The death of modernism? Or of classical music? Or just as we know it?
Who are the mourners, and what is there to mourne?
Martin Kettle claims in this article in the Guardian, based on a recent book by the South-African musicologist Peter van der Merwe, that the death of classical music was caused by modernism, but that the classical tradition has now “come up for air, and is asking the right questions”.
The right questions?! What questions?
The questions that fill up concert halls, perhaps. “Certainly, we need something else to attract a commercially viable audience than Stockhausen or Schönberg, those boring, puffed-up — Germans.”
Or the questions that may legitimize the building and maintenance of cultural temples, shrines (or memorials?) of a culture originating in European court circles with a shifting emphasis on enlightenment and despotism, continuated as a bourgeois class marker for a class who wanted the power it signalled but failed to understand its theoretical underpinnings and the consequences of the aesthetics developed by its performers.
Why do we want a popular classical music scene in the first place? Surely, the performers want it, but the audience? Do we need it?
Or to put it differently: if what we need is just what we like, the popularity rate itself is a sign clear enough: the general public apparently needs a whole lot of other genres more than it needs classical music. End of story.
But if what we need is what we may not like to know? Or weren’t aware that we needed? That we may learn something from, gather experiences that are potentially important to us, to lead a better life, a life that is better for ourselves and our fellow human beings?
A music like this may never become popular, but it may be important that it is available, as an option for those who search it out. Modernism, the alleged murderer of classical music, had a goal along these lines: seen as an exploration of the human condition, it has a seriousness about it that is anti-popular, god bless it. It may not have been without flaws in this respect (either), chief among them the preposterous belief that it had answers (instead of just posing questions for the audience itself to find answers to), the air of superiority towards popular music that is so pronounced in many of the main modernist thinkers (and van der Merwe has a point that is more than just rhetorical, saying that the emancipation of the dissonance went hand in hand with a suppression of consonance), and the self-sufficient tendency to lose sight of the role music has or might have outside the world of music itself, which has contributed strongly to the death both of modernism and classical music.
These are serious flaws, and I’m not out to defend modernism. But the solution sounds too simplistic: that classical music needs to become popular — to speak a language the masses understand. That standpoint is not only arrogant and patronizing concerning the judgement and abilities of the people who make up these masses, but in the end it also macdonaldizes instead of leaving to simmer over low heat for two hours to bring out the subtle flavours of a tournedos, enhanced by laurel and sage, tomatoes, carrots, and celery.
Supersize me, Stravinskij!