Thursday, May 8, 2008

Historiographical Digression

Part II of an occasional series.

In my first post on this subject, I expressed my irritation with the way music history is now interpreted. The last generation of historians regarded atonal ultra-complexity as a necessary step for music to be progressive - modality led to diatonicism, diatonicism to chromaticism, chromaticism to atonality. Today's new historians regard atonality to varying degrees as a momentary historical blip; they use the harmonic series to justify functional tonality as a musical norm and enthusiastically accept minimalism and neo-Romanticism as a more authentic expression of modern music.

Both views irritate me. Why shouldn't you be able to enjoy both Rubbra and Birtwistle, both Adams and Dallapiccola? Many people do, of course, but neither of these versions of history is able to encompass all of them. And what do you do with composers like Frank Martin, who wrote tonally but included serial rows in his counterpoint, or Richard Yardumian, who invented a totally idiosyncratic system for using all twelve tones? People like that are caught in the middle, too reactionary for the old historians but not tonal enough for the new generation.

This post isn't going to solve the problem, but I'm hoping to shed a bit of light on the nature of the dispute by putting things into a different context. In my first post, I discussed everything in the light of tonal relationships: tonality versus atonality, major and minor keys versus serialism. But the same divide can be noticed by the way the old and new generation discusses the composer's relationship with the audience, and with popular music.

The older generation talked about the nineteenth century as a time when composers split off from the patronage system and set out on their own to write the music that they wanted to write. Mozart tried valiantly to break away, with some success; Beethoven finally managed it. Thereafter, music was not the servant of political or religious leaders, but art for art's sake. Hurray!

The new generation talks about the nineteenth century as a time when popular music and classical music began to separate. Before that time, classical music wasn't that much different from popular music - a popular dance style could find its way into a symphony, and a composed theme could turn into a popular song. In the nineteenth century, composers pursued a misguided strategy of writing "art for art's sake", and their increasingly complex music moved farther and farther away from popular music. Alack!

The fact that the terminology is different - a "widening gap between classical and popular music" instead of "the emancipation of the composer"- doesn't change the fact that they're both talking about the same phenomenon, which is the move from away from a utilitarian, functional view of music toward a more autonomous ideal. In itself, this is an inarguable historical fact. What's relevant is the way it's discussed, with both sides skewing the facts to portray their central myths:

Old Myth: All classical pieces started out as avant-garde music; with the passage of time, they became accepted into the repertoire.

Most of the early modernist composers dearly wanted this to be true; Schoenberg desparately hoped that future generations would grow to know and love his music, while Ives daydreamed about a world where small children's schoolyard songs would include quarter tones. In hindsight, it seems unlikely that the most abtruse pieces of atonal music will ever achieve wide popularity. Much of the twentieth-century repertoire, like Le sacre or the Shostakovich Fifth, has already achieved a firm place in the repertoire, while other pieces, like Metastasis or Unity Capsule, will probably remain the enthusiasms of specialists. What I don't understand is why so many people think there's something wrong with this. Audiences may flock to performances of Morley madrigals, but will probably be less enthused by the strange, dissonant madrigals of Gesualdo. Likewise, the same audience that flocks to the Messiah at Christmastime will not necessarily enjoy sitting through the Art of the Fugue. You can go as far back as the medieval period and find Ars Subtilior motets that still shock listeners after half a dozen centuries.

Bottom line: the old myth is wrong because every time period has room for a wide variety of musical styles, both simple and complex.

New myth: All classical pieces started out as popular music; only the distance of time has caused us to see them as classical.

This one looks attractive, doesn't it? People used to dance to Haydn minuets. Now instead of dancing to Hans Werner Henze pieces, they dance to techno music. But if Hans Werner Henze, or some other composer, finds a way to achieve a rapprochement with popular music, the two styles will rejoin and we'll all be happy!

Unfortunately, this muddles a whole bunch of facts. First of all, it's dangerous and wrong to equate today's "popular music" with the music that was most popular in previous generations. Most definitions of popular music include the idea that these musics are distributed over the mass media; in Haydn's time, the mass media didn't exist and thus, a mass audience didn't exist. Instead, music ran along two tracks; a cultivated, "classical" style for performance by professionals, and a simpler, populist style for performance by amateurs. Most composers had the ability to write in both styles; Brahms was a "popular" composer when he wrote a book of waltzes for two pianos, but a "classical" composer when his first piano concerto had its disastrous premiere. You can see the two styles side by side in Purcell's verse anthems; the sections sung by full choir are simple, easy to sing and declamatory, while the sections sung by soloists are full of challenging vocal writing and experimental harmonies. Some of the crunches in these anthems are still murder to perform, and probably were then as well.

Bottom line: the new myth is wrong, because every time period included a variety of styles, both elevated and populist.

What both attitudes share is an essentially apologetic attitude towards twentieth-century classical music. The aging serialists in your university music department hope that the music they write will one day become popular; the young musicologists next door hope that composers will get their act together and figure out how to become popular. But neither have the measure of the problem, and both misinterpret history to support their ideas.

1 comment:

Alice said...

You do get schoolchildren singing quarter tones...but they're not trying to. Adults, too...sigh.