Prior to the age of recorded sound, there was a generally unspoken though occasionally referenced division between folk music and art music. The primary distinctions were that whilst art music was written, performed and composed by professionals (or semi-professionals), was theoretically rigorous and owed much of its origins to sacramental music across several Christian denominations, folk music by contrast was generally unwritten, performed by amateurs, was not particularly technically demanding and did not necessarily have any relationship to major social institutions like churches.
Whilst these clinical definitions are historically accurate, they only begin to reveal part of the broader picture. As art music gradually exited the church, went into the drawing room, stately home and ultimately wound up in the large publicly accessible concert hall, such music became popular among the masses.
To say that the music of Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Liszt, Wagner, Brahms, Bruckner and Strauss was the sole pejorative of social elites in the 19th and early 20th centuries would be a blatant lie. In fact, from the age of Beethoven up to the 1950s, the concert halls and opera houses of Europe (and later in Russia and the Americas) were places of entertainment that was thoroughly (and often uproariously) enjoyed by anyone who could afford a ticket. As time went on and as concert halls and opera houses got bigger, men and women of multiple social classes frequented concert halls and opera houses on an ever more regular basis.
Today, European concert halls and opera houses are bigger than ever and thanks to both government subsidies and private donations, ticket prices are often vastly more affordable than other forms of entertainment. Yet in spite of this, the ordinary people who once filled European concert halls and those beyond are entertaining themselves outside of the world of “art music” which today is almost always referred to as classical music or more specially as European classical music.
If social mobility has increased since the early 20th century and if ticket prices have become often more affordable when adjusted for inflation, why is it that “art music” has been abandoned? The answer lies in the fact that the art itself has changed and began changing many decades ago.
In the 19th and early 20th century, the performance of European classic music was overtly emotionally accessible. Maestros understood that frequent shifts in tempo (rubato) helped to convey the emotional essence of a piece of orchestral music in the way that a march like metronomic tempo could never do. Other performance devices including the slight though often profound modification of scores (the notes on the page) to suit a particular emotional desire on the part of the maestro, the frequent use of emotionally evocative string portamento, varied rather than constant vibrato in the strings and a generally more spontaneous performance atmosphere meant that ordinary people who may have been totally musically illiterate could enjoy this “art music” in the same way in which pop music continues to be enjoyed in the 21st century.
Things tended to degenerate when the Second World War both physically and psychologically cut off a generation of European classical composers, performers and critics from a tradition that had hitherto been almost completely unbroken. Whilst the naturally exciting way a piece of music ought to be performed was once aurally passed down from generation to generation, the Second World War not only lead to the physical demise of many of the best musicians but it additionally led to their physical displacement and political blacklisting. Moreover, even among those who survived without displacement or long term blacklisting, those of a younger generation who felt the horrors of the War most directly became ever more lacking in confidence when it came to apprehending past traditions.
This self-defeating manner of thinking posited that if the recent past was a horror of all horrors that no one wanted to relive, perhaps it would be better to unilaterally forget one’s entire history and begin the artificial creation of cultural life anew.
The result of forgetting and forsaking aurally derived historical traditions throughout European classical music and the specific trend of forgoing localised and national traditions in favour of a modern globalised sound eventually led to increasingly sterile performances of music that had little connection to the excitement that the same pieces of music once offered audiences in previous generations where such pieces were performed with the excitement of what some called the “old style” but which ought to be called the culturally consistent and correct style.
Gone was tempo rubato, string portamento, varied vibrato, unique national and local traditions and a sense of spontaneity. These essential elements of European classic music were replaced with an incredibly non-European sense of pulsating and unvarying rhythm, a bland and emotionless tonal texture and a shift from an historically consistent approach to music towards one that became ever more academic and clinical.
At the same time, composition in European classical music became ever more aloof from human emotions and become an ever more inhuman thrashing of random sounds that could only be decoded by someone who could scholastically understand what was going on, even if such a person could not at all relate to the noises being heard at an emotional level.
This decline in the emotional quality of European classical music necessarily opened up further opportunities for other styles of music to take the social place once occupied by the larger than life classical performances of the 19th and early 20th centuries.
At the same time, the advent of recorded sound along with its increasingly high technical quality saw folk music begin transforming itself from a set of disparate local traditions shared among amateurs to a more national and ultimately trans-national and professional style of music that ultimately ended up becoming big business.
To be sure, the music once described as western “beat music” and later defined as pop music began its life as a simplistic musical style that was all too often married to even less compelling lyrics. In this sense, in spite of its modern and typically electrified instrumentation, it was nothing more and nothing less than the folk music of its day – albeit played by professionals and adapted to trans-continental tastes.
Then however, things began to change. By the late 1960s, it was all too clear that the new generation of European classical performers and composers were never going to be able to fill the shoes of their predecessors and yet a desire for the familiar classical traditions of the very recent past continued to influence a generation of pop musicians who were becoming more musically adventurous.
The so called “art rock” or “progressive rock” movement of the late 60s and 1970s saw erstwhile pop musicians take on many of the characteristics of a previous generation of classical musicians. Music that owed much to both the secular classical and liturgical musical traditions of Europe started to infiltrate the pop charts complete with often elaborate melodies, ornate rhythmic devices and flexible performance. Gone were the simplistic and often vulgar lyrics of early “beat music” and in their place were either fully instrumental pieces, partly instrumental pieces or songs with lyrics whose nature was as profound and sometimes even more profound than many a popular operatic aria.
Even among musicians not labelled “art rock” or “progressive rock”, this ‘classical connection’ to the pop charts continued until the late 70s and in some rare cases into the early 80s. Of course, by the mid 1980s, this era had come to a close. It was as though a less and less confident set of European cultures simply could not tolerate expressiveness in music of any kind any longer. Sure enough, the advent of samplers, sequencers and drum machines made the pop music of the 1980s even more bland than the classical performance of the late 20th century.
There are many conclusions that can be drawn from this very sad tale of the decline and fall of western music. Perhaps what is most instructive for cultural conservatives is the fact that the vulgarities of pop music were not an end in themselves but instead were a hopeless reaction to the dearth of emotionally convincing classical performances by the middle of the 20th century.
And yet, for around 15 years, pop music’s more artistic corners did provide some of the same emotional vigour that many still craved but could no longer find in classical music. That tradition too however has become extinct.
Pop music’s brief flirtation with emotional expressiveness is a helpful reminder that long before the most vulgar pop music that earns disdain from cultural conservatives was ever created, European classical music had already succumbed to a suicidal tendency that prior to the mid 20th century would have been scarcely fathomable.