Tuesday, September 10, 2013

"High Art for the Elite"

Now and then I like to drop in on Sinfini, an online classical music magazine, to see what they are up to. Journalist Paul Morley writes a series for them and the current article is about his discovery of the string quartet. Mr. Morley started out managing punk bands. He neither reads music nor plays an instrument, but for a BBC documentary spent a year at the Royal Academy of Music trying to learn how to be a composer.

What sparked this post was a little blurb about his series on the string quartet:
Late in life, Paul Morley has finally discovered the joy of the string quartet. For years he had assumed it was ‘high art for the elite’; in short, the string quartet had an image problem.
I guess if you come from the punk rock milieu, then anything that is "high art for the elite" is going to rub you the wrong way. But when did this become the norm? When and how did the idea that anything that was high art or for the elite become cursed? After all, as many have noted, being of the elite in, say, the sport or academic world is highly valued. If you are the best pitcher in baseball or the best tennis or golf pro, you receive high praise and big bucks. But if you are the the best string quartet or pianist you are sneered at for just that. You have "an image problem".

There is a very strange inversion going on here and I am puzzled as to the source. Who benefits from this pulling down of high art? And why does music seem to be picked out for special treatment? Those who would scoff at Beethoven are not likely to do the same at Leonardo da Vinci or Goya. After all, the great painters are surely also purveyors of "high art for the elite" but disparaging them is rare while putting down the great composers seems to be cool. Why do only they have an "image problem"?

However, it seems that Mr. Morley comes, not to bury the string quartet, but to praise it. Let's take a closer look at his introduction to the string quartet. Here is how it begins:
I began to realise that following the history of the string quartet was a way of roughly tracking the history of classical music, from the very first composers who conceived the format, and made up the abstract rules and regulations, through the adjustments in economic and artistic context between the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 20th century, through every important, innovative composer since. It was also at the centre of the classical experience, because a composer experiences the writing of a string quartet both as a technical exercise, enfolded inside a relatively fixed set of parameters, a fundamental inherited framework, however elastic, and also as a chance to dream of the fantastic, to add to the vocabulary and the style without straying so far that it ceases to be a string quartet.
So far so good? Well, not really. As in most journalism, this is woven from half-truths and misunderstandings. When journalists try to explore a world they are not familiar with for the sake of enlightening the masses, what they mostly communicate is confusion and cliché. The history of the string quartet is a poor way to "track" the history of classical music because it is a late-comer: the string quartet dates from the 1760s which means that it comes after about 700 years of music history in Western Europe.

The first composers were really just one composer, Joseph Haydn, and the last thing he would have thought of doing was to make up "abstract rules and regulations". The so-called rules, which are really more like formative principles, were only sorted out in retrospect. Composers don't follow rules much when they compose. But Mr. Morley's prejudices about classical music makes him believe that this is how it works. And, of course, there were lots of "important, innovative" composers who composed little or nothing for string quartet--Stravinsky, for example.

True, a composer may choose to write a string quartet as a "technical exercise", indeed most have probably done so while students. But once they become real composers, they do not do that sort of thing. Working within a "fundamental inherited framework" is really a student activity.

So, virtually ever statement in this opening paragraph is wrong. That doesn't bode too well! The errors continue:
For 50 years, between the 1750s and his death in 1806, Haydn wrote 68, establishing the model that would influence Mozart.
As I mentioned before, Haydn's first string quartets date from the 1760s, not 1750s and he died in 1809, not 1806. Also, he did more than influence Mozart. Mozart's quartets were written as a response to those of Haydn and the six published in 1785 are known as the "Haydn" quartets because they are dedicated to him.

I will forgo quoting any more because there follows quite a lot of purple prose trying to gin up, through metaphor, a picture of the string quartet. Then there is a list of string quartet composers, larded with more frothy prose.

We are supposed to praise efforts like this because they supposedly build audiences, but really, isn't Mr, Morley just another one of those "friends" that really pose a danger to classical music? Why do we go to people like him when we want a popular article on classical music? He is obviously unqualified.

Here is the Quatuor Mosaïques with Haydn's String Quartet, op. 20, no. 5:


Unknown said...

Brian, I agree with your concern about lack of respect for classical music. However, I think this is more than sentiment against classical music. In the U.S., there is a strong culture bias against intellectual pursuits of any kind: academia, fine arts, architecture, literature, dance, etc. How can a country prosper and be considered "developed" when it does not elevate knowledge and the arts to the highest level?

Also, I don't think of athletics and celebrity as professions; they are simply occupations that usually require certain skills, but not specialized education.

Great Blog, Keep it up!

Bryan Townsend said...

The US does seem to have some internal conflicts: it is true that there is some prejudice against intellectual pursuits (some of this is in Canada as well), but at the same time, the US has a brilliant tradition of scholarship in every area of academia and many great achievements in the fine arts.

I suspect that music performance is also not a profession, though musicology probably is.