Procrastinating Music History with Music History

March 25, 2010

A topic arose in history today concerning the future of  art music, and our professor’s postulate that the music of Beethoven, Chopin, and others, which we might consider “main stream-Classical”, would sooner or later become obsolete in the same way that medieval motets and madrigals seems to be to us today. A very interesting discussion ensued. I didn’t participate, however. I wish I could have, but I have this debilitating anxiety problem when it comes to public speaking in class-discussion scenarios. Plus, I never fully think through my points and thoughts until a while after class, at which time, I’m usually thinking, “Argh, why couldn’t I have thought of these things beforehand around people who actually want to talk about this?”

As my social circle was mostly absent from that class/ran away after class/don’t find discussions like this interesting, I will seek solace in anonymous rants to the internet. [sigh] I think I’ll set a timer on this blog. I need to practice formulating concise responses under pressure. And if successful, transfer that into actual speaking instead of typing in solitude. Uh.

Anyway, the responses voiced to my professor’s prediction were more-or-less  all rebuttals. The arguments all stemmed from the general disbelief that atonal music, serial music, music of chance, and other 20th-century musical phenomena could ever be as well-received and as prevalent in concert halls as Beethoven or Mozart’s was and is.

On the surface, it seems to be an obvious response. I doubt that there are many people, professional trained musicians or not, who can seriously say that Pierre Boulez’ Structures Ia is more pleasant to listen to than Beethoven’s Sixth. There is sometime intrinsic in music with clear  pulses and rhythms, definable forms and structures, and repeated, singable tunes which links to the basic human condition. The soft cooing of a mother to her child seen from our relative primates emphasizes just how deeply ingrained and biological this preference for simple melody and predictable meter is. With this in mind,  I do not disagree with my classmates. Beethoven and Mozart, Bach and Palestrina, all made beautiful music which still drew from these basic elements, which is why they resonant so much more than, say, Boulez or Stockhausen. However, when compared to Jason Mraz, is Beethoven still the preferred music of the majority?

Here, I find that in order to understand the professor’s point, one must keep in mind the distinction between art music and popular music. Popular music almost entirely revolves around and adheres to that primal musical instinct: clear, steady pulse, simple melodies, and repetitiveness; all of this lends to memorability, which in turns allows listeners to easily become familiar with it, absorb it, and finally, participate in it. Popular music is comfortable and inclusive, and thus, it has changed very little across the entire span of human history. From the songs of the troubadours, songs heard and performed on the streets and in the homes of amateur musicians from the nineteenth century onwards, to the tunes heard on the radio today, this form of music has always been the type which the majority of humanity has listened to. As my theory professor likes to say, it’s somewhat like a narcotic.

Art music, on the other hand, whether it be of Beethoven’s, Chopin’s, or Stravinsky’s, has always been appreciated by only a sliver of the population. The statistics of regular concert-goers in urban centers today: 4% of the population. Why this severe discrepancy? There are numerous factors to take into consideration, including the practical accessibility of this type of music (ex. the price of a concert ticket at the orchestra versus buying a popular CD), and social contexts, but one musical factor which I think plays a role in this is that whereas pop music follows a static, flat-line sort of development, art music is in constant flux. Why? The creative urge of the composer mandates this.

Since the emancipation of composers from the church, the idea of the composer as the sole creator of his/her music places a great responsibility on him/her to produce something original and reflective of him/herself (or some other idea if not of the self, but an idea that is determined exclusively by the composer him/herself, and not by some external pressure). Art music composers compose for the sake of their creative impulse; whether or not it pleases an audience is irrelevant. Thus, the drive for novelty, for discovery, of new sounds and textures drives art music to something other than static development. The process is nothing new; why music historians sectionalize eras from each other is a result of this evolution in art music: Baroque music is different from Classical, which is different from Romantic, and then from Modern music. But does this mean that art music has progressed, and will continue to progress?

“Progress” as seen in terms of “better” or “worse”, I think not. Mozart is not “better” than Bach, nor is he “better” than Shostakovich. The way I see it, popular music represents a human, musical baseline which is straight and consistent. Art music is an oscillating wave. When seen in this way, points where the two “graphs” overlap are times when popular music and art music are very much similar. This was seen during the period of Rococo music and the style gallante. Prior to this, was  Baroque counterpoint, a more intensely rational form of art music. At this period in history, I  see the graph at an upper peak, far away from the songs sung in the villages of the time. But then, as mentioned, counterpoint did not continue to increase in complexity; rather the “graph” turned around and descended into the Rococo period of lighter, decorative music. After which, composers, tired of the monotony of repetitive forms and sounds, pushed for newer structures again, leading to the Classical period. History then continued, and after the sneers at Beethoven’s late string quartets, a short period of descent again into the light salon music of the early nineteenth century. And then, again, a rise in complexity as the Romantics (and late-Romantics especially) took to the fore.

Repeat ad libitum. During every “peak” in which music was deemed too complex, too obscure, and too distant from the public, a crisis in art music occurred, and the same questions which were asked today in class were asked by people of the time. Yet Bach’s legacy lives on today. His counterpoint and rigorous techniques form the base and provide a context and beginning for many composers after him, even of today’s composers. Does this mean that today’s composers will compose like Bach? No, of course not. But they will take him as an experience, from which to draw and learn from. As with many composers after him. Beethoven’s radical modulations and Wagner’s extreme chromaticism may have seemed bizarre during their day, but in retrospect, it is clear to see that their influence did live on, but in new and different forms.

Composers of art music will always look for new and original ways of expressing themselves, and often, they will seem ahead of their time, and will have to endure the jeers and heckles of those who prefer to stay at the baseline. Only time will really tell which composers and which trends will make a significant impact on the future (clearly not every composer will be as influential as Beethoven), but I do not think it is fair to say that atonality and electronic music is music which will simply shrivel away without any trace; it has already pervaded our musical society, whether we are aware of it or not: personally, after hearing more and more of this music, I’m finding it quite fulfilling and satisfying to listen to, just as much as a Beethoven sonata; the songs we hear and which are composed today are much more chromatic/less adherent to tonal centers than before the Second Viennese school, surely, and I venture to say that this is not simply a coincidence.

[Holy frick, I wrote the equivalent of ~30% of my term paper in this blog. aiehaelhaleh]


One Response to “Procrastinating Music History with Music History”

  1. […] View full post on “baroque music” – Social Mention […]

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