Debussy’s music is often referred to as “impressionist.” This metaphor works well, not only for the nature of the music (which sometimes carries tunes but more often only outlines them) but also for its place in history. Like impressionist art, Debussy’s music looks back to the traditional methods that came before it but also forward to the near-dissolution of the art form that followed in the 20th century, with all that accompanied it — most notably, the alienation of traditional mass audiences, a self-reinforcing snobbishness, and a (very belated) sense, even among elites, that it all may have resulted in a dead end.I call that contemporary stuff tenure music, and it neither passes the hearing test at Cold Spring Shops nor market tests in the wider world, all that intellectualizing about "composers with their ears set further forward" or "not letting the ears rest in an easy chair" notwithstanding.
That it's an evolutionary dead end for composers as well occurs to Mr Gallagher.
Debussy was part of a generation that revolted against the admittedly ossified musical norms of late-19th-century European music, just as the impressionists had against the strict conventions of “academic” art. Both in the process opened the door to questioning the very underpinnings of their art form that had endured for centuries — figurative representation in one case; tonality and the standard modes in the other. This is why, despite a number of obvious stylistic differences, Raphael’s The Marriage of the Virgin (1504) and Henry Ossawa Tanner’s The Annunciation (1898) look much more similar to each other than either does to Matisse’s View of Notre-Dame (1914). Similarly, it’s why Vivaldi’s Four Seasons and Verdi’s Falstaff (1893) sound more alike than either does to Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire (1912). Impressionists such as Debussy (who ironically hated the term that has been almost universally applied to him) or Monet provided transitional bridges between the old way and the new.I suppose the overturning of the liberal international order the Great Powers imposed upon Napoleon being exiled to St. Helena might be occasion for angsty behavior by creative types (angsty behavior being perhaps a defining characteristic of the creative), and yet the creative types have only a right to create, not necessarily a right to be appreciated for their efforts.
World War I seemed to confirm the results of experiments that composers such as Debussy, Schoenberg, and others had been conducting at the turn of the 20th century: The modern world simply could not be expressed by old methods. Particularly as far as World War I goes, there’s a great deal of truth to this. It can be seen in modernism, as in the very title of World War I art such as Claggett Wilson’s Flower of Death — The Bursting of a Heavy Shell — Not as It Looks, but as It Feels and Sounds and Smells. It can be heard in works such as Britten’s War Requiem (written after World War II, but partly in response to the World War I poetry of Wilfred Owen, which it quotes at length.) These works feel much more right as ways to depict the universe-shattering carnage of the Great War than any traditional method does. And indeed, in the immediate aftermath of World War I, French artists would reject Debussy as not going far enough. (He has since been restored to his rightful place as a genius and a father of modernism.)
Other trends reinforced this perception of inevitable, necessary movement toward the modern styles. The enormous factories of the second industrial revolution that dwarfed the individual, the pollution, the noise, the smoot and clang that filled the cities — all endorsed, indeed perhaps demanded, the kind of music that had broken with traditional notions of tone, tune, and even beauty.
Meanwhile, other potential paths seemed blocked. World War I and a host of lesser conflicts discredited musical nationalism along with its more malignant varieties. There was an element of chance and individual genius: Who knows what may have happened if, after Puccini died in 1924, there had been another master to pick up the baton of Italian lyric opera, as he had from Verdi. Instead, the series of movements — modernism, postmodernism, minimalism, etc. — that rejected traditional tonalities and forms would take over more and more of the cultural landscape.
It’s common to blame rock-and-roll for the decline of classical music, but this is snobbery and evasion as much as anything else. Traditional theater, for instance, managed to survive the advent of television in considerably better shape.Yes, although (as is often the case with resurgencies) the Trendy Styles of the Sclerotic Establishment are not necessarily what everyone is working on any more.
Ah, but what about the ghosts of Beethoven and Van Gogh, who are always summoned to defend the modern composer? So what if the music isn’t popular? Wasn’t Beethoven’s Third Symphony (Eroica) initially disliked? Well yes, it received some bad reviews — for about two minutes. Within a few years, it was rightfully popular; soon it was universally recognized as the masterwork that it is. Whereas it has been over a century since the appearance of Pierrot Lunaire — and the public doesn’t seem to have gotten the message yet.
All of this has been increasingly difficult to deny. About two years ago, Anthony Tommasini, the New York Times’ music critic, wrote a brave piece that more or less asked if the last hundred years have all been a big mistake. Increasingly, in fitful experiments focused less on theory and more on audience enjoyment (what a shocking concept), composers are struggling for a way out. (So far, it must be said, without the level of success needed for an epochal turnaround.)
Yet a funny thing has happened. Even as the revolutionary modernist techniques became conventions, then clichés — even as passionate cries about responding to a changed world became customary pieties — the world changed again. The disruption of the industrial revolution has been tamed by everything from computers to environmentalism to new production processes that shrank factories. The last generation that can remember major-power conflict is passing. And in areas such as the culture wars, manners — which is to say, harmony — seem increasingly a preoccupation. All has changed — except classical music. At a production level, to be sure, opera may be in as good a position as it has been in recent memory. But in terms of composition — in terms of spirit — classical music has remained mired in trends that are no longer new, or daring, or popular.
It's a side benefit that the artsy establishment is of a piece with that part of the policy establishment with a history of being soft on crime, soft on communism (when that was a thing) and soft on counterterrorism.
The highbrow Left — which has been in the driver’s seat in cultural criticism for some time now — has singularly failed to find a way out of this mess. It is too enmeshed in the institutionalized world that produces such work and too attached to the nostrums that surround and justify it. (There is an odd resemblance between the pieties that justify the administrative state and those that justify modern music — both correlated by their shared fondness for a period when the modern highbrow center-Left took control of certain commanding heights.) And it has a problem that derives less from politics than from the fact that it’s an establishment. It has absorbed that snobbishness — inherited from composers such as Schoenberg and refined in the academized world of modern composers — that leads critics to look down on even fans of classical music as the unwashed masses. This is how you wind up with critics confessing after 30 years of writing that there might be something to the Star Wars music, surprised to realize that this is because, rather than despite, its popularity.Yes, to use Mr Gallagher's formulation, the concluding tunes of Beethoven's Fidelio and William Walton's Battle of Britain and John Williams's The Empire Strikes Back sound more like each other than not. Moreover, to riff off Mr Gallagher's closing arguments, there's a Professor Peter Schickele quip about how one of his works was a success because "everybody went out whistling the tunes." It's possible to do that with some J. S. Bach and some Debussy, but with a lot of the tenure music, no way.