(This is a revised version of what I originally posted. I didn’t think my original made its point very well.)
Headline on a music review in today’s New York Times:
A Song-and-Dance Salute to the Sun King
Now, I know that Times critics don’t write headlines, and I also know that headlines are often written in a hurry, not always with deep thought about their implications. But a salute to the Sun King? Why is anybody saluting Louis XIV?
Of course, the concert being reviewed featured music from Louis XIV’s court, but that’s not the same as celebrating the king himself. The review, I should quickly say, didn’t celebrate the king, and in fact the critic (Vivien Schweitzer) didn’t even like the most Louis-at-his-court-in-Versailles part of the performance, which seemed to be the presence of two dancers dressed in Versailles-era costumes. Schweitzer was much happier with the instrumentalists, who were dressed in stylish black, and played their concert in an entirely contemporary setting, the Time Warner Center in New York.
So why should I care about the headline? Because I think it underscores something about the classical music world. Classical music events don’t have much content. We play the music, with perhaps a few comments on its historical meaning. But we don’t engage with that history. We don’t take a stand on it. Compare the new Sophia Coppola Marie Antoinette film. I haven’t seen it — though I’m looking forward to doing that — but I’ve read about it. Coppola has ideas about Marie Antoinette, and that’s why she made the film. Whereas we in classical music just play the repertoire. It doesn’t matter — or at least not very crucially — where the stuff came from, or how or why it was written. It’s great music; therefore we play it. So into that vacuum the headline comes. The concert didn’t have any content, and the music, which the musicians clearly loved, came from the court at Versailles.
So why shouldn’t the concert be a celebration of Louis XIV? Was there anything else that it claimed to be? (None of this would matter, of course, if classical music hadn’t so decisively moved away from current culture. And yes, I know it’s harder to find living history in music, let alone take a stand on that history, than it is to take a stand on the history shown in a film. You can’t very well make a feature film about any historical figure without having some view of who that person was. But this only means we have to work harder to put some context — some cultural meaning — into classical performances. And if we don’t — if we don’t ourselves know why we’re giving the performances, apart, of course, from our love of the music — why should anybody come to them?)