How classical music blew itself up

Around WW1 classical music hit a tipping point.  It shifted from the sensual to the abstract and gradually lost its audience. So what happened?

Music is the most physical art.  Its origins are in dance and in song.  Unlike language – a human construct – music exists in nature: the song of birds, the wind in the trees, and drops of rain.

Like modern art, twentieth century music aspired to the abstract – playing to the intellect rather than to the senses.  Perhaps this was a reaction to the astonishing richness and complexity of the music of the previous 100 years?

Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony was the first piece of music where people started to discuss what the piece meant, rather than just enjoying the music.  The Eroica was longer, louder and more ambitious than any previous symphony.  It also clearly stood for something in a way that (say) Mozart’s symphonies didn’t.

Western music is based on tension and resolution.  All music takes the listener on an emotional journey with the interplay of melody, harmony and rhythm increasing tension and resolving it over time.  The complexity of the journey is limited by our working memory.

After Beethoven we see music undergo more complex journeys – with tension and ambiguity held for longer. Finally we come to Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde – where the tension is never fully resolved.  That opera is about unfulfilled longing.

With late Romanticism the senses are overloaded.  The music dramas of Wagner and the symphonies of Mahler are probably the limits of what can be absorbed by anyone – and are massively expensive to perform.  They are still primarily arts of the senses rather than the intellect.

With twentieth century music we see increasing abstraction – especially with serialism.  Melody, harmony and physical rhythm – previously so central to music – become less important.  It is almost as if the analytical left side of our brain has taken control, because the world (real and musical) has become too complex.

Much twentieth century music was written to be studied, rather than listened to.  It is hard to love or even to befriend. There are many exceptions to that (Janacek and Britten for example).  As modern classical lost its mojo, jazz came in to take on much of its role.

I am very optimistic about music in the 21st century as we have recognised the cul-de-sac we went down.  We’ll see serious music get back to its roots of dance and song – using a combination of real and virtual instruments.

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