Wednesday, February 6, 2008

One last kick at the can

As a first taste of Lenten discipline I ploughed through to the end of Henry Pleasants's The Agony of Modern Music this evening. My basic impression (he's wrong! and his ears aren't working properly!) hasn't changed since I posted my preliminary remarks: he's still wrong. And he's wrong in one stupid, obvious way and a few subtle, interesting ways.

The stupid, obvious way is, well, obvious. He doesn't like modern music. It doesn't appeal to him. This is reasonable; Pleasants himself quotes an aphorism attributed to Oscar Wilde that "to like equally and impartially all schools of art is to betray the soul of an auctioneer". It frankly astonishes me that anyone can give such a quote a prominent place in the introduction of a book whose thesis is that one particular school of art is without exception uninspired and awful. It's as though he honestly hasn't considered the fact that his own tastes are subjective; he's too busy criticizing concert promoters for failing to take into account the fact that other people's tastes are subjective. Throughout the book, these small hypocrisies and little contradictions accumulate, a result of his essential failure as a critic: not only is he unable to obtain any aesthetic pleasure from the art he describes, but he fails even to understand how other people might find it pleasurable.

I'd rather talk about the subtle, interesting ways that he's wrong, though, because they're, well, more subtle and more interesting. In particular, he displays a strange ambivalence about the Romantic period in music: on the one hand, he condemns it as a decadent age when the art-for-art's-sake justification for modernism was defined; on the other hand, he displays a definite preference for its music and spends most of its time talking about his composers. So his arguments contradict each other:

1) The Romantic period was a golden age of composition because its works are most appealling to large audiences.
2) The Romantic period was a golden age of composition because its composers achieved such material success and public adulation, which is in direct proportion to the quality of their music. (I am, if anything, making this argument less extreme than it was in the book. At one point, Pleasants makes the damning point against Schoenberg that he doesn't get swarmed in the streets by admirers like Verdi was.)
3) The Romantic period was a golden age of composition because its compositions best exemplify the narrative framework which allows listeners to follow a musical argument.

But on the other hand:

1) The Romantic period was a period of decline in composition because its composers separated themselves from society and cultivated individualist mythography.
2) The Romantic period was a period of decline in composition because its composers increased the use of chromaticism, which deprives listeners of a sense of tonal centre.
3) The Romantic period was a period of decline in composition because its composers turned away from melody as a source of musical interest and towards motivic development, flashy orchestration and rhythmic complexity.

Never mind whether any of these arguments are actually true; what's important is that they cancel each other out. The Romantic period prevents heart disease! but it causes cancer and you'll die by thirty-five. Pleasants's problem is that he can't persuade himself not to like Romantic music, but he can't accept their individualist philosophy of art or their historiography of continual "progress" which Schoenberg used to justify his break with tonality. And so he tries to have his cake and eat it too, with little success. He rejects the Romantic historiography of progress, but rather than jettisoning it entirely he just reverses it to turn music history into a decline from some golden age to the Mess We're In Now. (Composers cited in the book as instigators of this decline: Wagner. Strauss. Beethoven. Brahms. Bach. Mozart. Haydn. Pick one.) The reality, of course, is that there is no artistic progress - different artistic periods are different, not inherently better or worse. The sad part is that Ernst Krenek is quoted IN THE BOOK as saying exactly this, but Pleasants misunderstands it. Oh well.

Enough of this. I'll loan it to a few friends and then put it on a shelf where I will forget about it and not be able to find it when I remember about this book in twenty years.

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