We need better audiences

I was talking to my son about music yesterday, and about how simple the current music is. Even on the standards of pop music, it’s pretty simple. Compare today’s hits to Cole Porter, for example. Why did this happen? How did we go from Beethoven to this?

Son points out that Beethoven isn’t popular music. But Beethoven sold a lot of music, I say. There are bagatelles and themes and variations and sonatas and string quartets. These were purchased, and provided income for the composer. Who was buying it? Somebody, surely. There was an audience for this stuff.

There was an audience for highly intellectual music with complex structures and intricate development of themes. Who were these people? Where are they today?

There are other examples. Consider the language of Shakespeare: who was he writing for? Modern students, even smart ones, have difficulty figuring out what’s going on in his poetry. His plays were very popular during his lifetime, which means he had an audience that could appreciate him.

If you have a chance, watch His Girl Friday with Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell. The dialogue and the jokes come fast and furious, much faster than anything we have today.

If you are upset with the current state of the arts, you should realize that it may be the current state of the audience. If there were people who demanded better stuff, the artists would create it.

Melons and Music

I have a son who loves music. He plays piano all day and can pick out melodies by ear, which is a rare skill. I’m proud of him. But he listens to very simple music, mostly video game themes or piano music geared for the pop music ear. While I’m happy to hear him play, the monotony of the music bugs me.

I say “monotony” not in the literal sense of the sameness of tone, since the music he plays does have movement in the melody. It isn’t monotonous, but it does have the other definition: “tedious sameness.” Usually there is one idea which is then repeated without much alteration through the entire song. Sometimes it is a good idea, a catchy bit of melody, which is then beaten to death for the next four minutes.

I don’t want to snuff the candle-flame of his love for music, but I keep waiting for him to fall in love with Beethoven. Take my favorite symphony, No. 6, the Pastoral Symphony. Go dig up a streaming version and listen. I’ll wait.

Note the first four notes: A Bb D C. Listen to how it is repeated in the beginning, then mutated, moved around the scale, given to different instruments, rhythmically changed, but always recognizably the same theme. John N. Burk describes it thus:

There is no labored development, but a drone-like repetition of fragments from the themes, a sort of murmuring monotony, in which the composer charms the ear with a continous, subtle alteration of tonality, color, position. One is reminded (here and in the slow movement) of the phenomena of floral growth, where simplicity and charm of surface conceal infinite variety and organic intricacy.

I think that’s a good metaphor, the bit about floral growth. I have a plot of watermelons growing right now, and the vines and flowers have scattered over the earth in a pleasing variety, but it’s all recognizably watermelon. The symphony is the same. It’s all the opening theme, but growing out wherever the sun and water lead it.

The modern popular music would not be floral. If it is to compared to any agricultural product, it would be the factory chicken farm, where the birds are debeaked and kept confined, so that they may only develop in a narrow band of possibility.

Unfortunately, listening to and enjoying the 6th Symphony requires a little bit of musical discernment (the ability to follow a theme), time to listen, quiet, and patience, all things which are in short supply. You can certainly listen and enjoy, but it may seem as merely pleasant background music until you open yourself up to let Beethoven lead you on his journey.

The upside is that the music is much better. It isn’t that what my son listens to is bad. It’s not. It’s just not as good as what you’re capable of. The peak of European concert music is one of the great accomplishments of the human race. Pyramids, aqueducts, the Great Wall of China, geometry, and European concert music.

Try to dig into it. There are treasures.