It may be the greatest challenge facing those who love classical music in our modern age is the one facing those who do not also love Beauty. Those who reject the idea of Beauty, who deny its value, or who relegate it to meaninglessness—as in fact so many of today’s most vocal proponents of classical music emphatically do—are at a loss to explain what it is that music offers us. What makes it worth conserving? What gives it meaning or makes it relevant to our lives? If classical music is not about beauty, then what is it about?
We might convincingly characterize all of classical music’s present struggles, as well our orchestras’ persistent failures, to find a place in today’s Brave New World as attempts to answer that question, avoiding a commitment to Beauty at whatever the cost. Our orchestras are in this predicament because they are, for the most part, run by those who do not admit or understand the nature of Beauty—or else who cannot or will not defend it. And let’s face it, it’s a dangerous thing to defend Beauty today. You’re likely to be assaulted with the Ugly stick. Many of those who would have stood up for Beauty very probably learned along the way that it is better to keep your head down and your mouth shut; it is far pleasanter, in many ways, to just go along with the rabble than to oppose it. And for the rabble, it’s now an unassailable given that music is not about Beauty.
Of course, the most obvious efforts to deny Beauty in classical music are the attempts to make the music itself ugly, or else to make it ridiculous. With that tactic alone, orchestras have managed to drive away a great many decent people during the course of the last century. Music, the Modernists told us, has to be ugly because modern life is ugly. Webern and his Modernist pals may have been quite certain we’d all one day be whistling their horrendous atonal “tunes,” but they’d be hard pressed to find anyone today who could recall one. The Postmodernists tell us music must be ridiculous because life is ridiculous. They brought us stunt-men like John Cage, and pieces like the one I recorded with a European orchestra recently that included a part in the score written for an inaudible dog whistle. To drive the point quite literally “home,” Modernists house our orchestras in brutalist buildings of rust and algae streaked concrete, and Postmodernists impose on us concert halls that look like crashed-landed spaceships. Well, perhaps much about the way we live now is ugly and ridiculous, but we have only to look around us to be convinced that it’s largely the crackpot theories of the Modernists and Postmodernists that make it so.
Still, perhaps in the wake of the sickening devastation of the First and Second World Wars it was difficult not to sympathize with the Modernists’ sentiment. And that’s when the idea first seriously took root in the international music community. The horror that broke upon the world with the dawn of industrialized warfare must have seemed to suggest that the modern condition was one of an abject and novel ugliness. What the argument depends upon, however, is the assumption that, in an ugly world, Beauty is no longer relevant.
And it’s a losing argument. The ugly and the ridiculous in musical composition have been largely defeated in our concert halls because they have been rejected unequivocally by the human ear. When they do appear in a concert program today they are not-quite-ingeniously sandwiched in the middle of the evening, because programmers know that audiences will arrive late or leave early to avoid them. And it’s no good scorning the audience for its “philistine” appreciation of Beauty. They’ll just elect not to show up for the scorn or for anything else, either. In fact, not surprisingly, that is exactly what has happened as naturally conservative audiences abandoned their symphony orchestras.
It’s the source of much consternation for those who expect classical music to go the way of art, where fame and fortune reward offensive scribbles, mindless drippings, pickled sharks, and giant balloon animals. David Goldman, writing as “Spengler” about the phenomenon, wondered at the fact that art galleries devoted to ugly modernist art should be full while concert halls featuring the musical equivalent are empty:
When you view an abstract expressionist canvas, time is in your control. You may spend as much or as little time as you like, click your tongue, attempt to say something sensible and, if you are sufficiently pretentious, quote something from the Wikipedia entry on the artist that you consulted before arriving at the gallery. But when you listen to atonal music, you are stuck in your seat for as long as the composer wishes to keep you. It feels like many hours in a dentist’s chair from which you cannot escape. You do not admire the abstraction from a distance. You are actually living inside it. You are in the position of the fashionably left-wing intellectual of the 1930s who made the mistake of actually moving to Moscow rather than admiring it at a safe distance.
Music, perhaps for precisely this reason, has resisted the ideological uglification that the Brave New World order has imposed more successfully on its cousins Art, Poetry, and Literature. Music is still an unconquered repository of Beauty, standing like a fortress above the onslaught, built on a canon to which we still respond and always return. Orchestras, however disheartened they may profess to be at the prospect, will always perform Beethoven’s Fifth because audiences will always want to hear it. In fact, they will be more inclined to hear it the uglier our world becomes.
And that is because beauty does not deny the ugliness, the pain, the torments, the sorrows, or even the ordinariness or baseness of existence; it transforms them. Writing at the turn of the century about the push to make poetry vulgar, Samuel McChord Crothers put it in much the way any normal, decent person might. He called this person The Gentle Reader and he gave him these words:
When the poet delves in the grossness and the slag, he does so as one engaged in the search for the perfect. …So I say, when drain pipes and cross-cut saws and the beef on the butcher’s stalls are invested with beautiful associations and thrill my soul in some mysterious fashion, then I will make as much of these things as I do of the murmuring pines and the hemlocks. When a poet makes bank clerks and stevedores and wood-choppers to loom before my imagination in heroic proportions, I will receive them as I do the heroes of old. But, mind you, the miracle must be actually performed; I will not be put off with a prospectus.
In the canon of classical music, the miracle is often performed, and we attend concerts precisely to witness it – to take part in the miracle. Bank clerks and stevedores and wood-choppers alike realize in Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater—or in Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, Wagner’s Liebestod, Britten’s War Requiem, or the first movement of Tchaikovsky’s sixth symphony, for instance—at once both the commonality and the peculiarity of their condition and its woes, and they participate in the transformation of the slag and sorrow that accompanies their journey through the world into something transcendentally beautiful that shines from beyond it. When we reject Beauty—when we insist on wallowing in vulgarity and ugliness—what we ultimately reject is this possibility of transcendence. It might be even more accurate to say that we reject Beauty because we first reject the Transcendent Himself.
Without a way to reach beyond it, we are left to wander for a lifetime through the earth-bound desolation of our material reality, after which there is simply nothing. We retain, nevertheless, our deep need to escape from the bleakness of existence. But our only option now is to create our own heaven right here in the dust. We must shape our physical world into Utopia, by ourselves, with just the strength of our wills.
So what’s next for those who insist that music is not about Beauty? If music cannot, through Beauty, transform our relationship with or transcend the ugliness of reality, then it must change physical reality itself in order to eliminate ugliness. It must transform society. Next comes the insistence that we attach classical music to an ideology—to “change we can believe in.”
Orchestras, desperate to be relevant now that Beauty has been declared irrelevant, get busily to work on everything except that one thing which they essentially exist to do. Sure, they play their concerts every week, but they’ve become a little apologetic about that part—and, on top of that, a little ironic about the fact that they’re playing Beethoven again. Like the hipster who wears dirty flannels with his carefully-coifed mustache lest you mistake him for someone “fashionable,” orchestras today want you to focus on their plans to bring about social progress lest you mistake them for the inheritors and champions of an art form created by dead, white, privileged, Christian, heterosexual, European men. They, after all, the consensus seems to assure us, are the cause of everything we need to change about society.
And this is where most efforts to describe just what it is that classical music is about are concentrated today: It’s about making our world a better place. Musicians are styled as ambassadors of change and sent out into their communities to show everyone that they are somehow more important, or at least more relevant, than they are willing or able to argue that Bach and Beethoven are. Orchestras clamor for anything written by or celebrating life’s “victims,” hoping to refute their historical association with life’s vilified “winners.” They set their hands and their instruments heroically to the task of bringing an end to inequality, poverty, injustice, and environmental abuse, to repairing our broken families and our failing schools, and to curing all kinds of systemic “-isms”, depending on who you talk to. Of course, all these things are easy to count even if they are difficult to measure. But they are nigh to impossible to achieve.
What will happen, we have to wonder, when orchestras and the canon of classical music inevitably fail to bring about world peace, the end of poverty, environmental balance, and homogenous diversity? Like the purveyors of the ugly and the ridiculous, orchestras selling social progress are on a collision course with reality. How many more decent, ordinary people will our orchestras alienate with their gross misunderstandings of both the nature of classical music and human nature itself?
Well, if it can’t cure society’s ills, then maybe it can do something for us as individuals. There’s a frenzy of interest that surrounds advances in neuroscience and nano-technology that promise to explain how music enhances our brains, how it facilitates our synapses, how it makes us better at math, and ultimately how it makes us more successful in our careers. After all, it must have some use in the material world. What can it profit us?
Anyone familiar with the struggles facing the long tradition of classical liberal education in today’s cynical “diploma market” will recognize this lamentable tune. And it reminds me of an amusing account that Kitty Ferguson shares in her book, The Music of Pythagorus:
When someone asked what the practical use of one theorem was, Euclid turned aside to his slave, sniffed, and muttered, ‘He wants to profit from learning, give him a penny.’ The Pythagorean aphorism was ‘A diagram and a step (an advance in knowledge), not a diagram and a penny.’
It’s quite a slippery subject, and difficult to tackle in our utilitarian age. There is a valuable little university that I frequently come across in my travels that always vividly reminds me of this challenge. And that is because, in passing by, one can’t fail to notice its slogan, finger-painted as it is in gigantic letters all over the windows of its most prominent building: “Knowledge that works.”
Of course, there is knowledge that works, and it’s very important: knowing how to construct a Gothic arch or how to decipher an MRI scan, for example. But music was never that kind of knowledge. During the Middle Ages, it was an essential part of the Quadrivium, the second tier of the seven Liberal Arts—distinct from the Practical Arts such as medicine and architecture—and prerequisite to studies in philosophy and theology. All men whose station in life freed them from the necessity of learning a craft or trade studied music. It is not at all extraordinary that King Henry V composed some very respectable pieces himself—a Gloria and a Sanctus both survived the ravenous fires of the Reformation.
But even without knowing any of that, we might look around at the audiences in our concert halls. It’s becoming something of a cliché to remark on the grey hair. We wring our hands and wonder what would bring the young people to concerts? What do they want out of the experience? More fun? More excitement? More sex? But our obsession with youth and Youth Culture aside, what might we suppose our elders are hoping to “get” from the music? Do we ever ask ourselves why they make the considerable and ever-increasing effort to attend concerts? Why are those who contribute most generously to our institutions of classical music also the ones have so little time left to enjoy them?
The wisdom of age might consist largely of the ability to finally appreciate the value of things because there are simply fewer opportunities to use them as means. Striving gives way to circumspection; we draw nearer to the threshold that separates this world from the next. As we approach our natural end, perhaps we also approach an intimacy with ends.
Obviously, our elders come to concerts not because they hope the music will make them better at math or more successful in their careers. There is no use to which they plan to put the music they come to hear, cleverly plying it to realize their five-or ten-year plans. I think if we asked them, we would find that classical music for them is only about Beauty. I think they would sympathize with John Ruskin, who said, “Remember that the most beautiful things in the world are the most useless.”
And maybe this is the real reason that audiences for classical music are aging: That it takes so much longer for us to shake off the utilitarian mindset that pervades our modern world, so well-rooted it has become in our unexamined ways of thinking and being. It is harder and harder for us to find our way through our inherent materialism to that space in which we value a thing for itself alone. And until we can sit with classical music and value it in that way, then we don’t really value it at all.
As James Matthew Wilson reminded us at our conference last year, “Aristotle proposes that something is a good in itself when, in being done for or valued for itself, it is actually valued for the sake of beauty.” And what is classical music if it’s not this thing: A good in itself, valued for the sake of Beauty? All the for-sake-of-whiches that we try to attach to it fail to justify its existence and explain its value because they begin by precluding the thing which classical music essentially is.
Many of those who have abandoned classical music to its painful Modernist and Postmodernist contortions, including many of the conservatives who should have been its natural allies, have taken refuge in popular or rock music instead. And while that is understandable—because the pop and rock genres never abandoned the tonal language that makes music intelligible, and on top of that borrowed much of what works best from the classical tradition—it is also not a fair trade.
Classical music is almost entirely unlike pop or rock music. It belongs in a different category altogether. It is not something to be overheard, but something to which we must give our full attention. It is not entertainment, but something much more like a religious experience. In fact, the birth and history of classical music is inextricably joined to the history of the Church. And the completeness of their affinity is reflected in the traditions of the concert hall, in the way we approach the music and the way that we hear it. As Roger Scruton explains:
You entered both the church and the concert hall from the world of business, laying aside your everyday concerns and preparing to be addressed by the silence. You came in an attitude of readiness, not to do something, but to receive something. In both places you were confronted with a mystery, something that happened without a real explanation, and which must be contemplated for the thing that it is. The silence is received as a preparation, a lustration, in which the audience prepares itself for an act of spiritual refreshment.
The music, like the religious mystery, draws us into it and holds us in its enchantment. It opens for us a door into a space that exists beyond our physical world, and what we hear moving in the music through that space is us. The symphony takes us on a journey through the secretive shadows and the uncertain vistas of our human condition. It touches those things of value within us, and it invites them to witness the miracle of transubstantiation wherein the dross of our daily existence, however trivial or tragic, is changed into the possibility of our salvation. “Your feelings at the end of a great classical symphony,” Scruton confirms, “have been won from you by a process which involves your deepest being.”
Nothing like this happens at a rock concert. To begin with, we do not approach the music with the same preparation of stillness and silence. Instead, we are animated by a noisy sort of excitement that anticipates, in Scruton’s words again, “participation, rather than contemplation.”
If the classical concert is more like a religious experience, the rock concert, Scruton explains,
is more like a collective celebration, in which everyone joins in and there is no mystery at all—only life, expressed and accepted for what it is. In the usual Rock concert, the excitement, and the message, are contained in the very first bar. Rhythm, tonality and the main spurt of melody are thrust immediately into the ears of the listener. There is a ‘let’s go!’ feeling to the music, and an invitation to leave aside all those long-winded and difficult emotions that have hesitation as their initiating mark.
There is, of course, a certain exhilaration that this kind of raucous musical release brings us. But it is not like the transcendence that classical music offers us, either in its durability or its depth.
Johann Sebastian Bach said that “The aim and final end of all music should be none other than the glory of God and the refreshment of the soul.” That is another way to say that the aim and final end of all music should be Beauty, for it has always been with beauty that we glorify God just as it has always been beauty that refreshes our souls.
Bach’s is an unpopular notion in our secularist age. That the truth of it shines through all our willful and accidental corruptions and corrosions testifies to the fact that classical music is still indisputably and essentially about Beauty, even for those of us who do not believe in God. Beauty falls like the refreshing rain on all our souls alike.
But classical music will need champions in the camp of conservative thought to survive for the benefit of future generations. For those who might think they love classical music, but who detest Beauty or the God it traditionally glorifies even more, the only thing left to do is to silence the music in order to forget the God. And that, I suspect, is the greater part of the battle we’re facing next.
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. This was the address delivered by invitation to the Academy of Philosophy and Letters at its annual meeting in June, 2015 and is republished here with gracious permission of the Future Symphony Institute.