Cheapening the Western Musical Tradition: Some Thoughts Inspired by Theodore Gioia and Andy Crouch

"Andy Crouch, in his excellent book, Culture Making, ties the Western classical tradition to the creation blessing/mandate of Genesis 1. I think he is right: the tradition we have been handed is the result of God’s blessing humanity with the impulse to take the raw elements of creation and make them into something refined, something that makes life better for humanity." - Mark Ward

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Bert Perry's picture

It's worth noting that the notion of a canon of classical music is actually no older than delta blues, really from the late 1800s.   For example, the works of J.S. Bach were all but forgotten for about three centuries because the trend in church music was to congregational participation, while Bach's works were generally meant to be performed by professionals.  It is also worth noting that what we view as classical music today (really baroque, classical, romantic, modern classical, etc..) is by and large the music which was enjoyed by the aristocracy.  

One thing to note as well is that classical music (from Bach to today) tends to be somewhat inaccessible on radio simply because the movements are longer than the 3-10 minutes most radio stations are willing to have between commercial breaks.  Even NPR has trouble with this--even without overt commercials, they can hardly resist chatting every few minutes.  So if we want to have classical music in our experience, we've really got to see where we can put it in our cultures.

Love classical music, and am listening to it right now, but we've got to view these things in the larger context.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Darrell Post's picture

"It is also worth noting that what we view as classical music today (really baroque, classical, romantic, modern classical, etc..) is by and large the music which was enjoyed by the aristocracy."

The reason is simply that Edison didn't invent the phonograph player until 1877, and even then the invention would take years of refinement before it was affordable to the common man. In my ancestral home sits an early 20th-century hand-crank console phonograph player with a box of quarter-inch thick records sitting under it. My ancestors were hardly aristocrats. Prior to the phonograph one would have to afford the cost of travel to a city large enough to have an orchestra, and then pay the cost of admission. 

Of course smaller scale 'chamber' music would be more widely accessible. 

But no doubt about the fact that poverty would lend itself more naturally to the development of local folk music in the absence of access to the grand orchestral music accessible to the wealthy. 

In the context of church music I have seen the argument made that music of a church in impoverished Africa whose members meet in a grass hut is the equal to the orchestral and chorus sounds of western culture. Perhaps there is an equality in terms of the heart attitude of the congregants, but the African church beats sticks together and shakes guards filled with stones, and they chant because its all they can do. 

But I appreciate the point the author made in the link, that as great as the main theme sounds from Holst's Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity, it sounds much better in the context of the whole movement, and the whole movement sounds best when you listen to the entire work, The Planets

 

dcbii's picture

EditorModerator

Bert Perry wrote:

One thing to note as well is that classical music (from Bach to today) tends to be somewhat inaccessible on radio simply because the movements are longer than the 3-10 minutes most radio stations are willing to have between commercial breaks.  Even NPR has trouble with this--even without overt commercials, they can hardly resist chatting every few minutes.  So if we want to have classical music in our experience, we've really got to see where we can put it in our cultures.

I'm fortunate to live in an area with a full-time classical music station that has been around since the late 1970's, and that is entirely listener-supported, so they can avoid commercial breaks and play full-length works.

See: https://www.theclassicalstation.org/

Of course, this station also now supports online streaming, so it's not really limited to our area.  Not only do they play everything from short works to long, they have special programs for opera, great sacred music, medieval and renaissance music, 20th century and modern "classical" music, etc.  They pretty much cover the gamut in what is available in the classical music realm.

However, I do understand that I'm part of a dying (or at least shrinking) breed.  Even at my church (let alone work or friends), there seem to be very few who actually appreciate this type of music.  At work I typically listen to a lot of classical music, including choral works (preferably not in English while I'm trying to think), because it both helps me concentrate as well as shut out the noise around me.  It's not that I can't appreciate other types of music (particularly a fair amount of instrumental jazz), but there is something intensely satisfying about classical works, and listening to a full length symphony, oratorio, mass (and sometimes even opera) can really help me appreciate what the composers were able to accomplish, and the great skill many of them brought to bear.

I don't know if classical music (widely defined, since I know about all the different periods, etc.) is the pinnacle of music, but there is little modern music that comes close, IMHO, though I also include in "classical" music modern music written in the classical tradition (e.g. some of the works of Dan Forrest, Arvo Pärt, Morten Lauridsen, etc.).

Dave Barnhart

Darrell Post's picture

Of course classical music isn't just something that was written 'long ago.' I would encourage anyone to listen to the 3rd Symphony of Russian composer Alla Pavlova. This work was composed in the year 2000, and is solidly in the Russian tradition of Prokofiev or Shostakovich. 

dcbii's picture

EditorModerator

Darrell Post wrote:

Of course classical music isn't just something that was written 'long ago.' I would encourage anyone to listen to the 3rd Symphony of Russian composer Alla Pavlova. This work was composed in the year 2000, and is solidly in the Russian tradition of Prokofiev or Shostakovich. 

Yes, I may have stated it poorly, but I agree with this.

Dave Barnhart

Darrell Post's picture

You were clear...I agree. My comment wasn't a reply as much as it was taking advantage of the thread to point out Pavlova's symphonic work. Some would call modern work done in the classical tradition an anachronism. I call it normal, and the bulk of pop-music I call abnormal drivel that fails to meet the standards of the great composers of Western Civ.

 

 

Bert Perry's picture

My take on why our "canon" of great music is classical has nothing to do with Edison, RCA, and the like.  Rather, it's simply because that canon was put together by people like university music professors who owed their jobs to the benevolence of rich people, and those rich people tended to see themselves as aristocrats who would (see the homes of the rich from the gilded age, e.g. Biltmore) tend to model their lives after those of European aristocrats.

Hence the canon spoken of by those with a college degree is pretty much classical music from Bach through Tchiakovsky and such--it may or may not include those after Rachmaninoff and things like "12 tone".  

The interesting thing about pointing to this is that a good portion of the classical composers make liberal use of folk music in their work. You've got Carmina Burana, which is really mostly Middle German and Latin love songs, Aaron Copland's work, Tchiakovsky's work with Russian legends, Sibelius' odes to Finnish mythology, Stravinsky's work with Russian folk stories, etc..  So what is going on a lot of the time is that the classical composers are setting folk stories to an orchestral background.  

In a manner of speaking, it's the aristocracy learning to speak the language of the hoi polloi in the same way the Russian court learned Russian when Napoleon invaded--they previously spoke only French.

A ton of great music there, a ton of great history, but let's understand what it really is.  It's music the aristocracy liked and (by and large) paid for, and its inclusion in an exclusive canon derives not from Edison, not from inherent superiority, but rather because the aristocracy also funded the universities.  

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Darrell Post's picture

What Edison did is change the dynamic. People could listen to music without spending money to go to the concert. Radio of course changed the dynamic even more. Nowhere did I say that Edison decided what was canonical. He simply cracked open another door of access to music, enabling the masses to enjoy what had been previously limited. And there are plenty of examples of composers through the ages who wrote beautiful music, but had no connections to wealthy benefactors who paid for the sounds they wanted.  For instance, Vasily Kalinnikov who died in poverty before reaching 35 years of age. And yet he wrote two incredible symphonies. For the most part, composers composed what interested them. Even in situations where a benefactor pays for a work of music to be done, the composer uses his or her talents and skill to bring that work to life in a way that will be appealing to the hearers at large. Even under the harshest of conditions, where a man like Shostakovich risked his life every time he wrote, because if the Soviet leadership didn't like it, he could be executed, and yet he was still able to communicate a wide range of emotions through his music--music that appealed to his listeners, while dodging Soviet ire at the same time.  

And yes, there is a healthy use of folk tunes composers have built into their music. Dvorak's 9th Symphony illustrates this as well as anything. Composers routinely gather sounds they like and put them into the context of music on a grander scale. Sorry, but I just don't see a disconnect between the impoverished common person and music of the aristocrats, as though there was a music cartel that controlled what was produced, while the commoners chaffed under the options allowed by that cartel. The masses cheered when they first heard the 1812 Overture. Many threw verbal tomatoes at Gustav Mahler at the premier of his 1st Symphony. 

Music has a voice. And the beautiful sounds that come from a well orchestrated piece of classical music written by talented and well trained musicians will always have inherent superiority over the vulgar sounds heard so frequently today. 

 

 

 

Andrew K's picture

I remember hearing a composer once comment that folk music "ages" better than music from the elite genres, which seems to ring true. Think of how timeless tunes like "Be Thou My Vision," "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel," and "Let All Things Now Living," though comparatively ancient, seem to be.

Traditional folk music seems to draw on the genius of a people somehow, rather than the genius of an individual--if I can put it in that way. Not that it doesn't have individual composers somewhere along the line, but the dynamic of how it's processed and passed down seems quite different, and results in a different kind of product. Similar to literature like Beowulf.

Oh, this seems relevant. A story about the continued rise of love for classical music in China: https://www.scmp.com/native/lifestyle/arts-culture/topics/concerto/artic...