Monday, June 27, 2005

Classical-music conundrum

Because of my tendency to advertise my pet peeves, some of my friends are understandably mystified as to what my tastes are (in the positive sense) in classical music. The era I am totally devoted to is the baroque, especially the following composers: Bach, Buxtehude, Charpentier, Corelli, Couperin, Handel, Lully, Marais, Monteverdi, Purcell, and Vivaldi. Gosh! Just reciting this list sends me into ecstasy.

Apart from the ponderous Adagio attributed to Albinoni, I can hardly think of any baroque work that I dislike. It is all, as a New York music critic named De Koven used to say, "OTW" (out of this world). Indeed, that is the key. Baroque music affirms a c o s m i c order, independent of the quest for ego satisfaction of individual creators (even the incomparable J.S. Bach). This tradition continued with Mozart and Haydn, whom I also like but not as much as the baroque masters.

The villain, as far as I can see, was Beethoven, who introduced the principle of the egotistical sublime. Nonetheless, some of his works, the Ninth Symphony, the late quartets and sonatas, escape the ban, because he was a transitional figure. But the sickly, sugary confections of Chopin, Brahms, and Dvorak are to me intolerable. Ditto Mahler, heavily invested in a pseudo-cosmic dimension.

The great exception was Richard Wagner, whose music is both egotistical and cosmic. Out of it grows, I think, most of what is valuable in twentieth-century music.

Nowadays I use twentieth-century music (of which I have many CDs) as a supplement, a kind of sauce, to my baroque obsession. To be sure, when I was in college I fell into step with a powerful ideology diffused by the French critic and conductor René Leibowitz, who held that Arnold Schoenberg represented the most intense and indispensable incarnation of the zeitgeist of the musical twentieth century. In my early days in LAI used to go to concerts of Music on the Roof, an organization that promoted this music. They were in the habit of playing the pieces twice, as they were difficult. Over the years I have grown away from 12-tone music, but I expect to go back to it. Also, Bartók; I don't quite know why I stopped listening to him.

As I said, I now use twentieth-century composers as a kind of dietary supplement, rather than my main fare. However, here are some categories I like: the music of ecstasy (Scriabin, Franz Schmidt, John Adams, Philip Glass); the "raucous" school (Varèse, early Antheil, Leo Ornstein, Louis Andriessen (a find, but not for everyone)--in fact anything played by Bang on a Can. Sometimes I seek solace in what I term bagatelles: piano music by Debussy, Albéniz, Granados, and the American Charles Tomlinson Griffes. Britten and Shostakovich, both admirable if sometimes problematic, seem to belong to realms of their own.

I am not a religious person, but I find both solace and intensity in some twentieth-century composers who combine religion and modernism. In my view, the first major composer in this vein was Olivier Messiaen. His profound organ works are perhaps the best to start with. Basic himself on Eastern Orthodox models, John Tavener’s music is especially hypnotic. So too, in a different way, is the work of Arvo Pärt. An early twentieth-century forerunner of this trend is the mystic George Gudjieff (Thomas de Hartmann set his melodies for the piano). They are for the most part simple chord sequences, good in small doses but wearying after a while.

Now for the negative side, which candor requires that I address. Why don't I like such "tonal modernists" as Howard Hanson, Samuel Barber, William Schuman and their tribe? This music strikes me as bland and obvious, indeed soporific. Prolonging the impulses of Brahms, Dvorak and their ilk, it represents a timid semimodernism content to rehash the clichés of the tail end of the Romantic Movement. Similarly, Elgar, Sibelius, Hindemith, and Nielsen. For reasons I don't quite understand I would except Gustav Holst from this dismissal. At all events why bother with these musical sleeping pills, when one can rouse oneself through the works of a Philip Glass and a Louis Andriessen? Perhaps the answer is that some seek soothing, calm music that induces a sense of gentle reverie. Usually I do not.

My remarks above about nineteenth-century works must seem harsh. In some sense, I may just have “worn out” these symphonies, through too many broadcasts of standard fare on the classical music stations (such as they are now in NYC). I also do not care to attend another performance of "Carmen" or "Aida"—though both, to be fair have some stirring moments.

This disenchantment—impatience, if you will—requires analysis as part of the general phenomenon of fading responses. We eat and eat, say, French-fries, and then we don’t want to eat them any more. Such a turn-off actually happened to me with lobster

This phenomenon of "wearing out" through overfamiliarity has sometimes been termed jading. In an analysis that seems more descriptive than explanatory, behaviorists term it “extinction.”

In the aesthetic realm the phenomenon was investigated almost a hundred years ago by the Russian formalist critics, who referred to it as banalization. This occurs, with a literary work such as the novels of Dickens from the general pattern of promulgation, including implicit recipes for understanding the work. The reader internalizes these recipes before he even attempts the task of reading the novels. The Formalists believed that a process of “making strange” or defamaliarization could reverse the negative effects of this pattern of banalization. In the musical realm we might refer to the electronic versions of Bach produced by Wendy Carlos or the jazzlike choral efforts of the Swingle Sisters. In reality, the works of Bach are among those that most resist the corrosion of the banalization process, a factor that may account for the decline of interest in the efforts of Carlos and the Swingle Sisters. They are not needed.

At all events we know what the culprits are in the banalization of the symphonies of Beethoven, Brahms, Dvorak, and Tchaikovsky are. Our declining interest in such works (at least my declining interest) is an effect of the endless programming of these war-horses by symphony orchestras and classical music stations. When some years ago, Pierre Boulez served as principal conductor of the New York Philharmonic orchestra, he programmed many modern works. Consistently the results were half empty houses. The increasingly elderly audience wants to hear the same war-horses year in year out.

This passé insistence on populating the domain of classical music with composers who died quite a while back is anomalous. Imagine a situation in which exhibitions of Picasso and Matisse were deserted, and masterpieces by James Joyce and Hemingway attracted few readers.

How then can we account for the neglect of modern achievement in the world of classical music? In a series of publications Joseph Horowitz has addressed the matter. The latest is an elephantine tome of 606 pages entitled Classical Music in America: Its Rise and Fall (W.W. Norton). Horowitz contrasts the present situation with that at the end of the nineteenth century, when contemporary classical composers such as Dvorak and Tchaikovsky were well received. He believes that since that time the esteem for contemporary composers has been replaced by the cult of the performer, comprising the star pianists, violinists, opera divas, and conductors. This, Horowitz believes, is a distinctively American phenomenon. However, much the same situation prevails in Europe. In fact most of he handful of composers who are now bucking the trend are American, notably the minimalists John Adams and Philip Glass are American.

Still there is no doubt that Horowitz' overall diagnosis is correct: classical music is in a bad way in America. CDs of seldom-performed modern works are fine, but how much longer will even those survive in the absence of a living culture of contemporary music? There is growing interest in World Music, from a variety of countries and cultural zones. I myself enjoy some traditional Islamic, Indian, and Indonesian music. Perhaps as these elements are absorbed the music scene will be reinvigorated.


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