Classical music beyond the pleasure principle

'Music must serve a purpose, it must be something larger than itself, a part of humanity, and that, indeed, is at the core of my argument with music of today - its lack of humanity.'
Pablo Casals may have been speaking fifty years ago, but his ideas are still very relevant. The current trend to reposition classical music as entertainment bleaches it of humanity and purpose, and ultimately removes its raison d'être. The diagram above from a recent post attempted to capture this graphically and music teacher Liz Garnett has taken my theme and developed it admirably in a post on her own blog titled The 4 Es of classical music.

At the core of classical music's present problems is an obsession with duality. A work is either a masterpiece or it is consigned to oblivion. A musician is either a ludicrously rewarded superstar or is consigned to the rank and file. Similarly music is either pure enlightenment or pure entertainment. Perhaps the solution is a middle path, a combination of entertainment and enlightenment. Such a path leads from perenially popular Vienesse operetta through Rutland Boughton's 'psychic drama' The Immortal Hour - which ran for 216 consecutive performances in London - to Leonard Bernstein's West Side Story. Bernstein's musical brought a new audience to classical music and is still breaking box office records, but where are its successors? More on The Immortal Hour in Music of the magicians.

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Pliable said…
Retha-Louise Malherbe Hofmeyr commented via Facebook:

'Dylan and Harrison outisde the circle enlightenment ?'
Pliable said…
Fair comment Retha-Louise, and incidentally it is good to have a reader in Namibia.

It was only a quick and dirty graphic to illustrate my thinking. Dylan's position is on the entertainment to engagement axis, which I don't think is too far out. But I agree with you that George should be more in the enlightenment direction.

But it has got people thinking, so the first part of the job is done.
Pliable said…
Retha-Louise Malherbe Hofmeyr commented via Facebook:

'Harrison and Dylan made a profound contribution to my spiritual and political enlightenment when i grew up in South Africa in the 60s and 70s. Their voices brought hope that we could embrace a different and new reality. 'Engagement' is an interesting category though, because engagement requires mental connection as well as passion.. Thanks for your inspiring site. You placed Beethoven in a very ineteresting position by the way!'
Pliable said…
As Remembrance Sunday and Requiems are on top of mind at the moment I would throw one wild card into this discussion.

John Rutter's moving 1985 Requiem received a number of performances in the States after 9/11. Rutter is sometimes viewed with condescension and categorised as a "crossover" composer. But if classical music wants to reach a broader audience it can learn a lot from his skilfull mix of enightenment and entertainment.
Pliable said…
Email from Lyle Sanford -

I'd assumed it was a "quick and dirty" illustration, but nice to see it confirmed. The Harrison and Dylan placements caught my eye as well. Thought of you and this topic on reading the following from that Grimaud interview Alex Ross linked to the other day. >>>She presented her program with intense commitment, sustaining a mood from piece to piece, so that the audience felt pulled into a narrative. Levine, at the Gould Foundation, notes that she “seems so absorbed in the music, so attentive. She has that quality—getting back to Gould—of ekstasis.” Grimaud explains, “A concert must be an emotional event, or who needs it? You can just stay home and listen to your favorite recordings.”
Bodie said…
"A work is either a masterpiece or it is consigned to oblivion." This sounds like the Steve Jobsification of classical music. Maybe it's the baby boomer ethos.
Pliable said…
Bodie, perhaps its the Twitter ethos. It is difficult to argue the middle path in 120 characters plus URL.
billoo said…
pli, i love the idea of the middle path being the overgrown path, the fifth element, the quintessential.
Gavin Plumley said…
This post is a superb distillation of the current situation. Specifics and broad sweep in single sentences. Bravo.

Not sure about the illustration. Barenboim outside the enlightenment sphere and outside engagement? Venn diagrams for these sorts of things remind me of that 'introduction to poetry' in Dead Poets' Society:

"If the poem's score for perfection is plotted along the horizontal of a graph, and its importance is plotted on the vertical, then calculating the total area of the poem yields the measure of its greatness."

For what it's worth, though, I think your placement of Dudamel is bang on.

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