Orpheus sang for all
So Round 3 begins. What, is this a fight? Well, in a way it is, I suppose. In the past two days on this page, I've tried to look as sensitively as possible at where the art of music has come and its prospects for the future. So far, audiences and performers have been discussed and today, out of my conviction that an art has health only according to the fresh material coming out of it, composers and compositions are the issue.
They are, to be sure, the hardest nut to crack among these three ingredients for music. In discussing them, I risk awful accusations of sophistry, pandering , question- begging, being out of touch, ill-informed, and generally a stick-in-the-mud. But my mulish lunacy, and my zeal for music's being the very best it can be, drive me on.
Performers are impelled, in the main, by what they suppose audiences are after. Audiences seem to have cleft themselves into two camps: I mentioned previously that they remind me of the two faces of Janus, one face looking backward as far as he can, the other in the opposite direction. My point, simply put: it isn't necessary for us to look always to the receding music of yesterday, or to preen ourselves in the chicness of the "totally new" and avant-garde. There is a repertoire that exists, that has been composed within our time, which can answer the needs of everyone -- right nowm . Music that exhibits a consistently fresh handling of all that's the most universally compelling about music.
Well, having said that, what's left to do? Start naming names? Perhaps I will, Is our symphonic tradition dead? I don't know. But in thinking about whether or not it stopped with Sibelius, we mustm look at a huge body of symphonies by Aaron Copland, Samuel Barber, Roy Harris, Peter Mennin, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Paul Creston, Howard Hanson, David Diamond, Leonard Bernstein -- the list is endless, in all the other forms too! Songs, organ music, other orchestral works, opera, choral, you name it. There is virtually a whole body, a whole era of music which, to my sensibilities, has musical technique, inspiration, sensitivity and much else to say to those who have given up on the music of our time. ("Give me a symphony I can take my family to hear!")
The roster can go on and on: Benjamin Britten, Leo Sowerby, Jacques Ibert, Alberto Ginastera, William Schuman, Walter Piston . . . . Who hears these men's works today? It's around, to be sure, but any music cannot be said to thrive unless it is played freely, competently, and often. This corpus of works can succeed only if it is allowed to, only if it can get the hearing it so richly deserves. As things now stand in the eyes of performers and audiences, it is neither fish nor fowl, having had neither the blue-ribbon status of a place in the repertoire nor the financial backing of the artistic lions who worship newness at all costs. (Rimbaud: "II faut etre absolument moderne.")m
I've discussed already the risk of freezing musical art when audiences and performers look continually to the past. Many of us need to beware equally of the opposite: allowing the partition between contemporary composer and audience to remain and thicken by our slavish devotion to newness and novelty because it seems the openminded thing to do. Stravinsky reminds us, saying that which dies quickest in the life of a musical work is the newest, and those features which endure are infallibly the oldest and "truest." This, from a man who surely knew! There is a decided incubator aura surrounding the support systems (foundation grants, special New Music concerts) of music that purports to speak to us of our time or of the future in a new language. A poem set by Arnold Schonberg when giving the world his 12-tone system was, "I smelt the atmosphere of other worlds." This "other" air has been found consistently smoggy through the years, and we've had no indication in all these seven decades that this will change.
The grants and professional performances and media notices today all seem to fly toward the hothouse musical tinkers, the providers of the music of the future, who are to bring us into contact with now, or beyond. In all this bringing and transcending, I get the distinct impression that where we really are is forever on Mount Horeb, looking over, pointing, but never arriving, never coming home.I think we do ourselves a harm in this coterie treatment of the evernew. We deny our capacity to arrive. And that is something I find sadly characteristic of this century -- always racing, rushing, seeming to ourselves never to get anywhere, to achieve a grounding and solidity in something (or someone?). There ism music today which, I think, can bring us a lot closer to ending the gaps than the music that now has the reins. We have simply to seek it out and trust ourselves to know when we're being spoken to sincerely. Such trust is never held in vain.
A friend once captured my feelings beautifully by saying, "The art of music is not going to regain its former health until what's being composed and performed today begins again to connect in some way with what went on when our mothers sang to us." This is where it all begins, and we should never allow ourselves to drift so far from shore that we forget that any art is, after all, communication among humans. This is sometimes communication on a rather refined plane -- witness the ballets of Fokine or the haiku of Basho or Ringai. But, nonetheless, its purpose is the uplifting and purifying of the human spirit, grounding us in the exciting hope of our unexplored capacities, and reminding us that we are all brothers and sisters in this glorious adventure we call the world.