My program of study defines “contemporary music” as music written since 1945. It would seem from a casual glance that the era of classical music since then (and perhaps 30-45 years earlier, still) is the most unique in the history of western music. I say this not alluding to the diverse stylistic growth. (in general I believe people oversimplify music history, I severely dislike the period-labels we’ve imposed on music of the past. But this is a tangent for another blog post) Instead, I mean that this is the first period in history that classical audiences and performers have focussed more or less exclusively on music of the past. I do not think it is an exaggeration to say that until the early twentieth century, classical music was largely a matter of what was then, new music.
Critics of contemporary music will say that the blame is to be placed on contemporary music itself. Music since 1945 is not accessible, you see, it’s not beautiful and it’s down-right unenjoyable. But new music has always been criticized—Rite of Spring’s famous premier-riot, I do believe that Carmen had a disastrous opening, Beethoven experienced countless flops, and Bach was far from famous in his day, his musical style decried by his own children. Yet…all of this music is now standard. And furthermore, no matter how much audiences of the past may have criticized the new music of the day, they still supported it and it was largely new repertoire that was being performed.
Upon the advent of the recital, the scene was starting to shift. I must blame my hero Liszt for some of this, his revisiting and performances of Beethoven immediately comes to mind as one of the first examples of music of the past receiving extensive attention. I contend, though, that it is primarily the age of recording that has solidified the shift. Recordings led to a greater accessibility of musical material, so that works of the past could be revisited as historical documents with much ease. Is it any coincidence that the latest-composed and oft-performed repertoire are the ones written just as recording technology was getting off the ground? Certainly not. There are so many implications for this and I can think of far more negative ones than positive, thus I will not dwell on it.
The other aspect of music history that fascinates me is the tendency for one to interpret music of the past in the style of the music of the day. Take a look at Hans van Bulow’s edition of the Beethoven sonatas or Busoni’s editions of Bach. Both are highly ‘romanticized’ with updated pedalling, dynamics, tempos and particularly phrasing. But that was the music that Busoni himself wrote, that was the style that von Bulow was a trained in (i.e.-Liszt style). One of the things I love about Ervin Nyiregyhazi is that, though he tends to romanticize everything, really what he is doing is making every composer—Liszt, Debussy, Brahms, Chopin—sound like Nyiregyhazi. And, if you accept the premise of his style, it works.
Thus, if performers interpret music in the style of their day, how do contemporary performers of ‘old’ classical music interpret? Well…we live in a culture of quick, clear answers: want to know something, go to Wikipedia? In the education system, creativity is being cut out in favor of standardized testing—there’s either a right answer or a wrong one, a right way to do something or a wrong way. Likewise in music: urtext scores, the composer’s intentions are concepts that are at the forefront of how we are ‘supposed’ to interpret music, there is a correct style to interpret one composer from another. We grade musical performances, we have competitions to discover the best. What it comes down to is a rather limited approach to interpretation (and whether this is right or wrong, one cannot disagree that performers of the late nineteenth century were not limited in the same way). And here is a remarkable and frustrating dichotomy in classical music today: this all sounds an awful lot like…SERIALISM. Think about the militant-like approach of a few serial composers since 1945. They insist that the only legitimate means of composing is to use serialism, a method that can be used to decide an awful lot of compositional parameters for you. On the surface, it can be seen as a rather detached form of work (although I am not saying the music it creates is, see my last post), and I see the urtext phenomenon, primacy of the score and work, in the same way.
Most classical musicians—performers of music of the past—have a lot more in common with contemporary music than they think.