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Classical Mythology 101

6. The Myth of Perpetual Revolution

The whole point of music is to keep turning the world on its head.

Revolution is so highly overrated in classical music, it's practically a religion. For some critics, it's the sole sign and guarantor of true creative genius among composers. Music can't be interesting to listen to unless it brings something new to the table, so the rationale goes, and a composer whose music isn't extraordinarily different doesn't belong in the exalted pantheon of greats. If you write like Rachmaninoff when the world is going the way of Schoenberg, if you imitate and recycle old formulas like Bernstein when you could embrace new algorithms like Boulez, if you placate symphony donors and dowagers as Torke or Kernis do instead of banging on a can ~ you in your reactionary, eyes-in-the-mud fixation on the old ways can not possibly be truly enlightened.

But there's more of evolution than revolution in the history of music, and a fixation on rebelliousness tends to warp the perspective ~ as when a radio announcer claims that the use of two themes instead of one in the Rondo movement of Richard Strauss' Violin Concerto was a "revolutionary idea." Hint: Using two themes in a rondo is not a revolution, and there's no need to artifically bolster Strauss' reputation by making him out to be an innovator. It's in the nature of classical music that it tends to concern itself with preserving the old. Yet a healthy respect for it must also recognize that new music represents our contribution to a long and distinguished history. Inevitably, the new will join the ranks of the old and demand the attention from future generations that we lavish on the music of generations past. In appreciating the music of our own time, it's less important for it to repudiate the past than to reflect and embody values of the present day. Truly revolutionary thinking isn't about either the past or the present but, rather, an imagined future.

Bach and Mozart weren't revolutionaries. They were superb, imaginative craftsmen whose times coincided with the tail end of two important musical periods, the Baroque and the Classical, respectively. Each absorbed the best that his own era had to offer and raised it to a higher plane. It's not necessary, then, to insist that music be in a state of perpetual revolution. Change and stability are the natural order of things, and every generation finds a voice (or more likely, an array of diverse voices) to represent its time and place in the continuum of history. Those voices could equally likely be rooted in the past or directed out to the future. The lesson of classical music is that we're all better off when we open our ears to as many of them as we can because music of high quality almost never yields up all of its rewards on first hearing.

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© David BŁndler, 2000
Last revised: May 29, 2000