Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Elegance in Music

Over at Greg Sandow's blog this morning and he has a post up poo-pooing the idea that Baroque music was refined and elegant. Greg says,
...we see much of the problem that classical music has these days — it’s out of touch with reality. So many people want it to be refined and elegant, more so than the world we live in. But to do that, they pretend that it was refined and elegant in the past, when clearly it wasn’t. Which means they’ve falsified classical music’s history, and made it lose touch with its own reality.
How can we, given all this, believe that the musical performances were elegant, or refined? They must have been as full-bodied — as lusty — as everything going on around them.
Which means that Jacobs is right to turn the music loose. When we pretend that things were refined and elegant, we falsify the music we’re playing, and lose a chance to connect with the lusty world around us. 
 Greg gives lots of solid examples of the turbulent and lusty way operas were performed in the Baroque--all quite true. But then he takes a giant leap by saying that music "in the past" was not refined and elegant, i.e. all music. But we want classical music to be refined and elegant now which puts us out of touch with reality, both the reality of now and of the past. But hang, on, isn't this a bridge too far? Does no one ever non-falsely compose, perform or listen to music because it is elegant? Now I realize that the word 'refined' is very nearly obscene these days, having as it does the aroma of elitist condescension, but I hadn't realized that 'elegant' was suffering the same fate.

As a composer, I hope to have a wide palette stretching from rough and energetic to intimate and elegant and with, hopefully, a hundred shades in between. According to Greg, it seems that I'm only allowed to write and perform music that is "full-bodied" and "lusty". Well, sure. I'm just starting to write a last movement for a suite and I'm hoping to make it very full-bodied and lusty. What I'm objecting to is the odd idea that this is the only game in town. If I write something, oh no, not refined, perish the thought, but something elegant, does that mean I have falsified classical music? Or myself?

I think that some few people at least, look to music, at least at times, for an intimacy, an expression of beauty and elegance that is sadly missing from much of the world. Let us not condemn them for it. After all, as Mozart's life and music both demonstrate, you can be lusty at times and elegant at other times...


Anonymous said...

I think Greg makes an important point about differences in performance settings. Today, a concert hall is like a church or a museum, not like a dance hall or a cabaret. It was not always so and to point out this fact is very useful.

But performance conditions and music are two different things. Concert-goers might have been loud and vulgar and distracted, etc, but the musical compositions were still refined and elegant, if such words have any meaning. I do not not know of any western music that is as refined, complex, elegant as Bach's music.

What does "refined" mean then? Give someone a guitar for Xmas and teach him the chords C,F,G. Now tell him to practice them and come back in a month with a "composition" based on these chords. OK, a month later, if he's gifted, he'll come back and play a lovely little tune. Regardless of its elegance and loveliness, we can agree it will not be refined, because there's only that much refinement you can get with I,IV,V (no sevenths please!)

Now suppose he was joshing you all along and in fact studied composition for 10 years, so he comes back and play a 6-voice fugue that modulates through all 12 keys (wait, is that even possible?) Never mind, say it is. And then say you happen to find that piece supremely elegant and captivating. Now that will be refined music! Complexity applied for a purpose is what will make it refined. And whether he plays that piece at Carnegie-Hall or in waiting room at Penn Station will not make an iota of difference regarding its refinement.

Bryan Townsend said...

Oh yes, as I think I said in a comment over on Greg's blog, his point is well taken. There was a serious campaign in the US during the 19th century to prevail upon audiences to sit quietly during concerts instead of wandering around, commenting to their neighbors and so on. The campaign was successful and now we have concert hall etiquette that is usually observed. But the contrast with performances of popular music is now very stark and I'm sure a lot of people feel too constrained at a classical concert.

But I always feel that Greg goes overboard making his points and he did so in this case.

Good stab at a definition of 'refined'. "Complexity applied for a purpose" is a good phrase because it rules out "complexity just for the sake of complexity" which is usually bad.