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In the past, our musical culture had secure foundations in the church, in the concert hall, and in the home. The common practice of tonal harmony united composers, performers, and listeners in a shared language, and people played instruments at home with an intimate sense of belonging to the music that they made, just as the music belonged to them. The repertoire was neither controversial nor especially challenging, and music took its place in the ceremonies and celebrations of ordinary life alongside the rituals of everyday religion and the forms of good manners.

We no longer live in that world. Few people play instruments and music at home emerges from digital machines, controlled by buttons that require no musical culture to be pressed. For many people, the young especially, music is a form of solitary enjoyment, to be absorbed without judgment and stored without effort in the brain. The circumstances of music-making have therefore changed radically, and this is reflected not only in the banal melodic and harmonic content of popular music, but also in the radical avoidance of melody and harmony in the “modern classical” repertoire. Released from its old institutional and social foundations, our music has either floated into the modernist stratosphere, where only ideas can breathe, or remained attached to the earth by the repetitious mechanisms of pop.

At the serious end of the repertoire, therefore, ideas have taken over. It is not music that we hear in the world of Stockhausen but philosophy—second-rate philosophy to be sure, but philosophy all the same. And the same is true of other art forms that are cut loose from their cultural and religious foundations. The architecture of Le Corbusier, the Bauhaus and Mies van der Rohe is an architecture of ideas, and when the futility of the ideas became apparent they were replaced by other ideas, equally alien to architecture as an aesthetic discipline, but nevertheless impeccably philosophical. The gadget architecture of Zaha Hadid and Morphosis does not issue from a trained visual imagination, or a real love of composition: it issues from doodles on a computer in response to ideas. There is a philosophy behind this stuff, and if ordinary people protest that it doesn’t look right, that it doesn’t fit in, or that it is offensive to all natural standards of visual harmony, they will be answered with fragments of that philosophy, in which abstract concepts extinguish the demands of visual taste. These buildings, they will be told, provide a pioneering use of space, are breaking new ground in built form, are an exciting challenge to orthodoxies, resonate with modern life. But just why those properties are virtues, and just how they make themselves known in the result, are questions that receive no answer.

Richard Wagner

Richard Wagner

Just the same kind of botched philosophy has dominated the modern classical repertoire. Very few composers have philosophical gifts, and fewer still attempt to justify their music in philosophical terms—the great exception being Wagner, who, despite his vast literary output, always allowed his instinctive musicianship to prevail when it conflicted with his philosophical theories. But it is precisely the absence of philosophical reflection that has led to the invasion of the musical arena by half-baked ideas. Without the firm foundations provided by a live culture of music-making, philosophy is the only guide that we have; and when good philosophy is absent, bad philosophy steps in to the gap.

The worst example of this, and it is an example whose influence is almost as strong today as it was in the aftermath of the Second World War, is Theodor Adorno’s Philosophy of New Music, first published in 1947. In that book Adorno develops the philosophy of a major composer, who almost succeeded in doing what Wagner happily failed to do, which was to replace the reality of music by an abstract idea of it. Schoenberg’s twelve-tone serialism was based on a set of ideas that are clearly disputable, but which, because of the pretense of system, could overwhelm the hesitant objections of mere music-lovers. Here are some of those ideas:

  • the diatonic scale arranges pitches which could be arranged in other ways and still be used to make intelligible and enjoyable music;
  • melodies could be constructed without the use of scales, and without a mode or a key;
  • the twelve notes of the chromatic scale could be used in such a way that no one of them emerges as tonic, or as in any other way privileged;
  • to achieve this it is sufficient to devise a permutational, rather than a successive, arrangement of the pitches;
  • harmonies, construed as simultaneities, will abolish the distinction between consonance and dissonance, opening the way to new forms of harmonic sequence.

All those assumptions involve an arbitrary intrusion of abstract thought into a realm of empirical knowledge, thereby upsetting wisdom that had been slowly acquired over centuries, and which was not in any sense the product of a single brain. The fact that there is no evidence for them counts for nothing, since they are philosophical, part of an a priori attempt to found an alternative to the existing music. For Adorno, they promised the renewal of music, the break with a tradition that had become banal and cliché-ridden, and the hope of a fresh start in the face of cultural decline. Those thoughts were wound into a philosophy that combined Frankfurt-school Marxism, the denunciation of popular culture, and a high-brow adulation of all that was recondite, unpredictable, and difficult to follow. Adorno had the gift—the very same gift that Schoenberg had—of masking his idiosyncratic views as necessary truths and clothing unsubstantiated speculations in the garments of priestly authority. He was the advocate of an intimidating orthodoxy. And yet the actual arguments, both in Adorno’s book and in Schoenberg’s original articles, are self-serving rhetoric, which assume what they set out to prove.

Philosophy can be driven out only by more philosophy. And the rival philosophy has not been forthcoming. All that we have received from Darmstadt and its successors is a reiteration of the clichés introduced by Adorno, in particular the cliché that musical organization in our tradition is fundamentally arbitrary, and can be remade according to other rules—permutational, aleatoric, serial, and so on—while engaging the perceptions and interests that have emerged over centuries in the concert hall. That cliché commits the paradigm error of philosophy, which is to oppose an empirical truth with an a priori falsehood.

There is in fact nothing arbitrary about the diatonic scale or the place of the tonic within it. While there can be other scales, some sounding strange to Western ears, they are all attempts to divide up the octave, to provide significant points of rest and closure, and to preserve natural harmonies delivered by the overtone series. The diatonic scale is one of a number of modes derived from mediaeval church music—and its history is not a history of arbitrary invention, but one of gradual discovery. The circle of fifths, the chromatic scale, modulation, voice-leading, and triadic harmony—all these are discoveries, representing at each stage an advance into a shared tonal space. The result is not the product of decision or design: It is as natural and embedded in our experience as the post and beam in architecture, or frying and baking in cookery. If composers are to ‘make it new,’ then they must recognize this natural quality and not defy it. Yet defiance of nature has become an orthodoxy, and, when asked to explain and justify this defiance, composers will invariably lean on some variant of Adorno’s philosophy. Music for the concert hall has increasingly followed the pattern of Stockhausen’s Gruppen—elaborate sound effects, organized by arcane systems of rhythm and pitch, which no normal ear can hold together as music, but which comes with intimidating programme notes explaining why this doesn’t matter, and why the normal ear is an impediment to creative music in any case.

Ring of the Niebelung

The Ring of the Niebelung

What I have said of Stockhausen’s massively pretentious piece will be dismissed as reactionary and philistine. Adorno and his followers accuse their opponents of “not getting it,” of being behind the times, and of resisting the march of history. A kind of anti-bourgeois snobbery infects Adorno’s pages, as it infected the pages of his hero, Karl Marx. The Young Hegelian doctrine of the forward march of history survives in their philosophy of music, notwithstanding its crushing refutation by history itself. One of Wagner’s greatest achievements was to have taken that Young Hegelian doctrine seriously, to have built it into a music drama of titanic proportions, and to have allowed his music to refute it. In the end, that is one of the most important lessons of the Ring cycle. The artist-hero, who is to usher in the new world of emancipation by smashing the spear of our previous agreements, thereby destroys the moral order on which he depends. Such is Siegfried’s tragedy.

No wonder Adorno was so negative about Wagner’s Ring of the Niebelung, the most modern composition of its time, which shows in detail why it is against nature to be a modernist. We need to go back over the ground so intricately covered by that great work of art, and to raise again the question that motivates it: How to reconcile future creativity with the legacy of our past agreements? This question has been raised by other composers too—notably by Hans Pfitzner in Palestrina. And that opera contains the seeds of quite another philosophy than the one foisted on the musical public by Adorno, the philosophy touched on also by T.S. Eliot in his great essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” According to this rival philosophy, true artists are not the antagonists of tradition but its latest advocates. They belong to the future because they are guardians of the past.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. Republished with gracious permission from the Future Symphony Institute.

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20 replies to this post
  1. But art and most philosophy too is always coincident with the dominant zeitgeist of the times.
    And furthermore Sacred Art can only be “produced” by an artist who lives in a comprehensively lived Sacred culture.
    Indeed it can really only be understood, shown and performed within the crucible of a Sacred culture. Otherwise it inevitably becomes degraded.
    No such Sacred culture has existed in the Western world for many centuries now. With very rare exception no great Sacred Art of any kind has been produced in the Western world for many centuries too, especially in the last 150 years or so – it is all ego-art.
    What there was of such a Sacred culture was essentially destroyed at the time of the European Renaissance. J S Bach was the last composer who whole-heartedly dedicated his music to the Glory of God.

  2. This essay describes a very narrow point of view and seems to indulge in the fallacy of arguing from the specific to the general. I don’t think he is very well versed in what has been going on in art music of the last few decades. Perhaps he is applying what he hears in academic music at Oxford to the whole world.

    • Maybe that and common sense which seems to have absented itself from the world. It seems absurd to make that claim that Roger Scruton’s explication of what has gone so terribly wrong with modern music is “narrow” when it is clear that modern art, architecture and culture suffer the same defect, bad philosophy- perhaps bad philosophy is why you are able to call something not narrow, “narrow”- It seems you have indulged in begging the question since your conclusion is based on the a priori assumption that the author’s points are grounded solely in his experience at Oxfort, which is of course silly. But still- he is profoundly onto to something here, that is self-evident. I would very much appreciate it if you could say something broad on the topic that would refute Roger Scruton.

      • Sure. I suggested he might be insulated by his acedemic surroundings since he seems to be unaware of the work of current composers making great music in the art music world. Joan Tower, Michael Daugherty, Eric Whitacre, John Adams, and John Corigliano, to name a few. His message seems to be that good art music is dead, and he’s wrong. His diatribe sounds like someone stuck in the 1930s with no knowledge of current composers and music.

        • Decent and honest response Dr. Cottrell, but perhaps we need to define our terms. I believe Roger Scruton was referring to the fine arts as the standard for good music, just as we ought to reserve the term “art” for works that are truly good and beautiful by the objective standards of beauty, not the relative terms that might make the composers you mention passable to a modern audience. Do you believe that the composers you mention have managed to make timeless music that will endure the ages? You don’t imagine that Joan Tower holds a candle to Mozart do you? You don’t suppose that Eric Whitacre compares to Palestrina, Victoria or Byrd do you? You don’t make any serious comparison between J.S. Bach and Michael Daugherty could you? Would ever claim that Beethoven and John Corigliano share a stratosphere? I believe these few composers you mention prove Roger Scruton’s point that bad philosophy makes bad music (maybe this is a little harsh but mediocre would be at the upper end of the scale for the four or five you mention) and this is hardly a 1930’s conclusion, that charge sounds more like a deflection driven by progressivism, another bad philosophy but surely pervasive. I am wholly unconvinced by your claim though it is clear to me that you are the one who should have born the challenge to Roger Scruton’s accurate observations about the state of music composition suffering from diffuse and fractured philosophies in the West.

          • If, as you say, “we ought to reserve the term “art” for works that are truly good and beautiful”, then are you saying that the works of the composers I mentioned are not art? And no, I am not trying to compare modern composers with those of the past they have built their work upon. i am merely saying that art music today is not “bad”. On the contrary; I find much of it inspiring, Enjoyment of music is subjective, so you are entitled to you opinion. I just find it narrow-minded to call modern art music “bad”.

        • Not being familiar with most of those names — as I don’t eat curry because I think it tastes like soap, I don’t invest time and money in unmusical music — I went to u-Tube and listened to one piece, more or less at random, from each. No lack of dissonance and sledgehammer rhythms, if any. Occasional slips into what the unconvinced would call harmony. (I might learn to tolerate the Whitacre _Alleluia_ but why the screeches?) All the sort of music no one not imbued in the fraud would ever hear were it not paired with actual music in a manner that makes it unavoidable.My daughter went to Eastman and I participate in the sort of amateur music that draws students in the NYC metro and every composition student that either of us have encountered keeps two folders: one of actual music and of that upon which the professors insist. No sir, a major symphony may have an all-Beethoven program, and it’ll sell out before most of us ever get a chance at the tickets. None would dare try an all-Stockhausen. Or, I’ll wager, any of those listed.

          • Sorry if this is a duplicate reply, but my fist attempt disappeared. What I tried to reply is that music is very subjective so i can’t fault your opinion, but you should know that major orchestras DO program these works, and some of these composers have won Pulitzer prizes for their compositions.

        • Well sure Dr. Cottrell, whether or not a person likes a particular piece of music is subjective and there is complexity in accounting for bad taste- but surely you would concede that there is objective criteria for what makes good and beautiful music, wouldn’t you? You admit that you wouldn’t compare the mediocrity of those composers you mention with the greatness of the composers I mentioned, this admits of the objective standard. One doesn’t have to like J.S. Bach to recognize his music as great. One could really love a band like AC/DC and admit that it is objectively disordered even while Highway to Hell is cranked up to full volume on his car stereo. The fact that you find it inspiring doesn’t say much about its objective value, only that you like it, which is fair enough. As for art or fine art, yes of course some art is better than others and your composers are making honest attempts to make music, mediocre and vacuous it may be when compared to the fine art music of the great composers, we ought not to mix up the two when we are talking about great music because the modern music is not great and that can be objectively determined whether we like it or not. If what I have said here is true, how would that be narrow? To have standards is to broaden the horizons, the alternative, your claim of subjectivism, is to narrow the field “it depends on whether or not you like it” this is truly narrow and not very discerning. Your support of modern composers as “good” music is narrow because it reduces all music to a single category of “what I like” and it doesn’t get much narrower than that.

          • Good doesn’t mean beautiful. Art doesn’t have to be beautiful. The last 2 movements of Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique are not beautiful but they are meaningful. Furthermore, I laughed when I read “Your support of modern composers as “good” music is narrow because it reduces all music to a single category of “what I like” and it doesn’t get much narrower than that.” because that is precisely why I did not agree with the original article. Performing and teaching music is my profession. Musicology was my related field for my Doctorate. In all of my dealings with my music colleagues, past and present, I have never encountered anyone who thinks the way you and Roger Scruton do about current composers. i am confused how you can say my view is narrow.You sir have the narrow view.

  3. I have known that this emperor was naked since I learned of his existence in 1966 but had not the words with which to prove it. Here they are, but they should not have been necessary. A reasonable person who cannot unaided hear the merit of, eg, Beethoven over Schoenberg, has a lethal dose of Kool-Aid(tm) drunk. But too many think that obvious isn’t enough; a cloak of pseudo respectable gobbledy-gook is necessary to even sneak it in the door, much less be recognized.

  4. …then they rise up wrapped in a mist, and go at night, to hymn with lovely voices, aegis-bearing Zeus…
    Ever since I first heard of Greek maidens singing the hymns of Alkman from hilltop to hill top, it’s something I have yearned to hear with the stars undimmed by lights, in a bee-loud glade. And yes, music and all the arts have descended into the latrine. Without a sense of godliness there can be no beauty. I am very fond of American popular music of the first half of the last century. Who could have thought that that burst of creativity would end so suddenly? As someone who is trying in my old age to sing and play these songs with my guitar, I can tell you how difficult it is to train memory and mind to follow those beautiful harmonies.

  5. Composer George Antheil’s Ballet Mecanique calls for an orchestra containing ten grand pianos, six xylophones, a fire alarm siren, an airplane propeller, and numerous automobile horns.
    Eight minutes into its first performance, a sufferer siting down front tied a white handkerchief to his cane and raised it aloft. The audience roared.

  6. Seen, but not heard, by the grace of… but that guides a return to the point. Dr. Cotrell dragged a very nice red herring across the path and, I confess, this respondent (and others) followed it. It is not the quality of music past vs the lack of quality of much music present. It is the Absolute upon which that past music is based. Denial of an Absolute has given entre to so much evil that it is hard to know where to begin, though the original article touches upon the broader question. I fear Dr. Cotrell is correct in some ways but only because the language has been conceded to the unanchored. If “orchestras” that contain steam whistles and construction equipment, or pianos that have had junk randomly scattered over their innards, or persons sitting at a piano for 4 minutes and 37 seconds doing nothing produce art or music, the Enemy has won, because the very terms “art” and “music” have been deprived of any objective meaning. Bach and Cage cannot be producing the same thing, unless that thing is “noise.” Or the lack of it.

    And yes, Dr. Cotrell, I acknowledged that major orchestras program works of those composers that you listed. But never without a serving of actual music to serve as a hook. That a restaurant can be induced to offer garbage does not make it worth eating.

    • Wow. So, where’s the cut off point when the Absolute was abandoned? Richard Strauss? Gustov Holst? Samuel Barber? Really curious, because this “Absolute” doesn’t exist among the professional musicians I know, so I am new to this. On second thought, however, it does strike a remembrance. It is the same complaint of every old guarde against the avante guarde that history has been recording since the 12th century.

      • Dr. Cottrell, those are tough words to follow- for as Mr. Schmidt cordially explained what is missing is the talk of the objective standard, it has gone nowhere, it is the mind of modern man that has abandoned the objective standard, not the objective standard that has abandoned us- there are more things in this universe than can be found in the minds of your colleagues and yourself Dr. Cottrell- You and your friends make a claim of subjective primacy and either you are right or you are not- everyone believed the swindlers about the emperor’s non-existent new clothes, that didn’t make them real. Most distressing is your hollow attribution of “those who can’t get with the times” as the reason why honest and cultivated souls seeking the absolute standard of integrated truth goodness and beauty would recognize vacuousness of modern music. That is pure ideological clap trap. You hold a doctorate in musicology and yet do not recognize the objective standard of true good and beautiful music? Nor the fact that good true and beautiful are inextricably linked. Whether or not one is moved or inspired by a particular sound is not the measure of great music, people are inspired by drugs, bad movies, and even porn, that does not make those things good by any standard other than the subjective standard, but perhaps even you might concede that even if these bad things inspire people that does not make them good. And if you do concede, what standard are you appealing to to make the call? Is there any such thing as bad music or bad art? We think there is.

      • There is, of course, no “point” at which the absolute was abandoned; the absolute was abandoned by individuals when and as they chose. The unanchored and generally indefensible criteria identified in the original article (taking hold at approximately the turn of the last century) gave many practitioners a fig leaf and then an effective mandate, as a credulous elite subscribed to those criteria, to accelerate the slide into the abyss. Those who could not otherwise compete with that which came before were able to sell Something Else. This is not a trivial issue; inaccessible “long hair” music alienated an entire generation and, I suggest, drove classical music off of radio dials and out of the public square.
        As to resistance to other “avante guardes” (again sic) since the 12th century (Is there something unique about the 12th century that places a marker? If so I’d be curious what that might be.), until the “bad philosophy,” the calling out of which spurred this discussion, both the avant garde and the old guard were pretty much on the same page about the fundamentals. I can and have played selections ranging from the baroque to Virgil Thomson (specifically _The River_; specifically the opening) for ears largely innocent of any but popular music and gotten respect if not actual buy-in. I would not attempt Cage or Stockhausen or the like except as a joke.
        I await a reasoned defense of your position. Neither “I like what I like” nor ad hominem are enlightening. On second thought, I recall concluding after discussion the position of an aunt of progressive bent: “If I don’t know this, it cannot possibly be true.” Not sure about the Latin name for that.

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