Friday, March 14, 2014

Layers of the Onion

My posts on the popular vs the classical, which try to look at things from various angles: historic, aesthetic, ideological, even economic, often provoke a lot of commentary. In response to some recent comments I want to explain that some of my thinking comes from the knowledge that we have a lot of assumptions that we have picked up that we need to peel back, like layers of an onion. For example, there are a whole lot of ideological positions that were adopted during the 19th century having to do with the role of the composer as sage, oracle, revealer of the transcendent and so on that were quite novel. That is, they should not be applied backwards to 18th century composers like Haydn and Mozart. Then too, there were a whole different set of ideological assumptions that came along with modernism and the avant-garde that were also novel. These included ideas like maximizing complexity, music as scientific experiment, technical innovation and so on. Again, we should be careful that we are not extending these assumptions backward in an anachronistic fashion.

My post of a couple of days ago on "Popular Culture and High Culture" inspired some heated commentary which I recommend you go and read. I really appreciate people who are serious lovers of classical music. In fact, if someone asks me if I like classical music sometimes I answer, "no, I'm more of a hard-core classical fanatic. If you look up "classical snob" in the dictionary there is a picture of me, grinning evilly!" Sometimes I mutter that there are only five composers worth listening to: Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Shostakovich.

However, I am interested in every aspect of music, including its history and ideology. One of the most interesting things about music is in fact what we might call the history of the ideology. One of my commentators wrote this: "While I don't advocate romantic ideas about artistic immortality necessarily, and I don't think many composers actually attempt to write for history as you say, it is a noble pursuit." I think this is an excellent example of the romantic ideology surrounding composition. It is not surprising that this view should linger as it was during the 19th century that music achieved probably its greatest stature in society. People really did think that music manifested the transcendent Will (in Schopenhauer's view) or the Spirit of the Age (in Hegel's view). This was the ideology that inspired works like the Mahler symphonies.

Where the confusion comes from, I think, is that the noble intention of the composer is no guarantee of the aesthetic quality of the results. Mozart may have tossed off his "Linz" symphony in four days while on stopover there, simply because they needed something for a concert that was announced on his arrival. But this does not mean that the work is less good aesthetically than, say, a symphony by Bruckner that was written with the most profound intentions over a period of years. The New Grove describes Bruckner's symphonic writing like this:
Bruckner created a new and monumental type of symphonic organism, which abjured the tense, dynamic continuity of Beethoven, and the broad, fluid continuity of Wagner, in order to express something profoundly different from either composer, something elemental and metaphysical.
Ah yes, the elemental and metaphysical! These words make me philosophically suspicious as this is what people say when they want to convince you that what they are talking about is profound and "good" because it is profound. These words are not an argument, they substitute for an argument. What does it mean to say that a piece of music is "elemental and metaphysical"? I have no idea: do you?

Let's listen to Bruckner's Symphony No. 7:


And Mozart's "Linz" Symphony:


The Mozart is half as long, written in four days, but it is not half as good aesthetically.

5 comments:

Nathan Shirley said...

Your March 13th post makes an especially good point about how the majority of what we now consider classical music was originally part of popular culture. Bringing up Paganini and Liszt are great examples. These two could easily be considered the first major international pop superstars, akin to Elvis or the Beatles. And yet Liszt was one of the main proponents of the romanticized ideology of composition you mention. He was also one of the main proponents of unbridled chromaticism, some of his later works even begin to sound a bit like the Second Viennese School (but usually much better).

Even Beethoven, consciously writing for posterity, could be considered the first commercial composer, having broken the rule that composers are servants of the court or church. So in a way Beethoven was a very savvy businessman who very much pandered to popular demand. But he obviously wasn't compromising his artistic ideals in the process. He laboring away at every note when he could have simply dashed off mediocrity for a quick buck.

So not only is it possible to create high art that is attractive to the masses, it's more the norm. People like to talk about artists who toil away only to die in obscurity, but these are actually the exceptions.

Bryan Townsend said...

Very good points, Nathan. It is one of the most interesting ironies or contradictions of romanticism in music that the main proponents, such as Liszt and Robert Schumann, were both dependent on the buying power of the middle class AND committed to a romantic ideology that stressed that the composer must adhere to artistic ideals that should limit their appeal to a minority of listeners.

Both Haydn and Beethoven wrote music at the highest levels of aesthetic achievement, but didn't they also both do some hack work as well? I'm thinking of those innumerable Scottish folksong arrangements.

Bridge said...

"… committed to a romantic ideology that stressed that the composer must adhere to artistic ideals that should limit their appeal to a minority of listeners."

Sort of simplistic way to look at it. There is of course never anything that says somebody must do anything unless you live under tyranny, even if that were the case Romanticism is hardly a movement that strived for intentional esotericism. It's just a matter of the musical Zeitgeist evolving over time and changing the majority of composer's priorities, it's not as if early romantics said: "Ok, now that the popular Classicism is over now we enter esoteric Romanticism which must be reserved only for the worthy." That is arguably the case with certain ultra-academic modernist movements and certain "popular" genres like metal and pseudo-progressive rock, but it just didn't happen that way. The way I see it there is nothing ironic about composers writing music they believed in and probably thinking other people would believe in perhaps inadvertently alienating the general population. Unless of course you look at Romanticism as being a forced development, which I don't.

Nathan Shirley said...

"but didn't they also both do some hack work as well?"

Yeah sure, as did most composers. I'd even go so far to say that while most of their music was carefully constructed and usually has interesting moments here or there, it's still often uninspired overall. But that top 10% or 5% is truly divine. And by and large audiences embraced it right along with those less inspired works.

There are plenty of interesting exceptions where audiences rejected masterpieces, but these were the exceptions.

There are even accounts of factory workers in the Soviet Union humming bits from the latest Shostakovich symphony after hearing it in concert the night before, and I don't think that was ALL simply communist propaganda.

Even The Rite of Spring after its chaotic premier, immediately became hugely successful in popular culture.

Slightly off topic, but of all composers, I might say Chopin maintained the highest level of consistent excellence.

Bridge said...

Chopin is certainly a good choice, though unfortunately I can't quite call myself a diehard fan. I find his unrestrained style of composition and dense piano writing to be a little tiring, though not as much as Liszt. By no means am I saying these composers are bad, just that I can only take so much personally. I have to be in a specific mood to be able to binge on Chopin, though I do go through such phases every now and again. I'm tempted to say J.S.B. is the most consistently excellent composer, though the majority of his music I either haven't heard (yet) or consider simply "ordinary Bach." Still, it is music that is somehow always appropriate and welcome and always exciting, though likewise I cannot listen to too much at a time. One gets tired of anything after a while but his style, which Bernstein called "argumentative" (dealing with one idea at a time and not offering striking contrasts as later classicists and romantics did) does tend to lose its flair after a few hours. It is hard to argue that it's not consistently excellent though.