Classical Music in the age of the Post Moderns

Classical music now is a funny thing. Classic versus Modern. It’s rather like the difference between conservatism and modernity. Or Royalty and Democracy. Or Deism and Atheism. It is beyond argument that it is currently a dead art. Of course it is played more regularly then in it’s heyday, mainly due to population increase, but no composers of merit currently exist. Our current practitioners have a sound and feel that smacks of nostalgia, hokey romanticism, or obscure atonality of one sort or another. It’s rather like the difference between Caravaggio and Thomas Kincaid. Or Bartok versus Reich. Passion versus Sentimentality. The Classicists were “in it”, and are only retrospectively classified as “Classicists” by reason of the subsequent death of their style. Our current crop of self defined and so called “Classical composers” are underneath, behind, definitely not in front or on top, and most certainly not inside. 

In college me and my friend Chris would debate about music. He was more technical and informed. I liked Beethoven, he liked Brahms. I liked Jessye Norman he liked Elizabeth Schwarzkopf. Oddly, we both liked Glenn Gould. I still cannot tell a C from an F, he plays classical piano. It’s fun thinking back about the conversations and arguments we would have, all very good natured. We were both young, naive, and passionate, and we both had a sort of conservative view of culture and detested the post modern mainstream scene at our school. I think, actually, that Glenn Gould was the only performer we could both herald. We otherwise neatly divided the whole musical world in half, perhaps partly out of a mutually contrarian nature.

There is a racist trope in the classical performance community that asserts that while an Asian performer may be technically excellent they will nonetheless lack passion. However, no one asserts thus of Glenn Gould. He is known as the piano player par excellence. He is often criticized for being too technical, yet oddly, these critics chalk this up to obsession and philosophical purity, perhaps even a sort of hermetic seclusion. His playing references no one or nothing but the notes themselves, each played perfectly crisply. Where another performer might mute some notes, or play some notes gently, with Gould each note is like a perfect gong, none to be dismissed, for he never played a piece for which he did not believe in down to every note. At the beginning of his career he played Bach's Goldberg Variations very fast. It must certainly have been to astonish, for even at a high speed each note was perfectly audible. At the end of his career he again played the Variations, this time slower and ever so slightly with more variation in the timing and force. Old age had made Glenn a sentimentalist after all.

For Chris I think he appreciated the musical purity. Something almost mathematical for him is what he appreciated. For me what I hear is a crystalline structure interwoven with gentleness. The melody is soft, yet Gould emphasizes each precise note, even playing some chords as trills. 

Before I met Chris it had not occurred to me to think about music, for me it was more at a gut level. I might now say emotional, but when I was a teenager I did not know what emotion meant. My parents introduced me to classical music and I felt an intuitive connection. Rock and roll was of course what my friends listened to, but the rawness and directness was almost too much for me. I felt assaulted. Only later was I able to appreciate Nirvana, at the time they seemed like a rude affront to me. Classical music, it’s form, it’s structure, is gentle. It is the music of gentlemen and ladies. And so it was a refuge, not a riotous mob.  

Bartok I happened upon randomly in my fathers CD collection in about 1997. I had made an impressionistic movie about a man who is harassed by a woman, beaten up by two thugs, chased through the woods, then leaps off a cliff and swims to freedom. The 2nd movement of his 2nd string quartet immediately appealed to me and I set the short movie to this piece. Having described the movie, I hardly need to describe what appealed to me about the music. The peice is certainly not classical in the sense of Bach or even Brahms. Indeed Bartok was inspired by Hungarian folk music. Yet today no one could compose such music. The tradition is dead. This is sort of the final gasp of classicism, a final attempt to justify itself before being wiped off the face of the earth by the ahistoric Communists in the east and by an industrialization in the west which empowered a middle class more content with Kurt Weill then Wagner.

Another piece of music I happened upon accidentally in ’96 or ’97 was Jessye Normans recording of Richard Strauss’s 4 last songs. 

But of course Classical music did not die in 1917, it merely felt as if it might. By 1948 the quality of composition was getting worse and worse. Strauss, known for being the composer of the theme used in 2001: A Space Odyssey, nonetheless composed a few more subtle pieces devoid of bombast and pomp. At the end of his life, consumed with various financial burdens and such, his children convinced him to simply stick to music and write a few last compositions. All four songs are about death in one way or another. When I was younger this particular recording would always bring me to tears. I suppose perhaps now I consider it a little sentimental, but the vibrato of Norman is really very touching, and I loved her more passionate rendering over the crispness of Schwarzkopf. About this me and Chris argued for many hours. Perhaps when I am older and near death, such distinctions as sentimental vs. emotional or elegant vs. passionate will seem very silly.

Anyway, the music that really got me jazzed up was fun stuff. Like Beethoven's 9th, Sibelieus’s 5th, and anything by Mozart, especially his operas! 

The harmonization is very energizing and beautiful. Contemporaneously a man might perhaps think, "how beautiful are the sweet nothings of women!" Now a refined modern man thinks, "what unique structuralism!" But who knows, do they not say to keep meaning out of music?

The Magic Flute was another favorite of mine, and in this recording Schwarzkopf hits each note like a perfectly manufactured pipe organ. I’m not sure Mozart cared about much except beauty and elegance and surprise. He was the diamond of Classical music, perfect and transparent. His music is not hard to understand. It’s all on the surface, although perhaps Chris would argue with me. He preferred Mozart compositions that I considered dry and not very exciting, but which to him were more interesting musically. I knew nothing and still know nothing about music, other then what I can hear.

To return to the idea that ideas do not belong in music, that it is a hermetic monastery of pure sound, along came Wagner, swinging Nietzsche’s hammer, to utterly steep his music with politics, gender, war, argument, and most especially Ego! In 2005 Chicago’s Lyric Opera staged Wagner’s ring cycle and I signed up rather unwittingly, inviting Chris along with me. My head was smashed open! I immediately felt that Wagner was the true inflection point of music, who anticipates rock and roll and absolutely everything else! I think Chris was somewhat disapproving of his meandering musical structure. About this we argued much.

Whereas 80 years later Richard Strauss was writing nostalgic death music, Wagner composed in a highly unusual, but by no means atonal style. He single handedly brought “Classical” music into a new era, one that recognized machines, the end of romance, the beginning of the harvest of science, the rise of the capitalist, the crucifixion of Christ, the rise of the dollar, and of course most horrendously, the worst wars the world has ever witnessed. And yet his contemporary composers mainly remained in agonized denial. They still remain in denial, and all wish for a return to the innocence of Mozart, the gentlemanly order of Bach. To them Wagner was a destroyer not a builder.

The opening of Das Rheingold to me leads directly to Brian Eno. It is literally representing the flow of a golden river. Water and Gold represent all that we come from. We all are born from Woman in a flood of water, and our lives are structured according to the forces of Gold and money. 

The entrance of Siegfried at the beginning of Siegfried likewise is literally representing the rise of the individual, of creative destruction, of overthrow and a change of the order of the world.

Later Siegfried learns of beauty, which in the story is tied up with the learning of his destiny. A bird foretells of his great success. Ego and Beauty are one for Wagner, one element in which he is deeply sympathetic with Nietzsche.

Of course the hero must die tragically. As Christ died. As all of us must die. And to be brave is to be fearless of humiliation, which is ultimately the fear of dying without the vindication of honor and the respect of our peers. Siegfried sings as he dies, having been stabbed by the upstart bourgeoisie greed monger Lord Hagen, in one of the most beautiful pieces of song. This is then followed by his funeral march.

The funeral march for Siegfried might as well be the death march of Classicism, although at the time most people of high minds and cultural sophistication saw Wagner as brutal, unsophisticated, and ugly. Britten, Strauss, Debussy, Shostakovich, Copland, and Schoenberg among many others tried to keep the old going and to reform it with new ideas. Some of them created beauty, but none created a persistent movement. They all failed, and were all derivative in their own ways. Schoenberg was off the rails with his desperation and his school of thought went nowhere. Britten was a sentimental sop. Classical values had died, killed by the avarice of Hagen, who cared for nothing but plunder, who lacked any sentimentality. We are all now the children of Hagen, neglected, tasteless, with our crude music of Nirvana and The Grateful Dead.

However, I asked my architect friend Katie why no one builds in the Classical style anymore, and she said, “they could always start again in the future”. A cultural ethos that persisted for 3,000 years can disappear for centuries and still resurge. With our computers we can be more wordy, more emotional, and faster. Yet we struggle to create a single new idea. Roman decadence is our own decadence resurgent. Sexual mores of every stripe have existed before. Marxism and Communism derive directly from Sparta and Plato. But yet each human life must still forge it’s own path and discover itself anew each and every time.