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Tangential thoughts on Alex Ross's Beethoven piece (October 23, 2014)

Tangential thoughts on Alex Ross's October, 2014 Beethoven piece

Good friend and culture maven Mac Brachman posted this on Facebook, addressed to me, about Alex Ross's New Yorker piece dated October 20, 2014, "Deus Ex Music: Beethoven transformed music—but has veneration of him stifled his successors?"

Mac: I think Ross has an excellent argument. What's your take? Of course it still doesn't stop my pulse from starting to race every time I hear the quartets or the first strains of the Ninth.

Me: Thanks Mac -- I really like Ross, maybe my favorite classical critic. One of the things I like about him (beyond his clear-eyed enthusiasm) is the logic of his arguments and lack of purple passages. Here, however, I occasionally find him stretching his arguments a little, and applying uncharacteristic hyperbole. A very fun read, but nothing really compelling enough to alter my views about good ol' Ludwig Van. One thing underlying all of this (totally tangential), for me, is the sense that our world (at least in the US) has changed as far as valuing Beethoven (and classical music) in the first place, beyond him being a venerated name. I was amazed to read Fanfare's most recent Statement by the Publisher citing total circulation at something like 4000 copies worldwide! It may be the #2 such magazine (behind Gramophone), but it's the #1 American classical record review publication, and that's the extent of the readership. 50 years ago, Toscanini was dead but most everyone knew who he was; Bernstein was doing his televised Young Peoples Concerts and other music series, on CBS! Prime time! I thought maybe Dudamel might have what it takes (substance and style) to bring more mainstream eyes and ears to Beethoven and the gang. I don't see that panning out now. More than ever, I think the cultural disconnect between classical music and the general population has grown wider and wider. And nobody really cares except for, apparently, several thousand of us.

Mac responded, in part, by correctly pointed out how Ross's main point was how the "reification and deification of the classics, to the point where little if any contemporary or recent fine music is performed before significant audiences - as he points out, this was not the case in the lifetimes of the baroque and classical masters."

To which I babbled on:

It didn't help that, for most of the 20th Century, "user-friendly" classical music (ie enjoyabe music to most of us, like Barber and Roy Harris, to name a couple that survived) was mostly seen as pablum while the academic powers-that-be embraced serial or otherwise atonal music as the stuff audiences must embrace or die trying. It was the attendance figures that died. That didn't help the trend away from recent music -- when your options are Webern or Beethoven, good luck in promoting "new" music. That, I feel, did more to harm the desire to give current composers a hearing than any legacy of Beethoven's. Sure, I love plenty of dissonant pieces, from much of Messiaen to Carl Ruggles, but even that stuff's bordering on muzak to the ears of Milton Babbitt or Arnold Schoenberg. And they were the "good" medicine you were expected to take straight no chaser. Wimps want Mozart mixed in.

Then again, I do think the legacy of Beethoven as the guy who advanced music made the idea of consciously "advancing" music something composers were expected to do. The ultimate result of that was the atonality embraced by academia but eventually rejected by most of us, because it was seen as the next logical the cliff.

October 23, 2014

Music Rambles

Beethoven Monument in Bonn, Münsterplatz


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