Evasions May Be Maddening, But Definitions May Be Limiting

Recent books and articles by writers such as Richard Taruskin, Alex Ross and Lawrence Kramer, and a simple survey of contemporary trends in “serious” music composition, provoke some thoughts relating to fundamental assessments of what “classical” or “serious” or “art” music really is. An acquaintance asked me recently, “How do you define classical music, and when did it begin?” Sounds like an easy question? Try answering it without a load of prevarications and caveats. Heck, try answering it without descending into gibberish.

I evaded the question.

Oh, initially I took a stab at it, mentioning a sort of potential historical distinction between “functional” musics and “aesthetic” musics, and talked about the codification of the repertory in a discrete body of works that one might imagine European and American music consumers to commonly accept as “classical” music, and I talked about the relationship of patrons, commercial issues, and the concept of artistic integrity, but then had to stop in a confused daze. So my interlocuter interjected, “Do you think Philip Glass is a ‘classical’ composer? I do.” I instinctively think my friend is right, but if I try to explain why, I lapse into incoherence.  I know this, however: the difference between so-called popular and so-called classical categories is not determined by the sort of formal education a composer has received (consider Weill’s study with Busoni or Cage’s with Schoenberg) nor by the sort of instumental guise the music adopts, nor, increasingly, by the sort of venue the music is played at. It is tempting for someone like myself, lacking a clean record in the snobbery sweepstakes as I am, to point to commercial ambitions as a sort of demarcating barrier. But I’d be wrong if I posited such a distinction. Charles Ives could afford to be quixotic, and Elliott Carter can afford to be irredeemably complex, for reasons that are obvious…the lack of necessity on relying on income from their musical compositions to make a living. Do you think Mozart wanted to write every last Contre-dance, Serenade, or Divertimento that he did write? Of course not. And Ross points out the pathetic spectacle of Arnold Schoenberg imagining that his opera Von Heute auf Morgen would be a runaway hit. It wasn’t. But let me mention here, apropos Schoenberg, that for my money he out-Weilled Weill in the cabaret genre with his magnificent “Brettl” Lieder. I have the sneaking suspicion that Schoenberg could outplay anyone at their own game any time he chose, but the inexplicable thing about him for so many people is why he chose to do what he did. It would be amusing to compile a Schoenberg program of nothing but widely attractive pieces, not all of which would need to be culled from his early years.

Almost every composer wants to be loved by a a large audience, and wants or needs to generate income from his work. Of course there are exceptions. There are exceptions to every single generalization you can make in this world. But the exceptions are not, by definition, characteristic, so you can throw out the pecuniary aspect as a reliable dividing line. Handel and Rossini did pretty well, eh? And here in Chicago, to my certain knowledge, there are excellent musicians working in unambiguously “popular” genres who struggle to make a decent living, despite highly honed musical skills and plently of intelligence and energy. Music is a hard profession. No, please don’t say, “every profession is hard”, there are some professions that require less dedication. This shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone. 

Complexity? Please; this is a canard: Compare Ellington with Clementi. But, it is true, and not merely coincidentally true, that much of the music called “classical” is more conventionally complex then so-called popular music, but nowhere near to point of ubiquity where we can comfortably designate complexity as the dividing line. And complex in what way? Harmonically? Alright, the Classics have Chopin. Rythmically? Traditionally the Classics have lagged here. It amuses me that permutations of odd units of beats, and the juxtaposition of these units in larger segments, as practiced by Stravinsky, is accepted as rhythmic complexity. Complex indeed, compared to Haydn’s “London” symphonies, but there are myriad musics from ethnic and often non-Western sources that do the same thing, only naturally, not contrived. I’ve heard these musics. But here I have to acknowledge unambiguously that I’d rather hear Le Sacre, which is absolutely not on my personal top ten list, or top hundred list, even, than any of these other musics. That’s just because I’m attuned to European cultural values, and it is a perfectly legitimate preference, one for which there is no need to apologise. I admit to considerable skepticism regarding the deliberate appropriation of non-Western elements in musics as diverse as the Beatles, John Cage, and Philip Glass. George Harrison wrote charming songs, which I value. Then, he apparently went to India to sit at the feet of the Groovy Guru, came back, and continued to write charming songs, only this time with sitar. If my facts arn’t exactly right, if Harrison had an Indian grandmother or used sitar before going to India, that doesn’t invalidate my point about the dubiousness of attempted absorption of alien musical cultures. Nothing wrong with it, as long as you don’t pass it off as the real McCoy, which I’m pretty sure the Beatles didn’t, anyway.  I think it was in Ross’s fine book that he quotes someone to the effect that the best way to express a culture is to be from that culture. But in these confessionally violent and fragmented times, the sort of attempted cross-cultural synthesis represented by the examples above are most likely a good thing, in any case, but the sort of person who values more or less exclusively Western style and content needn’t apologise. No one person can be all people, although I suspect that this is a sort of ambition for a number of post-modern Western composers, Schnittke, for instance.

Can Personal Taste Be A Potential Arbiter Of The Classical And the Popular? 

What I cannot understand: Years ago, a colleague and I were discussing our shared love for the music of Tchaikovsky. The conversation veered into a consideration of Tchaikovsky’s legitimate successors, (Rachmaninov and yes indeedy, Prokofiev, for example) and then we discussed Shostakovich. Specifically, Shostakovich’s marked antipathy for the music of Scriabine. Well, I love to play Scriabine on the piano because somehow his figurations fit my hand exceedingly well, so I can execute virtuoso passages in Scriabine which execution is denied me in certain other repertories. Scriabine is a sort of utopian mystic (a catergorization he paradoxially could be said to share with Webern, queerly enough) and Shostakovich is so-called “down to earth.” Somehow I mentioned that for my view, Shostakovich and Schoenberg were likely my personal favorite composers of the Twentieth century, while Scriabine was a sort of Wagnerian personality, with a weirdly myopic ego, and Stravinsky was already showing signs of wear. This stopped the conversation dead, and actually offended my colleague. She rebuked me with inconsistency; how could any intelligent person who loves Tchaikovsky’s “imperial” music and Shostakovich’s searingly human, if not always humane, works also prize a worthless stinker like Schoenberg, whose appalling music had done so much harm?  If you like Shosty’s magnificent (first) violin concerto, you cannot possibly like Schoenberg’s essay in the same genre. You must be lying, or confused; it’s a certaintly that you are inconsistent in a way that disqualifies your viewpoint. But it’s not important what I like, or what you like, relative to some generalized conceit of properly adjudicated taste, and consistency isn’t necessarily a virtue; in fact, one of the cleverest things about being human is a sort of innate sense of a need for balance; my idiotic cats will eat their favorite treats to a surfeit, foregoing all else, whereas the human table includes Yorkshire pudding and a salad with the roast beef. If you’re going to a desert island, and are given two records, don’t take one by Mahler and one by Berg, choose one of those, and complement it with something else. I’m influenced by Taruskin here, but I can say: Shostakovich exemplifies the value of engagement, and Schoenberg exemplifies the value of super-cultural inner exploration, which also has its value, but for fewer people.

So which is “classical”? We can redefine our terms and say Shostakovich is a “popular” composer, but I make the (possibly) unwarranted assumption that educated consumers intuitively accept both as “classical”. So, I’m back to square one, agreeing with my friend from the first paragraph that Glass belongs in the classical bin without being able to say exactly why.  

Aside from the fact that attempting to artificially segregate musical styles is like running across the ice rink in your socks, there is no burning need to resolve the issue, but I must say that people do ask the question…as a music teacher, I know they do.  Frequently. If it’s a naive question, it at least appears to be the sort of question that has relevance for the supposed crisis in classical music addressed by Kramer and analyzed by Taruskin. Words change their meanings over time and some words lose their meaning. Popular and classical are examples of such words in the field of (What can I call it now? Ecoledenotredamepalestrinabachhaydnmozartbeethovenrossiniwagnerchopindebussystravinskyschoenbergbeatlesglassadams music)…I do know what popular is, however. It is that which a lot of people like. Wait a minute, a lot of people relative to the number of people who like music as a whole? A lot of people relative to those who like Schoenberg? A lot of people who are willing to pay money for it?