The War on Music

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From The Wall Street Journal:

If you’ve attended any classical-music concert in the past 50 years, you’re likely to have heard a technically superior performance of old music, and no new music at all that you could understand or enjoy. The situation is exactly reversed from what it was in Europe for nearly the entire history of classical music: Technical proficiency was largely unacceptable by today’s standards, but audiences heard—and expected to hear—the latest works of living composers.

What happened? The answers are many and tangled, but nearly all critics and historians who take up the “crisis of classical music,” as it’s inevitably described, sidestep or ignore the scarcity of new music that engages the public today and instead dwell on the decline in cultural pre-eminence of classical music in general. Their complaints are familiar: Concert halls are full of silver-hairs, Mozart can’t compete with rock ’n’ roll, governments have cut funding to orchestras, and so on.

But these problems, if they are problems at all, are tertiary concerns next to the near-total inability of post-World War II America and Europe to produce more than a small number of classical works that any normal person would want to hear. That failure is slowly killing classical music. You can’t expect the public to remain engaged with works of the distant past if the present doesn’t produce anything interesting. Today’s concertgoers are not antiquaries; they, too, no less than music lovers in centuries gone by, want to enjoy and rave about the latest thing. 

The great virtue of John Mauceri’s “The War on Music: Reclaiming the Twentieth Century” is that it acknowledges what many writers on the subject know but can’t say: that something went badly wrong in music in the 20th century, and especially after 1945. The time has come, Mr. Mauceri writes, “to ask why so much contemporary music played by our greatest musical institutions—and supported overwhelmingly by music critics—is music that the vast majority of people do not want to hear—and have never wanted to hear.”

Mr. Mauceri, an accomplished conductor and music scholar, blames the two world wars and the Cold War. After the cataclysm of World War II, he contends, the cultural arbiters of Europe faced a dilemma. In Austria and Germany, critics and academics could not, for obvious reasons, champion composers whom the Third Reich had elevated. But many of the composers the Nazis had declared entartete, or degenerate—Paul Hindemith, Erich Korngold, Kurt Weill, Arnold Schoenberg—had by the 1950s fled to America and were writing in a more tonal and “accessible” style. Some of them, such as Korngold and Franz Waxman, were writing film music in Hollywood—a sure way to be dismissed by the anointed.

“A simple solution was found,” Mr. Mauceri writes, “that involved a tacit agreement between the masses and the masters: Do not play any of it.” Central Europe’s musical establishment thus ignored music the Nazis banned and the music they promoted. Italy’s music critics, meanwhile, had a similar problem and took a similar approach, according to Mr. Mauceri. Opera composers “up to and including Puccini,” who died in 1924, could remain in the repertory; everything from the ’30s and ’40s had to go.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (PG apologizes for the paywall, but hasn’t figured out a way around it.)

16 thoughts on “The War on Music”

  1. I have a gizmo in my pocket that lets me listen to any of millions of selections at the touch of a fingertip. One service costs $6 per month, and the other is included with Prime.

    How does that compare to the guy on the street in 1900? Measured in listening hours, how does consumption in 1900 compare to 2020? How does consumption of classical music in 1900 compare to consumption in 2020? I suspect this has much to do with consumption patterns of all kinds of music.

    Has classical music escaped the confines of the concert hall? I don’t know, but I do wonder if it might be thriving somewhere and lots of people simply don’t know about it. I don’t know enough to say. The needle in the haystack might actually be a huge needle. The haystack is colossal.

  2. Today’s classical music is alive and well, probably better than in any previous age, both performers and creators, but in most cases the general public doesn’t recognize the material or the masters, who nonetheless seem to make a fine living at their vocation. And not just for video or gaming. Quite a few moderns do fine focusing on the music world.

    One name that comes to mind that pretty much everybody has been exposed to without realizing what they were hearing is Karl Jenkins. Aside from the ADIEMUS project with Miriam Stockley, his PALLADIO has been heard all over for decades now. It probably will last for a few more, if not centuries.

    He has plenty of other projects beyond his two calling cards.
    I’m fond of his DIAMOND MUSIC CD.

  3. This (either the book or the review or both) seems very strangely blinkered. The scarcity of new music that the public finds engaging is hardly an elephant in the room that no one will talk about. Quite the contrary, it is a constant topic within the new music community. I cannot but suspect that the writer is no actually engaged with this community. And in fact that community has long since moved past suspicion of “accessible” music. This isn’t actually all that new. Glass and Reich and Adams have been writing for a half century now. They may not be any given person’s cup of tea, but they aren’t writing academic naval-gazing noise. Moving forward, any discussion of contemporary classical music really should include some indication that the writer has heard of, say, Jennifer Higdon or Caroline Shaw or Dobrinka Tabakova, to name just a few. This has the air of complaining about kids nowadays, with their twelve-tone serialism.

    • Man, you’re just full of great recommendations. (And I forgot Reich, whom I like.)

      Can you suggest any sort of sources I can follow to bring myself up to speed? I’ve lost touch with worthwhile contemporary classical music — stopped buying much after the 80s.

      • Since you are a choral person, check out the group Roomful of Teeth. Caroline Shaw is, or perhaps was, a member. I took my fourteen-year old to a live performance earlier this year. They blew our socks off.

        As for resources, that is tricky. I pick up bits here and there. I listen to Your Classical, a streaming feed from Minnesota Public Radio. They are pretty good about mixing in some contemporary stuff. That is how I discovered Tabakova. They played a piece that made me sit up and check the playlist. If you do Facebook, there is a Modern Classical Music on Facebook group. It is a crapshoot, but a good source for material to check out.

        • Thanks — much appreciated!

          I’m a singer (because there’s no place for amateurs in a classical context except in vocal music) but actually more interested in the instrumental (and especially “chamber”) repertoire.

  4. For those of us in amateur choruses, there’s only one name that appeals from the moderns: Morten Lauridsen. I can universally recommend him for singing or listening — lovely stuff. There’s not one piece of his I don’t like.

    Anent composers who have escaped to film, I also recommend Zbigniew Preisner. The music he wrote for a series of three French movies (the Colors Trilogy) of which the first is “Blue” are quite good modern classical music, and they represent actual works being performed, not just soundtrack.

    That’s not a lot to show for the lost decades, but these are “recent” and they do qualify, as far as I’m concerned.

        • “When David Heard,” the text being from 2 Samuel. I am not a teary-eyed kind of guy, but this can do it, with a good performance. There are several on YouTube. One of them has the sheet music as the visual portion. This is worth viewing, if only to admire his chords.

  5. If the author wants to find new classical music that people are enjoying, they should check out the film and gaming industry. Games especially seem ripe for new classical music that ends up in concert halls.

  6. I’d say almost all new “classical” music has moved to film scores. At least Hollywood pays composers even if it’s not great compared with say pop music.

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