The death of classical music?

Guardian Unlimited | Arts features | Classical music could even become the new rock’n’roll

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!


4 thoughts on “The death of classical music?

  1. what a topic. the possiblities for discussion are endless. however, i feel that a huge part of the problem consists in pigeonholing: classical music as such is not a very clear term, of course, meaning (presumably) music that to a large part is written down before played and usually arranged for instruments that have been around for some time.
    yet, stockhausen (working with electronic instruments a lot) is classical, while part of mingus’s work (like “the black saint and the sinner lady”) was composed (with improvisational parts)and arranged for more or less traditional instruments, is categorized as jazz. stravinskij, if he used the same harmonies and rhythms (which is not altogether unlikely) would nevertheless be classical.
    probably the only real distinction are the places the music is played (anything that is fit for the musikverein/the scala/ the met; not that they care too much about contemporaries)
    apart from the linguistic paradoxon of a “contemporary classical” music (as opposed to classicist, which in turn is apparently not too much appreciated) the whole idea of the death of art comes from people who have no ideas themselves (or do not want to listen too closely anyway), and has been proclaimed for decades. and this is not to speak of the grotesque notion that one has to tell an audience what they like.

  2. i want to add one more statement on my general view of art, that might be necessary to elucidate some things that have only been implied in my previous post: i do not at all think that all art is the same, yet i am opposed to extreme pigeonholing. it’s more important to try to understand the aims and merits of certain works of art within (or without) certain limits. that is, where does the artist transcend the boundaries of similar (but lesser) works of art. the basis for that sort of criticism is knowledge rather than emotion. while the emotional response to a work of art (be it mozart, melville or monet) is important, in my opinion it is much more effective when combined with some sort of theoretical background. (from correct grammar to the idea of dodecaphony to the clichés of the romanticist novel)… there is much more to great art than can be explained by theories, but it is my belief that the appreciation of art can (and most often will) be substantially deepened by trying to understand how it works

  3. I completely agree with you concerning the pigeonholing, and also concerning the institutional framework for judging art and – in this context – ascription of a work to a particular art form. To paraphrase the institutional theory of art (presented by Arthur Dickie and George Danto), art is what the artworld considers to be art, where the artworld is the institutions and the people involved in the institutions (critics, theorists, but also concert goers and gallery visitors), and so the institution of “classical music” decides what is “classical music”. This is much too brief to do the theory justice, but as an outline it will do.
    I don’t think there is anything wrong in this in principle – what good would it do Mingus to be played in a philharmonic hall? – other than when it comes to funding and that kind of general political issues.
    I have a slight problem with your statement that “the whole idea of the death of art comes from people who have no ideas themselves (or do not want to listen too closely anyway)” – that, imho, is too rash. I may be correct in many cases, but “the death of art” has also been a concern for people who fear, e.g., that the gap between the in-crowd and a more general audience has become so wide that the connection – in either direction – has broken. I don’t think that a performing art can thrive if it is not at all concerned with an audience, but I don’t think that is entirely the case, and if it were, I won’t lament its death.
    To your second post, I can only say yes. That’s partly what I’ve been trying to do with dylanchords too – to attempt to give theoretical explanations, even of a kind that may not be common in this field (popular music). Yet, there is the problem (if it is a problem): if a deepened understanding of the aesthetics behind, e.g., a sentimental, crying-baby kind of picture makes me unable to enjoy it aeshtetically (because I see through it, or because it no longer fulfill the standards I expect from a work of art), is that a loss?

  4. i was quite unhappy with the death of art part of my posting as soon as i had posted it. what i was referring to is that for ages people (not least among whom artists) have been whining on about it. but unwillingness to try to comprehend new or different forms of art makes people overlook things.

    as for the last part of your statement, i don’t think it is a loss at all. i even believe that there are feelings that are sort of “second rate” because they are originated by things that when regarded more closely fail the test. at first glance, this may sound negative, but since the bliss i experience from profound and complex art is more intense when i see the patterns beyond the surface, i am happily leaving the other stuff behind.

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