A Wider View
This treatise came about as a result of the waning capacity of musicians to express music in a manner consistent with its power of absorption. The trend began in the mid-nineteen-fifties and has continued. During that time all the arts have been undergoing an evolution into entertainment that threatens to destroy them.
Debussy once said that too much diffusion of art can only lead to great mediocrity, and Romain Rolland observed that there is no worse misfortune for art than a superabundance of it. Debussy also said that art is absolutely useless to the masses (he wasn't very charitable toward the elite, either). Governments and foundations which pour enormous amounts of money into the coffers of those who have convinced said governments and foundations that the masses are being uplifted and ennobled by this art have not noticed either the debasement of the arts or the lack of uplift and lack of nobility in the masses.
In the arts there is too much of everything, especially music, and they have become trivialized. The trivialization of music is amply chronicled in Arthur Loesser's Men, Women and Pianos. The book is fairly old now, but there is a further chronicle of the problem in Norman Lebrecht 's Who Killed Classical Music?, a clear and comprehensive history of superstars, managers and corporations that swill at the trough of public and private endowments. Only the last chapter of the book touches the realms under consideration in this treatise, but as a whole it disturbingly treats matters that are an urgent part of the larger picture of the decline of the power of music to hold us in absorption beyond the merely visceral in today's culture.
In our manic society, whose addiction to excitement is enabled by so many commercial interests, great composers find it difficult to touch an audience with the depth of emotion that characterizes great art. Simply, this is but one result of a cultural milieu in which performers, managers and promoters pander to the lowest common denominator. The bigger the crowd, the less demanding the repertoire (to listen to), and vice versa. The repertoire must be the tried and true, and the old war-horses or the old chestnuts (whatever you want to call them) must have a new and glitzier, i.e., shallow but brilliant, spin put on them. Anything new in the repertoire has to be pabulum to gain widespread attention. And so gimmicks arise to distract us from the emptiness and emotional bankruptcy.
Of the performers, the superstars operate from a fund of deep personal emotion but lack the critical acumen to differentiate appropriate from inappropriate feelings of the music (not to mention the motivation of greed, which makes them unadventurous in new music). Too many of the rest reside in an intellectual world of achievement that refuses to recognize that human truth can only communicate from deep emotional involvement. In 1894 Shaw wrote, "Wagner accused Meyerbeer of following the great masters as a starling follows the plough, picking up the titbits which their force unearthed, and serving them up to Paris unmixed with nobler matter. That process, which has been going on in music less than a century, has been going on in painting for three or four hundred years, so that our contemporary popular painters have rid themselves far more completely of what was greatest in the great masters of Florence, Rome, and Venice, than our contemporary composers of what was greatest in Mozart, Beethoven, and Wagner; but the process is going on all the same under the influence of popular demand; and we shall soon have the field held by vulgar music as much as by vulgar painting, as is right and proper in a country with a vulgar population." That the prophecy is fulfilled as we survey the scene at the beginning of the twenty-first century is obvious.
The real danger of the arts becoming entertainment lies in the fact that society will lose its prophets to guide it safely in its evolutionary course. Rollo May, the eminent psychologist, claimed that artists understand the conflicts of society before those conflicts emerge consciously in society as a whole. By using the arts as entertainment, society is focusing on pleasure without deeper feelings that engender meaning for the sense of futility, alienation, violence, and other elements of our present condition. Making entertainment pander to a public, encouraged in its need of distractive excitement, leads to a music inexpressive of composers' nobler thoughts and feelings. Indeed, as mentioned above, contemporary composers have less and less access to the public (except those touted by the commercial interests that will profit only from mass exploitation of the musical effects aimed at the lowest common denominator). The word, composer, is used in the sense of a writer of music that engrosses, absorbs, and moves the listener to deep experience.
We have spoken of music written by composers who use traditional notation to express the emotions of their musical ideas. Non-traditional notation is not our subject, nor is commercial music, which, however we feel about it, has little in common with the artistic ideals of great composers. Bourgeois musical tastes have a long history, but those tastes seem to have turned much of it through the end of the twentieth century into the twenty-first, either into the music of inexpressibly dreary and immature textual ideas of shallow sentiment (music with acne), or music of expressions of anger. Mozart had something to say about the portrayal of the negative passions in music.
The author had the good fortune and pleasure to know the American composer, David Cohen, who for many years kept the local musical scene well supplied with choral and instrumental music of rich musicality and happy invention. Other composers of deeply felt music, who lived in the same town, also were performed. Cohen wrote and the others write using the notation we have been discussing, and none sounds like any other. Post-Romanticism probably died with Strauss, but there is too much evidence that audience friendly modernism did not die with Stravinsky, Hindemith, and Britten. The only conclusion to be reached is that in Anytown, U.S.A., or anywhere in western civilization, composers can still be met who write significantly in common practice notation. The unfortunate thing is that they are shunted aside for composers who invert bicycles and hold tongue depressors against spinning spokes (to use a silly but true example) or by minimalists who are looking for the most attractive but mindless ostinato or atmospherically flimsy mesmeric device, or by those still looking for the lost chord. And please note that we are not discussing the pap that serves as grist for the mills of school and church choirs.
I speak of good composers not still looking for the lost chord as the basic principle of their work. A cursory view of those still writing in common practice notation will tell us that they mostly arrive at highly unique and individual harmonic expression. The good composers do not all sound as though cut from the same cloth, just as Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven differed from each other as they wrote in classical style. The same is true of melody. Good or great composers writing in common practice notation can still write with deep expressive significance without the imitation verismo that passes for the same in musical theater today, for example.