Can China Save European Classical Music From Europeans Who Have Destroyed Their Own Traditions?

Tragically, many formally trained musicians and non-musicians alike, make the false assumption that an orchestral score is the final product of any given European classical composer’s musical composition. This untruth has been reinforced even by some prominent musicians themselves (including Stravinsky and Toscanini) who would pretend that pages of paper on which there is musical notation, represents the final stage of the composer’s artistic process.

The fallacy of this arrogantly mechanistic assumption lies in the fact that if the written notes on a page were the final statement of a composer, music would not be performed nor recorded – it would be read like a geography book or novel. Likewise, if the apotheosis of music was the written note, why is it that some forms of classical music (mainly those outside of Europe) do not have musical notation at all or otherwise invented forms of musical notation long after the golden age of their respective classical traditions? Furthermore, why is it that most folk music around the world has largely been passed on aurally and likewise, why is it that even in the 20th and 21st centuries, many of the world’s most gifted pop musicians do not even seek to become literate in musical notation?

The answer is that unlike a novel, the written score of a great orchestral work is completely without purpose unless it is played by musicians. This reality used to be received wisdom among the great European maestros. Ever since the early 19th century, European symphony orchestras have been growing in size, growing in respect of the diversity of instrumentation and growing in terms of the technical demands of many composers. But throughout this musical evolution, one consistent element had been that the way in which the music should be played (and even perceived) was not written, but instead was passed down aurally as young maestros listened to composers conducting their own pieces, or else listened to senior conductors perform pieces that they once heard conducted by the composer, or else, conducted under the supervision of the composer. In European classical music, there was once an unbroken line of great maestros who through their musical performance, informed future generations of that which was in the composer’s heart at the time of composition – something that is frankly far more important than an immobile set of notes on a page.

In this sense, there is far more to European classical music than that which is written on the page. If anything, the musical notation is a necessary evil used to give a specific template to conductors and instrumentalists, who are then able to bring the music to life based on a combination of innate cultural intuition and memories of hearing how older generations passed on the tradition of great European composers like Beethoven from his own generation, to the generation of Richard Wagner, to the generation of Arthur Nikisch and finally to the generation of Wilhelm Furtwängler.

From Beethoven to Furtwängler, there stands an unbroken line of great European conducting that passed down traditions from generation to generation, in the same way that the poetry of Homer was passed down through centuries of Hellenic societies.

With the advent of recorded sound, one can see quite clearly just how terribly incomplete a literal reading of a Beethoven musical score is. To understand Beethoven and other great European composers as they were meant to be played, it is instructive to listen to the recordings of the great European composers as performed by maestro Wilhelm Furtwängler. The end product of a Furtwängler performance is far more emotionally satisfying and metaphysically enlightening than are performances of Beethoven that seek to take a literal and emotionless reading of the score. Beyond this, Beethoven’s own correspondence with his acquaintances and the writings of those who followed Beethoven’s conducting in his own lifetime, indicate that Beethoven indeed conducted in a style related to that of Furtwängler, as opposed to one related to the musical literalists of more recent decades. And yet, the European civil war against its own greatest traditions is not entirely new.

For well over a century, those seeking to preserve an aurally transmitted tradition in European classical music, fought philosophical battles against musical literalists. First it was Wagner who attacked the rigidity of Felix Mendelssohn’s school of performance and later it was Furtwängler as well as the modernist composer Schönberg who attacked the rigid emotionless of the Italian conductor Arturo Toscanini and his ilk.

One listen to the recording of the same piece as performed by Furtwängler versus Toscanini and it becomes immediately apparent that whilst Furtwängler was conducting the music that had been passed down to him after decades of European musical tradition, Toscanini may well have been a robot simply converting the notes on the page into sound.

Sadly, the second half of the 20th century saw the eventual end of the unbroken tradition in late modern European classical music that began in earnest with Beethoven and ended not long after the death of Furtwängler in 1954. There have been many theories as to why the great tradition of European classical music performance began dying after the mid 20th century. Thus far, the most satisfactory answer is that after the horrors of the Second World War, Europe lost confidence in itself and while the music on the written page survived the war, the tradition of high classical and romantic European music did not – it progressively died with the generation that came of age during the War.

Since the mid 20th century, successive generations of European conductors and instrumentalists tended to merely go through the motions, – they were merely using orchestras to recite musical “words” on the page but they did little to actually create the holistic experience that is music – something which cannot be taught by simply learning the notes, but something which instead was once taught in the same way that a mother learns from her mother, how to raise a child.

And thus one must turn to China. Whilst Europe’s economy stagnates and whilst Europe’s culture has been destroyed by successive generations of philistines, China has gone in the opposite direction. After rule by incompetent leaders who allowed their country to be exploited and destroyed by foreign infiltrators beginning in the 19th century, the establishment of the People’s Republic of China has dramatically reversed this trend. Beginning in 1949, China once again picked up where it left off as a supremely innovative, educated, ethical, harmonious and forward looking society. This has only accelerated since the Reform and Opening Up of Deng Xiaoping.

Whilst China has its own artistic and musical traditions which continue to thrive, Chinese audiences are also increasingly interested in European classical music (as are many throughout the world). However, Chinese should be aware that European classical music as performed in Europe today, is not really European classical music at all! It is merely an inaccurate facsimile of a grand tradition that once was.

Thankfully for both Europeans nostalgic for their own music and for those in the wider world, recordings (in varying quality) of Furtwängler exist which can help serve as a guide to future generations in respect of helping to demonstrate what the music of Beethoven, Wagner, Brahms, Bruckner, Strauss and even Mozart and Bach should sound like. This is why, when it comes to learning to play or to enjoy European classical music, the best thing for Chinese audiences and musicians to do, is to listen to the recordings of Furtwängler in order to receive the kind of education about European classical music that Furtwängler received from Nikisch.

Today’s recording technology has surpassed that of Furtwängler’s time and this presents talented Chinese musicians with the history making opportunity to combine their own cultural confidence and healthy curiosity about other world cultures, in the pursuit of learning to properly perform the European classical music that today, very few living Europeans know how to correctly perform.

The end product could be recordings made on modern equipment, that carry on the tradition of Furtwängler and his artistic forebearers. I personally have little faith in Europeans rising to the challenge of their own largely lost culture. But inversely, I have utter confidence that if Chinese musicians have the will to carrying on the European classical tradition, they can not only do so with supreme success, but they can reinvigorate the spirit of European classical music, whilst combining it with unique Chinese cultural characteristics.

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