Barenboim’s second installment of Beethoven’s symphonies is up on BBC (again in addition to the available everywhere radio version).
As in the first installment, Barenboim programmed a piece by Boulez between two symphonies. The first episode featured a conversation between him and Boulez about various musical issues. The idea is not so much that the Boulez is the Beethoven of our time (as sympathetic to Boulez and his general musical agenda as I am, I think to say that would be too much), but that there is a sense in which if you juxtapose the two, you can see that they are both significant composers each in his own way and that this contrast somehow shows the progress in music. Or at least this is what the explanation sounded as trying to present the issue to me. Even if I completely misunderstood the intention of throwing Beethoven and Boulez together, there is still a very strong tradition in classical music (and music in general) to interpret the change of styles and type of music over the centuries as a kind of progressive development of musical substance: from simple unison singing to polyphony to harmony to atonality and so on.
But does the diversity here show any progressive development? And, if such progressive development (in the sense of successive generations picking up and developing the musical material of the previous generations) exists, does it constitue a kind of universal progress of music from previous primitive forms to more recent sophisticated forms? In order words, is Boulez’s in any way more advanced than Beethoven’s music (or, say, Monteverdi’s music)? Can someone write music in the style of Beethoven today (and not be a film composer) and be taken for a “real composer”? They probably can but they do not. Any piece of contemporary music that is being written today (and, again, not for films) is very likely to be atonal in some form or another.
I think the question of the progress in music is difficult to answer because if progress is taken not as a simple development from one form to another form, but as a development from an inferior form to a superior form, then there must be a clearly identifiable criterion of what constitutes “good” and “bad” music. What must music do? If it is entertainment, then obviously Boulez and much of contemporary classical music is bad music. Yet whose entertainment are we talking about? If it is the “great unwashed masses,” then even Beethoven is bad music. So does that mean that the quality of music in the ear of the listener? An educated and refined insider would understand Boulez (what does it really mean to “understand” something like Boulez’s music anyway?) and an uneducated and rough outsider will think it’s sheer noise and nonsense – so where do we go from here?