Thursday, May 4, 2017

Classical Music Strikes Back!

No, wait, that's not it! What I want to talk about is an address delivered by John Kersey and published at the Future Symphony Institute.
WHY DOES TODAY’S WESTERN ART MUSIC strive so conspicuously for cultural relevance? Why are many of our university music faculties more concerned with cultural theory than with applied music? Why have we lost confidence in historical and applied models of musicology, and moreover in the tonal tradition that forms the basis of the greatest musical heritage known to mankind? In this talk, I will trace the roots of this malaise over the past century. I will explore the ways in which an explicitly Marxist agenda has caused Western art music to abnegate its past, and in doing so, to render itself marginalized in comparison to popular music of chiefly African-American origin. I will also show how political influence has played a large part in the contemporary perception of the Western musical heritage as elitist and thereby culturally taboo.
Yep, he tells it like it is.
The theme of the replacement of an organic order with one that is artificial and man-made is not a new one in modern ideas. The idea of cultural struggle, in which an established order is subverted by direct opposition, is likewise familiar. These are Marxist concepts and should be seen as such. Let us be clear; the nineteenth-century crisis of tonality was manipulated for propagandistic purposes as part of a much wider cultural crisis in which Western civilization and culture and their established order came under direct attack from Marxism. The revolution that brought about atonality and serialism was the same ideological revolution that deposed Europe’s crowns and that, at its point of greatest early fulfilment, led to the Communist ascendancy in Russia. As one of its architects, Georg Lukacs, would write, “Who will save us from Western civilization?”
Even though this perspective is carefully avoided in histories of music, and this is certainly a simplification, it is pretty much what happened. You should read the whole thing, but his conclusion is particularly worthy:
To listen to and to play or sing Western art music is now a counter-cultural act. It is an act of profound rebellion against our politically correct Cultural Marxist zeitgeist as well as being a source of pleasure, moral and spiritual improvement, and enhanced appreciation of the connection between the human and the divine. Let us not be afraid to relegate pop music to its proper place, to embrace our Western art music heritage and to resolve to make it a central part of our lives as educated men and women.
That's kind of how it feels, doesn't it?

The social, cultural and aesthetic content of, say, Mozart, is pretty much a repudiation of everything the 21st century claims to be true. This is the "Dissonant" String Quartet, so called because of the harmonically mysterious introduction to the first movement. The performers are the Borromeo String Quartet.


Anonymous said...

Good speech from a true music scholar! But I wish he'd addressed two points:

1. One can't blame Adorno and his pals for everything. It's a bit more complex than that. For example, one needs to explain why the US government sponsored atonal music while the Marxist regime in Moscow favored the tonal kind.

2. The second point is that contemporary classical music has not produced any talent of quality remotely comparable to the giants of the past. Why is that? Adorno can't be blamed for that because there are tons of musicians composing in the traditional classical style. Is it that our era is talent-poor or that the style has run out of steam?

Bryan Townsend said...

Yes, very good comment. This is what I was hinting at when I said that this was a "simplification". The situation is very complex with, as you say, the CIA supporting the avant-garde Stockhausen while the Soviet regime wanted more tonal music for the people. The situation with Schoenberg is complicated as well, as he was very convinced that he was simply taking the next logical step.

As to whether there are any figures in contemporary music who are comparable to the ones of the past, we might know that in a hundred years or so. Look how long it took to recognise Bach's stature. Can we really say that no-one, not even Shostakovich or Prokofiev or Steve Reich or Esa-Pekka Salonen or others are of any significance? I don't think we can, not yet.

Christopher Culver said...

This article is deeply problematic.

First of all, the claim that classical music makes its listeners better people should have died with the Holocaust, when a nation deeply attached to classical music was able to commit unspeakable atrocities. Classical music can certainly train a person's ears, but to suggest it imparts any moral qualities is utterly groundless.

Of course, some classical zealots will say, “Classical music is capable of making its listeners better people. It’s just that those listeners weren’t listening to it in the right frame of mind!” Well, now you are just making religious claims that you can’t expect anyone else to take seriously. As an analogy, consider taking Communion; this author’s own faith claims that the Eucharist makes people better, more godly, etc. Now imagine someone who has regularly taken Communion does terrible things in cold blood. His fellow Catholics will rush to say “Well, he just must have not taken the Eucharist sincerely or with proper preparation!”, but everyone outside the confines of that religion is going to scoff at see those rituals as so much empty make-believe. This is just how classical music ideologues look like to people outside Prof. Kersey's ideology, even to most classical listeners!

(It’s also funny for the author to hold himself up as a defender of the general Judeo-Christian tradition, when his insistence on the edifying properties of classical music is very much a Traditionalist Catholic thing. Eastern Christianity is quite insistent that any secular art form is mere entertainment at best.)

Secondly, the author severely hurts his own cause in not only claiming that classical music is inherently more worthy of appreciation, but also outright disparaging other musics. I don’t know any classical listener under the age of 40 who doesn’t have a vast range of tastes beside classical, and as I’ve said here before, data from suggests that virtually no one listens to classical music exclusively. The people who are drawn to classical music these days are the sort of listeners always on the lookout for new sounds, and you are only going to drive them away if you suggest that getting into this art form requires taking on all kinds of historical-religious baggage along with it.

Furthermore, classical music has a chronic inability to pay for itself. The author of the article might mock the avant-garde for receiving “government funding”, but classical music at at least the orchestral scale has always required private patronage if not state subsidy, as ticket sales just don’t cut it. Now consider that the rising generation of affluent people you depend on to keep your beloved art form alive are likely to be those of very wideranging tastes. Alienate them with pronouncements like Prof. Kersey's, and they might just take their money elsewhere.

Finally, this article, like so much published at Future Symphony, is just so much raging that other people are listening to music you don’t like instead of listening to the same music you like. If you had a friend who was constantly knocking what you listen to, even as you are happy he gets so much pleasure out of his own library or concertgoing, then you’d probably consider him a right bellend. Screeds like Prof. Kersey's are the very same behaviour.

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks, Christopher, for this thorough response. He pushed your buttons a bit, didn't he?

The problem of the Nazis being lovers of classical music has been a nasty burden for classical music for the last seventy years. Does it entirely wash away any notion that different kinds of music might exist on different moral planes? The problem for the new musicologists, I think, is that they are the first ones to claim that no music exists in isolation, it is always related to a social context and possibly an ideology. If one accepts that, as I do, to a point, then I think you logically have to accept the notion that people can have a morally ambiguous relationship with music. They can be hypocrites, in fact. Just like a big time rock or country star dressing in ripped jeans and singin' about his beaten down life while making millions of dollars a year, we can imagine the Nazis listening to Beethoven (though Hitler was a big Lehar fan) and then killing Jews the next day. They were hypocrites.

The fact that some Christians are, in fact hypocrites and do not practice what they preach does not invalidate, I think the moral qualities of Christianity.

That's the only part of your argument I want to answer.

Christopher Culver said...

Incidentally, if you read further about “Prof.” Kersey, not only is he involved in a Caribbean-registered (Dominica) diploma mill, but so many of the qualifications he claims also come from dodgy institutions registered in Costa Rica and the like. I know that his message that classical music matters pleased you enough to repost his article, but surely you could have chosen a less unsavory advocate for these views.

Bryan Townsend said...

This is the first thing I have read by the gentleman and certainly don't want to endorse everything he has done. But I thought that he made some interesting points in the talk. Sometimes I put up stuff just to get a discussion started, but I never am sure what is going to spark a response. I don't want to establish litmus tests for everyone whose opinion I quote!