At a certain stage and for no apparent reason, self-criticism among those of us in the West gave way to repudiation. Instead of subjecting our inheritance to a critical evaluation, seeking what is good in it and trying to understand and endorse the ties that binds us to it, a great many of those appointed as cultural stewards chose rather to turn their backs on it.
It has been widely accepted for a hundred years, and in any case since Oswald Spengler’s Decline of the West, that ‘the West’ denotes a comprehensive form of human life, that this form was once flourishing and expanding, and that it is now declining into sterility and self-doubt. The sense of living at the end of things is so widespread that those who seek to renew our cultural inheritance, to affirm their faith, or to draw upon the legacy of self-confidence that was handed down with the Enlightenment, tend to be regarded either as weird eccentrics or as dangerous reactionaries. This is especially the case in the universities and cultural institutions, where a kind of morose antipathy to the Western inheritance accompanies a deep suspicion of all those who wish to teach it and to build on it.
It is not just that we, in the West, have developed a critical response to our own traditions. Self-criticism is a virtue, and part of what distinguishes Western civilisation from its more evident rivals, such as Islam. The great turning points and refreshments of the Western spirit have come about through questioning things—at the Renaissance, for example, when our artistic practices were measured against those of the ancient world and found wanting, at the Reformation, when our religious institutions were mocked, satirised, and eventually reformed in response to radical scepticism, at the Enlightenment, when everything was turned upside down in the name of Reason. Through all such upheavals our forebears maintained a distinctive continuity of interest and inspiration, which can be seen in all the institutions that survived into modern times, and of course in the extraordinary artistic traditions that are the glory of our civilisation.
At a certain stage, however, and for no apparent reason, self-criticism gave way to repudiation. Instead of subjecting our inheritance to a critical evaluation, seeking what is good in it and trying to understand and endorse the ties that binds us to it, a great many of those appointed as cultural stewards—professors of humanities, curators, producers, critics, cultural advisers and commissars—chose rather to turn their backs on it. The prevailing idea seemed to be ‘this is all dead and gone. We can pretend to be part of it, but the result will be pastiche or kitsch.’ And this repudiation of the tradition has been accompanied by vigorous denunciations of the social order and mores of those who formerly enjoyed or created it, whose sexist, racist, hierarchical, etc. attitudes apparently distance them incurably from us living now. I think everybody who has attended a humanities department in one of our universities will be familiar with this attitude, and with the ‘culture of repudiation’ that has arisen around it.
Two examples of this culture of repudiation are of particular interest to me, since they illustrate the enormous damage that it is inflicting on our society. The first is architecture, the second classical music, both practices integral to the health and happiness of a modern city, and both betrayed for no good reason by the ‘experts’ into whose hands they have been placed.
Architecture and music are worth comparing for one very important reason, which is that, while the second is a fine art, and one that entirely draws on its own resources for its own spiritual ends, the first is a skill, which is measured partly in terms of its utility, and which cannot in the nature of things demand genius or originality from its ordinary practitioner. This distinction has been acknowledged at least since the birth of philosophical aesthetics in the eighteenth century, and it is of increasing importance to us, in an age when critics and impresarios count ‘originality’, ‘creativity’, ‘transgression’ and ‘challenge’ as the primary aesthetic values, and dismiss the love of beauty as a lingering form of nostalgia.
When it comes to building a city, an enterprise undertaken by many hands over many years, and in which the principal goal is to create an enduring community united by the sense of settlement, it is rarely possible to call on a single architect to create the final result. To see a city as an act of originality, creativity, or self-expression is precisely to wrest it free from the world of human uses and to place it in its own museum—like the unliveable city created by Le Corbusier at Chandigarh. The great and successful cities of Western civilization—Paris, Florence, Barcelona, Edinburgh, the German cities so tragically destroyed in the Second World War—have not been conceived as works of art, and certainly not built with the idea of originality in mind. They are evolved solutions to the problem of settlement. They achieve order and unity by the devices that are natural to us, when we strive to fit in with others in an enterprise that we did not begin. They use patterns, materials, and details that naturally fit together; their buildings are aligned along streets; they exhibit the feel for proportion and scale which people understand without knowing how to explain it. And they are organised according to a kind of ‘generative grammar’, which is like a language in that anybody can learn it and make his own remarks by means of it, but which is normally spoken in straight and unoriginal prose.
This grammar has been much studied, and has undergone periods of renewal and revision, notably at the Renaissance, and during the emergence of the Georgian pattern-book and the Victorian neo-Gothic. But it existed right up to modern times, and can be witnessed in the cast-iron columns and tin cornices of Lower Manhattan as much as in the Gothic arches of an English country church or the rhythmical fenestration of a Georgian terrace. Anybody can learn it, and anybody can also learn to adapt it to new uses and new materials. Quite suddenly, however, in the wake of the modernist movement, the architectural schools turned their backs on this grammar and the tradition that it represented—a tradition as old as Western civilisation. It was not that they had simply absorbed the critical spirit of the modernists, or were looking for ways to use the new materials and new engineering skills in ways that would harmonize with the on-going tradition of city-building and city-dwelling. They were in a state of out-and-out repudiation. The past was the past and no longer available. We were not to belong to it. We were to begin again, with something entirely new. Building was to start a priori from wholly new assumptions, and any attempt to fit in to the old idea of the street, or the old vocabulary of detail and the old genial syntax with which people had built side by side in harmony, was a kind of betrayal, a lapse into ‘pastiche’, ‘nostalgia’, and ‘fake.’
What exactly do those terms mean? And if they mean something, is it a bad thing that they mean? And if it is a bad thing, is the only way to avoid it through some act of total repudiation? Those surely, are the questions that we ought to be addressing, but which are almost nowhere discussed in schools of architecture. And we should set this fact beside another, which is that, whatever we think about the old ways of building, it is to these old ways of building that people gravitate, not only as tourists (though how many tourists clock in to downtown Tampa, or the concrete suburbs of Paris?), but as residents too. Indeed, if you explore the private residences of modernist architects you will find that they often lie discreetly behind elegant façades in unspoiled countryside or (in the case of Richard Rogers) in a Portuguese fishing village composed of the old materials in the old vernacular idiom and inaccessible by road. People flee the new structures, which are imposed on them by planners and impresarios who seek to claim credit for their advanced taste, but who would not dream of living in the result. Why, in the light of this, was it not possible to go on in the old way—not repeating what had been done, but nevertheless adapting it to our changing uses? What indeed was it that caused the radical break, the act of repudiation? Why should we think that adaptation, on which all communities, all species, all individuals depend, is somehow no longer available?
This same question haunts the world of classical music. As I suggested, the two cases are distinct, in that most surviving architecture is the product of ordinary and uninspired people, guided (at best) by good manners and considerateness, whereas most surviving music is the product of artistic inspiration. But this difference makes the comparison all the more instructive. The classical tradition in music has evolved through a continuous dialogue between creative composers and a self-sustaining community of performers, listeners and concertgoers. Unlike architecture, which is imposed on all of us regardless of whether we like it, music can only be imposed on those who want to listen to it or perform it, and therefore survives only through its appeal. When a style becomes tired, when a musical vocabulary declines into repetition and cliché, it loses its audience, or retains their interest only in an uninvolved way, like background music in a restaurant. The tradition then depends on renewal—on the artist who, like Beethoven, discovers a new application and a new territory into which the old devices can be extended. This situation is beautifully dramatized in Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, where Wagner epitomizes the dialogue between the musician and the audience. The new melodic language of Walther adapts to the musical tradition of Nuremberg, which in turn adapts to Walther’s melody. The drama shows the audience evolving in response to the music, and the music shaping itself in response to an existing tradition, so as to become part of it by also changing it.
Just such an evolution was in Schoenberg’s mind, when he began his experiments in atonality. He became increasingly aware that experimental music means nothing if it cannot create an audience adapted to it – an audience that takes pleasure in hearing it, and which responds to it in something like the way that it responds to the existing repertoire. Whatever we think of the result (and in my view it is best described as ‘patchy’) the intention was to renew a tradition, and not to turn one’s back on it. By the time of Darmstadt, however, the culture of repudiation had taken over. With Stockhausen and Boulez it was no longer a question of adapting music to the audience, and the audience to the music. It was a question of starting again, from a new conception of the art of sound. And if the audience didn’t like the result, that was only further proof of its reality as a ‘challenge’ and a ‘transgression’. Besides, in the new state-controlled culture of post-war Europe an audience was no longer necessary. The arts could be entirely funded by the state and the state, as a socialist institution, could be entirely controlled by the modernists—by those believers in progress and the future for whom the past had finally refuted itself. That, essentially, was the cultural bequest of post-war Germany, and it proved infectious even here in America. Every attempt by composers to establish some kind of continuity with the existing repertoire, and to appeal to a community of listeners whose ears had been shaped by the tonal language, has been regarded with suspicion by the avant-garde, and as a rule dismissed as pastiche or cliché.
Interesting here is the case of George Rochberg, the American composer who joined the post-war cult of serialism and made his own highly competent contributions to the genre, before admitting to himself, following the tragic death of his teenage son, that serialism is empty of expressive content, and could not be a vehicle for his grief. It took courage for Rochberg then to do what his artistic conscience told him to do, and to return to the classical tradition. “There is no greater provincialism,” he wrote in 1969, “than that special form of sophistication and arrogance which denies the past.” Thereafter Rochberg allowed his music to be guided by his ear, not by fashionable theories, and produced three or four of the most beautiful string quartets of the 20th century. The third quartet was dismissed by Andrew Porter as ‘almost irrelevant’ and became the target of relentless abuse and scorn from the academic critics, the more so in that it was openly popular. And in due course it had a real influence on such composers as David Del Tredici and John Corigliano. Despite being dismissed as pastiche, Rochberg’s quartets are, it seems to me, genuinely original—and their originality consists in their studious respect for the principles of voice leading and romantic harmony, even while expressing the composers very real desolation at his loss.
Most people now live in cities—or rather they congregate around cities, while increasingly avoiding the heart of them, fleeing for protection to the suburbs. But if we ask what draws them, nevertheless, into the city centre two things above all seem important: first traditional architecture, which creates the vision of a community of free beings at peace; second the symphony hall, which invites the listener into another, inward vision of the same free community. And just as a city renews itself through adapting to new uses, while maintaining continuity with its past, so does the classical tradition in music renew itself, by incorporating new feelings and new forms of social life into the live tradition of polyphonic sound. This kind of renewal is never achieved by repudiation. Only by adapting what has worked for us, can we embrace and give form to what is new.
Our model for the future should therefore not be the sterile works of Stockhausen and Boulez but the patient attempts to adapt the old to the new, and to find notes that touch the hearts of listeners because they express the heart of their composer. George Rochberg’s music points us in this direction. But it raises the question that surely troubles all serious music-lovers now, which is whether we can find our way to a musical syntax which is as expressive as the tonal language of Rochberg, but which is not shut off from the surrounding world of popular culture. This is the theme to which I shall address myself in my next post.
Republished with gracious permission of the Future Symphony Institute.
This essay originally appeared here in April 2015 and appears here again in memory of the great Sir Roger Scruton (born February 27, 1944), who died on January 12, 2020.
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The featured image is the former Metropolitan Opera House (39th St) in New York City, seen from the rear of the stage, at a concert by pianist Josef Hofmann, November 28, 1937. The image is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.