Friday, October 05, 2007

Scenes from the death of classical music #1

"So, do you think we'll be playing Julian Anderson in 100 years?" a violinist friend asked me last night in the break during our rehearsal for the next KSO concert. Well, will we? Does it matter?

The shortest and probably most honest answer is "I don't know". Who can possibly say with certainty what will and won't be heard in a century? Acclaim in your own lifetime is no guarantee of an equal posthumous reputation - just ask Spohr, Clementi, and any number of other dead also-rans. Who can even say with certainty whether the symphony orchestra will still exist as a performing group? (I have my doubts about this.)

Does it matter? One one level, not at all, as I'll be long dead by then. On another level, it matters immensely, as I'm a composer, and no matter what I may say, I'll always have one eye on posterity. At least some of the motivation for creating anything, whether it be art, music, a building, social reform, whatever, is ego-driven: the desire for immortality. At a tangent to this is professional envy - I don't want some other bugger being remembered if I'm not.

I hope he isn't. This isn't anything to do with him or my opinion of his music. Up until comparatively recently it was normal for a composer to be forgotten after his death, because it was normal to have new music. But something happened in the 19th century, starting with Beethoven - the first composer whose work remained in the standard repertoire after his death, and has never left it* - and now new music is seen as at best novelty, at worst something to be actively avoided. There's too much posterity now. We need to remember to forget. Then there will be room for new musics. Otherwise classical music is just an embalmed corpse. Embalmed corpses are of course interesting to study, but they don't make very good conversationalists. I'd rather spend time with the living.

*"Beethoven started the rot", said Britten. Messiaen on the other hand speculated that music went wrong sometime in the 11th or 12th century, roughly when we started to write it down.

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