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.