Here’s a scary thought I’ve been nursing for a few months. Has classical music always been well-bred? More well-bred than other arts, I mean. I’m afraid this might be true. I developed this fear after last season’s New York Philharmonic performance of Haydn’s Creation, which I blogged about, asking what Haydn’s treatment of his biblical text could mean to us today.
And then it struck me. Why, when we deal with old classical music, are we so often dealing with such lofty subjects? Where, in the 18th century, was the musical equivalent of Jonathan Swift? Why didn’t anyone write slashing satire in music, an oratorio, let’s say, on a subject like Swift’s “A Modest Proposal”?
In the 19th century, why were operas always melodramas about kings, queens, and other aristocrats? Where was the operatic Dickens, or the operatic Flaubert? It’s ironic to see Lucia di Lammermoor figure in Madame Bovary as a romantic fantasy (actually, if you’ll allow me a moment of musical dorkdom, I think from the way the opera is described in the book it’s actually Lucie de Lammermoor, the fascinating French adaptation). Ironic, because Madame Bovary is a perfect example of things that literature could do in the 19th century, but music apparently couldn’t — create a love story that isn’t a romantic fantasy, but instead eviscerates, with searing force, what love was like in French provincial bourgeois life.
It’s funny, in a way, to see so many musical scholars reading profundities into 19th century romantic opera, when no one in the 19th century would have done such a thing (opera was considered popular culture), and when what those pieces really were, in our own terms, were movies — big, splashy Hollywood movies, really good ones, and often with a lot of depth, but still full of limitations, and hardly comparable to the literary masterpieces of the time. (I say this, by the way, as a huge opera fan, so please spare me e-mail about how I just don’t understand. I adore Verdi, Donizetti, and above all Bellini, and have buried myself in that music repeatedly, most recently last night, when my wife and I were tracing the tenor Gino Penno’s history, and listening to samples of his recordings on the Tower Records site, and then today, when I bought on CD the old Cetra recording of Verdi’s Ernani, which I’ve had for years on LP, and just about creamed, not just to Penno, but to Giuseppe Taddei, for me the baritone of baritones.)
Music caught up with other arts with Wagner, who in his time and right afterward became the touchstone for all advanced art, and of course in the 20th century — think of Schoenberg and his connection to pioneering abstract painters like Kandinsky (though maybe Schoenberg was closest to other advanced artists in the years when he stopped composing) — just in time (more irony!) for the rise of new kinds of music in popular culture (jazz, blues, rock, world music in all its variety), which weren’t all that compatible with classical styles, and helped to make them marginal in our present age.
But why was music so well-bred in centuries past? My guess would be that it needed such lavish resources for performances — full orchestras, stage sets for operas, choruses, expensive vocal soloists, virtuoso instrumentalists. These don’t come cheap, and you don’t find the money to pay them by rocking many boats. Writing a book and getting it published was and is much simpler (and cheaper) than writing an opera and getting it onstage. Composers, therefore, or so I’m guessing, just instinctively became conservative, in order to please their patrons, in the 18th century, and their audience, in the 19th.
Of course there are exceptions, like Beethoven and Berlioz, who came across as flaming radicals, but it’s jolting to realize how safe Beethoven and Berlioz really were, at least in their overt subject matter, compared to Dickens and Flaubert. Beethoven, in Fidelio, exposed the plight of prisoners kept in fetters by a tyrant — though in the end, by a magical deus ex machina, they’re all set free without much trouble. Compare that to Dickens, relentlessly exposing the plight of the poor, and showing how they’re made even more miserable by society’s neglect.
We pay the price for this today. Classical music, despite some really radical moves in the last century, still seems middlebrow and safe. (And — one small example — has no place for David Del Tredici’s mildly erotic penis songs, based on poetry that had no trouble being published on its own.)