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p. 393. A State of Crisis?locked

  • Nicholas Cook


‘A State of Crisis?’ questions the position of classical music in the twenty-first century. It argues that although it may be seen as a dying area in America, it is still thriving in Europe. The influence of modern technology and the immediate availability of music from all over the world are discussed along with the works of Harrison Birtwistle and Viennese composer Schoenberg. It is shown that the most telling contrast between today's musical world and the ways of thinking about it that we have inherited from the nineteeth century concerns high and low art. The music industry has also successfully repositioned classical music as a major niche product in contemporary consumer culture.

A Global Resource

Ideas of the spirit realm, of Nature or Music speaking through the genius composer, seem about as remote as they could be from musical culture at the turn of the twenty‐first century. But the ways of thinking about music that accompanied the reception of Beethoven's music were all of a piece, and they are the source of the features of contemporary musical culture which I described in Chapter 1: the emphasis on authenticity and self‐expression that underlies much popular music criticism, for instance, or the strangely conflicted ways in which we talk about performers in both the popular and classical traditions. And it was only a year ago, as I write, that Harrison Birtwistle (perhaps Britain's leading modernist composer) condensed the Beethovenian concept of the composer into a dozen words when he announced, ‘I can't be responsible for the audience: I'm not running a restaurant.’

In fact, if the nineteenth‐century idea of ‘pure music’ meant understanding it in its own terms, independent of any external meaning or social context, then you could argue that twentieth‐century sound reproduction technology has given a massive boost to this kind of thinking. The music of practically all times and places lies no further away than the nearest record store; if that's too far, then internet sites like ROCK AROUND THE WORLD will bring it into your living‐room via a modem. Chronological and geographical differences evaporate as we p. 40increasingly think of music as an almost infinite pool of resources to be pulled off the shelf or downloaded from the Web. And this might be seen as the ultimate realization of the idea of music that evolved during the early years of the Beethoven cult, the years when the canon of classical masterworks came into being, with major works being laid down as cultural capital instead of going out of fashion a generation after they were composed.

If the availability of music within today's society represents the culmination of nineteenth‐century thinking in some ways, however, in others it could hardly be more different. In Beethoven's time, and right through the century, the only music you could hear was live music, whether in a public concert hall or a domestic parlour. (The manufacture of upright pianos, small enough to fit into middle‐class homes, was one of the biggest growth industries from the middle of the nineteenth century up to the First World War – as was the publication of sheet music to go with them.) But nowadays it is as if the imaginary museum of music is all around us. We can watch grand opera (or the Balinese ‘monkey dance’, based on the Ramayana) from the comfort of an armchair. We can listen to David Bowie (or a Beethoven symphony) while driving into work. Through personal stereo we can integrate bebop or heavy metal into our experience of the cityscape. And brought like this into the midst of everyday life, music becomes an element in the definition of personal lifestyle, alongside the choice of a new car, clothes, or perfume. Deciding whether to listen to Beethoven, or Bowie, or Balinese music becomes the same kind of choice as deciding whether to eat Italian, Thai, or Cajun tonight. However unpalatable to Birtwistle, the truth is that in today's consumer society we do behave rather as if composers were high‐class restaurateurs.

We have a paradox. On the one hand, modern technology has given music the autonomy which nineteenth‐century musicians and aestheticians claimed for it (but in a sense fraudulently, because in reality ‘pure music’ was confined to the middle‐class ambience of p. 41concert hall and home). On the other hand, it has turned many of the basic assumptions of nineteenth‐century musical culture upside down. The more we behave as musical consumers, treating music as some kind of electronically mediated commodity or lifestyle accessory, the less compatible our behaviour becomes with nineteenth‐century conceptions of the composer's authority. Indeed, as I suggested, the very idea of authorship has become parlous in relation to contemporary studio production, where techniques of recording and digital sound transformation place as much creative scope in the sound engineer's and producer's hands as the so‐called artist's. (Many writers on music badly underestimate the contribution to the final product of sound engineers and producers.)

And the immediate availability of music from all over the world means that it has become as easy and unproblematic to talk about different ‘musics’ as about different ‘cuisines’. For someone like Schenker, talking about ‘musics’ would have been preposterous: given that it is the voice of Music or Nature that we hear through the genius composers, he might have said, it makes no more sense to talk of ‘musics’ than it would of ‘natures’. What is at issue here is the difference between a nineteenth‐ or early twentieth‐century European mindset, according to which the achievements of Western art and science represented a kind of gold standard against which those of other times and places must be measured, and the circumstances of today's post‐colonial, multicultural society. It is like the difference between believing in the advance of Civilization, and accepting that across the world there have been (and will continue to be) any number of different civilizations, each with its own system of values.

But perhaps the most telling contrast between today's musical world and the ways of thinking about it that we have inherited from the nineteeth century concerns high and low art. The very terms seem suspect today, and even if you wanted to use them it would be hard to be confident about what is high and what is low art. (Birtwistle is high p. 42art, obviously, and presumably the Spice Girls are low art, but you only have to read the rock and pop criticism columns of the Sunday papers to see how inadequate it would be simply to identify high art with the classical tradition and low art with popular music.) Writers about music in the academic tradition, however, have traditionally had no such qualms. High art, or ‘art’ music, meant the notation‐based traditions of the leisured classes, and above all the great repertory of Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms. Low art meant everything else, that is to say the limitless variety of popular and mainly non‐notated – and hence historically irretrievable – musical traditions. Some low art, according to this view, might have valuable qualities of its own, in particular the rural folksongs that scholars were busily collecting in Europe and America around the turn of the twentieth century, and that composers as various as Dvořák, Vaughan Williams, and Bartók incorporated into their own music; provided they had survived in their original form and avoided contamination by the burgeoning, urban‐based music industry, such folksongs were seen as conveying something of the unspoilt national character of the countryside and its inhabitants. But that did not stop them being seen as low art, because they did not spring from the individual vision of an inspired composer. The voice of the people might be heard through them, but hardly the voice of Music.

This confident distinction between high and low art still persists in the standard format of music history or appreciation textbooks. They tell the story of Western ‘art’ music, focused at first on Europe and expanding in the nineteenth century to North America. And then, after the story is basically finished, they add a chapter or two on popular music (possibly tracing its history before the twentieth century, but concentrating on jazz – which has been transformed since the Second World War into a kind of alternative ‘art’ tradition – and rock). It is obvious that there is a kind of apartheid at work here; popular music is segregated from the ‘art’ tradition. What is even more revealing, however, is the treatment of non‐Western traditions in such books, or p. 43even in larger multi‐volume surveys such as the New Oxford History of Music. If such traditions appear at all, they generally come right at the beginning. A common strategy is to begin with a couple of chapters on the elements of music – scales, notation, instruments, and so forth – and bring non‐Western musics into that. Or sometimes you begin with the primitive music of traditional hunting and nomadic societies and move quickly on to the sophisticated traditions of Asian music (Indian, Chinese, and Korean or Japanese, perhaps, with a side excursion to take in the gamelan or percussion orchestra music of Indonesia). Either way, around the beginning of Chapter 3 there is a kind of crashing of historical and geographical gears as the scene shifts to the cathedral of Notre‐Dame in Paris, where Léonin and Pérotin – the first known composers of the Western ‘polyphonic’ or multi‐part tradition – flourished towards the end of the twelfth century, and with these preliminaries over the real story of music (that is, Western art music) begins.

It is hardly possible to miss the implicit associations in such a scheme of non‐Western cultures with beginnings, and of Western culture with progress. That such thinking was commonplace at the turn of the twentieth century, the time when the sun never set on the British Empire, is only to be expected. That it is still to be encountered at the turn of the twenty‐first is astonishing, for it offers an entirely inadequate basis for understanding music in today's pluralist society. It is hard to think of another field in which quite such uncritically ethnocentric and élitist conceptions have held such sway until so recently – for, as will become clear in the final chapter of this book, since the mid‐1980s a sea change has taken hold in the academic discipline of musicology.

Death and Transfiguration

It is often claimed that the tradition of Western classical music is in a state of crisis. But the claim is too sweeping.

p. 44It is certainly true that there is a crisis in terms of what is often called ‘serious’ contemporary music (an unsatisfactory label, obviously, since it implies that music outside the concert‐hall tradition cannot be serious), at least if crisis is to be defined in terms of audience statistics. The idea that progressive, new music must by definition be a minority taste – that only an élite will be able to appreciate it – is a historical phenomenon; it goes back to around the beginning of the twentieth century, when there was an explosion of self‐consciously ‘avant‐garde’ movements across the arts. The most conspicuous example is painting: reacting against the fossilized conventions of institutionally approved, ‘academic’ art, young painters developed self‐consciously innovative and individualistic styles of work, and published manifestos in which they explained that their work heralded a new artistic movement (Orphism, Vorticism, Futurism, or whatever). And a similar pursuit of innovation spread to the other arts; the Viennese composer Schoenberg, for instance, was extremely self‐conscious about the historic significance of his abandonment of tonality (the ‘common‐practice’ system according to which music is organized around a central key or ‘tonic’), and his subsequent invention of serialism. He even claimed that it would ensure the dominance of German music for another hundred years (the ‘another’, of course, is a reference back to Beethoven).

The serial method, which Schoenberg and his followers used from the 1920s, meant constructing music out of the same sequence of notes used over and over again, though it was done in such a way that the results were not as banal or obvious as this makes them sound (so you could use the sequence of notes or ‘series’ backwards or upside down, you could transpose it up or down so that it began on a different note, and so on). Nevertheless serial music sounded very different from tonal music. Listeners found that many of the familiar musical landmarks had disappeared. And the less the new music sounded like the old, the fewer people listened to it. Those who did listen became highly committed to it; modern music became ghettoized as its audiences became p. 45increasingly divorced from those who listened to the mainstream classical repertory. But Schoenberg and many of his contemporaries thought that this was merely a transient, if unavoidable, phase: the history of music, they said, showed that audiences always resisted the unfamiliar, but in time they got used to it and learned to appreciate it. (Had not contemporary audiences rejected Beethoven's ‘Hammerklavier’ Sonata and Ninth Symphony?) Schoenberg himself looked forward to a time when, as he said, grocers' boys would whistle serial music on their rounds.

If Schoenberg really believed what he said (and it is hard to be quite sure about this), then it represents one of the most poignant moments in the history of music. For serialism did not achieve popularity; the process of familiarization for which he and his contemporaries were waiting never occurred. Instead, the label ‘modern music’ stayed stubbornly attached to the music of a period that passed further and further into history, giving rise to the absurd situation that concert‐promoters today may reject as too ‘modern’ a composition that goes back to the time when our grandparents were children. Why did this happen? Maybe it was because composers like Schoenberg (like Birtwistle) believed too wholeheartedly in the nineteenth‐century concept of authenticity, and so treated listeners with something bordering on contempt. (Nineteenth‐century composers, by contrast, frequently gave listeners precisely what they wanted, even as they proclaimed the high‐minded principles of ‘art for art's sake’. The same might be said of progressive rock bands.) Or maybe it was because they believed that lack of popular acclaim guaranteed the seriousness and integrity of their work, and accordingly directed their music to a tiny audience of committed listeners, rather than to the public in general; certainly this is what is suggested by the Society for Private Musical Performances which Schoenberg set up in Vienna in 1918, to whose concerts only bona fide members were admitted, and then on condition that they neither applauded nor allowed any report of the music to appear in the public press. Or perhaps it is just that ‘serious’ contemporary music was p. 46elbowed out by a succession of developments in popular music (‘light’ music, jazz, rhythm 'n' blues, rock, and so on) that brought other types of contemporary music to unprecedented heights of popularity.

There is a sense, though, in which this rather dismal picture of modern music is misleading. I have presented it as a picture of failure, as if the criterion of success was that the music of Schoenberg, Birtwistle, and the rest should come to occupy the same role in our concert halls, record shops, and sitting‐rooms as that of Beethoven and Brahms (or Michael Jackson and The Artist Formerly Known As Prince, for that matter). But there is no reason to assume that they should occupy the same slot. I spoke in Chapter 1 of the plurality of subcultures that has replaced the monolithic, institutionally approved culture of nineteenth‐century thought. Modern music, or rather ‘modern music’, flourishes mainly on the fringes of State subsidy and academia, and sometimes also of the entertainment industry (as in soundtracks for horror movies), but the point is that in those areas it does flourish. It is a niche product, certainly – but then you could say the same about the Beethoven/Brahms tradition. The difference is just in the size of the niche, and the degree of economic leverage associated with it.

In any case, even if the contemporary wing of the classical tradition is challenged in respect of its client base, so to speak, that is no reason for saying that classical music as a whole is in a state of crisis. To be sure, the tradition has become static, in the sense that its centre of gravity does not keep pace with the passing of time; if a few modern masterpieces join the classical repertory each decade, they are counterbalanced by the extension of the repertory backwards into the Renaissance and medieval periods – the field of so‐called ‘early music’. But this might be more logically presented as a growth than a decline of the tradition. And the development and dissemination of sound reproduction technology means that, on any conceivable statistical measure, classical music reaches an exponentially greater audience across the world than has ever previously been the case. What is more, p. 47it is heard in performances of a quality altogether unattainable by provincial orchestras of the nineteenth century, and perhaps even by those of the capitals; a major reason for such problems as early audiences may have had with such seminal works as the Ninth Symphony, Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique, and Stravinsky's Rite of Spring was almost certainly that they were played by under‐rehearsed, underpaid, and probably puzzled musicians. Since sound recording had not been invented, however, we shall never know for sure.

It would be easy to go on in this vein. Within the last decade, for instance,

the studiously unkempt violinist now known as Kennedy (aka The Artist Formerly Known as Nigel) released a video of Vivaldi's The Four Seasons, bringing pop promotion techniques to the classical repertory; he should probably be held personally responsible for its ubiquitous use today in telephone systems the world over. (How often have you had to listen to a tinny‐sounding rendition of The Four Seasons while on hold?)

the three tenors – Luciano Pavarotti, Placido Domingo, and José Carreras – brought Italian opera into the pop charts following the adoption of their recording of Puccini's aria ‘Nessun dorma’ as the official anthem of the World Cup.

the Third Symphony of the hitherto almost unheard‐of Polish composer Henryk Górecki nudged Madonna out of the charts after being heavily plugged by Classic FM, the London‐based classical music station.

the pianist David Helfgott shot into public prominence following the release of Shine, a film that traced his long fight against mental illness; audiences flocked to his performances of the classics, though the critics panned them.

But it is not really necessary to cite such exceptional cases in order to show how the music industry has successfully repositioned classical p. 48music as a largely profitable niche product – a major niche product – in contemporary consumer culture.

And for this reason it seems to me that rumours of the death of classical music have been greatly exaggerated. Lawrence Kramer, for instance, writes that

It is no secret that, in the United States anyway, this music is in trouble. It barely registers in our schools, it has neither the prestige nor the popularity of literature and visual art, and it squanders its capacities for self‐renewal by clinging to an exceptionally static core repertoire. Its audience is shrinking, graying, and overly pale‐faced, and the suspicion has been voiced abroad that its claim to occupy a sphere of autonomous artistic greatness is largely a means of veiling, and thus perpetuating, a narrow set of social interests.

And Kramer is by no means the only commentator to express such fears; in 1996 the opera director Peter Sellars even likened classical music to ‘a cancer patient or an AIDS patient’. All the same, I think that the diagnosis is not quite accurate. Classical music is not dead, probably not even dying, and certainly not in Europe; GCSE and the National Curriculum have maintained the presence of classical music in British classrooms, and I have already referred to the classical music magazines that have proliferated on news‐stand shelves since around the time Classic FM began broadcasting. But what has kept it alive is a dramatic transformation of its social and cultural role – a transformation epitomized by Classic FM, whose practice of excerpting single movements from classical symphonies outraged highbrow critics. The problem is that this transformation has been barely acknowledged in academic (and not‐so‐academic) writing about music, much of which still attempts to sustain an image of classical music – indeed an image of music in general – that is now beyond resuscitation.

In other words, if there is a crisis in classical music, it is not in the music p. 49

And yet, and yet … there are times when music of the classical symphonic tradition does not quite ring true to me. Isn't there perhaps something a bit forced about Brahms's symphonies, say – at one moment too noisily bombastic with their parade‐ground rhythms, and at the next moment too self‐indulgently sentimental? I don't notice it so much with piano or chamber music (or opera, for that matter); the problem lies with the public, sometimes tub‐thumping, always self‐conscious genre of the symphony. I still admire the music as much as ever. But I used to just love it, and that's the difference. Is it that the music is ageing badly, as Kramer fears? Is it because I'm hearing it increasingly critically, in the sense that I describe in later chapters of this book – as something that isn't just ‘natural’ but brings with it the no longer credible values of a defunct society? (Could this have something to do with the stereotypically gendered construction of the public sphere in the nineteenth century? That would link with the ideas I present in Chapter 7.) Then again, is it because in these days of public‐sector stringency the need for all those dinner‐jacketed musicians seems too wilfully extravagant, by comparison to the lean efficiency and flexibility of today's pop groups, or early music groups for that matter? (A lot of people find the subsidized extravagance of the opera house offensive.) Or does it come from seeing the music on television, where those intrusive close‐ups of the musicians crowd out the music's own values (why else do we speak of ‘seeing’ it?), reduplicating what is already in the sound and so rendering it banal? Could it even be a result of the shortening attention spans that conservative commentators blame on sound‐bite politics and television commercials? As if nobody could really take in anything longer than a four‐minute pop single nowadays? (But then, conservative commentators were making the same sort of complaints about the modern world back in Brahms's day.)

p. 50itself, but in ways of thinking about it – and it is these ways of thinking about music that form the central topic of this book. In particular, there are two habits of thought which are deeply ingrained in Western culture as a whole and which largely determine the way we traditionally think about music. One might be called the tendency to explain away time; it is this that leads us to think of music as a kind of imaginary object, something (and the word ‘thing’ is significant in this context) which is in time but not of time. The other is the tendency to think of language and other forms of cultural representation, including music, as if they depicted some kind of external reality. I have mentioned each of these in passing but they need explaining and illustrating at greater length, and so they form the topics of the next two chapters.