The Left Made Classical Music Boring | Adam Garrie
Whilst the musical tradition now known as European classical music is one of the towering accomplishments of western civilisation, many westerners either publicly proclaim or privately agree that “classical music is boring”. Whilst this phrase can sound heart-breaking to those who cherish classical music, much like discovering that one’s love for another person is unrequited, there is a grim truth behind the statement “classical music is boring”.
This is not to say that the great composers and performers of the western canon are the artists of the boring, quite the opposite is true. The fact of the matter is that a general cultural malaise for which post-war leftist thinking is responsible, has diluted a once enthralling, exciting, democratic and emotive tradition. The result is that classical music as performed and recorded today is far too often guilty as charged when it comes to accusations of being boring.
Before exploring why things have changed for the worse, it is crucial to understand what has changed. In some ways, the entire story can be summed up by the phrase ‘Europe lost its rhythm’.
Whilst much of the world is familiar with European names including Beethoven, Schumann, Wagner, Brahmas, Bruckner and Strauss, many modern European musicians are totally unaware of the unique rhythmic traditions in which the compositions of these men of genius were once performed.
Traditional European classical music is highly rhythmic but unlike many traditional forms of music, European classical music’s rhythm is not defined by a pulse (colloquially called a “beat”). The character of European classical music is instead derived from a rhythm that is able to constantly sway – constantly push or pull irrespective of the metre(s) in which the music is composed.
The technique of allowing rhythm to develop in a constant flux and to do so often times without the explicit use of percussion instruments as a guide, is referred to by the Italian term tempo rubato (often shorted just to ‘rubato’). When European classical music reached its zenith between the late 18th century and early 20th century, the fact that rubato was an integral part of musical performance was taken for granted – it was an integral part of the European classical tradition.
Multiple music critics and casual listeners of the composer’s era remarked on Beethoven’s own highly effective use of rubato when conducting his symphonic compositions in the early 19th century. In comparatively more recent times, the great conductors of the late 19th and early 20th century displayed a supreme command of rubato as is evidenced by recordings from the primitive wax cylinder recordings of the turn of the century all the way into the age of modern magnetic tape recording which first appeared in Germany in the 1930s.
Of the great orchestral maestros of European classical music, some were more inclined towards heavy rubato whilst others were more cautious in their use of tempo fluctuations. But the fact of the matter is that even those known as “anti-rubato” maestros in their day (Felix Weingartner for example) are best described as those employing light rubato rather than no rubato at all.
By contrast, the maestros renowned for their heavy use of vibrato include some of the greatest orchestral maestros of all time. Wilhelm Furtwängler who is often (and rightly) considered the finest ever orchestral conductor was laureled throughout the world for his organically inspired and emotionally inspiring use of rubato. The same is true of Willem Mengelberg, Hermann Abendroth, Richard Strauss (when conducting his own pieces or the compositions of others), Hans Knappertsbursch and to a more subtle extent Karl Böhm. In the Russian orchestral tradition which is distinct from yet related to that of continental Europe, the greatest of all Russian maestros Nikolai Golovanov is known for his very heavy use of rubato. The great Russian maestro Alexander Gauk was also noted for his flowing and intense performances in this respect.
The great performances of European classical music from the first half of the 20th century hearken back to a 19th century tradition in which the passage of performance technique from one generation to another was both written and aural. Many modern western musicians mistake the notes on a score as the zero-sum total of a piece of music. In reality, prolific musicians like Furtwängler realised that the notation is just one element of the music. The other parts consist of knowing how the music is supposed to sound based on one generation of conductor passing on this artistic knowledge to subsequent generations.
If the opposite were true, music would be read silently like a non-fiction book of science rather than performed aloud like a Shakespearean play. Within this aural passage of musical information from one generation to the next, a high amount of individuality is also present, but this is true in respect of any artistic tradition that is either wholly or partly passed down in an aural or oral manner.
It is utterly surreal that in the 21st century both those who are unconsciously ashamed of Europe’s great cultural traditions as well as racialist theorists each claim that the written score is the zero-sum total of the music itself. This trend is popular among modern Europeans who seek to reduce their great artistic heritage to fifth rate mathematics as well as among racialist obscurantists who crudely link aural (as opposed to written) musical traditions to the non-European societies that they deem to be explicitly inferior. It is of note that Karl Marx himself infamously took a racialist view of societies whose folk and art traditions were derived from aural rather than written links with the past.
The reality is that unless a piece was very new, most great maestros and their ensembles were more than capable of playing a great piece of music (irrespective of length) without having to rely on the written notation. As orchestras continued to grow in their size and tonal variety however, sheets of music remained a reliable safety net so that strict memorisation did not get in the way of following the maestro’s guidance which shaped the rhythm (in terms of tempo rubato), dynamics, balance and intonation.
When European classical music is performed correctly, its pushing, pulling, swaying rhythms which sometimes touch a pulse and sometimes only dance around a pulse is among the most exciting styles of music in the history of the world. And yet today, the typical way that European classical music is performed is around an unforgiving pulse worthy of what Schönberg referred to as primitive dance music.
Here, it is notable to recall that whilst Schönberg’s dissonant and atonal style of music jarred with the harmonic and melodic traditions of European classical music, when it came to performance, Schönberg was just as much a champion of rubato as was Wagner or Furtwängler. Oddly, it was Stravinsky, a creature who was always a better businessman than musician who found it frustrating that the masterful conductors of his early decades in professional music refused to perform his compositions without the use of rubato. Stravinsky himself was among the first to openly call into question the great European tradition of rhythmic flexibility.
Beginning midway through the 20th century, an acculturating tide swept like a sea monster onto the hitherto culturally rich shores of Europe. The new fashion sought to replace uniqueness in various European traditions of music, architecture, painting, sculpture and poetry with a bland pseudo-internationalist cosmopolitan style that was thoroughly incapable of exciting, delighting or inspiring the human soul.
Whilst western popular music became ever more musically and emotionally sophisticated in the 1960s, the classical traditions of the western world began dying a slow death at around the same time. This perhaps is why the youth of the middle of the 20th century gradually abandoned classical music for the pop world. Since the classical world however was abandoning its own traditions at this same time, one cannot fault the young for making the choice that they did. Twenty years into the 21st century and audiences have all but deserted the concert halls of the western world.
By the middle of the 20th century, most forms of so-called “high art” became the exclusive charge of leftist academics who believed that art’s job was to provoke feelings of validation among a leftist cultural elite. This contrasts sharply with the notion that art is best when it inspires emotional revelation among as many people as might come into contact with the art.
Whilst classical music continued to become larger in stature and larger in terms of its audience size from the mid-19th century well into the 20th, in the post-war period, audiences did not so much shrink as they were conspicuously pushed away by an overwhelming force of ugly contemporary music. Even more devastating was the near sacrilege vandalism of older pieces by maestros who reduced a living and breathing art form to that of a cold-hearted calculation.
As the great maestros of the pre-war era eventually died by the end of the 20th century, the trend of “boring” classical music continued to accelerate – all the while the tempo of the music itself stagnated. Even playing technique began to suffer from a stiffness and uniformity of style. One of the most notable examples of this is the gradual extinction of expressive portamento (sliding) in string playing between the beginning and end of the 20th century.
Classical music may indeed be boring for many listeners in the year 2020, but it was not always this way. Whilst the technology used to document the orthodox performances of the early 20th century might be lacking in sonic fidelity, they capture an era when European musicians were comfortable with their own cultural history. Audiences continue to suffer as a result of what has happened since.
Photo by ally. on Flickr.