Saturday, July 21, 2012

Music and Aspiration

One learns so many things reading Taruskin's Oxford History of Western Music, a recurring theme in this blog. For example, music in the 19th century tends to encode the values of the society. It was a time of the growth of the middle class in both prosperity and education. More and more music was written to appeal to the aspirations of this class. In some ways the way music functions in society today is still based on the changes that took place in the 19th century. The public concert series, whether of individual recitals or orchestral concerts, is an artifact of the 19th century as are all the attendant phenomena such as artist's management, subscription sales and even touring. Paganini and Liszt were the first soloists to tour extensively. Here is some Liszt to show why audiences were so enthralled.

The virtues and values of the middle class such as individual aspiration to success were reflected in the 'heroic' contrasts of the 19th century concerto--as so often, prefigured in Beethoven's concerti. This short excerpt from the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto is a good example of the individual soaring over the mass.

The subjectivity created and nurtured by the romantic trance that so much 19th century music expresses is part of this: to be truly individual you must go into and consult yourself and music such as Chopin's nocturnes is a vehicle for doing so.

This is an enormous topic and you could write books (and people have) on the precise ways in which 19th century opera encodes and expresses middle-class values. Other books have been written on what is called the "reception history" of music. Individual pieces such as Beethoven's Symphony No. 9 have a history of how they have been received by audiences that is as interesting as the work itself. The European Union, for example, has chosen the big theme from the last movement of this symphony as their supra-national anthem:

But all this backgrounding is because I want to ask, what does the music of today tell us about our values and virtues? Sure, that would make a nice book or series of books, but since this is a blog post, let's just take a quick run at it. For that reason, I'm going to skip 'classical' music entirely here, though I might do another post on it later. Let's look at the top ten songs for July 2012:

Well, that was...uh...interesting. The number two song I have already blogged about and it seems to be the most interesting one both musically and in terms of expression. What most pop music is about is fairly simple.  These songs are about wanting to party, go on vacation to beautiful beaches, oh yes and to BE beautiful and to be with someone beautiful--like Justin Bieber. Occasionally they are about waking up to your life, like the Katy Perry song. Incidentally, she has another song, "Part of Me" in which she breaks up with her cheating boyfriend and joins the Marines. That's an unusual aspiration in terms of most pop culture:

But it is the Gotye song that attracts my attention and I don't think it is just because I have heard it before. It has an original and appropriate video production and deals with the difficulties of having a relationship. Incidentally, "Gotye" is pronounced the same way you would pronounce "Gauthier" if you were French.

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