Too well-bred

I didn’t hear Elvis Costello’s orchestral piece at the Lincoln Center Festival, but I don’t think I had to. I did hear the three-track sampler Deutsche Grammophon sent out, and it confirms everything I read in the reviews of the complete work — the music is notably unoriginal. We can all be glad, I guess, that Costello seems to be a competent orchestral composer, but on second thought, maybe I’m not happy about that. If he hadn’t been able to write this score, maybe he wouldn’t have written it, and then we (and he, too, if he’s honest with himself) wouldn’t be faced with this failure — the failure of a wildly original musician, one of the great creators of our time, to meet his own standards when he turns to classical music.

The music, simply put, sounds like other music, like a whole raft of classical scores, and, even more than that, like an abstraction from one style of classical music, like a highly competent rendering of what mildly spicy 20th century music, with a tinge of dance — think Gershwin, Stravinsky, maybe Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances — sounds like. It’s as if Costello, setting out to write a classical piece, said to himself, consciously or not, “I know what classical music sounds like,” and wrote precisely that. What a contrast to what he’s always done in pop, where he’s forged new paths, referring sometimes back to established pop styles with affectionate irony, not with what sounds, in this new piece, like the obedient conformity of somebody who moves to the suburbs, and says, “Look at how they act out here. I’d better act the same way.” There was one passage on the DG sampler, for very high violins, that sounded new, but nothing else grabbed me.

I felt the same thing about Billy Joel’s classical CD some years back, even though I liked it more than most classical critics did (and more than I like the Costello piece). I thought it was full of notable affection for classical composers, especially Chopin, and also structured with some originality. But, even more than Costello’s piece, it was music by someone who (consciously or not, once again) had decided in advance what classical music was, and stayed within those boundaries. Nothing in it had one-fourth the force of Joel’s pop songs.

So why do these terrific musicians — really lively spirits, in their own area — put on handcuffs when they write classical music? There might be two reasons. First, classical music is too well-bred. Or, at least, the classical music world is. People come to it from outside with genuine respect, and do what the Romans do. Second, classical music is largely defined by older repertoire, so when people from outside come to it, that’s what attracts them, and that’s what they move towards.

I interviewed Billy Joel when I wrote about his classical album for The Wall Street Journal, and one thing I noticed was his striking lack of interest in new classical music, or even 20th century pioneers like Schoenberg. He thought maybe he’d listen to Schoenberg one day. Now, it’s not that he (or anybody else) should write like Schoenberg, but you’d think — as someone with an inquiring musical mind, coming into a new field — that he’d want to learn everything. You’d think, as a composer starting to write classical music, that he — and Costello, too — would want to know what classical composers are writing now. But in a way I can’t blame them. The classical music world doesn’t foster that kind of curiosity, even though, when I look at current orchestral programming, I have to say that things are getting better. But the dominant classical mood involves older music, and a lack of curiosity, so it’s not surprising that newcomers would pick up on that — even if it makes them half the artists they used to be.

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