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War on Stereotypes

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War on Stereotypes

There are a limited number of set pieces in music journalism. You know what they are: exciting new songs by someone you have never heard of, world tour by aging rock gods, outrageous production of much-beloved opera where everyone is dressed as a Nazi--or nude, the horrible unlistenable modern music and so on. In the last category we have this from the Wall Street Journal: ‘The War on Music’ Review: Songs Without Listeners. The article refers to:

the near-total inability of post-World War II America and Europe to produce more than a small number of classical works that any normal person would want to hear. That failure is slowly killing classical music. You can’t expect the public to remain engaged with works of the distant past if the present doesn’t produce anything interesting. Today’s concertgoers are not antiquaries; they, too, no less than music lovers in centuries gone by, want to enjoy and rave about the latest thing.

This piece is actually a book review:

The great virtue of John Mauceri’s “The War on Music: Reclaiming the Twentieth Century” is that it acknowledges what many writers on the subject know but can’t say: that something went badly wrong in music in the 20th century, and especially after 1945. The time has come, Mr. Mauceri writes, “to ask why so much contemporary music played by our greatest musical institutions—and supported overwhelmingly by music critics—is music that the vast majority of people do not want to hear—and have never wanted to hear.”

This is a venerable genre--critics were writing books about how modern music had gone all wrong starting in the 1920s when "modern" music had barely arrived. The reviewer doesn't buy the arguments of the book as to why modern music was the way it was, but makes this observation:

The rise of the 12-tone compositional method, invented by Schoenberg and elaborated by his many imitators, produced nothing of greatness and signified a sickness at the heart of Western music. That the book’s survey of 20th-century music begins with Igor Stravinsky’s revolting ballet “Rite of Spring,” which glorified pagan savagery and premiered a year before the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, suggests that Mr. Mauceri, too, suspects the war on music began well before the guns started firing in 1914.

This is all just a mélange of clichés and stereotypes, of course. That simple, pleasant music enjoyed by the majority is largely pop music these days is not much of a mystery. That there is also more esoteric music enjoyed by a minority is also quite obvious. There is a marvelously varied spectrum from innocuous pop music like that of Ed Sheeran all the way to the avant-garde experimentation of Captain Beefheart. And that's just in the pop world. There is a similar spectrum in the classical world from Vivaldi to Stravinsky or Philip Glass to Sofia Gubaidulina.

There is music literally for every taste and when you call the Rite of Spring a revolting glorification of pagan savagery you are just saying it is not to your taste and you don't like it. My saying I love the Rite of Spring just means that it is to my taste and I do like it. None of that is interesting, of course. It only gets interesting when you start to talk about why you like or don't like something and how the music creates a certain atmosphere or mood. Of course, you don't find much of that detail in journalism--or even in very many books either!

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