Utopian Turtletop. Monsieur Croche's Bête Noire. Contact: turtletop [at] hotmail [dot] com

Monday, March 22, 2004


I’ve recently read some hand-wringing articles about the death of the orchestra and the death of classical music. My question is, when was classical music invented?  People point to Mendelssohn’s presentation (in the 1830s?) of 50-years-dead music by J.S. Bach as the beginning of classical music’s retro-perspective.  But newly minted classical compositions remained in the mainstream of culture -- popular culture, that lots of people like -- through the first 4 or 5 decades of the 20th century.

A week ago I posted fuzzy speculations on the possible effects of the birth of the record industry on classical music.  Today I’m thinking the effect was more profound than I had guessed.  Before the record industry, any notated music could get more-or-less absorbed into the classical tradition.  Johann Strauss led his own dance band and played his own fabulous waltzes to great popularity in Vienna in the mid-19th century.  Less known is the fact that his orchestra also played music by Wagner.  Sometimes people call Strauss “light classical,” but “light” is still “classical.”  It was pop in its day, as were Mozart and Beethoven, to a large extent.

John Philip Sousa led his own brass band and composed his wonderful marches for them.  Sousa is perhaps even “lighter” classical if people consider him classical at all, but either way, symphony orchestras play his stuff, and classical record labels put it out.  Which means it’s classical music, right?

The inclusion of Sousa and Strauss on the classical team points to another possible classical history. Along with Strauss, the original composer of musical comedies, Offenbach, whose most famous tune is the "Can-Can," gets included on the roster. Arthur Sullivan (of Gilbert &) has a spot further down the bench than Offenbach, but he's on the team. His American disciple Victor Herbert, who wrote "Babes in Toyland," barely makes the team. The people who followed Herbert on the musical comedy stage -- Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, George Gershwin (who's a special case), Cole Porter, Richard Rodgers (to stick with the pantheon) -- get cut. Why? How come? I don't get it.

Unless it's because the classic Broadway composers included the influence of jazz, and their works were genuinely popular (as were the works of Herbert, Sullivan, Offenbach, Strauss, Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakoff, Wagner, Liszt, Chopin, Beethoven, and Handel). Jazz, if handled too -- what's the word -- intimately? -- does that disqualify you from the team?

Because bona fide classical team members Milhaud and Stravinsky and Satie "employed" jazz and ragtime in their compositions too. Ah -- but not so popularly, more dissonantly; they didn't try to write hit songs.

The Broadway composers' opening themselves to the influence of African American jazz (and, to a significant and less recognized extent, Eastern European klezmir) finds parallels with a genuinely popular, genuinely classical nationalist tradition in the 20th century. The Finn Sibelius, the Spaniards Falla and Rodrigo, the Russian Prokofiev, the Frenchman Ravel, and the Armenian-Russian Khachaturian wrote lively and wonderful and popular classical works well into the 20th century, all of them at least sometimes opening their music to the influence of the folk music of their native countries.

One thing about these composers -- while some of them wrote symphonies, that's not what they're most remembered for.

The symphony -- that's a Germanic thing. And, here's the rub -- the Germanic thing has held sway over the common-wisdom rendition of classical history.

In the Faustian technological modernistic west, histories of the arts that focus on "technical" developments tend to make their way into the text books. Something deep in the western psyche likes to see the March of Progress, or liked to, anyway, at least until we progressed ourselves into Mutually Assured Destruction. What's odd is that this March, in music history, focuses on developments in harmony, primarily, and orchestration, secondarily. Rhythm only enters into it when things get provocatively unruly, as in the Stravinsky's rousing "Rite of Spring." And what makes the Spanish and the American Broadway composers so distinctively Spanish and American is their use of popular Spanish and American popular dance rhythms. Which is not at all inimical with most of classical music history -- the minuet, the waltz, the gigue, and the chaconne all started as popular dances. The 20th century Spanish and African American rhythms are New in the history of classical music, but the March of Progress view of history downplays them. Not sure why. Maybe because of their origin with the People, rather than with a Singular Genius Breaking Down Barriers (Stravinsky).

Sometime in the middle of the century, the only composers seemingly left on the stage were the March of Progress descendants of the Schoenberg the Progress Marcher. Pierre Boulez and John Cage being paradigmatic, the first as a super-dogmatic atonalist, the second as a dogmatic and paradoxically spiritually liberating aleatorist.

My question is -- why did the genuinely popular nationalist strain of 20th century classical music fizzle out? What happened to it?

And -- when did the cut-off date for the possibility of "light classical" occur? Or are we still negotiating it? (There may be signs that we are -- classical singers recording Broadway tunes, orchestras playing them.) And -- did the cut-off really happen partly for racialist reasons, which is how it seems from this perspective?

And -- why are dance rhythms before Wagner fine with classical music history, but not afterwards?

And -- why does the Germanic symphonic March of Progress view of music history still hold so much sway? I mean, come on, the arts aren't equivalent to car manufacture. There can be an emotional thrill to driving faster and making sharper corners, true, but that's not the only emotional satisfaction of music or of driving.

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