Featured in Alltop

Featured in Alltop

Tuesday, 14 May 2013

Traditional music? "from today, everything is different"

While deploring all stereotypes, as we should, let's entertain a couple of fairly harmless ones for a minute.

First: the lover of traditional music - celtic folk or Dixie jazz, Chicago blues, calypso etc; and Second: the devotee of new music - urban pop, electronica, indie rock, prog-metal and so on. Obviously to separate them rigidly is artificial; many of us listen to (or even play) music from both categories.

I suspect that, if asked, many people would put lovers of classical music into the first camp. This is understandable: most well-known composers are dead after all. Some have been for centuries. Their music is far from "new", and it smacks of The Establishment more than just about any other art form. Its (professional at least) practitioners come through conservatoires and ivied halls of academe - very foreign planets to most people. How "traditional" can it get?

Well, here's my point: it ain't traditional at all.

Granted, said practitioners undertake rigorous training in established techniques and study historic repertoire. "Established" and "historic" it certainly is. Not the same thing though!

The history of what we call classical music is, more than anything else, the story of innovation.

What's not widely understood is that many of the composers we celebrate today had contemporaries more famous, and often richer, than themselves. And whose work never gets played now, or rarely at least. They were popular in their day because they used genuine talent to produce quality works that people enjoyed. However (to generalise wildly again) their ideas lacked originality.

 A famous example is Antonio Salieri, highly fictionalised in the film "Amadeus". He enjoyed Europe-wide success as a composer for the stage, and several prestigious appointments, at least two of them in preference to Mozart. This fuelled the myth, very entertainingly dramatised in the film, that he actively sabotaged Mozart's career! Which was famously short, and never lucrative. There's no doubt in anyone's mind now which of the two was the genius of the age.

Fresh and disruptive

What posterity recognises as a masterpiece - and this goes for all the arts - is more than just a supreme example of genre. It must also bring something fresh and often disruptive into the world. After fellow composer Joseph Haydn heard Beethoven's "Eroica" symphony in rehearsal, he said "From today, everything is different". His own music had been condemned as a "racket" by critics of the time. Hard to believe now - to our ears his music is elegant, understated and often humorous. He was a prolific original in his own right, practically inventing the symphony and string quartet, both forms that Beethoven took to new heights.

In short, the composers whose works we still hear today are the innovators, the dangerous revolutionaries and purveyors of noise. The greatest, most familiar works can hold many surprises, especially live in the hands of top musicians. For me, Beethoven contains the most surprises. It can still sound startlingly fresh, and anticipates so much music that came after. His contemporaries found it spiky and uncompromising. He would jab at the keyboard as if it offended him, abusing the top and bottom notes as if trying to shoulder apart its limitations.

It's because of Beethoven that the piano now has more octaves than when he began composing for it! This is Tradition's opposite.