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The Crisis in Western Classical Music

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Julkaistu 29.11.2023 klo 14:08

The Crisis in Western Classical Music and Why a Forgotten 19th Century Style might Help Us Out of It

Our Globalized Musical Mono-culture

Is it just me or do orchestras, conductors, and soloists tend to sound eerily similar? Please don’t get me wrong. There are still many wonderful musicians in the world. What I am talking about however, is a worldwide trend towards homogeneity. The problem is that we musicians have been trained (brainwashed?) into pursuing the seemingly noble goal of realizing a composer’s intentions through textual fidelity and perfection of execution, striving for objectivity in our intellectual understanding of a score and to render it before a public as a transparent performer. Consequently, standards have risen exponentially over the last century. Indeed, performances have never sounded better …

… at least from a technical perspective.

After 100 years of Modernism, we find ourselves unwittingly in embroiled in a Faustian bargain on a global scale. We’ve gradually sacrificed our individuality and creative license on the altar of Objectivity and in the name of Fidelity to the Text. We may have gained in technical perfection and intellectual control over our art, but at the cost of our collective musical soul. The result has been a worrying plunge towards a musical mono-culture, the likes of which we’ve never seen in human history.

Things weren’t always like this. It was at the end of the 19th and early 20th Centuries that the Classical Music world was at its most musically diverse. By then, the Romantic movement had shifted the role of the musician away from that of a lowly court servant and craftsman towards the ’artist as hero’ with genius and individuality front and center. Among the most influential figure of the Romantic era was Richard Wagner. Possessed of a titanic genius and an even larger ego, his revolutionary compositions and ideas changed the course of music history. He and his comrades in arms, Franz Liszt and Franz Brendel, formed the New German School in which they advocated for what they called Zukunftsmusik, or Music of the Future. In his crusade to bring art-music into its next stage of development, Wagner expanded the range of what music could express, merging music and drama into a Gesemtkunstwerk or Total Artwork. This formed a rift in the musical community that eventually erupted into the “War of the Romantics”. The rich panoply of opinions, styles, and personalities that emerged have yet to be matched.

Unfortunately those days are long gone. Now we have a culture in which we have more voices participating than ever before, but they are all saying roughly the same thing in the same way. As I see our current crisis, we are facing the triple threat of globalization, an unchecked culture-industry, and the hegemony of Modernist ideology and dogma that pervade the entire Classical Music world.

Let’s go into them.

1. Globalization

With its ease of travel and relatively open borders (is this era also ending?), students and therefore graduates of conservatories have become highly diversified. Thus the make-up of orchestras and faculties of schools has also diversified. Indeed greater opportunities for more people of different ethnicities, nationalities and genders to study Western Classical music is a good thing, at least in theory. But the reality has been concerning. The diversity brought new voices to the conversation, but minimized national musical styles.

Orchestras from different parts of the world now sound shockingly similar, sacrificing their unique Klangkultur for a generic technical prowess. What distinguishes them is not how they play but how well they play. There are also subtle contrasts in tone color, hence the success of the Historical Instruments movement. Ironically, though their instrumental timbres sounded new/old/authentic, they were actually more modernist than the mainstream. This has been discussed in great detail over the years by great thinkers and writers than myself such as the late Richard Taruskin and Bruce Haynes.

Nonetheless, I wish to put forward the idea that we’ve basically reached the apex of modernist perfection. Any further improvements will be negligible and inconsequential. Sure, some musicians will eventually play faster or louder, etc. But do those minor technical improvements (earned at an incredible cost of childhood) reveal anything deeper in the music? To paraphrase Itzhak Perlman, “if you don’t leave the practice room, you will sound like a practice room”. So the answer is obviously and emphatically no. Virtuosity by itself is an empty vessel. It may delight the senses but cannot move the soul. Too often, we confound excitement, energy and virtuosity for genuine emotion and artistry, thereby missing out on the experience of the sublime. We cannot continue on this path else we risk irrelevance and a permanently severed connection with audiences.

2. The Culture Industry

Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, in their seminal book, “Dialectic of Enlightenment”, brought to light the dangerous path that culture was taking in the West towards a commodification of art, the parasitic business structures that thrived of artists, and the corrosive power of profit. They called it the Kulturindustrie.

Art became a for-profit industry wherein institutions like conservatories trained musical workers who in turn joined the ranks of orchestral factories that produced musical products to be consumed. In that context, it’s easy to see why individuality and disruptive developments in music would be suppressed in order to standardize and streamline production, thus maximizing profits. But what the industry doesn’t seem to grasp is that art only gains its value when people invest it with meaning. If the art we produce is generic and without genuine feeling, it will fail to find resonance with audiences.

With the proliferation of the internet, we are faced as artists with what Simon Reynolds calls “the oppressive weight of history”. It’s similar to what Johannes Brahms said he felt when attempting to write his 1st Symphony back in 1875 in the shadow of the Immortal Beethoven. Only now, all of humankind’s achievements are haunting us at every turn, all because of the internet. How can anyone create anything new when all of history is starring you in the face 24/7?

This is why it is increasingly difficult, if not impossible, to find unique artists of any form or genre. Beyond the oppressive weight of history, all the great art forms have become codified and turned into curricula taught in universities, art schools, and music conservatories worldwide. The content is largely standardized, ironing out differences in national schools in the name of quality and efficiency.

For example, auditions for most orchestras ask for the same tired standard repertoire. The characteristics of the the playing sought out by the audition committee are inevitably the same: a good sound and temperament that blends with the existing sound of the orchestra, perfect technique, rhythm, intonation, etc. Furthermore, with democratic voting at its core, the process will inevitably yield winners preferred by the majority by disturbing the committee the least. The winners are winners because they don’t color outside the lines of the box we call ’industry standards’. The problem is that if we wish to innovate and create something new, we have to do things in a new way. Merely maintaining and/or slightly improving the standards of a system will never produce radical innovation we need. And as we know from Paul Rulkens, “the majority is always wrong when it comes to high performance”.

The same problems are found in competitions in which music has been turned into a sport. That however is a topic for a separate post.

3. The Omnipresence of Modernism or “The Closing of the Romantic Heart and the Rise of the Modern Mind”

Though the paradigm shift instigated by Wagner and his cohorts was immense, it did not last. By the last decade of the 19th Century, the winds of change were already blowing. In Finland away from the limelight, Jean Sibelius was blazing a path away from Romanticism. As early as 1891, he was already making a statement with his early tone poem Satu. With his monumental 1892 work, Kullervo, Sibelius anticipated most of the modernists by years if not decades. For example, it wasn’t until 1894 that Claude Debussy wrote Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune. He only wrote La Mer in 1903. Meanwhile in Vienna, Gustav Mahler, the last of the German symphonists, was penning his final symphonies, the last of which we will hear in April 2024. With the death of Mahler in 1911, one could say that it was the end of an era. Almost simultaneously in Paris, Igor Stravinsky was setting fire to the old musical establishment with his revolutionary ballets for Diaghilev culminating in the riots that met Le sacre du printemps in 1913. With the end of one era, another was already poised to usurp its place.

Following WWI, anti-German sentiment was at an all-time high. The successes of Stravinsky seemed to usher in a new aesthetic far from the Teutonic. Stravinsky arrived on the scene at just the right time as the New Objectivity movement (a precursor to Modernism) was gaining steam. What was considered too German was gleefully cast aside in favor of the latest in Parisian styles. By 1950, the old Wagnerian style of interpretation was more or less gone, replaced by the polished virtuosity of Jascha Heifetz, Arturo Toscanini, and Arthur Schnabel, to name but a few.

If history is written by the victors, so it is with aesthetics and style. Interestingly, it was the conservatives of the 19th C. who won the War of the Romantics. Their philosophy of non-invasive performance practices elided beautifully with the ideas objectivity and anti-sentimentality in Modernism. Fidelity to the text (Werktreue) was rebranded from fidelity of the spirit of the text to fidelity to the notation. The goal in performance quickly became to realize an accurate rendering of the written text in sonic form. Idiosyncrasies and artistic license were discouraged and eventually labeled taboo. A quasi-Stasi state evolved around Classical Music, in which musicians, critics, connoisseurs would report on indiscretions of overly-independent colleagues. To this day, most classical musicians work in a permanent state of stress and paranoia. This must change.

Furthermore, artworks themselves, particularly in Classical Music, have become reified. Music before modernism was an ineffable experience, remembered only in memories of those present. The written score was understood as a road-map or blueprint rather than as the artwork itself. The magic and effervescence of a performance of a piece of music is crystallized or fossilized in the form of a recording. Critics and audiophiles discuss ad infinitum the “quintessential” recording of X or the “best” one of Y. Think of Han Solo encased in carbonite. He’s technically alive, but he’s in suspended animation. The same is true of our beloved masterpieces.

Art in general has ceased to change and evolve. Instead it has folded back onto itself in a sort of “retromania”, to use Reynold’s word. Everything is a reboot, sequel, spin-off, cross-over, re-brand, or revival. We live in an age when it’s no longer possible to produce anything new as all past styles and genres exist simultaneously. If what we create is just a reboot of what’s come before, then there is a gradual decline in interest and engagement. The pandemic has only accelerated the process.

That’s where Richard Wagner and his revolutionary ideas may help us out of Faustian quagmire. But that discussion will have to wait until my next entry.

Eugene Tzigane
Chief Conductor and Artistic Director, Kuopio Symphony Orchestra


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