Thursday, January 30, 2014

Viva la Musica!

It is so nice to read something that pushes back at all the doom-mongering. Here is an article in the New Yorker that puts it all in perspective with a spectacular graphic by music blogger Andy Doe at Proper Dischord. I would love to steal the graphic and put it up here, but frankly, I've heard about those notorious New Yorker hit squads that track you down and assassinate you for violating their copyright. So you should go to the New Yorker article and click on the graphic to see that people have been bemoaning the death of classical music since the 14th century for a variety of predictable reasons: money, technological innovation such as figured bass, the piano and more recently compact discs and YouTube. The other most common factor to blame was compositional innovation by those very outrageous radicals Monteverdi and Debussy.

The only thing I might take issue with in the article is its parochial focus on classical music in America:
What supports these jeremiads is the implicit idea that classical music is an aberration in the United States, something to be regarded with suspicion. (Vanhoenacker writes of “classical trappings … that never sit quite right in the homeland of popular culture,” as if popular culture were an exclusively American affair.) But, like plenty of other great things in the U.S., classical music has endured because it has been made American. For more than a century, agitators for Beethoven and Brahms helped secure it an increasing stake on American soil. These were educators and musicians who carried what the historian Joseph Horowitz calls “moral fire,” who genuinely believed that great music made people better. The moral angle is bust—it’s unjust and untrue to claim that classical music is inherently better than any other kind of music—but a fire still burns. Talk to anyone who performs, composes, promotes, or organizes anything in this field and the blaze is palpable. It is not a profession for the apathetic.
There is an interesting confusion there: the writer William Robin acknowledges the "fire" of advocates of classical music past and present, but wants to empty it of any moral content--and presumably of any aesthetic advantage as well. Later on he seems to be claiming that the prominence of classical music in the media and common culture of past decades was merely a ploy in "realpolitik":
Until the U.S. again feels the need to use high art to prove itself to the world, it’s unlikely that a New York Philharmonic broadcast will interrupt the ten o’clock news.
Throughout the article I get only a vague sense of why classical music in particular has any significance or quality that might distinguish it from other very minor musical niches such as bluegrass or zydeco. The closest he comes to an actual argument for classical music comes toward the end:
The classical-music declinists rarely consider the value in having a few of the greatest orchestras in the world located in America, the so-called homeland of pop culture. Or the civic pride that the citizens of Chicago and Minnesota take in their symphonies. Or the lifelong bonds forged between musicians and their audience. Or the uncanny thrill of hearing Mahler live, an experience like no other.
So, civic pride and hearing Mahler live, that's it? I'm sure I'm being a little unfair, but while this is an excellent retort to the silly article in Slate that I linked to a few posts back, it is not quite a full-blooded argument for classical music.

The approximately one million words of postings on this blog is probably more what an argument for classical music would look like. But the best argument is just to point to the music.

One of the things that does actually distinguish classical from quite a lot of other music is the way that it exploits contrasts. I say "quite a lot" rather than "all" because wide contrasts are used very effectively by a lot of musicians who are certainly not classical: Frank Zappa and the Beatles come immediately to mind, but there are lots of others. But most musicians in most genres tend not to use overmuch the possibilities of contrast. Laziness? Possibly, but it could equally be that they might consider it to be violating the basic fundamentals of the style.

But while a lot of classical music does not exploit contrast too much (a lot of the duller Baroque music, for example), a lot of the best does. Joseph Haydn is certainly one who uses it effectively. In a certain sense, most of his symphonies are "Surprise" symphonies because of the way they surprise the listener in one way or another. The other night I was listening to some of the London symphonies and suddenly realized my attention had wandered. A finale with a very innocuous, almost trite, beginning had suddenly metamorphosed into something quite stormy! How did that happen? How did he get from the beginning to this furious music? So I had to go back and listen again. The way Haydn subtly jacks up the energy and then stops on a dime, only to swoop off in an unexpected harmonic direction is something that hardly anyone else seems to be able to do with such finesse. Here as an example is the last movement of the Symphony No. 93 in D major:

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