The Canadian Red Ensign

The Canadian Red Ensign

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Bach to Beethoven: Music and Culture, the High and the Low

The creative aspect of human nature, which according to Dorothy Sayers is the very essence of the image of God in man, expresses itself in art. While the word art immediately brings to mind physical works, like painting and sculpture, that we experience through the sense of sight there is an art that is at least as old as either of these which is audible rather than visual. That art is the art of music.

What is music?

Music is created by the deliberate arrangement of sounds, whether produced by instruments, voices, or a combination of both. That is not a definition of what music is but a description of how it is made. It is easier to describe how music is created than to define what it is. For to say “music is the deliberate arrangement of sounds” would not be correct. That definition would also apply to speech which is not ordinarily considered to be a form of music. It does not help to define speech as “the deliberate arrangement of sounds produced by the human voice” because singing is an element of music produced by the human voice and some forms of music consist of unaccompanied singing.

Can we distinguish music from other forms of arranged sound such as speech by its function?

If we understand “function” in its utilitarian sense this would be very difficult to do because music is composed for a multitude of different uses, perhaps more so than any other art. Some music is written for use in worship to glorify God. The purpose of some music is to relieve the monotony of drudge labour. Other music is written to pass down a people’s history, legends, and myths in a way that is easy to remember. Some music is written to be listened to by an audience in a concert hall. Other music is written to be danced to.

If we think of function in terms of ultimate purpose, apart from the question of use, then music, as a form of art, has the same ultimate purpose of other arts, the creation of beauty. A painter arranges colours and shades on his canvas in such a way that whether he is depicting a person or place or telling a story in picture, the resulting work is beautiful to the eye. Likewise, a musical composer, seeks to arrange sounds in a way that is beautiful to the ear.

This still does not distinguish music from all forms of speech. For beauty can be created through the arrangement of words too. This is the goal of the literary arts and especially of poetry. Perhaps it is impossible to define music and poetry separately however. They have been closely associated with each other since the days of Ancient Greece, they share common elements such as rhythm and metre which are often spoken of as “the music” of poetry, and what are lyrics, after all, other than a form of poetry?

The overlapping relationship between poetry and music suggests that music, like speech, is a means of communication, a language. Since music affects our emotions, our feelings, it is possible that the best way to define music is to say that like speech, it is a form of communication through arrangements of sound, but whereas speech is primarily directed towards human reason, music is directed towards our emotions, our feelings. A possible challenge to the accuracy of this definition may exist in the fact that some forms of music are written to inspire reflection and contemplation, both of which are actions of the rational mind. The kind of reflection that good serious music inspires, however, is not the same sort of reflection that a well-written treatise inspires. The latter speaks directly to our reason, offering us proofs of what it asserts, and inviting us to pass judgement on whether or not its thesis is sound. Contemplative music speaks to our reason indirectly. It first inspires an emotional response and then invites us to contemplate that response, its immediate source in the music itself, and its ultimate source in the meaning conveyed through the medium of the music.

Music, like other art, is an important component of culture. Culture is the shared way of life of a community, society or people group. It unites the members of these social groups, giving them a sense of a shared identity. It binds more than just the current members of a society, however. When it is passed on from generation, to generation, we call it tradition, and it serves to unite the past and future generations of a society with the present generation. It is through the passing on of culture in tradition that a society’s greatest achievement, its civilization, is transmitted.

Social cohesion within a community is usually not the first thing we think of when we think of music. We recognize that various forms of ethnic and folk music are musical expressions of the culture of particular people groups but we seldom think of the larger categories of music which are more widely listened to in these terms.

If anything we think of such music as having the opposite effect. Musical tastes divide families, communities, and societies. In any given large community in the Western world, you are likely to find fans of country, jazz, rock and pop music as well as classical music aficionados, and some poor misguided souls who think that the cacophonous noise that is called rap is a form of music. Musical tastes frequently divide members of the most basic social unit, the family – rock music in particular has an infamous reputation for creating a generation gap within families. Where music does create social unity nowadays is among the cult followings of various bands and musical icons.

Perhaps ironically, in all of this Western music does continue to express something significant about Western culture, societies, and civilization. What it expresses is how completely liberalism – the idea that the individual is more important than the family, community, or society – has triumphed in Western countries. It also shows how easy it is, in a society atomized by liberalism, for charismatic figures to form large cult followings out of the masses of alienated individuals.

Culture exists in many layers. Local culture gives identity to local communities and when several of these comprise a larger society their local cultures share elements which make up the larger culture of the society as a whole. Depending upon the size of the society there might also be a regional level that is intermediate between the local and the societal. There is also a level of culture that transcends the particular society. We call Canada, Great Britain, the United States, the countries of Europe, and a few other societies “Western” because these societies all share in what we call “Western civilization” – the tradition of achievement which began in the Graeco-Roman civilization of classical antiquity and came down to us through medieval Christendom. There is therefore a sense in which we can speak of a “Western” culture which all these societies share in.

There is another sense in which we can describe culture as being multi-layered. Matthew Arnold, the insightful 19th Century inside critic of liberalism, in his Culture and Anarchy, wrote that culture is “a pursuit of our total perfection by means of getting to know, on all the matters which most concern us, the best which has been thought and said in the world”. Clearly this is not a description of a society’s culture as a whole. What Arnold is talking about is what is usually described as “high culture”. High culture is a level of culture that exists within the culture of societies which have achieved a high degree of civilization. High culture contains high moral and aesthetic standards and has an elevating effect upon its society and that society’s broader culture.

Or at least that is what traditional high culture is like. That which has been produced under the label “high culture” over the last century has progressively moved further and further away from the description. The reasons for this we shall shortly explore. First let us consider the nature of the musical element of high culture.

The label we most commonly attach to Western high culture music is “classical music”. What do we mean by the term “classical”? There are many whose first thought upon hearing the word “classical” is “old”. This could be because this is how the term tends to be used with regards to other forms of music. “Classic rock” and “classic country” are both virtually synonymous with “oldies” in either category of music. It could also be because most of the really big names among classical music composers lived or were at least born before the 20th Century. The word “classical”, however, does not properly mean “old” at all. It refers to outstanding quality and if it has any necessary temporal connotation it is of “timelessness” not “age”.

The term “classical” points to one of the most important elements of traditional Western high culture. Classicism in the arts is a striving for excellence that emphasizes form, structure, and order in accordance with high standards derived to some degree from Graeco-Roman civilization, especially the culture and philosophy of 5th-4th Century B.C. Athens. Among the traits regarded as characteristics of excellence in classicism are unity, simplicity, balance, harmony and restraint.

Not all “classical music” is classical in this technical sense of the term. Classicism has been influential at various points in the history of Western art music, but most notably in the style that developed in a particular period in the 18th Century. This period – the Classical Period proper – extended roughly from the time of Johann Sebatian Bach in the early 18th Century to that of Ludwig von Beethoven in the early 19th Century. Bach was the greatest composer of the Baroque period which immediately preceded the Classical Period. Beethoven embodied the transition between the Classical and the Romantic of the 19th Century. The period between Bach and Beethoven saw the careers of the two geniuses who with Beethoven were the first Viennese School of music – Joseph Haydn and Wolfgang A. Mozart.

Western art music contains a lot more music than what was composed in this era. The plainsong tradition in Christian liturgy extends well back into the first millennium of the Church and polyphonic liturgical music was composed in the late Middle Ages. J. S. Bach composed at the end of the Baroque period which also produced such giants as Antonio Vivaldi and George F. Handel and saw the birth of opera. The Romantic period in the 19th Century saw the work of Johannes Brahms, Frederic Chopin, and Franz Shubert to name just three. In addition most of the great opera composers – Wagner, Rossini, Bizet, Gounod, Verdi, etc. – composed in the 19th Century and in the case of Puccini in the early 20th. Why then do we refer to all Western art music as classical?

Since the real answer probably has something to do with the decline of precision in the English language I am going to give a plausible sounding ex-post facto justification of the usage. The music of Bach, Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven exemplifies everything that art music aspires to be. Earlier forms of music such as the concerto reached near perfection at the pen of these masters as did the new form, the symphony, which they introduced. Their music is unmistakably beautiful, both inspired and inspirational, and is enduring and timeless. It therefore lends its name to art music as a whole.

If the music composed in this era is all that art music should be what about the “classical music” composed today?

It, alas, is all that it should not be. The same downward progression can be seen in Western art music as can be seen in Western art in general. 19th Century Romanticism gives birth to the more rebellious Impressionism which is succeeded by a series of avant garde movements in the Modern Period in the early 20th Century and then collapses into the nihilism of Postmodernism after World War II. What Pablo Picasso, Henry Matisse, Gustav Klimt, and Marcel Duchamp were to the visual arts in the early 20th Century, Arthur Schoenburg, Alban Berg and Anton Webern were to art music. Jackson Pollock has his musical counterpart in John Cage.

What is the cause of this decline?

It depends upon whether we are looking for a cause within the culture or within the societies to which the culture belongs.

Within the culture the explanation is that romanticism was taken to its extreme and then beyond. Romanticism is a rebellion or reaction against the order imposed by classicism in the name of individual expression. It can be progressive – looking towards the future, or reactionary – looking towards the past, but either way it resists the structure and forms of classicism and places its emphasis upon the inner light guiding the individual artist.

Classicism and romanticism need each other. The structure, forms, and order of classicism and the internal inspiration of romanticism balance each other out. Inspiration and genius can result in timeless masterpieces of beauty as in the case of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. Adherence to form, when inspiration is lacking, merely produces the formulaic, whereas resistance to structure and order, if taken so far as to actually overthrow the structure and order, results in chaos.

Which is exactly what happened. The rebellion of early Romanticism evolved into outright revolution, order collapsed, and chaos ensued.

What about the societal cause of this collapse? Culture reflects the moral and spiritual condition of the society and civilization to which it is attached. What changes in Western societies and civilization are reflected in the downward death spiral of Western high culture?

The weakening of the position of the Christian Church is one of the changes which is clearly reflected here. The building of cathedrals and churches in architecture, the painting of altarpieces and other religious art to decorate these buildings, and the composition of settings of the Mass and other sacred music, are historically and traditionally the heart of Western high culture. The secularization of Western societies has cut at that heart severely.

The triumph of Whiggery – liberalism and democracy – is also reflected in the decline of high culture. In many Western countries royalty and aristocracy have been eliminated altogether. In the United Kingdom both survive in seriously weakened form. Here in Canada the monarchy has survived as a weakened institution but it would be very bad joke to apply the term “aristocracy” to our Senate. Our constitutions have become dangerously unbalanced in favour of the principle of democracy.

Other than the Church, Western royalty and aristocracy were the most important patrons of high culture. It is the nature of high culture that it is produced by a symbiotic relationship between a civilization’s social/political elites and its artistic elites. It is the nature of human societies that they will always be led by elites. The nature of the elites, however, depends upon the constitution of the society. In the Modern era democracy became the dominant principle in Western constitutions. As a result, the social/political leadership in Western societies has passed from royalty and aristocracy, even in societies that retain them, to new elites of politicians and bureaucrats. Economic leadership has passed from aristocracy-emulating bourgeois businessmen to corporate managers. The spiritual leadership has passed from the clergy of the Christian Church to intellectuals. The artistic leadership has passed from skilled craftsmen, apprenticed in their art from their early youth, working within established traditions, to nihilistic, navel-gazing, narcissists.

The current state of high culture is exactly what one would predict would be the result of a wholesale transfer of leadership from people with good taste to the kind of people noted for their bad taste – or utter tastelessness. Crucifixes in jars of urine, canned feces, and cadavers on display make one wish for the days when Picasso, Matisse, and Dali were making art look bad, while the kind of contemporary classical music one finds on government-sponsored radio stations makes Schoenburg’s atonal compositions sound harmonic.

Such art and music is “high culture” in name only. It does not and cannot do what high culture is supposed to do – elevate the general culture of the society which produces it.

If we say that it is high culture’s purpose to elevate a society, its culture, and its civilization what do we mean by “elevate”?

Human beings and beasts together comprise the category of living beings called animals, from the Latin word animus denoting breath or spirit. Human beings share many characteristics with other animals. We eat, we drink, we breathe, we sleep, we copulate, etc. We also have traits which set us apart from other animals and enable us to live on a higher plane than other animals. Yes, we can abuse those traits and in so doing arguably place ourselves at a level lower than the other animals. When used properly, however, they can create civilization.

Human culture involves all human activities, those we share with the beasts, and those which belong to us alone. Culture includes rules which dictate that some of the activities we share with the beasts be done completely in private and only discussed in public if absolutely necessary, other of the activities we share with the beasts are also to be done in private but can be discussed in public in a polite manner, whereas other activities we share with the beasts – such as eating and drinking - can be done in public, even communally, provided we follow customs which minimize our resemblance to our bestial cousins. These rules are called manners or etiquette and they differ from culture to culture.

High culture elevates a society’s culture, by drawing its attention upwards, away from the aspects of our existence which are merely animal, and focusing it on higher values. It is our attempt to live according to these values which produces the human achievement we call civilization.

Music, as mentioned earlier, is a kind of language which speaks to the emotions. It moves our passions within us. Beethoven’s choral setting of Schiller’s “Ode to Joy” in the final movement of his 9th Symphony, for example, inspires within us the feeling to which it alludes. Music can communicate feelings of happiness and of sadness – and of lust, rage, and a host of other kinds as well.

Which is why music can be degrading as well as elevating. This brings us to the topic of “low culture”. There are two very different meanings to the expression “low culture”. One is non-pejorative. In this sense “low culture” is simply the necessary complement of “high culture”. Within the culture of a civilization, high culture is deliberately produced to maintain a high level of civilization, and is oriented towards higher values which transcend the boundaries of the society. Low culture is the rest of the civilization’s culture and tends to be oriented towards expressing the particular identity of the society to which it belongs rather than towards universal higher values. Each draws from the other and complements the other. Such flow, T. S. Eliot has pointed out, must exist for if they are isolated from each other they become separate cultures rather than parts of a single culture.

The other sense of “low culture” refers to culture which has the opposite effect to that which high culture is supposed to have – rather than elevating it degrades. Both kinds of “low culture” are more commonly referred to as “popular culture”. The abbreviated version of this label, “pop culture” refers only to the degrading kind. The musical element of popular culture is called “popular music” and here too “popular music” does service for both non-classical Western music in general and degrading music in particular.

Whereas classical music involves many forms – fugue, sonata, concerto, symphony, opera, to name just a few – composed in styles that tend to coincide with long historical periods, popular music generally is limited to a single form – the song – composed in a multitude of genres such as folk, country and western, jazz, rhythm and blues, blues, rock and so forth. This is true of popular music in both senses of the term. The overwhelming predominance of the song form, however, can be regarded as a step towards the music of degradation. Songs are easier to follow than instrumental pieces and are usually considerably shorter. Mozart’s Horn Concerto No. 1 – the shortest of his four horn concertos being only two movements long rather than three, runs slightly over 10 minutes in length. There are a handful of popular songs that are of comparable length – folk rock singer Don McLean’s ballad “American Pie” was just under 9 minutes long – and these tend to be among the most enduring of popular songs, but most are well under the length of the average concerto movement, to say nothing of the average symphony movement. Popular songs are well suited for the age of fast food and junk food , TV channel surfing, and interac transactions.

It is the second meaning of “popular music” that we will focus on. What do we mean by degradation? How can music be degrading?

Degradation is the opposite of elevation. We defined the elevation which is the purpose of high culture as lifting human existence as far above the level of the beast as possible and orienting it towards higher truths and values to be reflected in the accomplishments of civilization. The opposite of that would be to attempt to reduce human existence to as close to the level of the beasts as possible. There are at least two other ways in which music can be degrading. It can be morally degrading – which is very close to the previous meaning of degrading. It can also be aesthetically degrading which refers to a drop in artistic quality.

The well-being of a community or society and of its members requires rules which forbid behavior in which a person pursues his personal interests in such a way or to such an extent that other members or even the community itself are harmed. Such rules require the individual person to limit and control his desires and passions. The connection between the two – rules governing society and people governing their own passions – and between the both and civilization is foundational to morality. Plato discussed this at length in his dialogue The Republic.

That which encourages people to unleash their passions and to rebel against legitimate authority is morally degrading. This is pretty much the defining characteristic of rock music.

Rock music began as “rock ‘n’ roll” shortly after the end of World War II. The original rock ‘n’ roll groups combined elements of country music and rhythm and blues to create catchy, songs that were fun to listen and dance to. Teenagers were the target audience and the lyrics of these songs typically expressed an adolescent perspective on topics of interest to teenagers. Some fundamentalist preachers denounced rock ‘n’ roll from the pulpit but their warnings were largely ignored because the rock of that era was relatively innocent and was, above all other things, fun. The preachers succeeded only in convincing most people that they were a bunch of wet blankets preaching the message that it is wrong to have fun.

This was the first step in the moral degradation of rock music. The relatively – but not completely – innocent and fun rock ‘n’ roll immunized all subsequent rock music from the criticism the first generation faced. “It’s just kids having fun. What’s wrong with that?” became the standard reply to all criticism of rock music. Implicit within that response is the intellectually indefensible assertion that “what is fun must therefore also be innocent”.

The subsequent development of rock music has shown the fundamentalist critics of the earliest rock stars to have been speaking with the prophetic voice of Cassandra. In the 1960’s the mask of innocence was dropped. Rock became the music of the sexual revolution, telling young people to follow wherever their urges led them rather than to control their urges and behave responsibly and well. While some might argue that the increasing corruption of the political establishment lent a degree of credibility and merit to rock’s message of rebellion that message was directed as much against parents, teachers, the Church and its clergy, policemen and indeed all legitimate authorities at all levels of society. Rock eventually developed into countless numbers of subgenres, some of which were relatively benign, while others promoted drug abuse and other self-destructive behavior, and preached evil messages like nihilism and even Satan worship. At one time there were rumors going around about “backwards masking” – that rock musicians would hide objectionable material in their songs which could only be heard by playing them backwards. One wonders why they would bother since the lyrics played straight forwards are bad enough.

A similar downward trend over the same period in time can be seen in pop music. “Pop music” is not, as one might think, just a shorthand way of saying “popular music”. It is a genre of its own – although perhaps it should be called the anti-genre because of its tendency to absorb and assimilate other genres of popular music. To borrow an image from another element of pop culture it is the Borg of popular music. Pop music is similar to rock – they are generally categorized together in record stores – and it is difficult to say where the line between the two should be drawn. Perhaps the best way of describing pop music is to say that it is assembly line rock music. It is music manufactured for sale to the general public like any factory produced product.

This makes pop music a better gauge of the decay of morality than rock music since it is supposed to reflect the mainstream of popular culture. Fifty years ago, a pop star would have been a cleaner, slightly more polished, version of a rock star. If we look at the pop music of the last two decades, however, two trends have come increasingly to stand out among the leading acts – a) the prostitute and b) the effeminate pretty boy. Both trends are examples of moral degradation.

That the first trend is morally degrading should be fairly obvious. Progressively younger female pop stars performing to progressively younger audiences, dress increasingly provocatively and sing increasingly sexually charged lyrics in performances that would seem to be more appropriate for a burlesque stage or a strip club.

What about the second trend? Male pop stars are being made to look and sound more and more like girls every day. Yes, “made” is the right word, because the performers of pop music are as factory assembled as the music they sing. For they are as much the product as their music. Probably even more so.

Roger Scruton, in an insightful article about youth culture for City Journal 13 years ago, commented about how in pop music the traditional relationship between music and those who perform it has been inverted:

In effect, we witness a reversal of the old order of performance. Instead of the performer being the means to present the music, which exists independently in the tradition of song, the music has become the means to present the performer. The music is part of the process whereby a human individual or group is totemized. (Roger Scruton, “Youth Culture’s Lament”, City Journal, Autumn 1998)

This is why one cannot defend the pretty boy trend in pop music by pointing to the historical use of castrati in traditional music. However barbaric the custom may have been, castrati were made to serve the needs of the music rather than to be idols for worship.

For thousands of years societies have regarded manliness as a praiseworthy trait to be encouraged among males. The Greek word for courage – the first virtue mentioned in Aristotle’s Ethics – was andreia, a word derived from the Greek word aner, which means “man, husband”. The very word “virtue” which we use to describe praiseworthy characteristics is derived from vir, the Latin equivalent of aner. This usage reflects the high premium Western societies have historically and traditionally placed upon manliness. In the kind of male pop stars it is now churning out the pop music industry appears to be promoting epicenity, the exact opposite of manliness, as a trait to be emulated by males. This too is a form of moral decay.

The degradation that is most obvious in pop music, however, is the aesthetic kind. Music, like architecture, painting, sculpture and literature is a form of art, the quality of which can be judged by aesthetic standards. There are different ways in which art can be aesthetically poor. On the one hand art can become clichéd, i.e, it can lose its aesthetical value by being pointlessly repetitive. On the other hand, artists may out of fear of the cliché, produce art that has no merit other than originality. The latter is the pitfall into which avant garde artists – musical and otherwise – are prone to fall. The former is the pitfall into which pop culture – including pop music – falls.

It is in the very nature of pop music to be kitsch. Pop music is music that is manufactured like any other assembly-line product to be sold cheaply in large quantities for mass consumption. Without Thomas Edison’s invention of the technology for recording and replaying sound and broadcasting and receiving sound in the late 19th Century there could have been no pop music. These technologies made it possible for music to be mass produced. Mass production, i.e., the fast production of a good so that it can be sold in large quantities at a low unit price, can be both a blessing and a curse. It is a blessing in that a wide variety of goods are available and affordable to more people than ever before. It is a curse in that quality of that which is produced inevitably suffers. Some things should never be mass produced and culture is one of them.

Whereas other forms of popular music and classical music are the creations of artists whose music may or may not be recorded and sold pop music is the creation of record companies. The companies create both the pop star and the music the pop star performs. One group of specialized technicians comes up with the image for the pop star, another group comes up with the music, and the final product is assembled by yet another group of technicians in the recording studio.

The result is the most clichéd form of music ever made. There is novelty – pop music rises and falls with the waves of fashion like no other – but no originality.

Unfortunately pop music seems to be a black hole which sucks in other forms of popular music. Before World War II a number of distinct popular music genres developed – country and western, jazz, rhythm and blues, etc. In recent decades most of these genres have tended to develop a “pop” feel to them. Take country music for example. Compare country music made today, with the music of Hank Williams Sr., Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, George Jones and Waylon Jennings. Then compare it with music currently being released under the label pop. Which does it more resemble?

Is there a solution to any of these downward trends?

Not that I am aware of, but there is at least a consolation. The same advancements in musical recording technology that have made pop music possible, have also made possible high quality recordings by superb orchestras of the music of Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Shubert, Brahms, Grieg, Wagner, Rimsky-Korsakov, Tchaikovsky, Dvořák, and Mahler. There is over a lifetime’s worth of good listening in these recordings, and these works continue to be performed in the standard repertoire of concert halls and opera houses around the world.


  1. Are Negro Drums art?


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