Monday, June 13, 2005

So Beethoven Was To Blame?

That's the contention of an article by Dylan Evans in The Guardian last week. What he's to blame for is, in the long term, the descent into irrelevancy of serious music.

From the speculations of Pythagoras about the "music of the spheres" in ancient Greece onwards, most western musicians had agreed that musical beauty was based on a mysterious connection between sound and mathematics, and that this provided music with an objective goal, something that transcended the individual composer's idiosyncrasies and aspired to the universal. Beethoven managed to put an end to this noble tradition by inaugurating a barbaric U-turn away from an other-directed music to an inward-directed, narcissistic focus on the composer himself and his own tortured soul. This was a ghastly inversion that led slowly but inevitably to the awful atonal music of Schoenberg and Webern. In other words, almost everything that went wrong with music in the 19th and 20th centuries is ultimately Beethoven's fault. Poor old Schoenberg was simply taking Beethoven's original mistake to its ultimate, monstrous logical conclusion.
There can be little doubt that Beethoven was indeed the first composer to turn the focus inward, using music to reflect the inner state of the artist. The questions are a) was this a bad thing? and b) did this inevitably lead to "what went wrong with music in the 19th and 20th centuries"?

The answer to the first is, of course, "no". Every art form became, during this time, interested in exploring the inner state of the artist through the art. Painting, sculpture, etc., etc., all became increasingly abstract and psychologically-focused during the years of the 20th century, but a beautiful abstract painting is still beautiful. A Rothko painting isn't "about" anything in the external world, but it is beautiful nonetheless.

Similarly, Anton Webern's "Six Bagatelles for String Orchestra" are extraordinarily beautiful, regardless of the fact that their atonal idiom has nothing to do with the "music of the spheres." This leads to the answer to b), which is also "no." This isn't to say that nothing went wrong with music in the 19th and 20th centuries -- something most certainly did. What went wrong is something bound up in Evans' offhand comment about "the awful atonal music of Schoenberg and Webern." Plenty (although not all) of Schoenberg's atonal music was indeed awful. Such was not the case with Webern, and this is the point. Good composers make music that reaches people, regardless of the idiom. Bad composers don't.

The problem with music in the 20th century (especially in the latter half of the 20th century) was not that composers were too focused on their inner states (tormented or otherwise). The problem was that there weren't enough good composers writing good music in any idiom.

Too many of them were more interested in writing for other composers than in writing for either themselves or their audience. The idiom they were using was more a function of the constricted views of the people they were writing for in the academy, and less a function of the requirements of the music itself and the messages the music should have been transmitting to the wider world.

As a result, the shortcomings in the music were less a result of the focus on the inner self than of the focus on the inner circle. You, me and anyone else who likes music were left to drift away and find something else to listen to.

Exceptions did exist, of course. The most interesting ones Henryk Górecki, Arvo Pärt) seemed to arise from an Eastern European tradition that was insulated from the academic bent of American and Western European composers. But their music is no less a reflection of inner states than Beethoven's was, and no less rich because of it.


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