Sunday, January 26, 2014

Classical Music: Why Modernity Doesn't Suck

I’m going to confess a deeply rooted prejudice that I have no intention of letting go. Music is much, much worse now than it used to be.

With a few exceptions, like Howard Shore’s soundtrack to the Lord of the Rings, most music written after 1900 sounds to me like the aural equivalent of cellophane. That, I know, is a sweeping conclusion. But it caps a twenty-year search for good music in modernity, which has come up with almost nothing besides a little bit of the Band and the Beatles, who are nice to listen to. Though it’s obviously different for the legions of modern people who buy or steal Kanye West and Miley Cyrus singles, there’s very little that touches my soul on the radio. (Folk music is another story, and I hope that as long as humans live together, they’ll sing together, too. That’ll be another post.)

Così fan tutti.
Contemporary classical music sounds even worse to me, mostly because it’s utterly unhummable. In a burst of open-mindedness, I once told a friend to sit me down and help me appreciate modern music. After half an hour at the piano, I finally told him that I liked something he’d played. “There’s no hope,” he said. “That’s because I just played something rhythmic and tonal.”

When I compare this to the kind of music that people used to write, my forehead wrinkles in frustration if I’m in a good mood, and despair otherwise. Mostly, I’m talking about Mozart. Most of his music is, at worst, extremely pleasant. But by the end of his life, he wrote a string of works in which God came down to earth and sang to us. The end of The Marriage of Figaro is one of those. (If you’ve seen Amadeus, it’s from the scene with the pool table.) So is the Ave Verum Corpus, and Non mi dir from Don Giovanni.

But Mozart is only the summit of an incredibly beautiful tradition of Western music. There’s Rossini, whose hummable melodies are transfused with light joy. Also Haydn, Gluck, and the unpronounceable Dvořák. Beethoven, though he wrote in a ragged style that later wreaked havoc on music, uplifted the souls of millions. The Renaissance, though largely ignored on WQXR, is filled with heavenly polyphony.

But—and this is the part of the post where I contradict myself—is this good cause for sadness? No way! There are two consolations.

The first is the iPod, which should immediately silence all complaints about the decline of music. For the first time in human history, billions of people can, at any moment, listen to world-class musicians play any conceivable piece of music. I can listen to Handel while I run, Haydn in the car, and Bach on the subway. I can listen to more Mozart than Mozart could. So who cares if people have stopped writing good music? We have centuries’ worth already, and it’s perfectly preserved for us.

That leads me to my second point: for most of history, most people weren’t able to listen to most of the music that would be produced. That’s because it wasn’t written yet.

If you lived in 1750, for instance, the music being written in drawing rooms was much better than the music written in 2014. On the other hand, you were deeply impoverished, because there was no such thing as Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony yet. (You were probably impoverished in the obvious way too, but that’s another story.) So we’re actually very lucky to be born after the musical fountain ran dry. In fact, if there’s going to be another birth of good classical music, it’ll be a great shame, because we’re going to miss out on it.

Add that to penicillin and Wikipedia, and the modern world stops looking so bad after all.

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