of any and every composer, seemingly from every period, every genre, every style – Pergolesi, Tchaikovsky, Bach, Woody Herman, Perotin, Monteverdi, Gesualdo, Hugo Wolf, even Schoenberg. Stravinsky provided classical music with a door to the future through its past.
But what about the present? If Sibelius was the last living composer-hero, then Stravinsky became the last universally known composer – his picture forever adorning the covers of Life Magazine. But even, especially, at the height of his fame, Stravinsky was not a figure of the present. He was an old Russian aristocrat living in Beverly Hills, a living link for Americans to a culture that no longer existed.
Igor Stravinsky initiated classical music’s transition to the 20th century, but he by no means completed it. His method was to bargain with older sources, extracting what he could out of them for a new lease on intellectual life. But it was to some extent an artificial, ‘refrigerated’ (to use Leonard Bernstein’s word) life. The rearrangement of the old, however clever, is no substitute for the invention of new material. In spite of the super-charged energy of his Russian period, there is nothing about Stravinsky’s methods which bear the stamp of a truly revolutionary wind. That revolution Stravinsky was supposed to signify was to be found elsewhere.
Among the descendents of Stravinsky are all those ‘classical music hoarders,’ Hoarders like me. Collectors who savor every individual detail in every different performance and recording we hear of works we know better than our own families. If there were no new music, we could spend our lifetimes dwelling in the museum of the past and not miss anything, because we can forever discover newer, smaller details than ones we had noticed before, every one of which deepens our understanding of music we already know too well.
S4 – Depression – Shostakovich.
Dimitri Shostakovich, the bleak black heart of twentieth century music, forever caught in the web of Stalin’s Soviet Union, a place of constant isolation and grief – an artificial cultural 19th century in which no one could express their feelings openly.
The freedom of Western music was not an option for Soviet musicians, where one could be shot simply for owning a Western record. Shostakovich, like many of his listeners, was a man hopelessly forced to remain inside the 19th century, and therefore was coerced to access the power of its music on a level which (in my opinion) no other twentieth century composer could approximate. Earlier I wrote that Sibelius was the last composer/hero, but that’s not quite true. In Eastern Europe, where no other artist was allowed the freedom Shostakovich was to speak so candidly to their listeners, Shostakovich was perhaps an even greater hero than Sibelius.
Shostakovich may have written like a 19th century composer, but he was very much a man of the 20th century. However, it was not OUR 20th century. If given his freedom, Shostakovich might have been greater than ever, or perhaps he would have been merely another minor master like Hindemith or Honegger. Shostakovich was trapped in an authoritarian world which looked at the developments of the West, of America, of modernity, with horror. The permissiveness, the liberalism, the freedom to express individuality enjoyed by so many in the 20th century was offset by people who wanted to create a society based upon all the authoritarian shackles (and then some) which Western countries had shaken off so successfully.
Among Shostakovich’s descendents are all those musicians, administrators, and music lovers, who feel trapped by classical music. Few if any of us have reason to suffer on the level of those in Stalin’s Russia, but many of us feel trapped in a mausoleum built in a former era which has no way to progress because we are filled too greatly with the dead ghosts of music past.
S5 – Acceptance – Steve Reich.
‘Classical music’ is no longer the music which dominates the world. It’s not even a first (or tenth) among equals in today’s ecology. In sales, it is a mere 2% of the market share, and would be much smaller without compilation albums like ‘100 Relaxing Classics.’ Its most innovative musicians count themselves lucky to find a sympathetic audience 2% the size of their rock and R&B equivalents. For an innovative ‘classical’ composer, great success means an enthusiastic world following of a couple thousand people.
In today’s world, classical composers are simply musicians who have chosen to create music in a more antiquated manner than others. Their rewards of decades of instrumental, theoretical and compositional study will never the adulation of millions, or hundreds of millions of dollars. Today, people become composers not because they want their music to change the world, only because they love classical music so much that they cannot imagine life outside of it. Next to the greatest musicians of more popular genres, even the best of us are probable footnotes in both the newspapers and posterity.
Like every other musician, we in 2012 America live in the free world, and we ignore its developments at our own peril. File sharing, both legal and illegal, gives us access to every conceivable technique to make music which the world has yet thought at the click of a mouse. In a climate such freedom, the sole limit to a musician’s creativity is their fortitude and imagination – and what limits those can be!
We finally have arrived in the second part of classical music’s decline, its re-acclimation. Thanks to Philip Glass, Terry Riley, and especially Steve Reich, classical music finally moved into the 20th century, and takes its seat in the contemporary world of music, sounding not altogether different from other musical genres. Its aims, and its achievements, are not on the grand scale of Beethoven (or of The Beatles), but it does have a place of its own in the modern world.
And now comes the hard work of bringing ‘Western Classical Music’ back into the mainstream of musical discourse. More and more often, we see that ‘popular’ musicians have classical training. Occasionally, they’re even influenced by classical music. But the lessons of Bach and Beethoven are still so far from the mainstream of today’s good music that the larger world would barely change if they were no longer performed at all.
But… perhaps one day, sooner than we know, some composers will come along that will re-establish the composer as music’s dominant voice, and will integrate all the musical developments of the 20th century into a thousand years of developments beforehand. If that ever happened, this composer can point to Steve Reich as a model of a composer who for half a century developed his inner voice with ever greater nuance and individuality, bucked all dogmas, and began the serious work of making ‘classical music’ relevant once again to its own time.
Whether or not they realized it, all five of these composers were conservatives in the musical climate of their day. It was the simple act of composing in an era when the very idea of composition as Mendelssohn defined it was so dated that made them so. But only now that many classical musicians have accepted our genre’s secondary status do we have a chance of moving ourselves back into the mainstream. How do we do that? That’s for later parts of this post…