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Church music: Seen here in the medieval treatise "Tacuinam Sanitatis", it forged the basis of classical music

It is a mystery to many people why so few contemporary classical composers seem capable of writing "a good tune". Surely, given the number of students who pursue composition in our universities and conservatoires, and the hugely increased access which technologies such as music-notation software give to prospective composers, we should expect to find at least one or two capable of making a popular impact? Why is it that, with more people than ever engaged in the activity of composing, our culture still seems incapable of fostering a contemporary Verdi or Stravinsky, with the celebrity and popular recognition that such great figures once garnered?

It is certainly true, as Simon Heffer has amusingly put it in Standpoint ("A Raspberry for Emetic Music", November 2014), that the musical establishment is "in hock to the crap merchants" and in thrall to the state, creating a tyrannical orthodoxy of ugliness, admission to which can only be gained by imitating the style of "orchestrated raspberries" currently in vogue. However, the underlying cause—though closely related to the over-reaching influence of the modern state—ultimately goes far deeper than this. To understand the deficit of successful contemporary classical music, what we need to uncover are the feelings which motivated the artistic instincts of the great composers of the past, but which are now absent in the minds of modern composers, thus accounting for their "emetic" output.  

In the year 1900, the following composers were alive, and the majority of them active: Saint-Saëns, Debussy, Ravel, Stravinsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Rachmaninoff, Prokofiev, Bartók, Elgar, Vaughan Williams, Holst, Mahler, Strauss, Sibelius, Grieg, Puccini, Dvořák and Janáček. This list of exalted and well-known figures is far from exhaustive, and should give us pause. We cannot possibly pretend that the world today can boast a similar number or calibre of composers; indeed, any one of these figures is of far more interest to most of us than any of today's most famous composers. Moreover, if one expands this categorisation to include any composer active between the years 1850 and 1950, one possesses pretty much a complete list of the works in the standard orchestral repertoire (save the old German masters), and hence those pieces which one would find overwhelmingly on offer in any events guide produced by today's professional orchestras.

On closer inspection, it is not hard to see the idée fixe that unites this vast array of varied talent: nationalism. To varying degrees of explicitness, whether through the deliberate inclusion of folk elements, or simply a general over-arching style suggestive of national sentiment, all of these figures would quite happily have thought of themselves, not just as composers, but as French, Russian, Hungarian, English, German, Finnish, Norwegian, Italian or Czech composers. It is in fact a statement of the obvious to point out that the feelings that underpin a good deal of what these composers set out to accomplish was driven by a passion for the language, history, customs, traditions, institutions and, perhaps most prominently, the countryside of their native lands.

This surge of nationalist output, produced during the long 19th century, was an obvious accompaniment to the growth of the nation state itself. However, there is another deeper set of convictions which the classical composers held in common, and upon which the nation states of Europe themselves were predicated: Christianity.

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Eileen Pollock
May 6th, 2015
4:05 PM
What a fascinating article to begin my first encounter with Standpoint! The connection between faith and classical music is a bold and challenging thesis. I want to point out, however, that Poulenc was a devout Catholic. His opera Dialogues of the Carmelites is written in a very obscure musical style - meaning no melody. The beautiful hymn sung by the ever-diminishing group of Carmelite nuns as they each go to the guillotine is the only musical highlight - and I believe that Poulenc used an actual hymn. And take Messaien, another devout Catholic, who wrote very difficult music. But I do agree that faith in something greater than oneself inspires art. Is it possible that our culture is so decadent and shallow that the depths of self expression cannot be plumbed by composers? The subject of why contemporary music is so bleached of meaning and music is indeed, a worthy subject of thought and discussion.

Daniel Bamford
April 25th, 2015
6:04 PM
The one letter they published on this article in the April issue was just some frankly-beside-the-point common knowledge about J. S. Bach! Any of the website comments below would have been more deserving of print publication. Just for the record, here is the e-mail I sent to the 'Standpoint' letters page. The post by 'Efflorescent' on 10th March (see below) makes some similar points: Sent: 22 March 2015 17:41 To: letters Subject: Oliver Rudland ‘Our loss of faith made music mute’, Critique, March 2015. Dear Sir, I was somewhat dismayed to find Oliver Rudland describing the music of eighteen leading composers active around 1900 as inspired by ‘nationalism’ (‘Our loss of faith made music mute’, Critique, March 2015). The claim that Christianity constituted ‘another deeper set of convictions’ which these composers ‘held in common’ is also misleading. Take one example from the list - Béla Bartók. His fascination with folk music extended well beyond his ‘native land’ of Hungary to embrace Romanian, Bulgarian, Serbian, Slovakian and even Arabic folk music. His ideal as a composer was to embrace ‘the brotherhood of peoples’, rather than restrict his influences to his own nation. He was also a declared atheist. Similar objections could be made about other composers on the list. It is certainly true that these composers actively engaged with existing cultural traditions underpinned by a common Christian heritage. Even Bartók claimed to disbelieve in a specifically Christian God and his humanist ideal of ‘the brotherhood of peoples’ owes much to the Christian belief in the inherent dignity and sanctity of all human life. So, it is a shame that Oliver Rudland weakens his argument with misleading remarks about ‘nationalism’ and Christian ‘convictions’. These are not mere quibbles, because embracing a particular national identity does not necessitate the rejection or denial of all foreign influences. Similarly, the moral influence of Christianity - which was once a foreign influence in itself! - has never been limited to those who are Christians by conviction. For more nuanced arguments along similar lines, I can recommend one book by a Christian and one book by an agnostic-cum-deist: Hendrik Rookmaaker’s Modern Art and the Death of Culture (1970) and - intermittently - Milan Kundera’s Testaments Betrayed (1995). Incidentally, Kundera’s father was a student and exponent of another composer on Oliver Rudland’s list: Leos Janáček. Sincerely, Daniel Bamford, Derbyshire.

Highland Thing
April 1st, 2015
9:04 PM
This article would've been more worthwhile if the author had known A THING about 'classical' music. Something like 500 CDs of it a month have been being released for years. A good portion are reissues, but a fair percentage of it is new art music - written in the late 20th and 21st centuries by living (or recently dead) composers. I know, because I review a lot of it. And I can tell everyone that most of it is tonal, and more than half rather tuneful. And I'm not talking about film or game music either, but symphonies, string quartets, piano sonatas and the rest of it. Requiem masses and motets too! Two of my children are 'classical' composers, and they're looking forward to a lifetime of writing, as are the thousands more writing non-modernist art music. In other words, the article's nonsense.

amcdonald
March 24th, 2015
4:03 PM
Angela Ellis- Jones thinks the production and consumption of classical music requires intellect; trashy pop music requires little. What about great pop music? Classical music is essentially for bores, it`s a shrinking market updated by `sampling` in pop and film music. Ellis-Jones appears to regret the rise of the capitalism of `the people`. She speaks classical music `Stalinism`. It requires no intellect at all.

GMcK
March 22nd, 2015
5:03 AM
This article made me laugh out loud - its author is so out of touch with what's happening in the music world today. Like me, he probably hasn't bought a new album since 2002, but I at least read the concerts section in the paper. There are entire realms of music using symphony orchestras that are totally missing from his so-called "classical music" genre. If you want tonal music with "meaning" you need go no further than your Netflix subscription, where the works of Bernard Herrmann and Max Steiner and Erich Wolfgang Korngold should satisfy your cravings, and recently works from John Williams and Howard Shore are filling up concert halls with live performances the world over. "Serious" composers like John Adams continue to cause scandals in cosmopolitan centers like New York. As that religion guy once said, "he who has ears to hear, let him hear."

angela ellis-jones
March 21st, 2015
12:03 PM
Is it the decline of Christianity or the rise of mass democracy that is to blame for the loss of classical music? ~The latter was the music of the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie;when 'the people' came into their own post-1945,their cacophonous sounds ruled the airwaves.The production and comsumption of classical music requires intellect;trashy pop music requires little.

Jerry Baustian
March 21st, 2015
4:03 AM
The author fails to notice that there is a tremendous amount of symphonic and chamber music being written and listened to today -- it is written as the sound tracks to films. Individually, some of the works by John Williams, Alexander Desplat, Howard Shore, Hans Zimmer, James Horner, James Newton Howard, Thomas Newman, Danny Elfman, and Patrick Doyle are as interesting and listenable as anything produced from 1850 to 1950. And in the previous generation there were Elmer Bernstein, Jerry Goldsmith, John Barry, Maurice Jarre, Ennio Morricone, Bernard Herrmann, Alfred Newman, and so many others. Serious composers in the 18th and 19th centuries wrote operas. Today they write for the cinema. Musical enthusiasts then and now seem to like a visual element. If you still think music is dying, then ask yourself whether you'd enjoy your favorite movies if there was no musical score. The best films today have the best original scores, and the best of those scores can stand alone in a concert hall.

Bruce McNeill
March 15th, 2015
10:03 PM
There is still a lot of good classical music to listen to even though there is little modern compostion, enough even to see anybody out.

John V. Linton
March 12th, 2015
1:03 PM
This is quite interesting, but I'm quite surprised the author doesn't more fully acknowledge an alternate hypothesis: That of thematic exhaustion of tonal musical content by all those diligent Germans. It seems far more plausible to me (see Stephen Jay Gould) that this accounts for the paucity of modern-day Beethovens.

Efflorescent
March 10th, 2015
2:03 AM
I appreciate the article writer's aim, but the argument is erroneous. For a start, if we agree the era of classical music's greatest creativity was 1850-1950, we must acknowledge that this period is AFTER the church's social dominance had begun to decline. Harmonic techniques which admittedly had origins in Renaissance church music were now largely used for secular purposes. Also, naming a couple of operas with Christian themes is to overlook that most operas were NOT concerned with propounding Christian dogma. Wagner, for instance, was at least equally interested in reviving pagan mysticism. Nationalism was important in encouraging outlying regions of Europe to develop culturally, and bringing new musical flavours to light, but was not a prime cause; the earlier German composers (among others) had employed folk rhythms and melodies without the impulse of nationalist chauvinism. I think the big disaster that affected classical music was the rise of Modernism, with its mindset that radical innovation and conforming to certain obscurantist dogmas were more important than valuing artistic traditions and attempting to communicate with listeners. Some modern composers have attempted to return to these older values, but make the mistake of trying to do this through the language of recent mediocrities rather than starting from the old masters.

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