Saturday, October 24, 2015

A Beautiful Quote

Thanks to the folks at Uncouth Reflections, I ran across this beautiful quote:
Audiences will always want to be entertained, but classical music is more than that. Much more. It is in that more where the difference resides. It separates the artist from the professional, and the craftsman from the functionary.
There are many factors that will continue to make our roads bumpy. There are those who see “ugly meanings in beautiful things.” Classical music and its institutions come under relentless criticism. The barometers by which music is often measured are extrinsic to the art form itself. Classical music’s presence in our society is worth defending. It is not the music’s problem if it is not popular, not economically viable, deemed irrelevant or not to everyone’s taste. It is our problem.
Those of us who believe in its value must be the defenders, not because it is in our personal interests to do so, but because the survival of the art form is vitally important for society. The conviction of the convinced is essential; the vacillation of the lukewarm, the apologetic and the self-serving is dangerous.
Despite our small demographic, if we are devoted, passionate and deeply attached, we can make a difference. We, a minority of sorts, have to live for art with a depth of conviction and devotion that others, whose lives and tastes place them squarely in the vast majority, need not.


Ken Fasano said...

Can we find a correlation between the health of the classical arts in a society and the health of that society? I think so, given the evidence from as far back as Ancient Greece all the way to the present (I leave it for Asian scholars to find the same correlation in Chinese and Indian culture). As much as we love our new iPhones, we still need Aristotle, Aeschylus, Cicero, Michelangelo, Shakespeare, Bach... and I think we can compare the vitality of Elizabethan culture, for example, with our own, and discover we aren't so advanced after all.

Bryan Townsend said...

Wow, Ken, that is a fascinating idea. I have read quite a bit of philosophy of history and perhaps Arnold Toynbee might have something a propos. He talks about the "creative minority" in a society and their crucial role. I think that classical musicians, along with tech nerds, physicists, medical researchers and so on would all qualify. Where we perhaps diverge is that in past societies like the ancient Greeks and Romans, the Florentines and the Elizabethans, the political leadership were also part of the creative minority. But now? One suspects that we have a really poor political class. (Poor as in delusional or cynical, ideologically compromised and congenital lying.)

Ken Fasano said...

I have been listening to late Beethoven quartets, thinking how a first- level analysis of harmony and form (the usual undergraduate thoroughbass and form analysis) is only one level of analysis; then there are the intra-movement key change choices (thirds quite often), the metrical modulations within the movements (not quite Elliott Carter, but it's something to keep in mind); the inter-movement pitch class relations (maybe that stray Eb in one movement grows into something structurally important in the next); and the relationship of all these decisions between works – perhaps a meta-analysis. In which other composers are there so many layers? Does Schubert go this deep? Bartok?

From here I am reminded of what you wrote a few posts back about re-racination. This we find in most of the great composers before World War II – and often this is one important aspect of their greatness. Beethoven, of course, references Haydn and Mozart even in his last works, and in those last works Bach and Palestrina (at least what Beethoven could find out about 16th century music). Schubert references Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven; Schumann all of those and Schubert; Brahms all of those; then Schoenberg, Shostakovich, and finally Messiaen, all in their own unique ways. This in essence is what a classicizing art does. Roots. But it stops with the ”year zero“ attitude of Boulez, Stockhausen et al. Pehaps this can be traced back to the the crisis of the first world war, perhaps contemporaneously with the advent of the mass entertainment industry.

We have several composers of our time who can concoct fairly interesting multi-stylistic stews, and some who understand their roots and try to continue the classicizing art of re-racination. But we are in a time when the vast majority of the public cannot understand the most basic classical art; how can they understand new classical art that builds a new layer on a thousand years of tradition?

As a composer, I think my task is not to compose new music; it is, at this time, to carry the tradition forward, somehow. Not being in an institution where I might do so, I'm at a loss trying to figure out how to contribute to this. Listening to Beethoven and thinking about some meta-analysis (look! That might be B thinking of Palestrina! Look! That sounds like Brahms!) is great for my edification, but it isn' going to rub off on anyone else by osmosis.

Bryan Townsend said...

I recall reading a critic saying that it is almost impossible to teach literature these days because the students know nothing about the context. You are trying to teach Joyce's Ulysses, but no-one knows who Homer was or what he wrote.

It is a huge challenge for composers now. I guess I have written a couple of multi-stylistic stews myself! Everything I write has some sort of relationship to the past. But we have to do more. We do have to do something that is also new, fresh, invigorating. I think Taruskin said in the Oxford History about Brahms that he was the first to confront the dilemma of the modern composer: you had to write music that was substantial, memorable, but somehow instantly perceivable as a "classic" by the normal listening audience. Quite a challenge!

I think what helps me compose is that I think of two kinds of people when I write: the performers and the listeners. If I know a performer I often try and write something for them to play. And I also hope to write something that can move a listener.