Classical Music and Culture--On the Same Slippery Slope?

By Seymour Schechtman

About 75 years ago Oswald Spengler wrote an influential book defending atonalism, in spite of the continued hostility of the public. The audio pathway to the human psyche and soul, which is music’s approach, is different than the visual pathway, and what can pass for artistic wholeness in a painting can not be so easily replicated with discordant and apparently disorganized sound. The net result musically was a superior triumphal sort of discourse among the elite establishment.

About 75 years ago Oswald Spengler wrote an influential book called the Decline of the West and now we have another prophetic tome by Pat Buchanan with a similar title but with much different emphasis. Spengler’s book I read in my impressionable adolescence and I still remember some of his impressive sweeping historical generalizations about the inevitable downward path the course of events would compel us to follow. Pat Buchanan also has a lugubrious path that we must follow but for vastly different reasons. Spenglers’ approach and concerns are of interest here, although Pat Buchanan’s narrower focus and field of interest may have validity too for those looking for doom and gloom in the here and now of failing immigration policy.

Spengler postulated that all civilizations had a cyclic course, expressing its distinctive spiritual and aesthetic essence and then declining, and in the 19th century Western music as exemplified by Beethoven’s last quartets , and in the field of opera the works of Wagner, truly represented the heights of our cultural yearnings and strivings. Since then, Spengler postulated we have been in the autumn of our western civilization and we have to resignedly make the most of this period of lessened spiritual and aesthetic enlargement. What bothers me is the obvious fact that the “market” for classical music, the broad base of listenership, is steadily declining, and nary a non gray haired head can be found in the audience today. This may be less true for the ballet and certain other events like the Christmas Nutcracker performances but sadly not so at most other times. Attendance in general, and record sales, are definitely not robust, and for those who like classical and symphonic music, in general, these are somewhat sad times.We are not dealing with a growth industry, and one would hesitate recommending this field of endeavor for its large scale employment or money making possibilities. And I am willing to grant that we are perhaps in a downward slide culturally as well, but that we are locked into this slope down inevitably and irreversibly is worthy of troubled contentious thought. The seeming dissolution of the classical music audience base as probable confirmation of the gloomy Spenglerian cultural and civilization demise demand some review and hopeful revision.

That the last century had a large “surplus” of negative aspects from a humanistic standpoint is undeniable. The one absolute positive development is the large net gain in population, from a little more than two billion to somewhat more than six billion. I stress this as a strong point because, contrary to the latter day Malthusians among us, most of these people have adequate food supplies, thanks too to another great twentieth century plus, the agribusiness revolution, which has so productively employed new technology to literally mass produce food, making it so cheap that in certain areas tariffs have to be threatened to prevent foreign grain and dairy products being “dumped” by competing countries. The economic problem of poorer countries is not the supply of food, but its’ distribution; making it feasible economically to transport the food equably to people and regions where it is in actual short supply.

But the negatives far outweigh these good things. Over one hundred million people have been killed in two brutal War World Wars and other internecine combat worldwide, and now impending there appears to a possible clash between East and West, Judaeo - Christian versus Muslim. Hopefully not, but with suicide bombing now in the mix as part of the possible ultimate weapon, trumping even the nuclear threat or simply augmenting it in a fanatics’ perfervid mind, there becomes less room for the optimistic human spirit to flourish creatively. Indeed, unfortunately the human spirit seems to have as much hate as love and compassion combined within its essential motivations. The need to kill and make war and destroy out of fear or apparent justified retaliation has never been greater in this most advanced, sophisticated and urbane society, and the means to do so most drastically seems to grow frightfully almost daily. There was a seeming break in this bleak trend in the last 15 years with the material prosperity that was generated by the telecommunication and computer era and that, with nascent globaliziation, was contributing to raising living standards worldwide. But not everyone benefited, and we see that some of those not in the prosperity loop being created evidently were filled with the blind hate and fury that we now know symbolically as 9/11.

The essence of the problem is the essential emotional and psychological core of the human animal. While history never repeats itself human nature does remain essentially unchanged. In the timeless word’s of Pogo, “ We have met the enemy and he is us.” Circumstances may change, but the human persona and psyche “created in God’s image”, has besides God’s celebrated love, equal or larger amounts of greed, fear, loathing, and hate for the “stranger”, and many times sheer destructive envy at the too successful among us. This is part of his survival, instinctual physiologic makeup. Aggression and jealousy and perceived grievance motivate at times higher attainment and sometimes felonious attacks. But many times there is sagacious retreat in the face of unfavorable countervailing forces. Successful, stable cultures manage somehow a dynamic equilibrium between aspiration and necessary submission, somehow giving the majority the perception of justice and hope and therefore reasonable stability. But above all some dynamic tension and challenge, usually in the form of competition, for the human animal to rise to his optimum potential. Cooperation is also a necessary ingredient, but sharing is subsidiary to competition; boredom is the by product of too much sharing, and not enough striving. And boredom and excessive security lead to either stagnation or its opposite, aggression for imagined, irredentist wrongs. (Such as reparations for the wrongs suffered hundreds of years ago by Negro slaves or native American Indians.!)

The Pax Romana is the prime example of this balance and stability. Rome ruled the world for many centuries, with a period of over 200 years, starting with Caesar Augustus, just before the beginning of the Christian era, that saw both a great growth of its size to include almost all the civilized western world, and a large influx of minority populations that came to enjoy and contribute to its growing cultural manifestations and seeming tolerance. Rome was far from a democracy, but its system of legal jurisprudence, and wise, relatively tolerant imperial rule was a key to its continuing hegemony for centuries. However, as its drastic, utter destruction of the Jewish Insurrection in 70 AD showed, there was a no nonsense iron fist beneath the surface benevolence, an object lesson that the other subject peoples well remembered for a long time. But its system of legal jurisprudence and its fostering the heritage of Hellenization of the Greeks, are prime elements in our culture to this day. Rome, too, when the zenith of its power had passed, adopted Christianity as its official religion and gave an additional spiritual charge to its adherents whose fortunes where beginning to dim in the now languishing Roman world. Rome thus had another 75 years of relatively vigorous survival before the barbarian invasion and end of its one thousand year existence. (ca. 700 BC(?) to 400 AD).

Perhaps today a Pax Americana is in the offing. This is a world that may well be waiting for its religio-secular messiah, Who comes with both much needed expertise technologically, politically, and economically. And strong, affirmative religious creeds that spur humankind with the proper mix of redemption, salvation, and compassion. This is a daunting task, but a challenge that we cannot escape, for in the struggle we will find ourselves again reinventing and reshaping and reaching higher plateaus of meaning for ourselves and former enemies--as was the case with Germany and Japan. Our deadly enemies in World War II and now are staunchest allies. Or perhaps our model will not be ancient Rome, but the Austro Hungarian empire, a surviving polyglot multicultural remnant of the Ottoman Empire and diverse other ethnic strands which successfully had stood up to changing times for many centuries.

Does the decline in the classical music sphere mirror the worldwide tension and violence so manifest over the last hundred years? And thus reinforcing Spengler’s pessimistic projections? Are people personally and perhaps subliminally marching to a different, more savage drum? Or is this aspect of seeming aesthetic retrogression cyclical, to be replaced by future strong renewal in the music that gave so much spiritual solace and strength to western audiences for over three hundred years? And now, with increasing frequency, to many in the oriental environment of China, Korea and Japan. Of course it is safe to say that some niche will always remain for the serious music lover, but to project large scale growth might seem to be like whistling in the dark. Actually this seems to be the inevitable result of musical evolution on an aberrant path. In essence symphonic and classical music have been in the wilderness of atonal and keyless dissonance for the last fifty years, away from the holy mountain of tonality and melody, which was devoutly worshipped by the loyal mass of music lovers until the start of the last century, who stoutly rejected the new atonal music gods who determinedly sought the overthrow of the conventions of key signature, melody, harmony--- respect for the timeless tonality and only moderate dissonance that made music lovers joyous until the start of the last century.

But the evolution of music in the last century was not necessarily linear or positive. The avant garde music produced was a miracle of orchestral and instrumental virtuosity,---and cacophony--- that may have titillated but never enthralled. Musician and conductor exulted in mastering the difficult dissonance produced but the audience shriveled in the bombast or discord of the resulting sound. This, of course, may have been a necessary experimental phase we had to endure but not enjoy. Undoubtedly the ultimate success enjoyed in painting and sculpture with the radical changes of abstract and non objective art, surreal, cubist, dada and other techniques, that were only slowly accepted by an initially dubious public, served as a model for the atonal musical scene; and its persistence much to do with the current evident stagnation of the total establishment. For the eventual acceptance and financial success of the current painting and sculpture scene, with its large emphasis on the abstract or “distorted” painting and sculpture art reinforced the persistent and pernicious attand a large disconnect with the audience, who listened bravely and vainly and exited early. But the purgative “castor oil” treatment seems to be ending. No longer do we need the cathartic spring cleaning of dissonant atonalism to cleanse our musical psyche as loving and well intentioned parents did for our bowels years ago!

Now the light of tonality and key structure is heard again in the musical heavens. Dissonance in moderation is welcome as are all manner of creative thrusts, but the path for now includes welcome infusion of melody as some significant part of the composition. The challenge,of course, is to make it still unique and relevant to our modern ear, like all the great composers of the past did for their times. No easy task but that is what will make for great listening and audience renewal now.

In the arts as in civilization generally there are pauses and lapses but general collapse is not necessarily the grim result. We can fruitfully integrate the new and novel into the fabric of our culture, if not seamlessly at least without tearing the whole apart. We have already woven into that fabric freedom and opportunity and a significant amount of equal justice so that there is ample opportunity for creativity and its just fruits and rewards. And a Pax Americana is also a distinct possibility, beneficial both for us and a good part of the world besides. This may not be what Pat Buchanan thinks the world needs now, but thank God we have free speech and you can buy his book and then say “amen” for he could be right too---God forbid!!