Inside 20th-century music

Modern music has become so split in recent years between the ghettoizing of contemporary music and the glass-encasing of the works of the dead masters that the word survival frequently pops up when one thinks along these lines. I used to take a much more draconian, doomsday view of music's future than I do today. I am more optimistic now that I have been, seeing some signs of more eventual binding of the composer-performer-listener rupture.

I do track trends and developments in music, however. And April, apart from income tax considerations, is a good time, I find, for taking stock of various thought waves, how they are faring, and what they might mean.

The role of the performer has long been an issue of interest for those concerned with music in modern times. Indeed, music, having both creators and re-creators to an extent surpassing even the theater, is fascinating in the manner of a government having both a Congress and a president: Which is the interesting one to watch, and which, even, is the more important?

Another music critic recently gave as his opinion that a certain veteran virtuoso performer had, in his whole career, used his flashy nineteenth-century repertoire as a ''stage prop'' - as a means of showcasing his own pyrotechnic talents, making himself the center-ring attraction of his concerts, and the who-really-cared-what music as a secondary feature. My feeling was that he missed an opportunity to extend that to describe the overall climate in which the overwhelming majority of performers, young or seasoned, ply their careers or would-be careers. Concert music, as I have said tiresomely before, has not only become canonized and stratified, but the performer, since the start of our century, has inexorably assumed the status of surrogate musical creator, effacing the public memory of the composer's historic place in the scheme of the art.

A distinguished performer and teacher, who has played plenty of modern music in his career, was giving a lesson once to a young American pupil who was studying a piece by Franz Liszt and one by George Gershwin. Sensing some problems with the latter, he asked the student about it, and the curly-haired, red-blooded, Midwestern American youth replied that he really felt more comfortable with Liszt's music than with Gershwin's. ''This simply shouldn't be, '' the older man replied . ''Liszt is much more foreign to your whole experience. You should be feeling this music right down to your socks!'' Yet this young man's whole training had been - and the advice of any future agent he might have had would be - to stick to offering nothing outside the Beethoven-to-Rachmaninov canon.

It is grotesque that art musicians are so feebly trained in the music of their own milieu. The fact is that there is no greater percentage of unworthy music being written today than there was in Beethoven's time. And the only way history can do its proper winnowing, selective, work is for contemporary music to be played and heard, else it all gets slung into the same ghetto, and the ''respectable'' art gathers, as a result, another day's dust under the museum's glass case. Can you imagine a budding writer in, say, England, being brought up on Moliere, Schiller, Pushkin and Lope de Vega, and being ignorant of Maugham, Eliot, Joyce and Auden?

The hundreds of recital debuts we see each year, pouring their aspiring players and singers into the glutted musical stardom lottery, make for a kind of cultural inflation that is starting to border on the ridiculous. Society at present is demonstrably unable to absorb more than a handful of top-staying-power performers of standard music. In the ensuing steady turnover of new contenders for Cliburnhood, we are coming closer than we think to Andy Warhol's prediction that, in a few years, we'll all have been famous for about fifteen minutes. And it is just possible that a few young performers of Bach and Paganini, here and there, realize that they are being forced to consider the prospects more associated with curatorial work than with the stereotyped dream of the successful artistic career.

Maybe I am being too sanguine, but I think I see here two problems coming together to a mutual solution. Fully aware of the simplistic sound of it, I'll say that contemporary music needs performers; and great numbers of career-minded performers are having difficulty remaining, as economists put it, relevant to our economy. Perhaps, at length, many performers will come to believe, as I do, that they might find answers to their problems of relevance to our society by becoming more a part of the society and taking an active interest in the contemporary products of the art they serve.

I remain stubbornly convinced that this kind of commitment resolves far more problems, in the long run, than we think possible at present. And it certainly has characterized all the past epochs of healthy, vibrant art music in Western history. It hasn't been inculcated much in recent times. And for the sake of careers, deficits, relevance - and music - I'd like to see it given more of a whirl.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to Inside 20th-century music
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today