Elitism, Populism, and Classical Music (1)

(Dutch:) Beluister Hoe houdbaar is klassieke muziek? in de podcast Voorbij de oren.

Queen of the NightIn 5,000,000,000 years, the sun will burn out. Considerably earlier, I suppose, our planet will have ceased to exist. It is still an unimaginable time span, and most likely beyond the existence of anything that we might recognize as ‘human’. So, no need to worry.

And yet, intuitively and irrationally, the thought does worry me sometimes. It’s easier to accept one’s own, individual finiteness than that of mankind; and it’s easier to accept that of mankind (in the very long run) than that of music. Mozart should be forever and ever.

Doch alle Lust will Ewigkeit. ‘Lust’: desire, joy – and the experience of beauty and awe, and whatever embodies that experience. Ewigkeit: not cold, immeasurable eternity, but everness. Beauty should last forever, but cannot, because without us, there is no such experience.

And maybe not even with us, in a shorter while.

Maybe one of the Voyager space probes, launched in 1977, will survive humanity, wiped out by its own blunderous mismanagement. Maybe an alien space traveller will be lucky enough to bump into it, and to figure out how to play its ‘golden record’ of music from Earth. Listening to the Queen of the Night’s aria from The Magic Flute (supposing his physiology allows that), he-she-it might be startled, scared, amused, or nauseated; but it is unlikely that there would be any correspondence between its perceptions and what this music was meant to achieve. The alien listener couldn’t have a clue that this is a portrayal of an evil fairy-tale queen on the verge of hysteria (Hell’s vengeance seethes in my heart), in a musical play (would it have the concept?) that uniquely blends popular and learned style elements with elite Masonic symbolism.

A young human being, somewhere on this planet, who happens to be zapping through Spotify at this moment and hits upon Voyager’s playlist, might be in a somewhat similar situation. Of course, she would know what human-female voices sound like, ordinarily, and she might have enough intuitive familiarity with tonal harmony to grasp the musical ‘grammar’. She might even recognize the music’s expression of frenzied rage – although the compilers of Voyager’s hit parade seem to have missed that altogether: the queen’s vengeance aria forms an odd pairing with spoken messages such as “we have good will towards you and bring peace across space”.

Beauty, and what else we experience as musical values, is not a timeless given; it is historically and culturally situated, and requires a familiarity with style and context that has grown over time. European music of the past few centuries has increasingly drawn upon musical and cultural memories, acquired by the listeners and embedded in the music itself. And since a far-reaching memory and long-standing acquaintance are at odds with contemporary patterns of musical behaviour, the burn-out of Mozart and the extinction of classical music are a more urgent matter than that of the sun.

Fast, Cheap, and Easy

I had started with what I thought was a promising title in Dutch: vervlakking, versnelling, verdieping. I then realized that there were no English equivalents for the first and third of these words. Could that be a sign that the theme I had in mind is less familiar to English speakers?

Though it baffles me how Anglo-Americans manage with such a gap in their dictionary, that conclusion is obviously wrong. The topic has been discussed internationally for decades: the increasing superficiality of musical culture, with a growing marginalization of so-called ‘classical music’.

Vervlakking – the Dutch word literally means ‘flattening’, but that does not seem to include its metaphorical meaning: the process of becoming superficial. In German: Verflachung. It is striking that of five examples in the online Digitales Wörterbuch der deutschen Sprache, four illustrate this figurative use; and most surprisingly, these include a quotation from the music encyclopaedia MGG (could this mean that musicology actually matters in Germany?).

Increasing superficiality has been a theme of cultural criticism since the high tide of radio broadcasting in the 1930s. New variations on the theme have accompanied the advent of vinyl records, CD’s, and most recently and radically, digital streaming. New media have brought new artistic opportunities, but above all they have provided easier and faster means of mass access, mass consumption, and the formation of mass taste.

To this I will add, on a hesitantly positive note: that this acceleration (‘versnelling’) of information access, which bears some of the blame for increasing superficiality, can also be used as a tool for ‘verdieping’, or deeper understanding. About that later. For what, to begin with, is ‘classical music’?

‘Classical Music’

‘Classical’ is a word that word that can give the musicologist a headache. Its various meanings tend to mingle in undesirable ways. The word has entered art theory in the sense of ‘model of excellence’, measured by certain standards derived from Greek and Roman antiquity (‘classicism’). In music, the term finds its most consistent application in the ‘Classical Style’, which has little to do with ‘classicism’, but refers to music composed between c. 1770-1820, and particularly that of the three ‘Viennese classics’ Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. This meaning of ‘classical’ has been coloured by a contrast with ‘romantic’ (though the categorization of Beethoven as classical or romantic is disputable). In public discourse, however, the term ‘classical music’ typically includes ‘romantic’ music of the 19th century. It even extends backward to the 17th century Baroque, and forward to the ‘modern classics’ of the 20th century.

It is telling that the major music encyclopaedia, the New Grove (and its online version, Grove Music Online), ducks its responsibility when it comes to defining ‘classical music’. It does include an article Classical, but the concept as most commonly used is not explained. The term ‘classical music’ does occur, however, in its (oddly) two articles on ‘popular music’. Here, classical music is treated as ‘art music’ versus ‘entertainment’, as the polar (or tripolar) opposite of popular music and folk music, and, more questionably, as the music of an elite.

[Popular music:] A term used widely in everyday discourse, generally to refer to types of music that are considered to be of lower value and complexity than art music, and to be readily accessible to large numbers of musically uneducated listeners rather than to an élite. […] Whatever its exact definition, it is always in some sense culturally subaltern; from this point of view, all popular styles are ‘people’s music’ (in a broad sense), positioned against whatever is defined as élite. (R. Middleton, & P. Manuel, ‘Popular music’, Grove Music Online. Retrieved 14 Jan. 2022)

Whereas ‘art’ and ‘entertainment’ are functional categories that may be applied without value judgment, the concepts of ‘people’ and ‘folk’ seem to leave nothing for classical music but either ‘elite’ or ‘minority’, and with ‘elite’ come dubious implications of social class and privilege. Moreover, if classical music is ‘elitist’, popular music is almost by implication ‘populist’. It is the political and cultural populists, left and right (though nowadays mostly the latter) who most avidly use that term, ‘elite’, and exploit its implications.

Musical Practices

‘Value’ and ‘complexity’, which figure prominently in GMO’s definition of popular and classical, are equally dubious categories. A lot of junk music falls into the category ‘classical’, just because it has been composed in a certain historical style. Complexity has always been an option, but never a requirement. We don’t call a Mozart minuet less classical because it is simple. We might hesitate to call it ‘art music’, though, when it is meant for dancing rather than for listening.

Given its many inconsistencies, one might be tempted to throw the concept of classical music overboard. However, it obviously has a function in debate, and maybe that function can be described in terms other than value, complexity, or social class.

Most obviously, classical music is characterized by certain musical practices and institutions, which have a history closely connected with the Classical Style and its continued cultivation in the repertoire: the symphony orchestra, the piano as the most prominent and versatile solo instrument, public concerts in specially built concert halls, and professional musical training at conservatoires.

An equally distinguishing feature of classical performance practice and aesthetics is that the music is unamplified. Vocal and instrumental techniques have developed long before the electric age specifically to fill small, and later increasingly larger concert halls and opera houses. Performing classical music in too large spaces, for the sake of popularization or cost reduction, corrupts or even destroys the music. Musical modernism may have abandoned the tonal-harmonic system, and with it much of its aesthetics, but to the extent that it is played in concert halls by classically trained musicians, it can justifiably be called ‘classical’.

For popular genres, amplification has since the 1930s been a defining element. The pop or jazz singer may whisper and still be heard over a loud ensemble. For certain genres sheer loudness has even become the main musical parameter, the strongest means of affecting (and sometimes even damaging) the listener. It might be the abuse of amplification that most deters ‘classically’ minded listeners. Sheer volume and lack of dynamic contrast is one form of abuse. Another is the way emotional expression may be projected in a way disproportionate to its nature. A tearful, sentimental tenor aria still requires a bold effort on the part of the singer, and this effort may temper the appearance of self-indulgence. A pop singer whining into the microphone can without the slightest effort fill every corner with his self-pity.

The same technology that has allowed amplification, the conversion of sound into an electronic signal, has facilitated recording. Much popular music has been designed primarily for recording, with live performance (or even playback) as a promotion tool rather than the music’s raison d’être. In this respect, complaints about a lack of classical music on radio are somewhat of place. It would indeed be strange if new media were not primarily devoted to the kind of music invented for them. Playing classical music over the radio is a very un-classical thing to do.

In classical music, nearly all performances are ‘covers’, in popular music jargon. The classical repertoire consists of pieces or ‘works’ that have a fixed basis of existence in the written or printed score. The performing musician has the somewhat humble status of a mediator, comparable to that of an actor in a literary play. The play, too, is a work that existents independently of the performance, and performances are judged, by critics at least, by certain standards presumed to be inherent in the text.

But here, as everywhere, there are no strict borders. The ‘stardom’ of classical musicians has been much reinforced by commercial music production, but it has historical antecedents in the nineteenth-century virtuoso. The recording industry copies popular music methods in its production and promotion of the classical repertoire, and concert organizers tend to follow such practices.

‘Music’ and ‘Music’

The worst misconception that confuses debates about the relative merits and demerits of classical and popular music, is treating them both as different flavours of the same product, ‘music’. It all passes through the ears, but the many ‘musics’ in the world are very different phenomena, different not only in form, content and quality standards, but primarily in what causes these differences, their functions.

The different functions of music raise different expectations which is music supposed to satisfy (or frustrate, in a satisfying manner). Musicologists and philosophers have been struggling to find the right words for what most distinguishes classical music from other kinds of music.

Classical music does not literally tell stories, but its unfolding depends on similar narrative devices of character, transformation, development, interaction, anticipation, recall, pacing, and plot. […] music can project a patterning of its materials that exceeds our immediate experience, offering us the experience of internal narratives, or musical journeys, that are not our own. In other words, we experience in music what we cannot experience outside of it. (Julian Johnson, Who Needs Classical Music?: Cultural Choice and Musical Value, 2011: 64, 66.)

One may wonder what ‘narrative’ means if there is no proper telling. I would rather say that in classical music (more precisely, classical ‘art music’), a fictional world is presented for the listener’s imagination. Musical fiction, that, like literary fiction or film, grants us imaginary experiences of actions, processes, and events, through a variety of means, but all in the auditory domain.

Schubert’s waltzes belong to the better kind of salon music, but could still have been used for dancing, and are in the context of their time popular music. What distinguishes a Chopin waltz from the average ballroom waltz is not merely its complexity and formal coherence, but the fact that the music waltzes itself; its conjures up a certain manner of waltzing. This evocative quality is still more pronounced in Ravel’s Valses nobles et sentimentales – the title refers to two of Schubert’s collections, but more of their substance and ‘gesture’ derives from Johan Strauss. Here the waltz impulse seems to be a force which propels the music forward, while at the same time, the waltz’s historical obsolescence shines through the modernist mask. History, including the history of listening, is here embedded in the music. In the last section (Epilogue), earlier sections re-emerge as spontaneous, fragmented memories: musical memories, represented in music.

It is a consequence of its fictional quality that classical music can vary widely in its dimensions, as a poem differs from a novel: from under a minute to more than an hour, or several hours in the case of opera. It is a consequence of its different functions and its manner of distribution, the standard radio format, that the popular repertoire consists predominantly of three minute ‘songs’ (whether sung or not).

To be continued.

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