The art between
Musical performers are the representatives of musical works to listeners. So what's new about that? Why am I discussing that here? Because I'm concerned about the art of music, the very fruits of which are conveyed by these executants. Composer Paul Hindemith found music's dependence on performers an inherent weakness while admitting they brought an added tension to the enjoyment of our listening. This annoyingly haughty view (from a man who enjoyed excellent, career-long relations with performers) does suggest to me the potential of what performers have to offer us and their art.
It is ourm art, really, or should be -- which explains in part my abiding uneasiness about it. Thus today I consider the second of music's three mainstays: audiences, performers, and composers.
Performers have been portrayed as everything from the unobtrusive, self-effacing slaves of art in the highest, to the globe-trotting, triumphant Escamillos of the concert world, seen through the eyes of the neglected composer whose pieces none will touch. I confess that I must look at them through the eyes of the art which both creator and recreator are supposed to serve -- through the eyes, as it were, of Orpheus. This is where I begin to see the full flowering of the very best that performers have to bring, and where also, too often, I become incensed at what I dom find.
The phenomenon of our shrinking concert repertoire simply hits me most strongly when I think of music's recreators. By shrinkage I mean the present-day point we've reached -- so distant from the sources of the music we go to hear. Precious little that's new, even the best of what's new, seems to have filtered into the audience's knowledge or experience. This is not confined to listeners, I'm afraid. A distinguished concert pianist, for example, who has performed a good deal of 20th-century music, had an American pupil who felt closer to the music of Franz Liszt than that of George Gershwin, which seemed virtually antithetical and alien to him. Yet this is much more the rule than the exception with performers, young or seasoned. Veteran orchestral players often balk at the thought of doing anything off the beaten track because music -- their hard-won supportive system -- admits of little strangeness or change. Young musicians, to launch their careers, must abide strictly by the traditional dictates of those who award competition prizes, and orchestra promoters and recording companies never lost any money by looking backward. Willy-nilly -- due in small and grand part to performing musicians' problems -- we find we've inherited a virtually institutionalized response. And it's not safe to assume that this is a matter of simple conservatism. The stakes are too high.
No, because of this freezing process, each succeeding year takes us further away from the aged concert works we adulate. This heightens the angle of distortion in which they continue to be heard -- as the surrogate for musical contact with our time! My large-scale fear is that we may be headed toward twom musical arts: a performing one, that addresses yesterday's most standard, sure-fire works, ones that show the performer to best advantage and assure him and music-lovers that culture is being pursued, and a "creative" one, that is, one by which the public wishes not to be challenged. Sometimes I see us as a kind of Janus, the pleading lifenugget of music standing between two faces, ignored by both. This is an appalling schism. Yet surely there are others around who, along with me, shudder at this vision whenever we go over the seasonal programs of symphony orchestras or the guides to monthly classical music broadcasts.
This stunting of the repertoire's growth is abetted from many quarters -- by orchestra boards, artists' managements and, worst of all, the recording industry , for which the music of yesterday is as marketable as today's frozen dinners. Players and conductors have probably the greatest potential, and therefore responsibility, for effecting a change. Hence my exasperation when I see them again and again neglecting the broad realm of repertoire where fresh responses are alive and waiting. That neglect deprives all of us, not only today, but also in the future. Performers have an obligation to steer us back onto course for a balanced, healthy, unified art. But in this they're often sadly remiss. They lose their grasp on this unity, or seem never to have had it, and thus tend to remind one of teen-age radio players for whom music exists more or less in a vacuum, not composed by anyone in particular -- just in the air, generated by the loudspeaker.
I'd be the last to deny that performers have difficult problems, no lesser or greater than those of the composers. Not only do they have to support themselves and their families in a very fickle and transient profession, but there are also the deeper, darker fears of the more sensitive, which are summed up in Hindemith's words: "Gone and forgotten the moment you climbed to the highest summit of perfection and self-denial -- this seems to me the essential tragedy in the performer's existence."
Yet, in the great by-and-by, these problems are not as important as the survival of the musical art itself as a living, creative force. The composer is at fault for ignoring them, by tinkering with gimmicky sound effects, and the performer for denying the great scope of the repertoire. I do not make a case for the contemporary music which moves no man, and which occupies itself with sound effects rather than music. What's to be played, then? The answer lies with the composer. He is the third side of the triangle called music. I'll talk about him tomorrow.