The Future of Classical Music

            In his book "The Agony of Modern Music" (first published in 1955) Henry Pleasants, a former music critic for the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin (and interestingly a spy for the CIA during the Cold War), chronicles the separation that grew ever wider between contemporary classical composers from the beginning of the 20th Century to the mid-20th Century with their audience, transitioning from a place of cultural prominence to one of being culturally side-lined.  His ending conclusion is that jazz has replaced classical music as the primary musical language of the current (1950’s) culture, primarily due to its improvisational nature and cultural relevance.

            Bear in mind that this scenario has also changed over the last 60 years, in which jazz has been replaced by Rock, and Rock now is being replaced by Electronica.

            As I consider myself to be a composer, and one who uses techniques from Classical music’s influence, I found this book to be difficult (and somewhat painful) to read, and that’s why it has been sitting on my bookshelf for a number of years before I had the courage to work my way through it.

            The book met with immediate resistance when it first came out, and, in the author’s preface, he makes the disclaimer, “I would like, however, to clarify one point raised repeatedly by hostile reviewers when this book first appeared in 1955.  This is the possible inference that I equate popularity with quality.  I do not.  But I do believe that wide acceptance of a style or idiom is proof of its cultural vitality, regardless of its quality…Generally speaking, it seems safe to observe that the most reliable criterion of quality is survival in the affection and esteem of succeeding generations- in other words, in the capacity of a given piece of music to appeal to more than the fallible fashions of a single year or a single generation.”

            The author boldly opens the first chapter with, “Serious music is a dead art.  The vein which for three hundred years offered a seemingly inexhaustible yield of beautiful music has run out.  What we know as modern music is the noise made by deluded speculators picking through the slagpile…the last really modern serious composer, modern in the sense that he spoke with the full authority of the cultural forces of his time, was Wagner. (1890)”  He goes on to say, “The serious composer has lost touch with the currents of popular taste…It is his failure to meet contemporary requirement that distinguishes the contemporary composer from composers of any earlier epoch…Haydn, Handel, Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, Verdi, Wagner, Brahms, Strauss, and even the early Stravinsky were all popular composers.  There was a demand for their music, and they could make a living from accommodating the demand.  This is not the case today.”

            In the chapter, ‘The Composer and Society’, the author writes, “In short, the composer would like to please, but is not pleased to write what pleases society, or at least that part of society which comprises his audience.  Society would like to please the composer, whom it regards as an ornament and as a comforting guarantee of cultural continuity, but it is not pleased by what he writes.  The situation is tolerated only because both composer and society have been persuaded to believe that this is the way it has always been.”

            He goes on, in the chapter, ‘The Composer and His Audience’, “It rarely occurs to the contemporary composer that the blame for his estrangement from the serious music audience might lie with himself.  He finds it difficult to admit that he is simply not producing anything that provokes a sympathetic response in his listeners…instead he blames the audience…It is not that the contemporary composer does not know his audience.  As Copland has said, “There is no disagreement as to what audiences want; they want what they already know, or something that sounds like it.”  But now, unlike the situation in Haydn’s time, there is a difference of taste between composer and public.  What pleases the public does not please the composer.  Finding little sympathy from his audience, the composer turns to his colleagues for comfort, forming a society of musical snobs.”

            In the chapter, ‘The Composer’s Dilemma’, he writes, “The composer is a frustrated fellow.  Society pins upon him its hopes of cultural continuity.  Through grants, fellowships, commissions…it encourages him to compose.  But it withholds the awards of approbation, admiration, enthusiasm, and affection without which all other awards are empty.  Performers look to him for an enrichment of the repertoire, for something to ease the tedium of unending repetition of aging staples, and to rescue the art from the museum…What comes of it?  Novelties, briefly discussed, quickly discarded and forgotten!”

            The author does share an example, in his opinion, of success, “Only one composer since the First World War has achieved such popularity, has been so admired, applauded, and loved.  That was George Gershwin.”  For most modern classical music, he states, however, “That the art of music has, for the past fifty years, been experiencing a period of evolutionary crisis is accepted by composers, critics, and everyone else seriously concerned.  The area of general agreement extends even to common recognition of the gap between composer and audience and to the identification of tonal harmony as the decisive point of technical exhaustion and breakdown.”

            Regarding new technical processes in the creation of works, he states, “The composer is confusing ends and means.  Music proceeds, not from the techniques of composition, but from a social requirement for musical expression…The significant musical fact of this century is not atonality, nor neo-classicism, nor neo-primitivism.  These are techniques derived, not from a popular musical requirement, but from the inability of the composer to express himself musically.  Their purpose is not to satisfy a musical impulse but to disguise the absence of one.”  He admits, “for the past fifty years music has been experiencing the most profound and fundamental evolutionary upheaval since 1600…The significant evolutionary fact is that both select and vulgar jazz have an audience, while new serious music…has none.”

            He admits, however, that jazz has foundations in classical music, “Be that as it may, whether one speaks of the rudimentary harmonic schemes of traditional jazz, or the more sophisticated product of the later progressives, there is no denying the origins of jazz harmony in the harmony of serious music at the turn of the century.  The harmonic character of jazz would be unthinkable without Debussy and Ravel.”

Conclusion: As mentioned above, while the book was uncomfortable to read, it was almost comical to read it from the vantage point of 60 years later, in its own historical context.  When the author was writing it, Jazz was the preeminent style of the day, but one could easily make a case that by the late 1960’s Jazz itself was going through the same turbulence of cultural non-relevance, ultimately being replaced by Rock.  And now Rock, whether anyone will admit it (or see it) is itself on the same cliff currently, as computer technology and Electronica are poised to overthrow it in the days to come.

Jazz had its beginnings in the merging of Classical music and Blues.  Rock was the combination of Jazz and County.  I read once in the preface of a Jazz method book that to really hone one’s skill in Jazz, the student should be familiar with Classical music (scales, etc.).  Then in the body of a Rock methods book, it stated that if the student was to be most successful, they should be familiar with Jazz styles.  The conclusion, then, is that Classical disciplines are universally fundamental to successful functioning in both Jazz and Rock, as well as any other style that becomes culturally relevant in the future.

Now, in dealing with the 20th Century Classical Composer, there are a number of points with which I take issue regarding the author’s interpretation of history, particularly now that it has been half-a-century since he wrote the book.  A number of compositions which he marginalized have become culturally embraced as landmarks of great creativity, even though Pleasants was not able to appreciate them in his day.  It did take several decades for the new ideas to ‘settle’ in to the culture’s ear.  Works by Aaron Copeland, Bela Bartok, Igor Stravinsky, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Samuel Barber, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Dmitri Shostakovich, Carlos Chavez, Joaquin Rodrigo, along with many others have been embraced as beautiful and successful landmarks of creative excellence in 20th Century Classical Music.

The author’s main premise that ‘Jazz has replaced Classical music in the light of the 20th Century composer’s unwillingness to accept popular culture’ is a point well taken.  However, his book was written about ten years prior to John Coltrane and the experimental Jazz movement of the late 1960’s, which also saw a sharp drop-off of cultural relevance.   

Now, in 2013, a pie chart of music sales shows Classical music at .21 percent and Jazz and .41 percent, while Pop is at 10% , Hip-hop/Rap at 12%,  Electronic at 9% and Rock at 31%.  Hip-hop/Rap, Electronic and Pop predominantly use computer-generation, so one could make a case to combine them together in one category at 31% (equal to Rock) and growing.

Yet the quality of content, from an artistic stand-point of: 1) Complexity, 2) Craftsmanship, 3) Longevity, 4) Depth of Integration (Homogeneity), and 5) Innovation seems to be diminishing over the course of time, as hedonism and pleasure mark the standard for success.

My conviction is that Classical music did lose its way, as it lost its purpose.  The whole of great Western Art Music, arguably, started with J.S. Bach, who wrote, “Music’s only purpose should be for the glory of God and the recreation of the human spirit.”  Since that time until now, Classical Music’s purpose has been gradually lost, as the emphasis turned century by century away from God and onto man.  Since the beginning of the 20th Century, success in music began to be measured by cultural popularity, until now, music sales are up on the most sensual and explicit songs, while anything of higher quality (and purity) is buried  beneath the bottom-line market shares.

I take issue with Pleasant’s argument that the great music of past Classical generations has always (or most always) been popular.  Beethoven only invited his closest friends for the unveiling of his late string quartets, knowing that they were too far ahead of a larger audience’s appreciation.  Mozart, as he wrote some of his greatest works toward the end of his life, was losing popularity with a fickle Viennese audience, as he was struggling to make ends meet financially.  J.S. Bach never knew high popularity, dying in obscurity, making enough just to get by.  After a century his work was discovered and raised to the status of influence.

My conviction is that the skills, principles and examples of greatness found in the Classical repertoire should be extracted, studied and ‘re-cycled’ into new currently relevant styles, bringing those styles up to a new level of cultural excellence.  Combining cultural relevance and technical excellence is, in my opinion, the only way forward for the serious artist.  Recapturing music’s purpose (as Bach stated) being integrated with worship is ultimately where we should be; worship, however,  not of humanity (secular humanism), nor of pleasure (hedonism), but worship of the One without question Who has been the most historically influential figure in human culture (particularly Western culture) for the past two-thousand years: Jesus Christ.

(For more on this subject, please see: “What Is Classical Music”, in which I try to extract the elements from Classical music that could be useful in any other style.)

2013-02-26 LH