Welcome to the blog of Miroslav Georgiev - classical pianist and conductor. Here you can read and discuss interesting stuff from the world of music, life, politics and more.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Is Classical music obsolete?

Amid a grave financial crisis in Europe, and to a degree - in the US, the arts are undeniably faring quite bad. It is, of course, no news for us art professionals that whenever there is lack of cash in public space, the first branch of life to suffer is exactly culture. You can't ask an unemployed person to spend $50 for a concert when he is concerned he can't pay his bills this month.
But in the present crisis there are some different ideas running around - ideas that high arts, and more specifically, classical music - are obsolete. A thing of the past. A thing of an elitist, capricious class that has nothing better to do than attend pointless shows without real social value. Or rather (because what the elite does usually is no concern of the public - on the contrary, they try to emulate it!) -that public money is squandered on supporting the arts when they should be used for healthcare, education, etc. While this may be a valid point, I think the time has come to discuss seriously not only the value, but also the future of the high arts, and more specifically - classical music. I will concentrate on music, simply because I'm a musician. Still, I argue that the same points are valid for things such as ballet, painting and plastic arts that go beyond simple decorative functions.


In my opinion, the development of classical music is one of the greatest achievements of Western civilization. To me it is no less valuable than the development of classical economics, human rights concepts and general education. Why? Because classical music has the power to change behavior (for the better), to elevate a human spirit above the everyday drudgery and make a human being think of concepts beyond eating, drinking and making sex. Myself, I've never seen a person that willingly goes to classical music concerts to later engage in violent or anti-social behavior. We have the shining example of Venezuela - a whole country that has proven how classical music may reeducate poor and violent citizens! Prove me wrong, but I think the inherent indirect educational value of music is being vastly underestimated in our society.

The development of classical music is the result of both the technological and social development in Western Europe during the Renaissance, and the subsequent Industrial Revolution periods. On one side, we had a nascent middle class (the so-called bourgeoisie), accumulating wealth to rival the aristocratic class, and gradually acquiring taste for the same things the aristocrats liked - such as high arts. On the other hand, we had a rapid technological development that made possible the spread of written sheet music, which in turn led to the creation of the notation system and the possibility to go beyond simple improvisation in music. The advent of polyphony during the Baroque period was an unprecedented invention which didn't exist in the music of any other part of the world! It gave western composers an incredible range of creative possibilities, which geniuses like Bach and Handel used to  start creating wonders. The subsequent development of classical harmony sealed the path of classical music, and allowed its growth into what we know and cherish today.
Another unique contribution of Western classical music is the concept of a symphonic orchestra - a large group of musicians, trained and able to play the most sophisticated musical works this world has seen! There are no other examples of musical groups from any other part of the world capable of the precision, synchronization and coloring a symphonic orchestra (and its derivatives) produce!

I think there is one fact that proves the intrinsic value of Western classical music, and that is the fact that almost every civilization that has come into contact with ours has eagerly accepted the concepts of classical music, and used it to enrich their own national music. Someone might argue that this is simply the weaker emulating the cultural achievements of the stronger, but I will point out that it is not always the case that 'conquerors' impose their culture on 'conquered' people - the examples of Rome accepting Hellenic culture, and the Barbarians accepting the culture of conquered Rome prove this. It is not that a dominant force imposes their culture on the dominated, but rather that a strong culture imposes itself upon a weaker one, regardless of its position in the relative power structure of the day.


We live nowadays in a cruel world - arguably much more cruel than the world we knew just 50 years ago. And I don't mean only the many wars and 'conflicts' that are smoldering around the globe! I mean the inexorable, heartless and machine-like march of market-driven capitalism. While on one hand this system may offer faster ways to develop production and technological innovation, on the other hand it also destroys effectively all high art!
I sincerely rue the day in which some economic 'genius' decided to treat music, theater and the other arts as 'commodities' to be sold on the market! Thus the commercial logic trumps the artistic value, and we see the propagation of mediocre, easy-to-swallow musical 'shows' aimed solely at diverting the listener! Simply because the majority of listeners nowadays prefer not to think, they want simply to be entertained. Where is the bold experimentation of the 20th century? Where is the truly great music? The one that is capable of making even the most bored person cry, or laugh, or exult? Orchestras and musicians are reluctant to perform it, because it is too 'difficult to understand'! Instead, we see mega-shows of pop stars, each one costing hundreds of thousands, maybe even millions of dollars. We see them advertised everywhere! From the myriad types of media we have today, we hear the same pop music, boring and repetitive. Even governments prefer giving money for such shows, instead of supporting classical music! Because it will attract more people, and more people mean not only more money for the organizer of the show, but also more visibility for the politicians that sponsored it! This is the first great problem with our society - that we try to insert everything in the world within the economic logic. But life has no economic logic. Culture, as a mirror of life - neither. 

Don't get me wrong - I'm not against pop, or 'mainstream' music. What we know today as 'pop' has always existed. In fact, it existed before classical music, and it will always continue to exist, because it is something necessary, something that provides easy and accessible entertainment that may lift your spirit immediately. The problem with it is that on one hand it becomes boring with time, and on the other hand it lacks any educational value whatsoever. Ever wondered why old people are more prone to listening classical music than young ones? It's not only because of the generations problem - it is because more experienced people get bored when hearing the same music over and over again. But the very fact that this type of music is so easily understood and enjoyed means that it doesn't actually need advertisement, or support! It can support itself, via the beloved market principle of economists! What really needs support, is this sort of music which requires time and experience for most people to understand, and enjoy. Classical music.
And we've seen for many years such support in Western Europe (and to a far lesser extent, in the US). There are whole countries, like Germany, which have made supporting classical music a national policy! Unfortunately, as market economics advance inexorably in politics, and as the present financial crisis continues to sap the developed world's resources, state support for art is slowly declining, redirected to fields of more immediate benefit. Of course, money for arts may come from other, private sources - but it rarely does! And here comes the second great problem with our present society - we have failed to maintain the level of interest high art should occupy in rich people's lives!

It is very clear to me that our present society is divided along class lines, much as it was more than 200 years ago. But while in the Renaissance and Baroque there was a class-bred interest to high art among the aristocracy, while it was considered at the time quite indispensable for a rich person to be also a patron of the arts, today this isn't the case today! We keep seeing rich people spending their money on almost everything but the arts, and no one seems to feel this is a problem. Well, it is - because high art is the heart of culture, and culture is the defining feature of every civilization! Thus, by abandoning art, Western civilization is abandoning one of the very defining features that allowed it to rise to its present glory! Who would've remembered Greek civilization today if it wasn't for their architects, plastic artists, for their philosophers and musicians? I claim that it was them that defined Greek democracy, not the other way around! Thus, we may also claim that it was the western civilizations' philosophers and thinkers, their writers and musicians that defined its present values. And not the capitalists, which in fact tried everything possible to dodge any higher values in their business activities! You doubt that? Remember slavery in the US? Remember children and women laboring in factories all over Western Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries? For that matter, remember how every single colonial nation from Europe didn't have the least qualms about exterminating the native population in their colonies, and then plundering their riches?
And what do we do to preserve and promote art today? Nothing! We wallow in the mediocrity our media is spewing everywhere, as if our grandchildren will be highly interested in knowing what dress Katy Perry wore at the MTV Music Awards, or what Paris Hilton tweeted after coming out of the hospital for the n-th  time... We celebrate artists whose greatest achievement was to copy well somebody else, we glorify models whom nature gave perfect bodies, we deify sports players who race against the drug-detecting agencies... Are those things the achievements we'd like to be remembered with after 500 years???
By abandoning art, we risk abandoning the very values that define our civilization!


But enough whining - this won't save our art. Of course I'm not going to say that we, musicians, have no part in its decline. We've become too complacent, remembering the golden years of the 20th century, in which classical artists were celebrated as pop stars and toured the entire world; in which enlightened people from all classes would rush to the concert halls to hear the newest pieces. We remember the past and we refuse to let go, we refuse to continue on the path that made classical music eternal. What exactly is this path?
As I pointed out earlier, classical music hasn't always existed. It arose, as a direct consequence of several factors in Western civilization. It came to being as a blend of the pop music of the time, the sacred music practiced in Christian temples  and the music written for aristocratic courts. Classical music continued developing as a blend of these, up to the middle of the 20th century. And this ensured its great popularity - despite its complexity, despite its seemingly inaccessible structure, most people could hear something they would like into every great piece, from the very first hearing. And in subsequent hearings, they would go along to discover more and more, as they get to know the piece.
Unfortunately, composers and musicians both became detached from real life. As professionalization of classical music progressed, we started thinking of ourselves as a sort of 'higher musician', a being for which pop music is something inferior, to be avoided. Every time I listen today a colleague of mine ranting against the current fashionable pop style, I am reminded of this fact. And this behavior is felt very acutely by other people - those who should be enjoying our music, are instead estranged by it! That is why they think classical music is a sort of elite thing, only to be looked at from afar, and maybe revered, but not enjoyed. Because we, the musicians, in our pride have made it an elite thing indeed.
Classical music needs to return to its roots. That means, it must blend again the best types of music of its time, INCLUDING popular music. If you take a tour in musical history, you'll discover that most of its masterpieces have many elements of music that was popular at the time. Look at the medieval dances, an integral part of most baroque pieces! Look at the waltz, embedded in most romantic music! Look at the jazz harmonies and rhythms, featured in many 20th century masterpieces! Why are we afraid today to embrace rock? To embrace R&B? And don't tell me these things only consist of a beat - so did the waltz! Why are we ashamed to play movie music in our concerts? Just because it is 'popular' doesn't mean that it is worthless! And yes, my Bulgarian colleagues, I DO find worth in chalga, just as Bach found worth in the gigue - a lively dance that sounded in every little village fest in England and France at the time! And I don't care about the words they put in these songs - words are very easily replaced. Music isn't.

My brother composers, stop trying to reach the stars and be the next Schoenberg! Invention in music has limited usefulness, and it must always happen towards an end, not for its own sake. Why don't you try to be the next Beethoven, instead? He needed to express more tumultuous emotions than the classicism allowed him at the time, and he ended up starting the Romanticism movement! Only when we have an accessible, interesting and valuable contemporary music, may we have any chance at reverting the horrible tendency that estranges the public from classical music. Only thus we may hope that our time will continue the tradition of one of the greatest achievements of Western civilization!  

1 comment:

  1. Achei seu post muito interessante, pois também me preocupo com o destino da música clássica. Como lidar com as platéias, que estão minguando a cada dia?
    Outro dia ainda li um comentário na net afirmando que as salas de espetáculo americanas estão envelhecidas, não lotam mais. O público quase sempre tem mais de 50 anos. E, curiosamente, além dos assentos vazios e das cabeças brancas, há uma pequena porcentagem de jovens orientais, os únicos que estão levando a música clássica a sério hoje em dia. Curioso, pois não faz parte da cultura deles tocar Bach ou Mozart. No entanto, há um boom de crianças e jovens chineses, coreanos, tailandeses, japoneses, etc tocando piano, violino e violoncelo lindamente, ganhando campeonatos internacionais, ocupando lugares em escolas americanas e européias de renome e, o que é mais importante, formando uma nova geração que valoriza a música clássica e o aprendizado de um instrumento. Isso leva a uma longa reflexão, mas sobretudo dá esperança de que nem tudo está perdido.