How Europe Lost Its Rhythm

There are far too many in western societies who claim that traditional European classical music is “boring”. A related complaint is that European classical music has simplistic and unadventurous rhythmic characteristics. The most unfortunate element regarding these accusations is the fact that if one is forming one’s judgement based on one’s experience with the last fifty or so years of European musical performance, the accusations are all too correct.

There are many reasons that Europe has lost touch with its own greatest cultural traditions but the foremost reason is that sometime in the second half of the 20th century, a new, uninspired and subliminally self-hating generation European maestros became totally detached from the very unique European sense of rhythm that had hitherto defined western orchestral, chamber and solo performance.

Every great cultural tradition of music tends to have a rhythmically interesting/unique component. In Java and Bali the gamelan represents the most rhythmically intricate music in the world where a combination of pitched, semi-pitched and non-pitched percussionists play a variety of musical patterns in both even and odd time signatures in order to create a rhythmic pulse that dances with both purpose and unpredictability (to foreign ears), whilst always retaining a joyous discipline.

Chinese rhythmic excellence dates back to ancient traditions of Chinese ensemble percussion performance in which each drummer acts in a carefully coordinated manner with multiple other percussionists playing all variety of drums and related instruments. Using a combination of non-pitched membranophones and semi-pitched idiophones or sometimes just membranophones, like many Asian rhythmic traditions, the pulse of the music is just as comfortable when in an even or odd metre and often shifts between the two within a heavily syncopated context.

In south Asian classical music whose sounds are at least somewhat familiar to western ears after The Beatles started to champion such traditions, rhythm and melody line are often so intertwined so as to make the two interchangeable and inseparable. This is true in sufi music where a strong melodic/rhythmic unity can be felt even in pieces where percussion instruments are not being played whilst it is likewise true in the Tamil tradition of konnakol where the human voice is literally used in the manner of a highly precise percussion instrument.

In the multiple classical rhythmic traditions of Africa, one theme that tends to predominate is the fact that orate rhythmic structures derive from either semi-improvised or totally improvised musical settings. In such settings, a master drummer interacts with an ensemble (in some cases a very large ensemble) of percussionists. The rhythmic traditions of what is modern Ghana are particularly striking in this respect.

Whilst Bulgaria is on the periphery of Europe in a geographical sense, its folk traditions have very much strayed from the norm in the European context. Bulgarian folk music is virtually all in an odd metre. In spite of the fact that even highly trained modern European musicians often struggle with odd metres, in Bulgarian folk traditions, this is the norm and the results are deeply compelling.

Of course there are many other global classical and folk traditions, but those mentioned are particularly noted for their unique rhythmic qualities that have tended to influence those of nearby civilisations.

Whilst much of the world is familiar with European names including Beethoven, Schumann, Wagner, Brahmas, Bruckner and Strauss, many modern European musicians are totally unaware of the unique rhythmic traditions in which the compositions of these men of genius were once performed.

European classical (including romantic and modern music for the purposes of this discussion) music is highly rhythmic but unlike many traditional forms of music, European classical music’s rhythm is not defined by a pulse (colloquially called a “beat”). The character of European classical music is instead derived from a rhythm that is able to constantly sway – constantly push or pull irrespective of the metre(s) in which the music is composed.

The technique of allowing rhythm to develop in a constant flux and to do so often times without the explicit use of percussion instruments is referred to by the Italian term tempo rubato (often shorted just to ‘rubato’ in many contexts). When European classical music reached its zenith between the late 18th century and early 20th century, the fact that rubato was an integral part of musical performance was taken for granted. Multiple music critics and casual listeners remarked on Beethoven’s own highly effective use of rubato when conducting his symphonic compositions in the early 19th century. In comparatively more recent times, the great conductors of the late 19th and early 20th century displayed a supreme command of rubato as is evidenced by recordings from the primitive wax cylinder recordings of the turn of the century all the way into the age of modern magnetic tape recording which first appeared in Germany in the 1930s.

Of the great orchestral maestros of European classical music, some were more inclined towards heavy rubato whilst others were more cautious in their use of tempo fluctuations. But the fact of the matter is that even those known as “anti-rubato” maestros in their day (Felix Weingartner for example) are best described as those employing light rubato rather than no rubato at all.

By contrast, the maestros renowned for their heavy use of vibrato include some of the greatest orchestral maestros of all time. Wilhelm Furtwängler who is often (and rightly) considered the finest ever orchestral conductor was laureled throughout the world for his organically inspired and emotionally inspiring use of rubato. The same is true of Willem Mengelberg, Hermann Abendroth, Richard Strauss (when conducting his own pieces or the compositions of others), Hans Knappertsbursch and to a more subtle extent Karl Böhm. In the Russian orchestral tradition which is distinct from yet related to that of continental Europe, the greatest of all Russian maestros Nikolai Golovanov is known for his very heavy use of rubato. The great Russian maestro Alexander Gauk was also noted for his flowing and intense performances in this respect.

The great performances of European classical music from the first half of the 20th century hearken back to a 19th century tradition in which the passage of performance technique from one generation to another was both written and aural. Many modern western musicians mistake the notes on a score as the zero-sum total of a piece of music. In reality, great men like Furtwängler realised that the notation is just one element of the music. The other parts consist of knowing how the music is supposed to sound based on one generation of conductor passing on this artistic knowledge to the next generations. If the opposite were true, music would be read silently like a non-fiction book of science rather than performed aloud like a Shakespearean play.

Within this aural passage of musical information from one generation to the next, a high amount of individuality is also present, but this is true in respect of any artistic tradition that is either wholly or partly passed down in an aural or oral manner.

It is utterly surreal that in the 21st century both those who are unconsciously ashamed of Europe’s great cultural traditions as well as racialist theorists each claim that the written score is the zero-sum total of the music itself. This trend is popular among modern Europeans who seek to reduce their great artistic heritage to fifth rate mathematics as well as among racialist obscurantists who crudely link aural (as opposed to written) musical traditions to the non-European societies that they deem to be inferior.

The reality is that unless a piece was very new, most great maestros and their ensembles were more than capable of playing a great piece of music (irrespective of length) without having to rely on the written notation. As orchestras continued to grow in their size and tonal variety however, sheets of music remained a reliable safety net so that strict memorisation did not get in the way of following the maestro’s guidance which shaped the rhythm (in terms of tempo rubato), dynamics, balance and intonation.

When European classical music is performed correctly, its pushing, pulling, swaying rhythms which sometimes touch a pulse and sometimes only dance around a pulse is among the most exciting styles of music in the history of the world. And yet today, the typical way that European classical music is performed is around an unforgiving pulse worthy of what Schönberg called primitive dance music.

Here, it is notable to recall that whilst Schönberg’s dissonant and atonal style of music jarred with the harmonic and melodic traditions of European classical music, when it came to performance, Schönberg was just as much a champion of rubato as was Wagner or Furtwängler. Oddly, it was Stravinsky, a creature who was always a better businessman than musician who found it frustrating that the masterful conductors of his early decades in professional music refused to perform his compositions without the use of rubato. Stravinsky himself was among the first to openly call into question the great European tradition of rhythmic flexibility. Perhaps this is because Stravinsky was himself a cultural and musical mongrel who was ashamed of each of his cultural environments rather than harmoniously submissive to their influence?

Beginning midway through the 20th century, an acculturating tide swept like a sea monster onto the hitherto culturally rich shores of Europe. The new fashion sought to replace uniqueness in various European traditions of music, architecture, painting, sculpture and poetry with a bland pseudo-internationalist cosmopolitan style that was thoroughly incapable of exciting, delighting or inspiring the human soul.

Whilst western popular music became ever more musically and emotionally sophisticated in the 1960s, the classical traditions of the western world began dying a slow death at around the same time. This perhaps is why the youth of the middle of the 20th century gradually abandoned classical music for the pop world. Since the classical world however was abandoning its own traditions at this same time, one cannot fault the young for making the choice that they did. Twenty years into the 21st century and audiences have all but deserted the concert halls of the western world.

This however is not the fault of a population that has willed itself into philistinism. Instead, it is the symptom of a calculated process of turning a once deeply human and heavily improvisational style of European classical music into a vague and bland morass of nothingness. How sad it is that at a time when recording technology is more precise than ever before (DSD technology for example), the monotonous “music” coming out of 21st century concert halls could just as well be captured on the primitive wax cylinders of the late 19th century as this technology was well suited for the bland and meaningless cacophony of noise emanating from today’s stages.

Just as the European Union has stifled the unique national cultures that once made Europe interesting to fellow Europeans and to the the wider world, European music has followed a similar path as European politics. If only there was a way to “Brexit” out of this shameful trend and return to the proper state of European musical performance whose memory only lives on in the recordings of yesteryear…

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