|Juan Gris, Violin and Guitar
"If it is true that Mahler's music is worthless, as I believe to be the case, then the question is, what I think he ought to have done with his talent. For quite obviously it took a set of very rare talents to produce this bad music."
--Ludwig Wittgenstein, Culture and Value, p. 67e
* * *
I was delighted to stumble across this post at On An Overgrown Path: Not everyone climbs mountains. I'm somewhat nonplussed to discover that the title of the post is actually a quote from, well, me.
On his excellent The Music Salon Canadian blogger Bryan Townsend wrote:
On an Overgrown Path tells us There is no mass market for classical music. I'm pretty sure of two things regarding that: first, I have known this ever since I got into classical music, so it ain't news and two, that is a big part of the appeal. Not everyone climbs mountains and not everyone listens to classical music.
Bryan's thoughtful response supports my thesis that for two decades classical music has been chasing a non-existent mass market, as exemplified by the strategy of turning BBC Radio 3 into a clone of Classic FM complete with 'info-commercials'. But, and that is very important but, we cannot overlook that classical music is losing traction with audiences to an alarming extent.
Bryan Townsend is right when he says 'Not everyone climbs mountains and not everyone listens to classical music'. But what happens when the lack of new mountain climbers means that the essential guides and Sherpas disappear to seek other work? What happens when the essential fixed ropes start failing due to lack of maintenance? What happens when the routes to base camps are closed down due to lack of traffic? What happens when essential funding for the climbing infrastructure is withdrawn due to the lack of mountaineers? What happens when the mountains are dynamited by BBC Radio 3 to make them easier to climb?
This is exactly what is happening with classical music.
Yes, most sadly true: as the audience dries up, the schools of music begin to shut down, there are fewer role models for young musicians and composers and so on. My comment was just from an individual perspective.
* * *
I'm not sure this is indicative of the above, but English National Opera sacks singers during interval
Singers and musicians at the English National Opera were handed redundancy notices midway through the final performance of its acclaimed production of The Handmaid’s Tale.
Formal redundancy letters, which came following a long-running funding crisis at the company, began to be sent out electronically shortly before the curtain for the final performance of the opera’s run had gone up.
But many of the performers only saw the details of their redundancy during the interval, when they opened the notifications backstage.
Despite this, they went back on stage to finish the performance, winning plaudits from the audience at the London Coliseum.
* * *
Music theory from a mathematics perspective: How many melodies are there?
The equivalent of a writer staring at a blank page, wondering how to fill it, is a composer staring at the 88 black and white notes on a piano wondering how to compose a melody that's never been heard before. How can one possibly take the eight notes of a standard scale and write a brand new melody when so many great melodies have already been written? Perhaps they've all been taken!
So, to counter the fear of there being no new melodies, I thought it would be interesting to examine the number of melodies available to a composer looking at his blank stave to see how many there potentially are.
Follow the link for the answer. But the bottom line is:
So, a mere ten note melody will produce over 75 billion potential melodies of 13 notes within the octave! It's going to take our composer a while to work his way through those.
Of course, composers don't work like this!
* * *
The enjoyment of classical music is dependent on listening skills. If you have only ever listened to three minute pop songs you are not going to find a Bruckner symphony very easy to appreciate. Running parallel with this is the issue of reading skills, which seem to be in similar decline: Why Joe College can't read.
Students also lack reading stamina: They have trouble staying focused on a challenging text. In middle and high school, they read short passages to prepare for tests, but rarely whole novels, Kotsko writes. He links to Peter Greene's lament that students' knowledge of literature "is Cliff's Notes deep, and they may never develop the mental muscles to work their way through a long, meaty piece of literature."
Learning "to follow extended narratives and arguments" is a valuable life skill, Kotsko argues. Young people who can't engage with complexity won't be prepared for the world.
* * *
One wonders Is Philosophy Self-Help? Well, certainly lots of it isn't. But from the titles at least, some of it is, or purports to be.
In the past decade or so, there’s been a flowering of philosophical self-help—books authored by academics but intended to instruct us all. You can learn How to Be a Stoic, How to Be an Epicurean or How William James Can Save Your Life; you can walk Aristotle’s Way and go Hiking with Nietzsche. As of 2020, Oxford University Press has issued a series of “Guides to the Good Life”: short, accessible volumes that draw practical wisdom from historical traditions in philosophy, with entries on existentialism, Buddhism, Epicureanism, Confucianism and Kant.
After mulling over several conceptual models, the author concludes:
Philosophy seeds new concepts, novel understandings—as it might be, alienation, ideology, structural injustice; new ways of comprehending freedom, status, power. Philosophical argument serves more to nurture these concepts and give them life than to establish theorems critics can’t dispute. In Murdoch’s words, “the task of moral philosophers [is] to extend, as poets may extend, the limits of language, and enable it to illuminate regions which were formerly dark.”
Which is not terrible, but it avoids the whole question of truth which is, despite everything, still rather important.
* * *
An economist recently called classical music the greatest (nearly) free gift in life, so let's have some examples. First up, a Mozart string quartet from Wigmore Hall:
Sibelius, Symphony No. 2:
My new favorite harpsichordist, Jean Rondeau with some terrifying Scarlatti:
And a completely different kind of terrifying: the first movement, De profundis, from the Symphony No. 14 by Shostakovich, sung by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau:
Poem by Federico Garcia Lorca.