The Decline of Classical Music

The history of classical music is the sound of a culture growing, blossoming and then withering. Classical music before and during the Renaissance was structured and  purposeful. The purpose of the music was mainly to lift people’s spirit toward God — sacred music. By our standards, this music was neither melodically dynamic nor entertaining.  As concert music developed — that is, music created for the concert hall rather than the church — musical forms and composition techniques grew more varied and complex. And as entertainment became a driving force behind composition, sacred as well as concert music began to feature greater variety in tempo and texture, and more drama in melody, orchestration and vocals.

Amazing music was composed and performed throughout the Baroque and Classical eras, but as time marched on, the Enlightenment took hold, and man, not God, took center stage. More and more, composers looked inward rather than upward for inspiration. It took time for man to elbow his way into the spotlight, and longer for God to be shoved offstage entirely, but the trajectory of classical music from roughly the mid-1800s forward is a microcosm of what has happened much more broadly in our culture. When man is the center of all things, it seems inevitable that “progress” becomes a race to the bottom, a race to maximum chaos, a race to maximum confusion. Lost in the process: beauty, structure (they go hand-in-hand), spiritual growth, community and a sense of shared purpose.

From the 1600s through most of the 1800s, classical music was a beautiful thing, with composers striving toward perfection in beauty, emotional expression, technical execution within a proven musical framework (to one degree or another). These composers were still trying to inspire and exhilarate audiences even as they drew inspiration from internal sources: their emotions, internal struggles and philosophies of music.

Alban Berg

But then it turned ugly. The delicate balance between composer and audience turned sharply one-sided as self-discovery and self-expression became not only the primary driving force in composition, but nearly the only driving force. Composers sought to break all rules, to “liberate” themselves from every fundamental rule of music. For many influential composers of the early 20th century — Claude Debussy, for example, and even more so, Arnold Schoenberg — public appreciation was a low priority; they were out to destroy musical conventions. Schoenberg and other composers of “atonal” music went so far as to hold concerts from which critics and the general public were prohibited (look at the Society for Private Musical Performances)Why prohibited? Perhaps self-preservation: angry concert-goers have been known to riot at performances they deem unworthy of the name music.  Schoenberg, Anton Webern, Alban Berg and successors such as John Cage wrote music they knew  would please intellectuals but grate on normal ears. Compare:

Old: Here is modern staging of Mozart’s opera Idomeneo, which premiered in 1781.

New: Here are highlights from Alban Berg’s modern opera Wozzeck, which premiered in 1925.

Here are some piano pieces by Schoenberg, music that set the “a-tone” for the 20th century and beyond.

It didn’t take long for classical piano music to “progress.” John Cage (1912-1992) declared, “My purpose is to eliminate purpose.” One of his piano compositions consisted of 4 minutes and 33 seconds of silence (this is not an Andy Kaufman act). Take a listen:

Here’s more Cage … I prefer 4’33”.

Cage and other modern composers are indeed liberated. They have successfully avoided being oppressed by such constraints as J.S. Bach was in this useless piece of junk:

And it’s a wonder Joseph Haydn could produce any sounds at all, bound as he was by countless, rigid symphonic rules:

What to make of all this? Even if we live in a world that is brutal and absurd, in which we are isolated and helpless, I don’t want to be reminded of it in my music, as I am when listening to something like Wozzeck. No, I  prefer  music that helps me escape those impressions of reality, to remind me that there is beauty, form, meaning,  joy, up, down, right and wrong in the world. If I want to wallow in ugliness, then all I need to do is read a newspaper or a Twitter stream for half an hour; as a matter of fact, it occurs to me this is what a good deal of modern classical music has become — a soundtrack for newspapers and social media.

The enduring popularity of rock and roll can be explained by its power as an escape — an escape into “drugs, sex and rock and roll.” Unfortunately, escaping into that realm is really only exchanging one prison for another. The only way out is up. Great music, classic or otherwise, is music that lifts the spirit rather than crushes it, that fills the soul with aspiration rather than desperation. This is what the great composers of old tried to achieve, and I can’t help but think this is also what our forebears sought.

(Image credit — Wikimedia Commons)

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