Wednesday, May 05, 2021

John Borstlap asks "what is the use of the symphony orchestra?" and answers that asking what its utility is is a mistaken question

 The tendency of many orchestras in the Western world to try to make themselves ‘useful’ to society, to become instruments of social change, results from the decreasing status of classical music as a whole, and especially one of its most expensive mediums: the symphony orchestra.

Justification of the costs has now to be found in some form of utility that lies outside music because music as such becomes much too difficult to see as something socially relevant. In a time when the notion of culture, and of psychological and spiritual subjects, is eroding, only the material and the financial aspects of life remain visible, and social injustices because they are understandeable by most people, including the culturally-challenged, on the most basic level.

So, in an attempt to survive in an increasing hostile environment, where classical music is seen by large groups as 'white suprematist', 'elitist', 'inaccessible', 'outdated', 'irrelevant to the modern world', a number of people at symphony orchestras think it necessary to turn away from the idea that classical music is a common good in itself and accessible to anyone, and to prostitute the medium. It is like an upperclass woman whose husband has left her and emptied the mutual bank account, and who desperately tries-out selling herself for survival.

But the idea that a symphony orchestra is not, or less, relevant to society if it is not directly connected to the needs of social change, is entirely wrong. Classical music is not an utility instrument, it is an art form which has no other ‘use‘ than being itself. In a world where so much is measured for its utility, it is the arts who offer an island where the value of a psychological and spiritual experience can be found in itself, as itself, and not in relation to some ulterior motive. Classical music addresses itself to the inner experience of man, and not to the outer world with its worldy concerns and needs. It is the opposite nature of classical music to the nature of the world that this unique art form finds its value and relevance, to compensate for the materialist, commercial, trivial and utility-saturated world of modernity, a world which tends to leave people nihilistic, depressed, exhausted and meaningless.

The Perilous Life of Symphony Orchestras is literally the title of a book, and so also The Crisis of Classical Music Education.  Throw in Orchestrating the Nation and Antonin Dvorak's New World Symphony by Douglas Shadle and there are writers who have pointed out that the orchestral tradition has functionally been on life support in the United States since its beginnings and that bids at developing a symphonic literature have been hamstrung by, alternatively "The Beethoven problem" and "The Wagner problem".  Mark Evan Bonds referred to The Beethoven Syndrome.  Bonds has written about the history of the idea of Absolute Music, as well as about Music as Thought in the last few years. Much as I admire Beethoven's piano sonatas, string quartets and other works the symphonic idiom has a history of having contenders for an American canon that fall by the wayside through a mixture of critical lack of reception and the weight of comparisons to European predecessors.

Writing as a guitarist on the West coast of the United States who doesn't actually subscribe to the tenets of German Idealism or Wagnerian variations of art religion I would venture an idea that the future of classical music, at least in the United States, is going to be more in choral music, song, and chamber music than it is going to be orchestral.  The orchestra survives more in film and even video game music than in contemporary works.  This is not some way of saying I haven't heard any symphonic works I've liked in the last twenty years.  I like Samuel Jones' Tuba Concerto, I even liked it enough to go hear it twice in live concerts.  But as I have been proposing for a few years, the symphony may, after a few centuries of prestige, be going the way of the votive mass.  

If the idea of classical music having some kind of non-musical or extra-musical social utility is wrong then perhaps Paul Hindemith bet on the wrong horse advocating for "utility music".  Then again, Holst has secured a sturdy place indeed in wind band repertoire because he composed for wind band.  My orchestration instructor in college once said the cardinal rule for composers who want to actually get their music played is this, "Write for the musical resources you actually have, not the ones you wish you had." Being a guitarist I have followed that advice.  So if there are opportunities to compose chamber sonatas pairing up the guitar with flute, ukulele, banjo, tuba, and piano respectively then those are fun opportunities.  Part of immersing myself in musical traditions is learning about the oft-derided but, in the pandemic we're in probably under-appreciated Biedermeier era of music-making--in an era in which Norman Lebrecht and others wonder about the basic survivability of the orchestral and operatic traditions with covid-19 constraints it would be nice if the orhestral and opera traditions can survive (hearing a live performance of William Grant Still's Troubled Island is something I hope I can attend one day). But we can't be sure about it and certainly for those of us who are guitarists there's a richer and more robust tradition of American music for guitar, regardless of style, than a steady and established canon of symphonic works.  

The guitarist composer Angelo Gilardino has pointed out that the relative demise of the Romantic era symphony is arguably a boon for we who compose for the guitar. 
...  Phenomena like the renaissance of the guitar in this century are usually presented as the result of the appearance of some great players. This is not my approach. I have described the renaissance of the guitar from Tarrega to our days as the consequence of a new wave in music history. We have always had, in all centuries, very good guitarists, but whether they were highly appreciated or not did not depend on them, but on the general musical scene. In the second half of the 19th century for example we could not have successful guitarists because romanticism and its latest phenomena had created a climax that was impossible to produce on the guitar. The search for a certain kind of colour, a tone of orchestration, led from one side by French composers around Debussy, and from the other side by the composers from the Vienna School around Arnold Schoenberg, had created a new kind of sensitivity to art – to sounds like that of the guitar. This is why we had a new situation in which several guitarists have been able to make themselves appreciated and make the guitar more popular, but not as a personal miracle of theirs, but as a sort of consequence that music history had produced. So guitar repertoire is not primarily the result of the action of any guitarist but is something that happened within the general situation of musical history. This was my approach, and of course, it calls for a complete new setting of the chapters and also for a new explanation of the relationship between facts, causes and efforts.
Paradoxically the demise of Romanticism in terms of sheer sounds sought has benefited the guitar and composers writing for the instrument.  That so much of the core guitar repertoire is still essentially Romantic is  one of the reasons I dissent from Douglas Shadle's idea that we should "cancel the 19th century".  When 90% of the significant repertoire for the guitar post-dates 1803 cancelling 19th century repertoire is a bad idea, since that would functionally cut out at least half of the instrument's known repertoire across the West and also Russia!  But a relative decline in the status of the orchestral repertoire is, frankly, not going to hurt us guitarists, perhaps too many of whom are playing Rodrigo's good but over-played Concierto de Aranjuez.  But if Shadle's provocation were taken as given the fastest way to cancel the 19th century he wants canceled would be to just cancel the symphony as a genre across the board.  I don't want to do that, either, because I'm too much of a Haydn fan.

But I would venture to say that the idea of autonomous art or art for art's sake is a relatively recent and novel innovation even within the history of Western music.  Music has generally had a social and often literally a liturgical role.  It's handy we live in an era in which the Tallis Scholars can record all of the masses of Josquin ... but Josquin wrote those masses with a social and liturgical context in mind.  Sometimes the social and liturgical context for choral music can be as underground recusant music such as the three masses of William Byrd but their liturgical function was the reason they were composed, as also was the case for Byrd's Gradualia Books 1 & 2.

It is conceivable that the idea of art for the sake of art is a relatively late in the game invention in relationship to Western musical traditions and that "classical music" can survive without that ideological stance much as it did for a few centuries before post-Kantian notions of disinterestedness were developed through the 19th century. 

On that note, I've got a series of posts to introduce folks to guitar sonatas by Angelo Gilardino, since I went to the trouble of quoting an interview with him. 

For those who aren't already familiar with my writing here in interaction with John Borstlap we frequently don't agree.  I have by now chronicled that chain of disagreements with a tag. :) 

Borstlap can write,  "It is the opposite nature of classical music to the nature of the world that this unique art form finds its value and relevance, to compensate for the materialist, commercial, trivial and utility-saturated world of modernity, a world which tends to leave people nihilistic, depressed, exhausted and meaningless." and I know he 100% means it.  

I can turn around and consult Richard Taruskin's Oxford History of Western Music and read his rather plain appraisal that the symphonic genre evolved by generations out of aristocratic party music.  Which is another way of saying that the social context and accepted significance of the symphony changed for it to start off in aristocratic party music for its social context and end up being the focus of Germanic art religion a century later.  If the accepted social context within which the orchestra was heard could change once what's the reason it can't change again?  

No comments: