Sunday, August 01, 2004

Is classical music well-bred?

Greg Sandow is concerned that classical music has always been concerned with lofty subjects, giving it an elitist air. But I think he is looking in the wrong places for evidence of radical thought. Instead of regarding the plots of operas or the texts for oratorios, we should instead view the musical language or style for correspondance to Swift's satire or Dickens' ruthless realism. Haydn set his oratorios to lofty biblical subjects, but the musical phrases abound with satire, or at least with humor. He would make asymmetric phrases by adding an extra "ha ha" or making a mocking repetition of a motive. He had the surprise in the Surprise Symphony, and the subtly ironic message to his patron in the Farewell Symphony, through manipulation of the musical stuff itself, not through the use of extramusical resources.

Beethoven may have used a safe subject in his one opera, but his symphonies abound with the realistic humanism of 19th century thought. The unsettling opening and closing of the Seventh Symphony's second movement, or the uncertain form of the third movement (related to the deliberate confusions of perception in the ha-ha garden by one musicologist), expresses the uncertainty of life as ably as Dickens' novels. The second movement doesn't have a happy ending, it in fact ends exactly the same as it starts, despite the efforts of the C major section or the beautiful countermelody in the cellos. The third movement does finish on a happy note, but we aren't sure where we were, given the extensions of each section in the introductions to the next section and the lack of pattern to the repetitions.

In the critics' debate I mentioned below, Sandow also laments a lack of connect between classical music and the Beat generation of the 50s or the revolutions of the 60s. Again I would say that he is looking in the wrong spots, or dismissing connections too easily (Crumb and Stockhausen in the 60s). I would point to Penderecki and Ligeti, Cage and Partch as the equivalents in the that period, though their revolutions did not depend upon referents to the literature of that time (though Stockhausen did use his own erotic poetry that was inspired by Howl), just as the authors and artists of the 50s and 60s did not need to refer to contemporary classical composers. And Sandow ignores the performance artists who stride both worlds, in Nam June Paik and the other Fluxus contributors.

I say that classical music has not been too well-bred, as long as one looks at the right genomes.

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