I’ve been reading about classical music again lately. It is one of the forms of music, along with jazz, that I don’t have a real deep understanding of the history of, or that I don’t understand the forms and technical terminology. It is this insanely large and diverse body of work that I didn’t grow up on, which can be intimidating if you try to dive into as an adult. My parents taught me to see it on rare occasion. Sometimes they played it around the house. I also had the typical public school music education, but honestly a lot of that has been lost to the cloudy fog of memory. So I am left to my own devices to navigate something the size of an ocean. The book I’m reading is a really good introduction. It is called Classical Music: The 50 Greatest Composers and Their 1,000 Greatest Works. It is by Phil G. Goulding.
The author begins the book by telling the reader how he came up with the list and is very conscious that this list, or any other, is not perfect. It is simply a means to start a conversation and to initiate the new. What amazed me at the very beginning, and what I never put together on my own, was how many of the titans of Western music were German. The author puts 18 Germans in the top 50 on his list. (The author is American.)
So in learning about classical music a new set of questions arise. What was going on in Germany that allowed for such an wealth of talent? What was going on culturally, economically, and politically that set the stage for a certain art form to thrive? Why in 1960’s America and England did rock and pop music suddenly explode into being, at a level of quality that has not since been equaled?
Art of any kind is not created in a vacuum. Artists have to be able to earn a living so that they can focus and hone their talents. If someone has to work 12 hours a day in a mine they are probably not going to be able to develop the high level of skills that especially something like classical music takes. Whether it is paying for recording time now, or assembling an orchestra in the past, there has to be the means to do so. There also need to be a culture that is at least somewhat receptive to new ideas and talent. Their needs to be some kind of audience, even if it is just the wealthy, that has the skill set to appreciate and demand more of art. That’s not saying that there won’t always be some kind of brilliant art in any society, but for it to be widespread there must be an audience that is receptive and appreciative of what is going on for it to thrive.
Also, although political turmoil can often inspire great works of art, too much political turmoil can also crush art in its cradle. Mikhail Bulgakov is an interesting study. He was a novelist and playwright in Russia who wrote the classic The Master and Margarita among others. That book is considered a masterpiece and it was inspired partially by what was going on in Stalinist Russia. On one hand he might never have created his masterpiece if he did not find inspiration in the political events of the day, which were extremely oppressive. However, many of his works were banned. Would he have possibly written more in an open society? That is something we will never know. However, he was spared when many others were not because he was liked by Stalin. How many other writers work was destroyed, or how many writers were themselves destroyed, before their work ever came to be? Even in Stalinist Russia there was still the basics of a functioning society, however repressive. What if there was a war so brutal in a country that it descended backwards to where everyone was living in a primitive tribal society, and if so how much art would be created then?
Again, these are all questions I don’t have answers for, but I think they are worth thinking about, especially in relation to modern life. Why is it that television is producing so many great shows that have some degree of mass appeal, while the most popular recording stars are often completely vapid? Questions, questions, questions…