Sunday, May 15, 2005

Death of Classical Music

Music is all in our minds. It is a mental construct similar to language, something that our minds create from the sounds we hear. It has no actual existence.

When I was in graduate school I studied music history with the eminent musicologist Hans Tischler. Dr. Tischler divided history into 20-30 year periods, showing a unified style across Europe that varied from country to country, but was consistent and coherent across the continent from the earliest times to the present. Like a person living today, each composer formed his musical personality in his youth and carried it forward for the rest of his life. Monteverdi was an exception to this, changing his style with each decade.

Beethoven’s mature period (Eroica to death) divides into two sub-periods at the time he went completely deaf. He shared his late period with Schubert and Rossini. All three composed pieces with the endless cadence that was a fad during that era, for example. This is just to give you an idea of how it works.

Then we reached the twentieth century when European culture exploded and disintegrated, causing music to fragment into many small style groups and abandon its continental coherence. Radio and the phonograph contributed to the disintegration of coherent musical style. In spite of this Dr. Tischler continued his periods into the twentieth century with a period for intense dissonance followed by a more classical time. Toward the end of the century minimalism arose. But then what? I’m not at all sure that Europe has an independent musical personality any more.

One of the things that went on in the twentieth century was a self-conscious attempt to kill tonality. That was the purpose of the twelve-tone row. If I compose all twelve notes an equal amount, there will be no desire to prefer one note over the others, as is always the case in tonal music. So what became of this effort? Our ears are much more tolerant of dissonance than people in 1900 were, but there is no evidence that we have lost our interest in tonality. Tonality is alive and well. Schoenberg never became popular.

The globalization of music means that everyone grows up with the same music in their ears, with the same style. America has moved in and taken over with jazz, pop, rock and roll, and the other styles of commercial pop music. Here as there each generation absorbs the music of its predecessors and reshapes it to its own purposes. But there are pockets. Cuba is a pocket. Wales may be a pocket. Churches in the southern US are a pocket. This particular pocket is the engine that produces new American pop singers. When America became the dominant country politically, its music also began to dominate. Today Europe is rising again. How will this translate into music?

American styles fit nicely into Dr. Tischler’s periods, too. Rag is in the slot with Debussy and Impressionism. Swing accompanies classical modernism. The ascendancy of rock and roll goes with minimalism. You knew that.

At a certain point I became a computer professional and lost contact with Dr. Tischler. I am on my own if I want to discover what is happening today.

Classical music has died as a generator of new styles, but lives on in the recreation of its monuments of the past. There is an enormous infrastructure devoted to recreating operas and symphonies of past eras, and it must all be put to use. Rock and roll and rap can never replace the passion of opera. Opera speaks to the whole range of human emotion as no art form ever has. Without it we would have only CNN to tell us the meaning of tragedy.

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