You Can’t Hear Boulez in a Vacuum

Posted on October 13, 2010

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Pierre Boulez

From a guest blogger:

As we all know Western Classical Music includes Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and probably Wagner (so far so Austro-German). Then after Wagner things get a bit hazy with Debussy’s ‘musical impressionism’ and, depending on what one thinks of Stravinsky’s Le Sacre de Printemps, the classical tradition goes rather sharply downhill once it reaches the full, apocalyptic flow of the twentieth century. Indeed for many people even the idea that classical music has been written in the twentieth century, and up to the present day, comes as something of a surprise. Classical music audiences, like church congregations, have suffered a decline in recent years. To some extent we have ourselves to blame. Just ask yourself when you last went to a classical concert or when you last heard a piece of classical music that moved you to tears, and though I’m not saying that you can’t enjoy Beethoven unless you blub all the way through his late string quartets there is an odd disparity between our general esteem of classical music and our actual interest in it. Classical music is not high on our list of priorities but for some reason it is still considered a worthwhile subject in which to do a doctorate, acceptance that ‘Pop-Music-Studies’ has yet to achieve.

However, when one listens to the classical music of the twentieth Century one is struck by a sound that, for all its appeals to logic and formalism, is essentially incomprehensible save for a few initiates. Whether it’s the serial music of the Second Viennese School or the work of the ‘Darmstadt’ composers in the 1950s and 1960s it seems that modernity has had a rather de-humanising effect on the Western Classical Tradition. Concert-goers are occasionally told that art can no longer be authentically beautiful and, at the same time, authentically art: the mechanical, the impersonal and the grotesque are the only meaningful statements now. Inevitably audiences lose interest since they can no longer understand, let alone enjoy, what is being written. Yet we shouldn’t be too surprised to hear this. The politics of the twentieth century have been dominated by just these characteristics, which gain little or no appeal by being expressed in art. Whether it is the decadent despair of the fin de siècle embodied in the expressionist works of Schoenberg and Webern, or the desire for a completely new, and impersonal, start in response to the Holocaust in the music of Boulez and Stockhausen, classical music continues to reflect the ethos of its composers, and of the times. Beethoven could speak of optimism with regard to human virtue and friendship, and accordingly, one of his greatest works is his setting of Schiller’s Ode to Joy. His legacy endures unabated. In the twentieth century this optimism was shattered by the bloodiest decades on record. Classical music persists, but, like reasoned belief in the value of humanity, it is flagging. If we are to restore a sense of balance between our esteem for Art Music and our actual engagement with it we are going to have to create a society in which human, and even divine, optimism can be expressed with coherence.

(Photo credit: CC: © Jorge Franganillo. No endorsement implied.)

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Posted in: Music & Art