In the mass-media era, the general public primarily experiences classical music through detached snippets of larger pieces extracted to lend their symbolic power to a commercial agenda. Artists and advertisers dissect classical works into short melodies — quotable passages severed from their original context — assembling a menu of musical leitmotifs to bolster their message with a desired tone, mood, or association. Like artificial flavoring for the ear, these symphonic excerpts infuse scenes with the synthetic emotion of choice. Need a touch of European elegance? Mozart will make that minivan commercial suddenly suave. Concerned a slow sequence leaves your audience snoozing? Wake them up with the “William Tell Overture” for instant adrenaline. Does your pancake promo lack punch? Reroute Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” from Valhalla to the International House of Pancakes.
The artistic consequences of such practices are devastating. Conscripting Wagner’s Valkyries as pancake saleswomen necessarily lowers their impact at the opera house. Some pieces are quoted so often that their secondary associations overtake and cheapen the original music. Carmina Burana exists as a permanent musical cliché. Orff’s “O Fortuna” evokes only kitsch; under which circumstances can a listener now have an authentic encounter with that choral-chanting calamity?
Such a sound-bite culture negates the definitive value of classical composition: the extended development of complex musical themes. Extended musical forms allow the listener to appreciate the subtle interplay of motif and movement — and it is exactly this nuanced appreciation that quote-clipping nullifies. There is a two-part mechanism to extract and transplant a tune: detach a 15-second theme from a 45-minute symphony (where it functioned as an integrated part in an organic whole) and attach it to an alien subject. Uproot “O Fortuna” from a Latin cantata, so it can be grafted onto a Domino’s Super Bowl spot. These transplants produce jarring mashups that trigger another insidious side effect: by always quoting works out of the context the public forgets that they have a context. The spectator forgets that “O Fortuna” could be glorious in its original context because it’s absurd hyping Domino’s Pizza. In sum, in the remix media ecosystem, famous compositions degenerate from serious music into decorative sound, applied like wallpaper to lay a poignant surface over banal intentions.
Sometimes I marvel that the Western classical tradition lives on at all. But it does. There are people—I think and hope there will always be people—who feed on that tradition, who look to it for aesthetic nourishment. I have been working for years to be one of those people; I wouldn’t say it has come naturally.
Andy Crouch, in his excellent book, Culture Making, ties the Western classical tradition to the creation blessing/mandate of Genesis 1. I think he is right: the tradition we have been handed is the result of God’s blessing humanity with the impulse to take the raw elements of creation and make them into something refined, something that makes life better for humanity. I love the way he puts it in his sequel book, Playing God:
Thousands of years after Genesis was written, we can see in a way its first readers could never have imagined just how much capacity these human image bearers had to fill the earth—just how much power was ultimately available to them, coiled in the physical elements’ chemical and nuclear bonds, and emerging from the incredible complexity of the human mind and the fecundity of human culture.
The comparatively unrefined musical traditions out there, such as folk music or (dare I say) the musics of other cultures, may certainly have their place. They uncoil certain pleasing elements of God’s creation. But it would be a deeply, deeply impoverished West, a West we wouldn’t recognize, that had never reached the level of refinement seen in what we call “classical” music. Higher doesn’t mean better in some universal sense. It is “better” to play folk music at a folk festival. But it is still “better” for a culture to have a refined, high level of art than for it not to. Because of the creation/cultural blessing/mandate (!). Let us not squander our tradition. Let us, as Crouch urges, conserve it and build upon it.
One more thought: Camille Paglia, that feistiest of writers, has said that it’s not hard to determine the “canon” of Western art: just look at who was the most influential. Surely some quality works were overlooked, and indeed some classical composers such as Vaughan Williams have taken folk melodies and built them into beautiful symphonies. But we should not be on a perpetual quest to find the overlooked pieces of musical or literary or visual art if that quest makes us devalue and ignore the mainstream of the Western tradition, those works that have released the most fruitfulness in others.
The fall is woven throughout all traditions: influence does not equal virtue (Playboy has been influential). But by God’s common grace, cargo-truck loads of beauty are available in the Western tradition, and I’m grateful.