Music was meant to create an effect in its listeners that embraced more than the perception of its sounds alone; it was meant to have an effect deeper than words, deeper than rational thought, and touching the emotions and that mysterious thing which the poets call “the soul”…
As Sir Roger Scruton has explained elsewhere in this journal, the relevance of classical music lies in its irrelevance in relation to practical, worldly concerns. If classical music has an educational quality, it is to be sought in something like the education of the imagination, as that which helps to humanize and refine the emotions and to stimulate ethical and moral awareness. This last expectation is a fruit of the Enlightenment, born of speculations that art has a moral/ethical component and welcomed as a new accolade for artists who were looking for liberation from servitude to court, church, or nobility. Since Beethoven, the idea that serious art music, and especially the “abstract”/“absolute” variety represented by symphonic writing, has an ennobling spiritual influence has appeared in many writings about musical aesthetics. (Of course there is music that serves more mundane purposes, such as entertainment or songs that accompany manual labor and the like, but that is not our subject here.) So, the high art variety of music may be irrelevant to practical, worldly concerns, but it is very relevant to the formation of the personality and thus can function as an important stimulant in educational processes.
But what do we mean by “classical music?” Does traditional art music in cultures other than our Western one count? For the sake of our argument, we will consider only Western classical art music as it is practiced in our central performance culture, since the music of other cultures operates in a very different historical and social perspective. Western classical music can be divided into two categories: 1) all serious music from Gregorian chant onwards, up to and including music of the late Baroque era; and 2) the music from the second half of the eighteenth century onwards, up to and including twentieth-century classical music. This distinction is based upon performance practice and instruments. The regular, classical performance world has developed from the classical repertoire as seen from a nineteenth-century perspective: Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven formed the basis of a performance culture that set standards in both performance and composition quality, and for the first time in Western history, works from the past began to form a venerated canon, to which new works began to relate, both in terms of performance practice and composition, however obliquely at times. In the twentieth century, the music of pre-classical times was explored, and a new performance practice was created next to the central performance culture: the Historically Informed Performance practice (or HIP). The study of lost ways of performance led to both the attempt to create an “authentic” rendering of scores (which were often rather poor in information density) and the building—or rather, reconstruction—of pre-classical instruments together with the re-creation of the art of playing them. All this comprises the Western classical tradition, which continued alongside the development of twentieth-century atonal modernism. That, in turn, created yet another category: the field of sonic art—or, as the Germans have appropriately named it, Klangkunst. (This purely acoustical art form will not be part of these deliberations for reasons that will become clear in the course of the argument, but it will be dealt with in part II of this essay.)
All Western classical music thus described has been intended to communicate something—but what? Not clear information, as one might communicate using language. It was meant to create an effect in its listeners that embraced more than the perception of its sounds alone; it was meant to have an effect deeper than words, deeper than rational thought, and touching the emotions and that mysterious thing which the poets call “the soul.” Music was considered, by its composers as well as by its performers and audiences, to be an expressive art—an art that had to “say” something that could not, or could only inadequately, be put into words. In these terms, we must think not only of Romantic music but also of quasi-abstract works like Bach’s Goldberg Variations, which express something very different than does a Schumann song cycle or a Mahler symphony. These incredibly beautiful and introspective variations could be understood as an expression of the composer’s meditative reflections on the order of the universe, or on the religious vision of the world and the human soul. (The German poet, novelist, and cultural philosopher Goethe said of the Goldberg Variations that it sounded like God musing on Himself.) All this points towards the obvious conclusion that classical music was meant to create an effect on the inner life of the listener, bypassing language and reason, and touching those layers of inner awareness that we might relate to intuition, dream, instinct, and soul. Where words were used, as in church music, it was assumed that music would render the deeper meaning of the texts, making the message more emotionally powerful and therefore more convincing than if the words were simply recited alone. The setting of religious texts was therefore carefully monitored by the religious authorities and, where necessary, restricted by rules which kept the clarity of the words intact. In the Lied tradition of the nineteenth century, it was accepted that the music was directly expressing the emotional dimension of the text, thereby doubling the effect of the words; the same with opera which attempted to engage the audience with a combined spectacle of words, stage action, music, and the creation of some sort of stylized reality.
In spite of the many successive changes in style, form, purposes, and social and political circumstances, serious art music in the West has always been relevant, i.e. it was a fully integrated part of the best that the culture of a time and place could offer. The ambitions which drove composers, performers, and commissioning patrons were always focused on “the Best,” in any and every sense. Relevance has never been an issue, and it would have been very difficult for a composer or performer in those periods to articulate the relevance of his art, as it would have been hard for a fish to explain the relevance of water. So it was until our own time: with democratization and emancipation of the masses, social mobility, technological progress, the development of an extensive media culture, and the abundance of information channels and distribution networks, authority no longer goes unquestioned. And classical music, as an art form that costs a lot of money (in Europe, mostly from the tax payer’s purse), is—for the first time—coming under pressure to justify its existence and its funding. This is, by all means, not an altogether bad development, since it forces musical professionals to rethink what they are doing and to what purpose. In a time where all the parameters of our civilization are shifting, and especially considering the current rise of populism everywhere in the Western world—a populism that is hostile to anything that may give the impression of “elitism”—it is of the greatest importance that the nature and purpose of classical music be articulated and argued, that it be protected from erosion and attacks based on ignorance and misunderstanding.
There are already many efforts underway to make classical music more accessible and to counter the impression that this is a museum culture for the happy few, like the numerous educational and “community projects” that orchestras all over the world have initiated. And in general, they seem to work well. One is sometimes surprised to discover that “classical music” is being presented as something that it is obviously not: hip, easily understood, and entirely in touch with modern times. In 2010, Holger Noltze, a music journalist and lecturer at the Technical University in Dortmund, published his book Die Leichtigkeitslüge (The Lie about Easiness), in which he criticized the way that classical music is increasingly presented to potential new audiences as something “easy.” He explains that complexity is an inherent quality of the art form, and claims that culture should be allowed not to be easy at all—that it can be painful at times for the audience, that it may hurt, and that this demonstrates its power and meaning. He has nothing to say against the element of entertainment in classical music, but claims that something important is lost when all of it is approached as nothing more than another form of aural fun. The book stirred up public opinion in Germany—and the fact that it was written in the Holy Land of Classical Music at all is a phenomenon which invites serious reflection. If even in Germany, the European country that sees itself as a “Kulturnation,” there are rising doubts about one of its greatest cultural assets, we all have to worry. So there is indeed a problem with classical music as a genre, a problem that goes to the heart of its nature and meaning and which can be best described as the problem of relevance in the context of the modern world, in relation to modern life which is in many ways so different from the art form and the times and places of its birth.
The problem which Noltze describes—making classical music “easy”—grows out of the idea that this art form is old, that it comes to us from premodern times (at least the heart of its repertoire does), and that the only way to make it relevant for modern times is to make it in some way compatible with the modern age. That means, not only making it “easy,” but also combining it with elements which typify our world today: visuals, media’s various cultural artifacts, a promotional cult surrounding it like that of pop music marketing, performers who adopt the images of pop idols complete with “bling,” and new concert halls which outdo each other in their efforts to look like futuristic spaceships from sci-fi TV series or computer games. Central to this approach is the reassuring suggestion that classical music is as quickly digested and understood as all the other offerings of modernity. These are all attempts to rescue the art form from its historic shelter and to bring it into the bright daylight of our own time, with its intense and evanescent life experiences. But here we touch the real problem which is ignored in these attempts: the real nature of the art form is its interiority.
We could point towards classical music as a repository of emotional knowledge and civilizational values, as an emotionally uplifting experience, as a signifier of cultural identity and a symbol of ethical awareness, but since these things have different meanings for every individual, it is much better to describe the art form in a way which includes all of these things: as offering an alternative to the modern world, contrary to the idea that classical music should be a reflection of the modern world. Where modernity draws modern man out of his own inner realm, classical music offers a place of inner restoration, anchoring one’s Self and creating a point of orientation and awareness from which the outward, modern world can be seen and dealt with. In this way, it protects the Self from being constantly bombarded with contradictory and confusing stimuli that cannot be properly digested because there is no coherent filter to manage them. So then, classical music is not a form of escapism but a balancing act to keep the inner world sane.
But how is this possible at all—the repertoire of classical music has been created in a time and place where the rattling of passing carriages was the worst sonic distraction, where none of the raging noises of modernity could even be imagined? In those times, people had enough time on their hands to reflect upon life, upon their experiences, to be aware of their own reactions to them, and to quietly contemplate the perspectives of the past, present, and future. People had the time and the attention to allow ideas to sink in, to mature, to take on individual and collective form; craft had a long trajectory of development accompanied by constant reflection. The result of such a life was that the experiences of interiority were close to the surface and artists were strongly aware of them. The “interior world of individual experience” was the normal wavelength on which they operated. And since music is an abstract art, i.e. non-conceptual, composers could embed their experiences in the structures of their music, where those experience shed their temporality and specifics to become universal.
This means that the “old repertoire” which forms the mainstay of classical music, together with its aesthetic values, has never become old at all, but remains as fresh as ever, reflecting interior experience which is accessible to every new generation. In our modern world this interiority has become rare and something to be wrestled from the modern world; the noisier the world becomes, the more valuable the realm where people can restore their inner balance and awareness of individuality.
The implications of the true nature of classical music as the art form of universal interiority are drastic: They call not for its adaptation to modern life, but instead offer an utterly contrasting experience that makes classical music an indispensable part of the modern world. It is the very thing the modern world desperately needs if it wants to preserve the common sense and equilibrium it needs in order to function at all.
If classical music is the art of “therapeutic” interiority, then thinking about presentation, marketing, funding, etc. needs to be developed from this insight. “Selling” music in wrapping paper which belies its nature will inevitably lead to disappointment: The regular listeners will feel their experience is being diminished and dumbed down and may stay away in the future; potential new audiences—especially the younger generations without much exposure to classical music—will feel cheated when they find out that a Mahler symphony does not sound at all like heavy metal or hip-hop. One could revisit the many rubbing points that characterize the problems of classical music with this perspective in mind and try to find new and better ways to connect the art form to the needs of modern society instead of trying to make it compatible with modernity. Symphony orchestras especially, vulnerable because of their complex bureaucracy and great expenses, could find explorative trajectories to anchor the institution within society in a way that secures their existence in the present and in the future. And at the heart of such considerations lies the way in which the orchestra, as an institution, is perceived from the outside, from the modern world to which it offers a much-needed alternative space.
A short word about the sonic art performance culture is appropriate here. Since the Second World War, this entirely new art form has developed aesthetic and, especially, psychological receptive frameworks which differ fundamentally from those of music. This has meant an entirely different approach to composition, performance, education, and marketing. Sonic art does not intend to address the listener’s interior life but instead wants him to become aware of the aesthetics of pure sound patterns, which is more like an observation process of patterns which are not means of any communication of interior, emotional experience, but are objective, independent entities to be enjoyed for themselves, as natural phenomena are. Sonic art is not an art of interiority but an objective art that belongs to the world of objective entities. Given the ideological nature of much sonic art and its promotion, which insistently relates it to the specific character of modernity, it can never offer the contrast to modernity as explained in the first part of this essay. It belongs firmly to the modern world to which classical music, as the art of interiority, in contrast, offers an alternative experience. In other words: Audiences who want to immerse themselves again in the modern experience will seek sonic art; listeners who long for an experience that confirms their inner life and universal humanity will try to find this in classical music.
Let us now try, with the concept of interiority in mind, to find indications of possible solutions that can help to preserve classical music in the future. What follows are mere general suggestions which, however, can be further explored in specific cases and thus may offer new and fertile trajectories.
Educational programs of classical music should be organized from primary schools onwards and clearly presented as an alternative music to pop, in the way healthy fruit is presented as an alternative to fast food, ice cream, and candy. It should not be treated as something old-fashioned but instead as something that has proven, by experience, to be wholesome to people’s emotional development. Active playing and singing, however simple, should be part of such programs. Comparisons with pop music which children will hear elsewhere in abundance, comparisons in which classical music is told to be superior, should be avoided, since patronizing overtones of a truth hinder communication; children will have to discover for themselves the quality difference when they engage in classical music; and if they do not, that’s too bad—but you cannot force love and appreciation. At least children who do not appear to be sensitive to classical music will know it exists and that it is important for a lot of people, and a normal part of civilization.
At the level of secondary school, the case of interiority and timelessness can be discussed around active playing and informative listening sessions. And at the university level, music history and general education in classical music culture should be a normal part of the humanities and of first-year, or preparatory, orientation programs. Every student leaving university should know the basics of the classical music culture, irrespective of the profession he has been prepared for. As for “diversity”: Since classical music is universal (because human interiority is universal), it is not bound to culturally-defined mental territories; it is open to everybody with enough interest and sensitivity to spend some effort and time on it, and will give its full and rich rewards to listeners irrespective of ethnic background or culture. Such music information courses at the university level should not be part of gender studies, or music-sociological courses where music history is treated as part of political or social agendas; however interesting such courses may be, they do not touch the heart of the art form which transcends such contexts.
When information given in the media and on websites about concerts, ensembles, orchestras, and opera houses, apart from the practical data, is presented in a style which does justice to the dignity of the art form and which refrains from any association with vulgar commercial advertisement, such an approach will be an honest and correct service to prospective listeners. Where orchestras and opera houses also include the more popular genres like musicals and cross-over programs, the style of presentation should be as different as possible from the presentation style of the classical programs, so that it will be clear to prospective listeners that classical music is really a different genre and will address the more sophisticated and developed inner life of audiences.
The star cult around brilliant performers has always been part of the classical music culture, and it would be much too puritanical to bring up arguments against it, since the real, live presence of such artists is one of the great attractions of a concert. But it makes quite a difference whether performers are presented as the main subject of the event, or as serving the music. A certain measure of dignity and chastity will keep the balance right (one thinks of pianists dressed up like pop stars, or singers almost drowning in their cleavage—a misapplication of the idea of interiority—which creates a barrier between the listener and the music by exaggerating the outer appearances of the intermediate).
If the promotion and marketing of concerts focus on the contemporary need for interior experience, one has the best chance to get audiences, both old and new, who will recognize the value of the event and will come back for more. When attracting young and new audiences, it will not be references to the modern world, or pop, or superficial glamor that will bring them around more than once, but the argument that they will find something of their own inner identity touched and confirmed by classical music. Surely young people, still finding their way into life and into a confusing and often insecure world, will be interested in experiencing something that will strengthen their sense of self, that will stimulate aspirations, and that connects them to the long organic chain of generations, an experience which may insert some awareness of human greatness, individual potential, and all the important human values which cannot be defined by “the market” or fashion or hip technologies.
A short word upon “diversity,” a term which often crops up in government reports, fundraising initiatives, and defenses of the art form in relation to social changes. The classical repertoire was created in times and places which were different from our own times. The idea that the art form should be accessible to all community types within society is perfectly legitimate and right; given the universality of classical music, it cannot be nailed down to a mere product of dead, white males from undemocratic times and thus an expression of white, male, European dominance. The music transcends such narrow-minded notions. It is not anti-women, anti-proletariat, anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, anti-gay, anti-whatever, but addresses itself to any human being prepared to open her heart and ears (probably the latter in the first place). So, programming which seeks to meet requirements of diversity by including works which do not belong to the genre is creating a barrier: Listeners from backgrounds where Western classical music is not heard should not come to the concert hall to recognize something of their culture at home, but to be invited to explore an art form which may be unfamiliar at first but which can be absorbed by their own inner Self in the same it absorbed their own cultural symbols and metaphors, and thus provide an enrichment without any suggestion of “giving up” something of their own cultural identity. As Western listeners can learn to understand and experience Indian traditional music, Indians can do the same with Western classical music. Because of its all-embracing universality, Western classical music is particularly suited to the needs of our own globalized, and therefore increasingly neurotic, times.
As we know, funding of classical music differs from country to country and especially from the USA to Europe. Where concerts are dependent upon private donors and corporate sponsorship, again the contemporary need for the interior experience that classical music offers, best be at the heart of the fundraising exercise. Also references to permanence, continuity, and the civilizing influence of the art form should help to attract donors who feel committed to such values and corporate sponsors who wish their products to be associated with an art form contributing to compelling, interior experience. (A good example of the presentation of classical music with a dignified emanation of quality—and with a discrete reference to sponsorship but without the suggestion that music is a mere luxury product—is the website of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, where a mere little clock on the left indicates that the orchestra has a sponsor relationship with Rolex.)
Where governments support classical music, as they do in Europe, orchestras’ existence is secured by structural subsidies. Spending tax money on such institutions has to be politically motivated and this results in the dependence of the institutions—orchestras, opera houses, concert halls, etc.—upon just how politicians think about cultural identity and the political gain they may derive from supporting the arts or else cutting the subsidies (as recently happened in Denmark and the Netherlands, both countries gravely suffering from populist inroads into the cultural sector). Most countries in Europe, however, still have a strong traditional cultural identity in spite of the erosion that comes with globalization. Germany and Austria understand themselves as Kulturnationen, “nations of culture,” where classical music especially forms an important part of national self-understanding. France still cultivates its patrimoine, the total of cultural monuments, artifacts, and traditions which have come down through the ages, not to mention Italy and Spain with their rich inheritances. The arguments that institutions have to regularly present to the state funding bodies have to relate to the political agendas of the reigning parties, and where the political landscape changes these arguments change as well. The current rise of populism, which infects many political parties who had been immune against such erosion before, means that musical institutions have to find other accents in their arguments to justify their function within society. In the discourse with governments, the populist agenda is entirely against any culture which claims high quality experience since any such suggestion is considered “elitist.” The best an institution could do when confronted by such an agenda is to stress the accessibility of classical music and its therapeutic effect on all levels of the community—and be silent about its relationship to notions of “European civilization,” its artistic qualities, its level of craftsmanship, and the like. As for the concept of interiority: this will probably be much too difficult to understand for populist politicians and thus better left untouched.
A concert hall is not merely a practical space for live concerts; it also creates the appropriate mood where classical music can be experienced in the most appropriate way. But what is the most appropriate way? To begin with, this space will have to underline its separateness from the outside world, not only acoustically (a practical consideration) but also psychologically, to underline the interior nature of the art form. The great concert halls of the nineteenth century, when public music life found its first anchoring in public space, were created like temples, separate from the noise of daily life, often with solemn classicist design and richly-sculpted decorations out- and inside the hall, which had the advantage of both creating an atmosphere of dignity and elevation and spreading and distributing the sound waves in such a way that the music comes into its own right. In the twentieth century, however, architectural modernism sought to stress the contemporaneity of the concert hall building, with the effect that the music being performed inside began to seem “outdated” and “historical.” Together with the splitting-off of the avant-garde from the central performance culture, modern concert halls seemed to underline the museum-like nature of the classical, pre-modernist repertoire. The inescapable conclusion is that, if classical music should be best served in its concert spaces, we need to build concert halls in a classical style, as happened in Nashville with the Schermerhorn Symphony Centre.
Fortunately, many musical institutions have extended their activities to educational programs in the communities of their cities, trying to interest young people and hoping to build new audiences for the future. Some of these community programs have taken on the character of a social engineering exercise, as if classical music could heal the social problems of underprivileged neighborhoods suffering from crime and racism, thereby suggesting that the influence of music should be able to change attitudes in the social sphere. But classical music is not an instrument of social change in a direct sense: If it has an influence, it works in an indirect way by civilizing the emotions, awakening aspirations, confirming the self. But it cannot solve the problems resulting from the lack of these things. Those problems are (for music) too far down the chain of cause and effect. Active participation in music-making in ensembles, sponsored by either donors or the state, can certainly improve problem neighborhoods as many reports have shown, but one should not expect miracles from classical music in such areas.
Last but not least, the burning question of repertoire. For classical music as a genre to survive in modern times, renewal of the repertoire is a fundamental requirement: Without renewal, the art form petrifies and audiences will stay away because they will have the repertoire of works on CD at home. An obvious way to rejuvenate the repertoire is to explore works of the past which have gone out of fashion or which have been unjustly overlooked—the filter of history is by no means an “honest” one and many unmusical factors have an influence on the formation of the repertoire that appears to survive the times. There are works by well-known composers which were once popular but then fell out of fashion, as well as works by these composers which were never very popular but are nevertheless definitely worthwhile. Among the examples which come to mind are César Franck’s symphonic poem Le Chasseur Maudit and his Variations Symphoniques for piano and orchestra; Fauré’s Ballade for piano and orchestra; the operas of Cherubini (highly appreciated by Beethoven); symphonic poems by Saint-Saëns; the neoclassical repertoire by Stravinsky and De Falla. Music which has been overshadowed by “the Greats” can also offer surprising works, like Reger’s Romantic Suite (a most remarkable work), or the many engaging works by British composers of the early twentieth century (Vaughan Williams, Holst, Delius). The twentieth-century tonal tradition, much maligned and pushed to the margins by modernism and academia, offers a veritable treasure trove of interesting music which, fortunately, is currently explored by recording labels and which has been thoroughly mapped by Canadian musicologist Herbert Pauls. There is so much unfamiliar and engaging music already written that it won’t be very hard, with some serious time spent on it, to find additional repertoire which enriches concert life with an injection of adventure and exploration.
And then there is contemporary production, which, on the surface, seems to carry the stronger symbolism of renewal and development for the art form. But this invokes some quite complex questions. If renewal means programming a new, still unknown work, then how do we know beforehand that it is worthwhile, given the immensely wide range of idioms and the fact that a lot of new music is unsuited for classical music’s performance format? How to find your way into that jungle, and with which value framework? How do we know beforehand that announcing the new work won’t reduce ticket sales—since an unknown or contemporary name on the program often invites grave suspicion with prospective audiences that it may be one of those indigestible pieces that are painfully endured rather than a compelling and interesting experience? And then, could a new work which is painful on first hearing not be a great work after all when performed more than once—and if so, how could we know? After all, orchestras, opera companies, and smaller ensembles can function perfectly well without any “unfamiliar” work, the established repertoire being so large and varied. Orchestras and opera companies work under strong pressures to get the planned performances realized in the best possible way. The many letters, proposals, and recordings they receive from composers, their agents, or their publishers every day create mountains of unsolicited mail in corners of their offices and they simply don’t have the capacity to deal with those masses of information which are mostly seen as a mere threat to their working routine. In general, orchestras and opera companies don’t have a specialized staff member dedicated exclusively exploring such material, and the staff dealing with artistic planning can’t afford to lose valuable time assessing material they are not equipped to judge.
Another problem is the sheer amount of new music being produced every minute of every hour nowadays. Because the musical fashions that have arisen since WWII claim total freedom from traditional musical standards and aesthetic norms, composing has become open to anybody—including people with the ambition but without the talents to really write meaningful music. And they are many. What’s more, current computer technology makes putting something together that one could call a “composition” possible for people who in former periods would not have dreamed of becoming a musician, let alone a composer. This has resulted in the current proliferation of “composers” thronging at the doors of orchestras, ensembles, and opera houses, creating a dense fog that is looked upon with suspicion and gloom from the closed windows of artistic leadership. It has thus become very difficult for institutions to find new, valuable works.
What is the role of conductors in introducing unfamiliar works? They compete for restricted opportunities in the field, and career choices are often given priority over interest in content. But fortunately, quite a few conductors—mostly of the younger generation—understand that restricting their repertoire to warhorses will not benefit either their career or the art form itself, and proposals from conductors to the planning staff are a possible route to performance. But conductors who have earned the trust of the orchestral staff, whether of their own orchestra or of other orchestras where they make guest appearances, generally have little time to explore the labyrinth of new music and to react to the flood of proposals coming their way.
Orchestras and opera companies try to give as many performances as possible to exploit the available financial and practical resources to the fullest. Well-known works of the repertoire only need rehearsing for the “how” and not for the “what,” so works from the standard repertoire are cheaper and more practical than unfamiliar or new works. Most of the time, new works are only rehearsed for the “what;” and where the music in itself does not intend to transcend the sound level, where the “how” consists in getting the notes and timbres in the right place and nothing more (which is mostly the case with postwar music), preparations are finished when the structure is more or less correct. But this does not leave listeners with the impression of communication and a deeper musical meaning. The result is that the work is soon forgotten and not repeated because it does not invite more hearings. What happens to the rare works in which, as in “older” music, the level of sound is a mere carrier of musical expression? Extra rehearsal time is needed to create the opportunity of exploring the expressive dimension, and that is only possible when first the “what,” the right notes in the right place, has been realized. Given the cost of rehearsal time, this rarely happens, with the result that works which may offer the unique opportunity to add to the repertoire are put in the same category as the superficial, musically-empty products and share the same fate of oblivion. Postwar modernism and its hip progeny, in combination with the expensive cost of operation for orchestras and opera houses, created barriers which hinder renewal of the repertoire—a self-destructive mix, pushing classical music into the corner as a “museum culture.”
The only possibility for orchestras and opera houses to find new repertoire, with the chance that they hit upon something of real value, is to preserve a practical framework: the one which defines the fundamentals of the art form. This means ignoring the postwar modernist ideologies of progress—because there is no progress in the arts—and requiring of new repertoire that it be suited to the medium as it has developed over time. In other words, new music should be rooted in some sort of tonality, create the possibility of communication and expression, and offer the players (and singers when in opera) the opportunity to create a coherent total musical experience which can be combined with existing repertoire and which avoids disruption of the general format of the art form—which, after all, is merely a means to an end: the compelling musical experience. Only then will the expensive extra rehearsal time needed for a satisfying result be justified. Does this sound “conservative?” Is preserving fundamentals of a precious art form “conservative?” Or is it merely common sense? If we want classical music to survive in modern times, it should be its intrinsic, artistic quality which carries developments, not its deviations from the only format within which the art form can thrive. New music which needs to deconstruct the fundamentals of the art form to make its mark is dealing not with content but with the outer form, which points toward a lack of artistic motivation. Even the most deviating works in the past, like Stravinsky’s Sacre, made use of the basic format of classical music to introduce a highly original treatment of melody, harmony, rhythm, and instrumentation—all of which were rooted in music that existed already at the time. The Sacre was not avant-garde and modernist (which is modernist jargon) but highly idiosyncratic and an extreme version of an existing musical tradition: the one of Russian folklore, being prepared and practiced long before Stravinsky laid his hands on it.
Thus two possibilities readily present themselves regarding the renewal of the repertoire:
- Exploring unfamiliar works from the past, of which there are many that deserve a new hearing; and
- Looking for contemporary music which conforms to the fundamentals and medium of our performance culture (orchestra, ensemble, opera house).
Either way, it would be best if orchestras and opera houses appointed a special staff member to explore and select new ideas for programming. Someone with both performance experience and an extensive education in music history and aesthetics would be ideal for such undertaking and able to intelligently discuss new ideas with the conductor(s) concerned.
Fortunately, there is already much effort being spent on the survival of classical music by both the established institutions and many ad hoc initiatives. However it is to be hoped that musical institutions will, in the course of time, become still more adept at navigating their routine pressures which, though entirely understandable, in the long run may prevent necessary reform. In spite of all the stories of “a dying art” and the completely unfounded criticism that it is “outdated’ and “incompatible with modern times,” Western classical music as a genre remains one of the greatest human achievements and inspires hope that the we will, at some stage, be capable of creating a civilized world in which the benefits of the mind and spirit can flourish.
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. Republished with gracious permission from the Future Symphony Institute (Spring 2017). The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.