Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Is There Any Place for Classical Music In Our Culture Today?

I recently wrote a feature (on my blog) on some new classical music by the English composer Tony Banks. You can read it here. These are pieces of music written for performance by a conventional symphony orchestra.

I enjoyed listening to these compositions, and so my intention was simply to recommend them to others who might like them too. Banks’ work reminds me of a style of English romantic music from the turn of the last century, before the dissonant forms of the mid-twentieth century started to dominate. So we might think, maybe, of Vaughan Williams, Elgar or Delius, with the occasional sprinkling of Russian romanticism of say, Rimsky-Korsakov (I’m not sure where that came from).

I was prepared to give these a listen because Banks has not attempted to incorporate the ugly dissonance of modern music theory into his work. This is unusual today, even for those composers who acknowledge that modern classical music is generally, to coin a phrase, every bit as bad as it sounds to you or me, and feel that they must try to square the circle and somehow create accessible modernism. Although he has made a living as a composer for over 50 years, he was never formally trained in composition, and so I’m guessing he felt no pressure to conform to the opinions of the contemporary conservatory and the critics. Either that, or he has integrated modernism into his music so well that you don’t know he’s done it!

As I listened, I wondered whether this is the sort of music that might contribute to the evangelization of the culture that so many Catholics, including me, hope to see. To create a popular culture that is beautiful and Christian, we need beautiful contemporary music with mass appeal, which stimulates and nurtures a desire for Beauty itself in those who hear it.

On reflection, I would like to think that it might happen but I doubt if the compositions of Tony Banks will do this.

This is not a commentary of his musicality - he is not a Christian to my knowledge, and probably doesn’t care about evangelizing the culture anyway. Furthermore, he has several such collections published which are issued by Naxos records, so presumably, they are selling reasonably well. Rather, I am thinking here of the value and relevance of the whole genre today.

I am wondering if classical music itself is a dated form, and if consequently, any attempts to revive it by contemporary Christian classical composers who do share my goal are futile. Don’t misunderstand: I wish the best to all who try, and will happily publicize any who create music that I enjoy. But the goal here is to reach and appeal to a much broader audience than me with my eclectic tastes.

I use the word “classical” here in the broadest sense, thinking of music that is considered today to be highbrow, and is generally written for the instruments that Mozart or Beethoven would have written for. I would include everything from Bach and Beethoven to Birtwistle and Boulez. Those who compose such music today are generally trained in the conservatories attached to our university system.

Regardless, whether those contemporary classical composers opt to work in modern dissonant forms or buck the trend and risk the ire of the critics by attempting, as Banks has done, to work in the older, more accessible harmonies, virtually none have a wide appeal. It used to be the case that high-brow and popular culture were one. Mozart and Shakespeare were as interested in getting “bums on seats” at performances of their work as the elevation of the souls of those who listened or watched their work. The highly regarded classical composers of today, to the extent that they are well known, do not achieve renown because their works are popular or listened to by many people. It is simply because the musical establishment of educated elites approves of what they do, and can influence media coverage and patronage.

I wonder if the answer lies in taking musical training out of the conservatory as it is today, which seems, invariably, to direct its students to an ever narrower and less popular genre, and redirecting those who have the requisite talent first to the composition of new sacred liturgical music, and then building upon that foundation, up to new contemporary music styles.

A culture that is not rooted in a living culture of faith is like a tree with rotting roots. It has lost its sustenance and is destined to topple over, which is what modern classical music has all but done. The right response to this is not to try to revive a dead plant, but to plant new saplings.

Therefore, the first task in the evangelization of music culture is the development of modern forms of sacred music that spring from a culture of faith and contemplation of God. Whether newly composed chant, polyphony, or something else not yet imagined, we need this new music before we can look outwards to draw new people in with a beautiful and fresh contemporary culture. This is not an argument for guitars and drums - I am talking about music that conforms to the essential criteria outlined by St Pius X in his encyclical Tra Le Sollecitudini. Nor am I suggesting that this new music displace the canon of traditional sacred music. Rather, I foresee forms that slowly add to its treasures: that “the new work will form a new part in the musical heritage of the Church, not unworthy of its past.” (Musicam Sacram, no. 59). Only to the extent that we can create profane music that is derived from and points to these new sacred forms will we once again have healed the rift between popular and high culture.

How might such a formation occur? I am not a musician, so can only draw parallels with sacred art, and particularly the iconographic tradition which was re-established in the mid-20th century without any help from our universities, or art schools. It began with a small group of gifted artists with authentic faith, some who did have a modicum of formal training, but who very quickly rejected the mainstream, and working with theologians trained themselves. These are people of great insight, who not only have the artistic skill, but also the intelligence and insight to be able to teach and develop an artistic style themselves. Then these few taught students who came to them individually. Now, 70 years later, we are into the third and fourth generation of artists who are influenced or directly taught by these pioneers, and we begin to see schools being set up to teach iconography.

Christ Pantocrator painted by pioneer, Leonid Ouspensky, 1902-87
So this is a long term project that I do not expect to see developing in my lifetime, but nevertheless, I do believe that it will happen. In the meantime, give me Banks over Boulez every time.
Tony Banks
And for those who are curious, here is some Boulez. It’s bad; you have been warned.

Told you so!

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