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Classical Music (again)                                        






Two questions: (I) why is ‘Classical’ music still here? (II) What is it that forms a cultural ‘classic?


I  Why is ‘the best’ of Classical music still here? Why is it that what we call ‘classic’ is still Classical (as against the Romantics, arguably more popular)? Could it be because we are still in the same kind of society and still share the same kind of ideals? Could it be, therefore, that the best of criticism of the best of Beethoven regarding the relationship of music to ideals (for example) still holds (in a way that similar appreciations of plainsong do not)? Is it possible to say, therefore, that the more difficult forms of avant-gardism, those exploring the limits of human experience and sensory capacity, can be read as a distraction for specialists or, at best, an elite activity in a society dominated by the ‘big middle’ of advanced capitalist social structure. Now after several decades of market reforms a little less ‘administered’ and ‘converging’ than it was the hey-day of ‘Corporatism’ (the West’s form of State capitalism) in the 1960s. A world less ‘statist’ than before, even with the interventions of Big State due to financial crises and recessions and the survival of state capitalist societies ‘in’ and ‘on’ the world market; but nevertheless a world ‘smaller’, more… ‘self-similar’, because interconnected by trade, passage, and communications - in word… globalised.


On this reading, Beethoven and his cultural compatriots peaked at the right time; just before capitalism’s problems incited the various anti-capitalist reactions… Romanticism, and Modernism, and the various reactive utopias, first back to an idealized feudalism, visions of social organicism, reborn community and utopian socialism, then, with the ever-greater exacerbation of class and national tensions, the real return to a feudal re-centralizing of powers, fascism and communism, together with a tendency to an expansionist totalitarianism. Even then the early democratic utopianism that informed the French Revolution was itself a source of vast disillusion – its image, however, often remained heroic (neo-classical utopian images in the culture of the period referred to a similarly imaginary past). The industrial phase of capitalism was not particularly heroic; entailing massive sacrifice and destruction (of people and environment). So the early ideals forged in an Enlightenment reaction against feudalism were either mourned or passed over to other social movements and ideologies. However this phase of history – together with its reactions, alternative methods of industrialization, urbanization and modernization, etc. – is already almost past, as are the precise classes and class antagonisms that it spawned (but perhaps not yet the international scene, with its geo-cultural blocks). So it is that the ‘classics’, that is the emotions they incite and the ideals associated with them, once again become more cogent; again taking their place as among ‘the best’ cultural products of this type of society (in this light, the intervening avant-garde experimentalism becomes one more minority taste among many; beloved of specialists, fanatics, those in search of ‘cultural capital’, neither a vanguard nor a dead end… just another part of a plural cultural manifold). Anyway, human culture is not anymore seen as the culmination of a single-line history of ‘progress’. Insofar as post-industrial society nevertheless remains advanced capitalist society, then capitalism’s early ideals (the ideals of a ‘progressive bourgeoisie’, of the intelligentsia of that epoch) still live, even reborn, with the death of the intervening ideologies (which were anyway, in practice, the ideological covers for old empires, geo-cultural imperia, in new clothes…). These ideals can now be read as returning to their prior place as a critique of existing relations and not as an ideological excuse for such – as they had often been misconstrued, in a typical confusion of the ideal (by definition not yet existing) with ideology (in the ‘bad sense’, as false picture of facts, or ‘false consciousness’). This return to cultural products now seen as among the peaks of an epoch (and not as a short prelude to an all redemptive social form) a repetition in turn providing another argument for the (almost) end of art (history) thesis. But now extending the argument back to the earliest period of capitalist social relations and its art culture.


So the survival in fact consists of two connected elements: a restatement of values and ideals embedded in music, so in our emotions, a restatement possible due to the music in question belonging to the same socio-cultural epoch; and also to the ‘return’ to fundamental forms of listening and comprehending in music, literature and art, so in our current art culture (popular culture, by definition, was always easily consumable) a return based upon the more direct implications of the harmonic series, a sense of narrative and lyric, and representational form and content in the world of the image. All in all a ‘cycle’ of only one hundred years (the experimental century of the later nineteenth century to the later twentieth).


(More recently, this time in popular culture, in the realm of popular music, witness the regular ten year recycling of the Beatles sound -a ‘pop-classic’- and indeed, the recycling of most of ‘the best’ of what had gone before; note also the non-stop persistence of the ‘Gothic’ and Punk styles of youth (sub-)culture, now almost into their thirty-fifth year! The Beatles into their half century! Fifty years out of Beethoven’s two hundred is already a quarter; the ‘modern art’ of ‘found objects’ have a history of over a hundred years, while the fully psychologised realism of the novel, also celebrates a two hundred year history (the Gothic novel, the Jacobin novel, Godwin, the novel of becoming, Goethe). In future centuries the one hundred and fifty year gap between the rise of classical music and the arrival of mass cultural popular music will be seen to be a small one. Like the evolution of (recognizable if limited) democratic institutions (out of earlier structures) in the (mid) nineteenth century and their eventual reform and extension in the mid to late twentieth).


However most people (even in the cultures of Western civilisation) do not listen to Beethoven - but perhaps they may recognize a few key melodies. So if we may perhaps not say that he is a living part of popular culture, in the sense of ‘must-be’ bought, listened too and hummed (or Karaoke-ed), then nevertheless the element of recognition implies that he is apart of its history, its heritage; much as we (English speakers) all use phrases initially coined (or recorded) by Shakespeare without necessarily regularly attending performances of Renaissance theatre.


Nevertheless the role of Beethoven in (not only) Western art cultures is immense and persistent (even if somewhat eclipsed by Mahler this last half-century). Paramount, of course, in German speaking cultures, in the central European tradition and its most influential critics (not least, in intellectual circles, Adorno); but as often recorded, publicly performed (and re-recorded), and perhaps most importantly, privately performed, by millions of ungifted amateurs across the world. It is this apparently not so coincidental survival that offers to the listener the ‘shape’ of society as well as its ideals, its conflicts as much as its hopes, and its internalized divisions (contradictions of emotional community and identity, the self-recognition that is part of the recognition of a music as still valid for us) that render great music at once a salve, a diagnoses and a (somewhat mediated) mimesis (or better, a performative ritual of the preceding elements).


II  Our sense of a cultural ‘classic’ is defined as that which sums up best, that which sums up ‘the best’; the best art work of an cultural epoch or aesthetic episteme (on this argument, our historical epoch, our fundamental episteme, our historically regional ontology, our socio-economic mode of production and exchange). If the classic example is felt to be best…it is because it continues to speak to our (the audience’s) emotions and expectations – it involves us, translates our worries and aspirations. The problems it evinces are ours; that is, our societies’ typical agon or insoluble social collisions of interest, those which divide our loyalties, the loyalties of the individual and so (if the artwork is a living one) the feeling of the audience, which is why we can describe it as at once a performative, in relation to what it represents, and a ritual… As well as representing their wished-for escapes (assorted fantasies, sensuous pleasure, loss of self or affirmation of self, most especially, in music, the dance, from folk origins to classical romantic appropriation to today’s dance culture). This explains why some of yesterday’s art, more particularly certain aspects of yesterday’s art is crowned with the term ‘classic’ and others not, for example the survival (as measured by performances, recordings and CD sales) of Beethoven and Mahler (whose musical inclusion of the everyday was prefigured in Beethoven with the inclusion of folk dances). It could just be genius… But then again (if we remember that Shakespeare was once decried as barbaric, and today again is an art/elite minority taste - despite being taught at schools) more probably it is because we still occupy the same broad social cultural space, only more evolved, more ‘knowing’ (ironic)… and globalised.


But what of today’s ‘Big Middle’? The surpassing, or subsuming, of an elite art culture (and its putative polar opposite, popular culture) by a pluralistic, polymorphous, and endlessly recycling mass culture, dominated by an ever-growing, but non-homogenous ‘middle’, whose extreme north and south pole, an under-class or trash culture (usually imported from the US) and a variety of elite specialisms, increasingly look like minority interests among a plethora of other (less contested) minority interests that together make up today’s cultural scene. In this light our ‘classics’ survive in different forms: as ‘the best’ for some, as representing the peak of social and musical ideals, as ‘just one kind of music’ for others, a time (or background) filler, providing an ambience or identity statement about the listener or listener’s peers (the fate of Mozart at many dinner parties) and everything in between. It is in this sense that the survival of Beethoven as an interest outside of the academy is guaranteed (but in more than just the shape of several motifs in the background of virtually everybody’s musical consciousness) as a music both heroic and gay, often experienced as uniting the joy of the dance with the elevated (and emotional) sense of a great ideal or heroic endeavor. (If not a figure for heroic self-assertion; a less generous reading of the sonata principle’s conflict-outcome and the emotional lift it gives… as exemplified by the return -of the first theme- now in the dominant, and the, equally identity-confirming, repetition of the second theme, now in the homecoming tonic key. In a crowded, competitive society it would be a rash person indeed who would argue that this appropriation, hierarchical in the sense of savouring a victory, of becoming dominant, was impossible or foreclosed…).


If the foregoing describes the social (and economic basis) of what, in the arts, we usually call Post-modernism (or, with a stronger emphasis on philosophy or intellectual history, Post-modernity) a cultural phase originating in the arrival of mass society in the last third of the twentieth century, where the emphasis is upon pluralism and recycling (a rediscovery, rather than a forgetting of History, of our basic modes of cultural appropriation), then on another historical level we have not moved away from the mode of production typical of these last several centuries. Capitalism remains as do its divisions (many of which to be sure were inherited from prior social forms; division of labour by sex and gender, by hand and brain, by relation to ownership, by employment and the stability thereof, by generation, and by residence and form of community, town/country and city/suburb). Moreover the dominance of advanced capitalism and its cultures, their globalization, provides the underpinnings of another cultural phenomenon, the ‘end of history’, or (any way), ‘end of art history’ thesis, where the recycling and breakneck exploration of all available forms and contents (and means of expression) of experimentation to the limits of human (im)comprehension, have reached a plateau; where all art (and music) looks (and sounds) almost the same - in the sense that we have seen or heard it -or something very much like it- before and the genres that persist are those that have now been in existence for some time). So the recognition of a historic block, continuity or elective affinity of ideals also constitutes the continuing validity of notions of freedom, citizenship and equality (if only before the law) as well as of expression and ‘the good life’ we have inherited, or better, share, with their origin (or current formulation) in the early stage (which Marx in a world-historic blunder misrecognised as the last) of our social world, of our cultural historic horizon. (Should we search for more distant continuities, then a longer horizon does exist… (one beyond even that of the seventeenth century) it is that of urban life, and it stretches back to the Neolithic… perhaps a median point would be the birth of what we recognize as ‘civilization’, the Iron Age -only recently crowned by providing the frame that enables our high-rise architecture- the place where the earliest philosophies and religions took flight, a scant two and a half thousand years ago).


(This approach also provides an answer to the question of the strange survival of black and white photography. Both in the current practice as well as in the historical survival of those documentary and art images that evinced artistic form (Kant, beauty, the value lies in the form) and spoke to the onlooker of their life (Barthes, ‘punctum’, the detail in the content that holds us) so becoming ‘classics’. Therefore the survival of a particular technique and means of expression, long after technology (colour, digitalization) should have rendered it extinct. Due perhaps to the birth of (black and white) photography in the ‘heroic phase’ of early capitalism? Offering us a not so distant kinship with those portrayed, with the sights and objects they held dear… (a persistence also due to the particular temporal ambiguity that black and white photography holds for us)).




Copyright, Peter Nesteruk, 2010