Saturday, November 07, 2015


William Bigelow, "The Real Reason for the Death of Classical Music" (Breitbart, October 25, 2015).

Mark Twain is reported to have said "The reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated."  I also think this applies to classical music; and even if the reasons may differ considerably, I wonder whether, like the Church, classical music will not simply endure.

It is a fact, nevertheless, that as the Church seems  to be imploding, the constituency supporting classical music also seems to be rapidly eroding.  Perhaps in some ways the two are not entirely unrelated.  Both rely upon tradition.  Both are "counter-cultural" in "swimming upstream" against the prevailing currents of contemporary popular culture.

The essay here is worth a read.  See what you think.

[Hat tip to D.H.]


Anonymous said...

"Sick" classical music:

* Romanticism.
* The cult of the virtuoso.
* Serialism -- formulaic randomness.
* "it all sounds like movie soundtracks."

"Healthy" classical music:

* Baroque/classicism.
* No virtuousos, no egotism, just stalwart journeymen who respect the notes on the page. Classical musicians should all have day jobs.
* No opera (see "egotism," "virtuosos" above)
* No formulas contrary to natural melodicism
* No importation of meaning from philosophy, narcissistic art for art's sake, or popular melodrama

Pertinacious Papist said...


I agree with your distinction between "Sick" and "Healthy" classical music in principle; but I'm not sure the lines are always quite so clear. Generally, maybe so. Joseph Haydn's 104 symphonies that would fall under your "healthy" category, I presume; and for the most part I'd agree that there is order, proportion, and harmony, etc. They also fit your idea of "no virtuosos, no egotism, just stalwart journeymen, etc." But after a while I wonder if they don't all start so sound nearly the same. I know that's a heavy-handed comment; but part of what makes music aesthetically excellent is richness, and so sometimes I wonder whether forms can be too rigid.

Bach is simply incredible, whether you look at him mathematically or complexity, or unity in diversity, etc. Some pieces like his Crab Canon from his Musical Offering defy the imagination, when you see him play the canon forwards, backwards, both at once, then upside down, then turn the score into a möbius strip. If the man played chess, he'd have had a mind that could anticipate 20 moves in advance. In his book, Passage to Modernity, Louis Dupre has a chapter on the Baroque, which he views as the consummate acme of artistic achievement within the Catholic worldview (even if Bach was Lutheran).

There is a lot of modern and post-modern orchestral music I find abominable, even if some of it is imaginative and interesting. For example, Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring" may be thoroughly pagan in content, but what he does with multiple tempos and keys simultaneously is quite ingenious and, I think, interesting to listen to. I'm not sure "sick" quite works there, though there is a pushing of the envelope in some ways. On the other hand, John Cage's sheer absurdity, random computer-generated scores, and soundless "4'33"; Arnold Schoenberg's dissonance; and Pierre Schaeffer's "Concrete Music," taking natural human and industrial sounds and distorting them is bizarre ways, strikes me as something utterly perverse, trying to unmake nature, much as the "gays" are doing with same-sex so-called "marriage."

I'm not sure all of Romanticism is "sick." Certainly it stresses the emotions -- and if this is done in a completely irrational way as in some romantic poetry, it is insidious; but I'm not sure this is true of all romantic poetry or music. Chopin, for example, is romantic, rich in emotional content, but not irrational. Much (not all) of Rachmaninoff, I would place in the same category; and Romanticism influenced, at least, Mozart, Beethoven, and many others, not altogether in diabolical ways. The second movement of Beethoven's "Emperor" Piano concerto, for instance, is hardly "sick" -- even if it is filled with emotion, the emotion is noble, not base.

(continued ...)

Pertinacious Papist said...

(continued ...)

The cult of the virtuoso, I agree, is a problem of that era; but egoism is found in performers and artist of almost every stripe -- even the best kinds of music. Some of the best sopranos are divas, even though their voices with baroque accompaniment are wonderful, like Kathleen Battle. I think that's more of a performer's issue than a musical issue.

Should all classical musicians all have day jobs? I appreciate the sentiment, but I wonder what is wrong with a musician making his living by his trade, when possible; as with a choirmaster, who is also a composer and musician himself. Just a thought. The day of grand patronage of musicians is nearly over; but I won't say "Thank heavens!" I think much that is magnificent came out of such patronage -- including much of Church art.

This is a subject of great interest to me, and I thank you for launching the topic, as I could go on for hours.

One final thought: not all aesthetically excellent art may be "beautiful." Beauty may be the most important criterion (and a complex one, involving proportion, luminosity, and richness, etc.); but it's not the only one. For example, Salieri's "De Profundis" is magnificent (despite his portrayal as a second rate musician in the film Amadeus), but it's not what one would call "beautiful." I don't think either of us would, on that account, describe it as "unhealthy" music.

Thanks, +PP

Anonymous said...

The classicist works from general principles (even if they are impromptu), while the romanticist fixes on individual works of such brilliance that he thinks explodes those principles. I guess I know where you are coming from ;D

"Joseph Haydn's 104 symphonies . . . sound nearly the same" That can be said of so many things, and it is only by the standards of romanticism and virtuousiticism (if you will) that such a statement becomes a negative. But I will take all sixty or seventy hours of Haydn's symphonies over 5 puking minutes of late romantic vomitus, such as, shall we say, Schoenberg's "Pelleas and Melisande."

I don't have a problem with the Rite of Spring. I just don't care to listen to it that often. It is striking, but how many times can you be bludgeoned by its studied primitivism and bored by its romanticist fascination with paganism and violence before you say "it sounds just like a damn movie soundtrack" -- which, in fact, it became -- and move on?

That is the problem with romanticism in general. Just as all heretics are gnostics, whose special access to truth makes them more consequential than their church, all romantic artists must be "geniuses," "giants" who seek to overshadow and outdo their culture, defy it rather than reflect its best aspects, “transcend” it and thus make it alien and irrelevant. And yet, once the transcendence is complete, once the alienation is accomplished, nothing remains for the individual except the contemporary and the eccentric.

And there you have your connection between the decline of the Church and the decline of classical music: as music is almost totally digested by the acids of romanticism, it finds itself on the verge of elimination, with no culture to preserve or renew it. Similarly, as the church finds itself almost totally digested by the acids of romanticist theology, secular individualism (arguably also romanticist in nature), and all things contemporaneous, it too approaches elimination, scornful of the very tradition and authority from which it once drew its being.

Pertinacious Papist said...

Anonymous on music,

I think I agree with most of what you say. "Romanticism" may be a fairly elastic word, though I'm not sure it can bear the weight of everything you pile on it. I'm not sure, for example, that going beyond conventional principles, stretching them (I wouldn't use the word "exploding" here), is always inimical to order. For example when Gothic cathedrals were first built with their large expanses of leaded glass, letting in huge swaths of refracted light, and with flying buttresses to support the high walls, this clearly went beyond anything imagined by the builders of Romanesque cathedrals, stretching the medium of stone in soaring vertical structures far beyond any conventions. But since the cathedrals took generations to complete, there was no egoism involved, and there was nothing, so far as I know, of rebellion against order and reason or absolutes here. There's something even in Bach of that pressing of limits in some of his fugues and motets, though clearly he's never classified as other than baroque.

As to Schoenberg, I quite agree, as I've already indicated, and although he's sometimes called the dying gasp of romanticism, or some such, I would not typically associate him with composers like Chopin or Rachmaninoff. Nor would I want to listen to Stravinski more than once in a great while. So we're quite agreed on that.

We also agree that there are movements in art history that impacted the Church negatively, and that Romanticism is one of those, particularly in church music, just as the Bauhaus movement in architecture has been devastating to church architecture right up to our own day (despite some pushback in some quarters).

What is important about classicism is that it strives to preserve what is of abiding value in terms of general principles, as you suggest; and that's what gives the music of that movement its historical tenacity to survive.

The "acids" that are dissolving our current church musicians are hardly "romanticism," as such. I think to call them "romantic" would be dignifying them. What are the movements that have threatened church music in the last 50 years in Catholicism? You tell me; but I think of writers like Marty Haugen (Protestant, by the way), David Haas, and Michael Joncas, which have overtones of easy-listening, folksy, praise music which makes the name of banality blush.

Some things simply don't belong in church. I would agree with your earlier remarks about opera insofar as I think those Catholic Masses in the baroque and rococo eras that had intermissions because they had turned into operatic performances had a very detrimental effect on church music. Pope St. Pius X' Tra le Sollecitudini was very likely, in part, a reaction against that sort of thing.

Having said that, I do love listening to Italian opera on Sunday afternoons. The sentiments are predictably maudlin and oversentimental, but the emotional catharsis can be something equivalent to watching a good action movie; and some passages in Verdi or Puccini are nothing short of beautiful.

Nuf said.


Anonymous said...

Morse Peckham made the study of romanticism his life's work. He concluded that the essence of romanticism in art and philosophy was "cultural transcendence." Culture is fundamentally a form of oppression, and it is an act of heroism to seek an individualistic "breakthrough." Alienation is a sign of superior perception. He has sold me. I sense this "heroism" in everything from Beethoven to "Piss Christ."

The difference between us is that what Peckham considers "heroic" I consider fundamentally a sickness, a cultural form of AIDS.

Just wanted to clarify the sense in which I was using the term. Other than that, I agree, 'nuf said.

Pertinacious Papist said...

Oh, yes. Morse Peckham. Romanticism and Ideology and Victorian Revolutionarie​s: Speculations on Some Heroes of a Culture Crisis. (A good friend of mine you may know once recommended these works to me.)

IF this is what romanticism is, then I'm entirely agreed with you. I guess I just don't think that every composer or performer labelled a "romantic" has drunk that kool aid. Right. 'nuf said.

Anonymous said...

Don't forget "The Romantic Virtuoso." :D

Pertinacious Papist said...

Thanks, my friend. You're welcome here any time.