Thursday, March 13, 2014

Popular Culture and High Culture

We often take up the discussion of defining and describing popular culture and high culture at The Music Salon. But I just ran across a little quote that rang surprisingly true for me:
Athens was a commercial democracy with a popular culture that is now the highest of high cultures. 
 Yes, that is actually true. In ancient Athens the theater festival that the plays of Sophocles and Aeschylus and Aristophanes were written for was immensely popular, attended by every citizen. It was the equivalent of major league basefall, football and Broadway all rolled into one. Of course, since this was before the Internet and television, there was nothing else to do!

The point I want to make is that one era's popular culture can become another era's high culture. What makes this possible? I think the main thing is the aesthetic quality of the work. The Greek playwrights are the high culture of our day because their plays are simply great plays. The music of Bach is the high culture of our day because it is great music. In its own day it was not exactly popular. Most citizens of Leipzig probably thought of his music as being pretty good church music if nothing else. What turned it into high culture was not that it had a harpsichord part but the high aesthetic quality.

What are some other candidates for popular culture becoming high culture? How about this rather naughty catch (round) by Henry Purcell, entitled "So kiss my arse":

There is a canon by Mozart that is even more obscene. But the point is just that, in the 16th and 17th centuries, there was a lot of primarily vocal music that was very, very popular. If there had been the mass media that we have today, it might have been as popular as our pop music. Today we classify all this music as "classical".

Other examples I might mention would be the music salons very popular in most European capitals in the 19th century. In Vienna you could have heard Franz Schubert trying out some new lieder:

The big virtuosos were also hugely popular. Franz Liszt toured Europe playing his own music and transcriptions of things like Beethoven symphonies and Schubert lieder:

And Paganini, after many years of preparation, swept Europe like a storm:

All of this "classical" music is charming, entertaining and mostly simple enough to be enjoyed by mass audiences.

But probably the most popular musical form in the 19th century was the opera:

Now, opera is regarded as "high culture" but during the 19th century it was popular culture.

The interesting thing here seems to be that what transformed everything from then to now, is technology. Not just technology, of course, but technology had a lot to do with it. What replaced opera was the movies and television. Now, instead of watching Turandot in the opera house, we watch Breaking Bad at home.

Of course the whole aesthetic content is different as are the cultural values expressed.

The thought occurs to me that it is entirely likely that, before Beethoven, no composer wrote for "history" or "high culture" at all. They wrote for the immediate needs of the immediate audience. This is as true of a Haydn symphony or string quartet as it is of a Mozart piano concerto.


Bridge said...

I take some exception to your last statement. In my opinion it's not so much that they wrote for the immediate needs of their audience but that the needs of both parties coincided. The music of every "high art" composer contains elements that would be perceived as superfluous by the common folk that we today call strokes of genius that, if the point was just to please the audience, would not be in the music at all. What possible reason could they have for including elements that the majority of people would either not notice or not care for? Majority opinion is in fact one of the most efficient retardants there is and I can say without fear of contradiction that classical music would not have as rich a tradition as it does now if the masters had only considered their audience. It is at least not a very convincing theory to me. Mozart especially has too many moments that are intentionally alienating to the audience it to be true. J.S.B. also; While he wrote music for his god's grace and for the people he made many impressive advances and it is clearly not intended to satisfy some base demand. All this ignores the fact that music critique is as old as classical music itself and in one form or another all major composers have been subjected to some sort of scrutiny. Whether you call it writing for history or not, it's not as if they could have gotten away with the lazy writing prevalent in today's pop music even if they wanted to.

Mozart's Musical Joke is, if you believe certain theories, a parody of works he heard from poor composers. I personally don't find it hard to believe that the average person would have found the bulk of the piece to be perfectly acceptable, for two reasons. a) People even now seem to be utterly incredulous that it is a bad piece of work. b) Music, more than the other arts, is particularly inscrutable. I find that most people do not have the capacity for intelligent analysis of anything artistic, but music as such an abstract force seems to not be criticized by passive audiences unless it is particularly bad (and it must be very bad.) It is pure conjecture of course, but I'm of the opinion that most unexperienced listeners just perceive the surface of the music and past a certain point ignore everything else. The fact that Mozart is critically as well as popularly acclaimed is then due to the fact that he can fulfill some simple desires while also writing music full of substance. That is not a case of only satisfying demand either, unless Mozart was just an inefficient businessman who chose to go above and beyond the call of duty to perfect his craft despite the fact that his goals were already reached.

Bryan Townsend said...

Mozart made some similar comments in a letter to his father saying that he incorporated elements that only the learned would fully appreciate though the ordinary listener would enjoy them without knowing why. I think this may capture a bit of the difference between composers then and now. They would write music that would appeal to an audience and contain different elements that would appeal differently to different parts of the audience. But it seems that now, each composer writes for a narrower subset: some for themselves (an audience of one), some for the classical audience as a whole, and pop artists market to their crowd, which is still a subset, even though one consisting of tens of millions of listeners.

Yes, the case of Bach is different: he was writing for God in an important sense.

But going back to Mozart, I think he did always write to appeal to the audience as he perceived them, which would always include some sophisticated listeners.

Bridge said...

There are still a lot of daring ideas in Mozart's music and some of them can only be in-jokes or at least not something many people are likely to understand. I am by no means a scholar of Mozart - I know an embarrassingly small portion of his body of work (hope to rectify that soon enough,) - but I am immediately reminded of the moment in the G minor symphony's finale when he goes on a quasi-12-tone tangent. It doesn't last long but it certainly draws a lot of attention to itself. I personally enjoy it a lot because it's funny, but I have a hard time imagining a normal listener hearing that and not being confused. Maybe the people of 18th century would have "gotten" it (there isn't much to get to be frank - it's just crazy whether you know the theory or not.) Those kinds of moments, as well as the utterly insane use of polytonality at the end of the Musical Joke (though that was less incongruous given the context) make me reluctant to accept the notion that he only wrote to satisfy demand, as if his role as a composer was only to be a public servant (these are of course only two splashy moments, many more nuanced examples could be named.) The idea makes me uncomfortable and while I would agree with you that certain modernist composers can only be called esoteric and elitist I guarantee that it helps no one to stifle art. We could get into a huge debate here about what true aesthetics are, the role of the creative will or whatever you wish to call it and the importance of the audience in the creation of the music. I don't really think that would do much good, because I think the entire track record of communism is proof enough that people are not at their best when they are forced to do something. By no means easy questions to answer, but you surely must be exaggerating just a little to prove a point, right? Would Mozart have written music that was inherently different if people suddenly decided they didn't like "classical music?" The key here is that his musical adolescence would have been the exact same, and his artistic goals would be unchanged - the only variable here that is different is the actual demand for his music. Perhaps he might have needed to take on projects he wasn't interested in to sustain himself economically, but would he have liked it? That is to say, would he have been happy with doing a musical 180 like that? Do people like that have any integrity to begin with? Most people consider that quality to be utterly despicable in a person or company, they are called sellouts and are generally viewed as spineless. In fact, the companies which follow the mainstream precisely in their advertising strategies and product innovation are often the least interesting. They create colorless products that appeal to a common denominator and take absolutely no risks whatsoever. To me, that's not an apt description of any master composer. So I propose again that it is merely a case of both desires being (mostly) harmonious with each other.

Bridge said...

I'm not convinced that contemporary composers are simply more decadent and apathetic. That is no doubt the case with some, but why would an entire generation of composers suddenly decide to be as rebellious and spiteful as they possibly can? It doesn't make much sense, and I don't attribute it to the corrupting influence of modernism, I just think times have changed. The great composers of our time write the music they do because they believe in it, and it is a shame that very few others also believe in it. Why should they change what they are doing simply to be relevant? I would hardly call forced relevance art in any sense of the word. Besides, if they really wanted to write relevant, they could decide to become a ghost writer for Katy Perry or whoever, or become that person themselves. With the immense amount of knowledge they have, they would clean the floor with the other people applying for the position who often have competence but not mastery. The reason in my opinion why they don't do that is because the manufactured music pop singers choose to peddle is entirely superfluous and is of no consequence to anybody. It will be forgotten in months time most likely. It's something that fills a temporary cultural void and then is gone. While I don't advocate romantic ideas about artistic immortality necessarily, and I don't think many composers actually attempt to write for history as you say, it is a noble pursuit. So-called "high art" is not often truly popular, but why does it need to be? There are some very notable exceptions, like for instance the Star Wars movies (original trilogy), which are as much art as entertainment, which are the "Mozarts" in this example. They may strike the perfect balance of being culturally relevant and artistically meaningful, and pretty much everybody loves it, that doesn't mean that it is the only way to be great. In fact, not many "great films" manage to do what Star Wars did, but one could hardly go around claiming a movie like Dr. Strangelove for example is not great. Nobody would take you seriously, even though the movie is in some ways just as esoteric as modernist music. It requires the viewer to be reasonably well versed in Cold War history (or for the viewers of the time, know what was going on) and politics, to be able to appreciate dark humor, deadpan humor, some political humor and a lot of very nuanced physical comedy. Not to mention it has a heavy plot that takes at least some patience. None of these are qualities valued very highly by your average moviegoer, who would rather go see Transformers or something. But is the movie less great because it doesn't appeal to everybody? It's regarded as one of the best movies of all time and for good reason.

Bridge said...

The reason why I think modern music is so much more hated is exactly because music is so abstract and inscrutable, a point I have reiterated several times on this blog and will continue to reiterate. I think the fact that music is so unrelatable is why people generally only listen to what they are "conditioned" to understand. It's true that emotionally mature people could hear the music and enjoy it, but in my observation the majority of people don't really pay much attention to aesthetics and focus instead on the purely literary aspects of art, which is why so-called "film critique" of nitpicking every single facet of the script is so popular and vocal music with lyrics is overwhelmingly popular. They provide them with expression they can directly relate to because they are built on experiences they themselves may have had. I would also guess this is the reason why upon hearing instrumental music people often project false emotions and imagine visual scenes to accompany it. They haven't learned to accept music on its own terms. What is a person who doesn't understand the abstract nature of music going to do when they encounter a piece with a complex mood that doesn't telegraph some basic (if often false) meta information? All purely conjecture of course, I can't speak for how other people perceive music, but doesn't it make you wonder why tough novels and films are accepted whereas tough music is not?

Jeez, I sincerely apologize for the wall of text but you just got my train of thought accelerating way out of control.

Bryan Townsend said...

I think these posts on categories of music tend to stir up so much controversy because they really engage on the philosophical level: what is the nature of music?

I'm going to do a whole new post relating to some of the points you bring up, Bridge, but I would like to say that I think that what is really happening here is a clash between history and ideology. I was making an historical point: before Beethoven I doubt that any composer wrote for posterity as such. But there might be a few exceptions to that, especially Bach. To answer this question, which is really an historical one, we would need to cite historical things such as evidence for or against the proposition. I cited a letter from Mozart.

However, I think that you are taking it not so much as an historical question, but rather a normative one: just what is it that composers should do? Should they write for the immediate needs of the audience or for posterity? In other words, is what they are doing an essentially shallow activity or one with greater aesthetic depth? You are arguing for the latter, saying that composers should not be spineless sellouts, but write for posterity.

Bridge said...

Quite right. For better or worse, I refuse to believe that any artist could adopt the mindset you describe and not create, if you excuse the term, "compromised" art. But even here we have to be wary of how we interpret information. I haven't read the letter in question but I'm willing to accept your description of it for now as I don't find it hard to believe. In any case, there is a fine line between writing music intended to appeal to a lot of people, which I think is a fairly noble goal all things considered, and allowing oneself to be implicitly browbeat into conforming. We should also remember that Mozart was as much a product of his time as his music. It's not impossible for a person's deepest passions to be entirely in sync with their community. The last century and the beginning of this one I think we can both agree has been a very confusing time and one can't talk about a musical norm anymore. It isn't possible to say that the music from before is some golden standard to be adhered to and that all composers are straying from it, maybe even intentionally. This kind of cultural chaos obviously breeds chaos - whether it is good chaos or bad chaos is entirely subjective. Anyway, as regards composers writing music for posterity I can only say that the idea makes little sense to me. I completely admit to entertaining some romantic ideas about art, but even if I didn't, I know what pandering thoughtlessly to the masses produces and it is certainly not art. I don't know what pre-romantic composers thought about their music, I don't think it is possible to truly know, but I just can't accept anybody thinking about their art as a utility. There is a difference between writing for someone and writing at somebody's command. Mozart et. al is an example of the former, the entirety of industry pop music of the latter. Only my opinion of course.

Bridge said...

Also, if you've ever read Plato's Republic, specifically the section about music - that's what happens when you take control of art from the hands of the artist and place it in the hands of the government or the people. I don't mean to sound paranoid here, but this has happened before and is happening in many places right now. Heard any good North Korean pieces lately? I'm not saying being conscious of community demand is equivalent to that, but it is a very slippery slope.

The part in the Republic I reference can be found here, though I'm sure you've already read it:

Bridge said...

"Anyway, as regards composers writing music for posterity I can only say that the idea makes little sense to me."

Just noticed that this sentence is perhaps a little confusing, I was of course referring to the exact opposite of what I say here - that composers considering their music a mere product to be consumed is an idea that doesn't make sense to me.

Bryan Townsend said...

Bridge, sorry I am just getting to your comments now. I think that this is one of those beautiful occasions where we are both right and provably so! Yes, composers did in fact write for posterity. We know this from several remarks Beethoven made. It was he that really was responsible for the concept of writing for future generations. Before Beethoven this was a rare, but not nonexistent, idea. Bach probably had some sense of writing for the future in his idea of a "well-regulated church music". But we can see from the historic circumstances that Mozart and Haydn seemed to be always writing for the immediate needs. You interpret this as being shallow, conformist hack work. But it is not! This is the remarkable thing. Mozart could write the Linz symphony in four days and turn out a magnificent piece of music that we will still be marveling at hundreds of years from now. The INTENTION does not create the RESULT. That was the point of my juxtaposing the Mozart and Bruckner symphonies. I think the Mozart is the greater work, despite the spontaneous nature of its creation. In fact, when you sit down to write something for the ages, I think that what often results is mere pomposity!

You say that "I just can't accept anybody thinking about their art as a utility." But we have good historic evidence that even the greatest composers (except for Bach) did do hack work from time to time. As an example I would cite the piles and piles of undistinguished Scottish folksong arrangements that both Haydn and Beethoven wrote for a quick buck. I don't think we should condemn them for it. But at the same time we can recognize that Beethoven himself knew exactly what he was doing when he might crank out a dozen folksong arrangements over the weekend and the difference between doing that and spending a year or more on one of his late quartets. Even when you are writing for posterity, not everything you write is necessarily for posterity!