Disconnecting in the past

I’m grateful to everyone who joined in our recent discussion, about ways that classical music isn’t connected to our present world. And that includes people who disagree with me, who are always welcome here, and who often teach me a lot.

Soon enough I’ll post my own revised list of ways in which classical music doesn’t connect. But first, here’s a disconnect from the past! I recently read a novel by Balzac, called Ferragus, which is dedicated to Berlioz. (It’s part of a trilogy, and the second installment, The Duchesse De Lange, is dedicated to Liszt.) It’s a wildly romantic — but at the same time sordid — melodrama, featuring heightened scenes of love and death, as well as murder, conspiracies, and vivid descriptions of some of the scuzzier parts of 19th century Paris.

And among much else, it’s a wildly operatic tale. The extended death scene — tearing apart two people who (at least before the novel begins) were the happiest lovers in the world — just cries out for music. It’s so over the top, in fact, that only music can save it.

But would Berlioz have made an opera out of this book? No way. Ferragus is skeptical, even cynical, also sordid, and, like many things in Balzac, in some ways amoral. Berlioz, by contrast, wrote operas with high-minded subjects — a Shakespeare play, the Aeneid, and the life of a Renaissance artist. Not to mention Goethe’s Faust, if you count La damnation de Faust as almost an opera.

And yes, I know that Benvenuo Cellini, in the opera that bears his name, is more or less a rogue, but this is the harmless giggling roguery of the opera stage, not anything really dangerous. Cellini drinks with his friends, innocently elopes (with a woman he truly loves), and goes way over his deadline for delivering a major work of art. Wow, he’s bad! At the end, the Pope himself endorses him,which proves that he’s harmless. There’s no way the Pope would ever endorse any of the murderers in Ferragus.

And there’s more. No opera composer of Berlioz’s time — let alone Berlioz — would have written with an opera with a gritty urban setting, or, in fact, one that didn’t take place in the safely distant past. Verdi caused at least a minor a scandal when he set La traviata in his own time, but note that, though he got away with that, he never did it again. And, yes, I know the Italian censors sometimes thought his far-in-the-past operas cut too close to the bone for the Italian politics of his time, but we don’t see him adapting Balzac, putting semi-literate Parisian grisettes on stage (depicted without any reference to morals or propriety, as Balzac depicted a grisette in Ferragus), or, for that matter, adapting Dickens and putting searing scenes of poverty on stage.

Music, in other words, was a genteel art even in the 19th century, and also in the 18th, where we don’t (just for instance) see composers writing oratorios with texts from free-thinkers like Voltaire. When Beethoven wrote a large religious work, it was a Catholic mass, even though Beethoven wasn’t any kind of strict Christian, and in fact had a religion that (to judge from his writing about his religious ideas) was — in the terms we’d use now — very much New Age.

Why was this? Because music cost a lot of money, at a guess. Voltaire could publish books for relatively little, but nobody could find support for an opera that would strongly violate the genteel norms of the time. And again (see my remark about Verdi’s censors, above) I don’t mean to say that opera didn’t sometimes ruffle feathers (Mozart even adapted Beaumarchais), but overall, it was safe. Just compare 19th century opera with 19th century novels. Where’s the operatic version of Madame Bovary, with its unflinching picture of adultery, and (maybe even more) its detailed portrait of bourgeois life?

So classical music was disconnected from contemporary culture even in the past. Not as disconnected as it is right now, because the conservative cultural ideas we find in most of it had support from many people. But taken as a whole, the repertoire is disonnected because the left wing of culture almost never figures in it, not until the last part of the 19th century.

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  1. Frank Daykin says

    Another stimulating post, as I have grown accustomed from this blog in general. I feel that the analysis is somewhat limited or perhaps simplistic though. There are so many conflicting (mainly 18th c., gradually waning in the 19th c.) ideas about the “role” of music itself, its “duty” to be beautiful, to provide respite, refreshment and “always remain music.” Therefore, texted music such as opera has a problem of what subject to present and how to “compose” that representation. Many of the Bach cantatas, though admittedly site-specific as to Lutheran Pietism, are replete with the most lurid imagery of bodily decay and eventual death, which was seen as a desired deliverance. This is what most of the shivering parishioners in the Thomaskirche would have recognized as their own experience, so hardly divorced from their “culture.” Just a few quick thoughts of an insomniac, that I hope will spark even more investigation and enjoyment.

    Thanks, Frank. For both the compliment, and the critique.

    I need to fine-tune my presentation of this point, not to mention the point itself. I don’t mean to say that classical music in past centuries didn’t reflect its culture, or was always pleasant. Your Bach example is right on target, and also illustrates yet another point I like to make, which is that we’ve lost touch with the meaning of masterworks from the past. I had a brief immersion in Bach cantatas about 10 years ago, and was struck, just as you are, by how dire their theology is. Eventually I got tired of that, and felt that I couldn’t maintain my interest in the music. Its meaning started to depress me.

    I think the way to make my larger point would be to say that classical music, in centuries past, tended to reflect whatever the dominant culture was. Which of course could vary from place to place. In that way, it did reflect the culture of its time, but only partially. I could repeat my example of Voltaire — no oratorios are based on his thinking, as far as I know. Though — and this would be a very nice example of the point I’m trying to make — I believe there were pieces written during the French revolution that reflected the dominant revolutionary ideas. But then, in the 19th century, nothing that reflected the growing socialist movement. (Again, as far as I know.)

    As for contemporary ideas about the nature of music, that’s also a very good line of thought. Though don’t you think that ideas about music are themselves part of the larger culture, and so if they limited any conception of what music could do, that limitation was already built into the culture in which the music functioned?

  2. says

    I wonder how the Venezuelans feel about the place of opera in their culture? Or music? They instruct all the kids in music, so they are giving it its rightful place in human development and socialization.

    Opera is not part of their wider cultural scene as it is in the formerly rich Buenos Aires, where there is an opera house of international standing, albeit currently closed for renovation.

    However I would be very much interested in seeing how music plays out in their culture, competing as it must with all of our electronically delivered arts.

    Maybe we can learn something.

    Does subject matter in fact, dictate musical style? I think there is a disconnect between how we may see modern subjects and what the ear and the voice love as its food. Therein lies the rub.

    These are good questions. But we should be careful not to romanticize classical music in Venezuela. Yes, they have a nationwide program. (About which, by the way, it’s very difficult to learn anything concrete — even people who’ve been there to visit it are baffled by many things, like why it is that the government started supporting it. And Dudamel, for all his surpassing talent as a conductor, stays on message to a startling extent in interviews, always saying the same few unrevealing things. I don’t mean to say that El Sistema hides horrible secrets, but the truth is that we don’t know much about it.)

    And Venezuela has many other things going on. For instance, the country is obsessed with beauty. It’s famous for that. The per-capita rate of cosmetic surgery is one of the very highest in the world. And it’s also a country that’s wild about baseball. I don’t know what role classical music plays in its overall culture, but it could easily be a niche, much smaller than beauty or baseball in the overall Venezuelan scheme of things, even if it’s a larger niche than classical music has here. The crucial question, which I don’t know the answer to, is what Venezuelans who have no contact with El Sistema feel about classical music. Does anyone know about this?

  3. says

    But what about the operas of the early 20th century? There are a number of composers–Hindemith, Schoenberg, Berg, Krenek, Weill, etc.–who wrote operas based on popular themes or contemporary fare, operas that incorporate lurid or mundane elements, popular music of the day, and so on. Classical music was high-minded back in the 19th century and has been so in the 20th, but there have been moments, and in particularly during the period of the 20s, and again in the late 20th century (think of Adams, Daugherty, Reich, Adès, Saariaho, etc.) where contemporary themes and popular elements are integral to the operas. I really wish Adams had found a better libretto for Dr. Atomic, because it could have been a stunning contemporary work. Instead, Sellers’s libretto works at cross purposes with the rich complexity of the score.