Yesterday, con amore
Where's my powdered wig? Must've left it home. I confess, that's the sort of thing that runs through my head at concerts these days. Or even when I read musical season program plans. Why?
My thoughts turn infallibly to the audiences themselves. Audiences -- a vast and fascinating subject: a flesh and blood feature of this phenomenon of music which ultimately gives the finishing shape and contour to the art's products. A musical work cas transcend its immediate audience and endure beyond it, certainly. But at any one time, the audience, the listeners, that asselblage of humans who co-huddle to lend their ears, form an indispensable hypotenuse to the triangle begun by composer and performer.
What drives the listener to his listening seat? What is it about the musical gesture that compels his attention? For what does he return, time and again? And is he feeling, to any degree at all, what I am feeling?
"Feeling what"!" the devil's advocate voice within me demands. A gnawing inner suggestion that the music that fills our concert halls today is coming out differently -- rather, is being heard more differently -- than in any other time. The concert music heard in 1810 was brand new, hot off the composer's desk. The music of today is. . . still the music of 1980!
"Come again?" (The voice in me starts up again.)
I mean that musical life today is in kind of vacuum, because at no time in the history of this art have its admirers looked so far to the past for the main body of works to which to commit their devotion. The concert repertoire has today become so narrowed, so stratified, that I often believe that our repertorire spectrum is smaller than it was a hundred years ago. (The fact of the continual plentitude of new musical works being premiered is undeniable, I admit. But equally incontrovertible is the ever-prescent and ever-widening gulf between music's avant-garde and music's admirers.)
It may be just my personal quirk, but this fact stands out at me as a distortion in bold relief. It's a distortion which disturbs me, because I have had a mad love affair with the art of music, and I am concerned that music continue as the art it's capable of being (and the object I'm capable of loving) , and not as a. . . museum.m
There. I've said it. Museum! That captures it. Why even as avant-garde composer lately turned successful conductor, was quoted as calling our orchestras "beautiful museums. And we needm beautiful museums," said he.
But why must this be? Is there not someone, somewhere, some music being composed today, that can close that gulf -- now -- and relieve us of the necessity of making a glass-enclosed relic of what is properly a thriving, throbbing art? I would like, in this essay and couple more, to explore this in some depth. Let's return to the most visible barometer of all these things, the one with which I began, the audience. The aficionadosm -- as such they are -- who come, concert after cocert, season after season, orchestra after pianist after string quartet.
Surely there must be something they are coming for, something quite real which they seem to be getting in some way. It's my observation that it is the music of yesterday which, in the main, is feeding these dear souls. There is, of course, a technical reason for this, a musically semantic one involving one of the major features of music that speaks to man most directly and personally -- tonality.I mention this merely to suggest that there is a deeply felt personal need to the part of music-lover which, possibly for tonality's reasons, has been met better by the music we might call yesterday's than by a large portion of what came after, although by no means all.
I used the word "they," but of course I mean "we," realizing that there isn't one of us who doesn't draw wellsprings of uplift from the music of that great and previous period, the Romantic. Why do we turn again and again to the symphonies of Brahms, the concerti of Tchaikovski, the songs of Strauss, the oratorios of Elgar? What is it about this music that particularly draws us, that makes us feel so embraced, so mothercomforted?
A stupendous epoch, the Romantic era's music was and is shatteringly humane. Why do we find it so? Shall we ever see its like again? There are technical, musically informed, explanations of why so many consider the music of yesterday to be resonant with the profoundest truth. But to me the simplest explanation is -- nostalgia. The Romantic era ended, in effect, with the World War I, after which, as Arthur Rubinstein admonishes us, manners and decency in the world never quite mattered in the same way again.
Is it really for this reason that we look back misty-eyed to the music of that season of manners, grace, and elegance, that artistically gilded age?I think this may be our ultimate justification for making a "beautiful museum" of music; holding onto this older music forms a link with a finer, somehow more rarified time. Though life had its inequities and its cruelties then, it is recalled by so many as a gentler time than our own, one more benign, whose art spoke straight to the heart and continues to do the same for us.
Can anything else, anything newer, ever hold as much for us? In my next essay, we'll consider today's repertorire -- and performers -- and try to look for an answer.