Everyone with an opinion about the future of classical music should read Richard Taruskin’s elegantly brilliant article “The Musical Mystique” in last week’s New Republic. Once again, with razor-sharp points and machine-gun energy, he’s articulated things I deeply believe that I had never gotten around to formulating in words. His target this time is the Germanic view, prominent among the musical elites of America and Britain, that art and entertainment are different spheres, and we owe it to ourselves to eschew entertainment and cultivate a love of art because, well, because it’s art. His impetus is a trio of “Oh-my-god-classical-music-is-dying” books, and his well-supported conclusion is, classical music isn’t dying – it’s changing. Hallelujah, and pass the popcorn.
In my callow youth I was a proponent of the view Taruskin attacks, a real Adorno-ite, art-is-good-for-you, pop-music-dismisser. I’m stubborn as hell, and yet I got over it: why can’t other people? One of my best assets, I think, is a strong sense of musical reality, which I attribute to having been deeply exposed to music before I could talk. And even though I grew up rather shockingly distant from my generation’s beloved rock ‘n’ roll, my sense of reality told me fairly early on that there was nowhere to draw a line between the pleasure I got from listening to, say, Bruckner or Feldman, and the pleasure that I got from the occasional Brian Eno or Residents song that I was driven to listen to over and over again. And I slowly realized that I didn’t get that pleasure from listening to, oh, Schoenberg’s Piano Concerto, or Carter’s Second Quartet, which I did out of a rather pious sense of duty and a feeling that they would build character. And then, of course, the new music, or Downtown music, or experimental music, or whatever delicate euphemism you terminophobes want to apply to the music that I wrote about at the Village Voice for 19 years, was a repertoire dedicated to plastering in the gigantic crack between pop and classical. Some of that music was more conventionally entertaining than other pieces, but there was no way to deeply appreciate that music and pretend that art and entertainment were separate human activities. I can boast a virtuoso range of ways to be entertained, but any music I’m not entertained by I quit listening to, no matter how highly ranked it is in the history books.
And this is the common-sense tack Taruskin takes, with plenty of erudite historical context. Why does any of us get into music except for pleasure? And why would a composer try to do anything in his music except elicit pleasure? Keeping in mind that there are thousands of varieties of musical pleasure, from the algebraic to the sensuous to the perverse to the brain-teasing to the cathartic – and that the pleasure of feeling smugly superior to one’s fellow man, which is also in there, is not a very healthy one. The people who praise Art and decry the lazy blandishments of Entertainment, he says, just happen, coincidentally, to be the very people who take upon themselves the prerogative to define what Art is for all humanity. What, Taruskin asks, are these authors’ “objective and abstract criteria of musical worth? Merely what any university or conservatory composition teacher will tell you they are.” “It is all too obvious by now,” he continues,
that teaching people that their love of Schubert makes them better people teaches them nothing but vainglory, and inspires attitudes that are the very opposite of humane….
There are at least as many reasons why they listen to classical music, of which to sit in solemn silence on a dull dark dock is only one. There will always be social reasons as well as purely aesthetic ones, and thank God for that. There will always be people who make money from it–and why not?–as well as those who starve for the love of it. Classical music is not dying; it is changing.
Let it change, let it change, let it change – that is this blog’s ubiquitous mantra. But I can’t do his rapier-etched argument justice, and I’m reduced to quoting him. You should just go read him.