Sunday, June 19, 2022

"The embrace of incomprehensibility"

I had the good fortune to grow up among a group of friends who knew a lot about and enjoyed classical music. One, an organist, one a countertenor, another a classical guitarist, others regularly bought recordings of Bach, Mahler, Beethoven, Vaughan Williams, early music, etc. We were expected to be quiet while listening. We engaged in silly arguments about who was greatest: Bach, Handel, or Beethoven? The college nearby had a great music department and I attended recitals and concerts. And so on... In retrospect, I realize how fortunate I was. From "The War on Music," reviewing a book on the decline in interest in that music over the last fifty years:
.... What happened? The answers are many and tangled, but nearly all critics and historians who take up the “crisis of classical music,” as it’s inevitably described, sidestep or ignore the scarcity of new music that engages the public today and instead dwell on the decline in cultural pre-eminence of classical music in general. Their complaints are familiar: Concert halls are full of silver-hairs, Mozart can’t compete with rock ’n’ roll, governments have cut funding to orchestras, and so on.

But these problems, if they are problems at all, are tertiary concerns next to the near-total inability of post-World War II America and Europe to produce more than a small number of classical works that any normal person would want to hear. ....

...[S]omething went badly wrong in music in the 20th century, and especially after 1945. The time has come, Mr. Mauceri writes, “to ask why so much contemporary music played by our greatest musical institutions—and supported overwhelmingly by music critics—is music that the vast majority of people do not want to hear—and have never wanted to hear.”

Mr. Mauceri, an accomplished conductor and music scholar, blames the two world wars and the Cold War. ....

The War on Music is fluently written and often cogent. Mr. Mauceri shows no patience with critics who sneer at the film music of midcentury composers such as Waxman, Korngold, Bernard Herrmann, Miklós Rózsa and Elmer Bernstein. Particularly delightful is the scorn he heaps on the idea of a perpetual, institutionalized avant-garde.

But I am not persuaded by the book’s central argument. The world wars were horrible, but they don’t explain the embrace of incomprehensibility, obscurity and repugnance by the composers and musical institutions of Western nations. The 18th and 19th centuries were full of wars, too, but no one concluded from them that music should consist largely of dissonant harmonies, inhuman rhythms and charmless sound patterns. The rise of the 12-tone compositional method, invented by Schoenberg and elaborated by his many imitators, produced nothing of greatness and signified a sickness at the heart of Western music. That the book’s survey of 20th-century music begins with Igor Stravinsky’s revolting ballet “Rite of Spring,” which glorified pagan savagery and premiered a year before the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, suggests that Mr. Mauceri, too, suspects the war on music began well before the guns started firing in 1914.

About one thing, though, he is absolutely right. He writes with derision about the “trinity” of postwar music: the donor (usually the government), the critic (not infrequently an idiot) and the institution (the university that employs the composer, the orchestra that commissions his music). It’s a nice arrangement, Mr. Mauceri remarks, but it “leaves out something quite significant: the audience.” (more)
Barton Swaim, "‘The War on Music’ Review: Songs Without Listeners," The Wall Street Journal, June 16, 2022.

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