Classical music…its role in our culture…that’s something I’ve pondered for a long time, and talked about often here.
aMy usual answer hasn’t been very positive. If classical music is going to focus on the past — as of course it still does; such a large percentage of performances are of music from past centuries — then is it really still art?
Art is a furnace
Art, I’d think, is stronger than focusing on the past. Should tell us things about who we are now, what’s going on in the world around us. Or, to use a phrase I love from the very end of Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: “I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.”
Words of an artist. Swap out the now-loaded word “race,” substitute another one (culture, world, whatever) and what Joyce wrote still seems powerful.
Our deep consciousness (I like that better than conscience, though of course it has a different meaning) is forever changing, forever renewed, forever forged in new ways, both in the furnace of art and the furnace of life.
Hard to do that if you’re always returning to the past.
But now another view
And then I saw Manchester by the Sea, a masterpiece of film, nominated at the Oscars for best film, which it didn’t win, though it won for best screenplay and best actor.
In Manchester, people go through life hurt. Trying to make the best of it, falling back, picking themselves up, fighting over nothing because they can’t articulate the big things. So gripping. So real.
And in the film, classical music plays a role. We hear it on the soundtrack — meltingly beautiful old classical works — when the director, I’d guess, wants us to feel compassion for the people on the screen. When the pain is too great, when we need some consolation.
A deep calm
Classical music provides that, in the film. Goes to a depth the characters can’t reach, speaks without words of things they can’t get to.
I’m reminded of something often said by people with no deep classical music knowledge, but who like to listen to it — that they like it because it’s “calm.”
I respect that feeling, even while thinking that it leaves out so much that happens in classical pieces, and certainly takes them far from their creation. Beethoven’s music (an obvious example) didn’t seem calm at all to his contemporaries. Just the opposite, really. Often it seemed wild. Crazy. Disturbing.
And yet I understood that more from seeing Manchester. Classical music, as its role has evolved, really does seem to speak with a voice beyond time. Contemporary life can be jangling. As it was in past centuries, by the way, but that’s another conversation.
So by losing its roots, taking on a new existence in our time, classical music separates itself from the jangle, and brings consolation.
But then…once again…can it still be art? Is it still a furnace? I’d think our consciousness is formed in large part from the jangle. How else could it be our consciousness today?
And if classical music above all means consolation, how can that sustain the enterprise? The concert halls, the orchestras, the vast expense. Is all that just so we can be consoled?
And then why should it matter whether we play Beethoven or Debussy? I guess we’ll never play Xenakis.
But I’ll stop here. You get the point.