Thursday, May 21, 2015

Classical Controversies

The BBC, who seem to alternate between doing really wonderful things and really silly things, have an article up titled "Five classical music controversies." They rehearse some fairly well-known events in music history such as some anti-Semitic language in the text of Bach's St. John Passion and the public reactions to the premieres of pieces by Satie, Stravinsky, Cage and Reich. They also stumble rather badly in discussing the Symphony No. 3 by a composer they call "Ludvig van Beethoven". Beethoven's Swedish cousin, perhaps? The Symphony was never "formerly known as"  the Bonaparte symphony. There was a dedication, which was withdrawn, but they enlist the over-excitable Tom Service to try and gin up a controversy:
“Imagine if events hadn’t intervened, and Beethoven had stuck to his original plan, and his third symphony had been called the ‘Bonaparte’. Imagine the reams of interpretation and analysis that would have gone into aligning the piece with the Napoleonic project, its humanist ideals and its all-too-human historical realisation.”
I won't even bother critiquing what is wrong with that--just about everything! But what I would like to do is mention a few actual controversies that seem to be roiling the world of classical music lately.

First off, here is a controversy that I expect to take off any day now: well-off parents will be criticized for spending the time and money to get their children quality musical instruction. Like reading to their children at bedtime this will be smeared as elitist and an example of inequality that we should feel guilty about. My advice: ignore all that crap.

Second, the ongoing, relentless propaganda drive that classical music has built in structural misogyny because there are not enough woman conductors and not enough woman composers. People keep writing that this has to be discussed more, brought out into the open. Of course there are innumerable articles hectoring us about it, week after week. We just don't get it! And we don't get it because the arguments are always statistical, but the reality is that classical music is still based on aesthetic quality, not statistics. If there were a woman composer equal to Bach, we would be listening to her. There are some outstanding women conductors like Marin Alsop, who has no lack of work--this year, again, she will be conducting the last night of the Proms. There are also women composers who are doing fine work, like Jennifer Higdon, winner of the Pulitzer Prize in Music. But forget the quotas!

Third, classical music, like the Republican Party, is always dying, but never quite dies. One's musical tastes often change as one gets older, just like one's political views. So I have hope that classical music will survive for a while yet. But we have to be careful that in a confused attempt to resuscitate it, we don't destroy it in the process. And yes, I am looking at all those advisors who go around lecturing young musicians on how to "brand" and market themselves. If we can just reconcile ourselves to the fact that classical music is a bit more complex than the average pop song and just a tad elitist as a result, then we can stop contorting ourselves into being pseudo-pop stars.

Fourth, classical music is often accused of being too dependent on historical repertoire. Oddly, I don't recall the Louvre being accused of being too historical because of their collection, which prominently includes ancient Greek sculptures and the Mona Lisa, dating from the early 16th century. Nor the Prado for its extensive collection of Hieronymous Bosch (late 15th, early 16th century) and Francisco de Goya (18th century). Nor do we chide the Royal Shakespeare Company for focusing on the works of their 16th century namesake. Classical music has the enormous benefit of wondrous repertoire from the Middle Ages right up to last week. This is a plus, not a minus. Sure, like all composers, I would like to see more recent music on the programs, but I certainly don't think we should sacrifice Bach for Pierre Boulez. No quotas!

And fifth, there is the huge, ongoing, and possibly worsening situation of music education and the public perception of music generally. It is unpleasant to read very popular writers on music who lack the most basic historical or theoretical knowledge of music while at the same time our universities churn out hosts of highly trained musicologists and theorists who can't find work. I hope that the disappearance of discussion of classical music from the mainstream media is just a symptom of their general obsolescence and it is simply a case that we are all moving to the Internet.

So there are some real controversies, or issues at least. Please feel free to weigh in with your own opinions.

Let's end with some music. How about that non-Bonaparte Symphony No. 3 of Ludwig van Beethoven. Here is Christian Thielemann conducting the Vienna Philharmonic:

(I was going to put up the excellent Daniel Barenboim performance from the 2012 Proms, but I simply can't stand the BBC announcer's introduction.)

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