So here are the main points made in the essay I talked about yesterday — the main points as I think the author sees them, rather than the serious holes in both her data and her analysis that I noted in my post.
This, remember, is an essay on classical music’s new golden age, a golden age that the writer, Heather Mac Donald, thinks is happening right now. Anyone who doesn’t agree, apparently, is a “declinist,” to use the very cloudy term Mac Donald throws around, apparently applying it to anyone who thinks classical music might be in trouble.
(Which, parenthetically, might include many of the leading people in the classical music business, Peter Gelb, for instance, and also many others who run big classical music institutions. Does Mac Donald know that the people on the front lines — the people who, unlike Mac Donald or me, actually have to cope with classical music’s present-day reality — wouldn’t, on the whole, agree with her?
(But then she has an answer for them. They’re “declinists.”)
Here are Mac Donald’s main points, at least as I understand them:
1. Performances are better than they’ve ever been.
Anyone inclined to lament the state of classical music today should read Hector Berlioz’s Memoires. As the maverick French composer tours mid-nineteenth-century Europe conducting his revolutionary works, he encounters orchestras unable to play in tune and conductors who can’t read scores….
Berlioz’s exuberant tales of musical triumph and defeat constitute the most captivating chronicle of artistic passion ever written. They also lead to the conclusion that, in many respects, we live in a golden age of classical music….
The caliber of musicianship also marks our age as a golden one for classical music. “When I was young, you knew when you heard one of the top five American orchestras,” says Arnold Steinhardt, the first violinist of the recently disbanded Guarneri Quartet. “Now, you can’t tell. Every orchestra is filled with fantastic players.”…
The declinists who proclaim the death of classical music might have a case if musical standards were falling. But in fact, “the professional standards are higher everywhere in the world compared to 20 or 40 years ago,” says James Conlon, conductor of the Los Angeles Opera.
These points, I should add, are buttressed by many fetching if not entirely unfamiliar anecdotes from the past. And in fact her contention, on which she lavishes so much space, isn’t new, or very revealing. No one doubts that technical standards are higher now than in centuries past, or even than in decades past. It’s a well-known story, with two of the main landmarks in it (which Mac Donald doesn’t mention) being the rise of recording — when musicians for the first time heard themselves they were amazed at how imprecise they were (as Robert Philips recounts in his books) — and the collossal impact of Toscanini in the early years of the 20th century, with his unprecedented insistence on precision.
And so it’s amazing — given how familiar this territory is — that Mac Donald doesn’t mention the counterargument, that performances have grown not just more precise, but more sterile, especially in the last few decades. I might argue this on what you could call ideological grounds — I think classical music has lost touch with the world around it, has retreated into itself, and set up rules for proper performance that have little to do with real communication.
But others, for decades, have made the argument without any ideological point. They’ve said that jet travel has made performances sterile — musicians travel so much, and perform so much, they don’t have time to be themselves, and also constantly perform with different partners, so they can’t settle into a free and individual performance style with musicians with whom they have a meeting of minds and souls. (Of course there are exceptions to this.)
People also say that recording makes things sterile — recordings, edited to be perfect, now set a standard that audiences expect to be met in live performance. Musicians, trying to meet those standards, work on precision first, and expression only later.
Neither Mac Donald or anyone else has to agree with these arguments. What’s amazing to me is that she doesn’t even mention them, given how rampant they are in the music world (especially, maybe, in opera, where it’s routine to meet people who think current singers can’t stand up to the singers of the past, even in their vocal technique).
Stranger still, Mac Donald quotes an anecdote from a book she calls a “mesmerizing study of Romantic pianism,” Kenneth Hamilton’s After the Golden Age — and Hamilton himself says performances have gotten more sterile:
Romantic pianism [he means piano-playing in the Romantic era of the 19th century] was not simply a matter of creative translation, of free rearrangement. Virtually the entire spectrum of performing styles was heard and applauded somewhere, from our standard sober renditions of pieces [he means the "standard sober renditions" we normally hear in our time] to [very free] versions which we would without hesitation classify as transcriptions. The key word is variety — the fascinating variety of approaches one finds on early recordings, which always leave open the possibility that with each new disk transferred to CD we will hear something quite thrilling, or something quite appalling. Modern pianism is no less full of talent, but it is often more uniform or straitlaced, a mirror of our stiffer concert etiquette.
Hamilton also blames the belief that performance exists largely — or only — to realize a composer’s intentions. The passage I quoted comes from the last chapter of his book, at location 3478 of the Kindle edition. Remarks about realizing a composer’s intentions come a little later.
Again, I’m not saying that Mac Donald (or anyone else) has to agree with this. But it’s stupefying, I think, that she’d make her argument without even mentioning an opposing point of view so common that I’ve encountered it routinely for many years. And, even more stupefying, that she’d praise a book that takes this opposing point of view, without ever mentioning that it does so. That almost equals the feat I noted in my last post, when I showed how Mac Donald cites facts that undermine her opinion, and then leaps away, never to mention them again.
(Granted, Hamilton states his views judiciously, and starts by debunking the idea that the past was a golden age, but still, as the passage I quoted shows, he’s no fan of the idea that our present-day precision is an achievement of supreme value.)
How sad, beyond this, to hold up precision as the standard for a golden age! Have we really sunk that low?
This has gone on too long, so I’ll discuss Mac Donald’s other main points in a future post.