Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Musical Postures

On my recent post about the Guardian's series on the symphony a commentator said:
None of the great masters were trying to make some kind of egoistic statement - they were just trying their best to produce good music - which sounded good then, which sounds good today.
Which got me thinking. I don't have time for a very long thought, but the word "posturing" that I used in that post and that my commentator quoted captures something that I think might be going on in the recent history of music.

The first generation of romantics, Berlioz, Schumann, Chopin, about whom Charles Rosen wrote in his very fine book The Romantic Generation were, along with a great deal of other things, very sincere. I think this sincerity, which is often called "authenticity", persisted for much of the century. But towards the end of the 19th century, I start to wonder. Some of the products of musical romanticism start to sound, to me at least, forced. Is the composer now faking it just a bit? Or more than a bit? As I was hinting at in the previous post, I detect this in Mahler whom I have great difficulty in listening to these days. As my commentator suggests, some composers might be making "some kind of egoistic statement".

Paul Johnson in his book Art: A New History suggests that modern art became more and more to resemble fashion in its constant hunt for the novel. In some late romantic and 20th century music I hear a tendency towards the narcissistic. As I have mentioned before, it is as if the composer is attempting to create a "private language".

What I also notice is that discussion of modernism in music tends to focus exclusively on the technical devices, the tone-rows and the electronic gear and avoids, at all costs, any discussion of aesthetics. Why? Consideration of a lot of modernist music from an aesthetic perspective would mean very harsh criticism, I suspect! Can't have that.

On the whole, I very much prefer composers in whom I detect no hint of narcissistic posturing.

Here is one of the earliest symphonies Haydn wrote for Prince Esterházy, the Symphony No. 7, nicknamed "Le Midi":

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