Another new episode of my improvised, in-progress book — on the future of classical music — is online.
In the last few episodes, I’ve been discussing classical music’s past, both what it was in the 18th century (when it wasn’t classical music yet, and therefore didn’t have any aura of sanctity), and how it started in the 19th century to turn into what it is now. The present episode is the second in a series that looks at the effects of modernism. In my last episode, I showed how vital new music could be — how closely connected to the audience — even in the 1890s, when the percentage of new works on concert programs had badly declined. (Declined, that is, from what it had been in the 18th century, when it was nearly 100%, and throughout the 19th century.) Now I’m going to talk about what happened when modernism hit, and new works started seeming unfamiliar and uncomfortable. You’ll see that I defend modernism very strongly, but I also use some strong language to describe the bad effects of this, which — at their worst — were that uncomfortable new music was forced on an unwilling audience, and also (something I’ll discuss much more fully in future episodes) that modernism in music got to be quite different, far stiffer and more opaque, than modernism in the other arts. James Joyce, for instance — surely the leading modernist in literature — could write Finnegans Wake, which makes up its own version of the English language, and can be incomprehensible to many people. But the book is full of joyful takes on everyday life, references to drinking, popular songs, opera arias, smells, tastes, sex. And now look at two composers who both say they owe a lot to Joyce, Pierre Boulez and Elliott Carter. Do we ever hear snatches of popular songs in their works? Forget it! They’ve entirely divorced themselves from everyday life, something Joyce never, ever did.
Subscribers to the book will get some extras, as always. (Look for them next Wednesday or Thursday.) Anecdotes, extra thoughts, whatever comes my way. Subscribers also get notified immediately when new episodes appear. To subscribe, click here, and in the subject line of the e-mail form that’ll appear, please write “subscribe to the book.” Or anything you like, really, except “subscribe book,” because that’s the language that appears when spammers harvest the e-mail address online, and send spam subscriptions. I’d also be grateful if you’d write a brief message, telling me who you are and why you’re interested in the book. I find this enormously helpful, and I’ve also made some friends. You’ll see that I answer you, though maybe not immediately.
One further note. My friend Jorge Martin, a fine composer, wrote an important comment to this new episode, pointing out that when I say “modernisim,” I really mean atonal modernism, an important distinction. Everyone should read what Jorge has to say.