Is There Progress In Music?


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?

5 thoughts on “Is There Progress In Music?

  1. there is still many who hold a quite modernist view of musical composition in which a progressive line is traced. in this tradition there are logical developments that can be traced from a generation to the next; the idea that one “problem” from one generation is solved in the other. this kind of thinking is present in boulez texts post-WWII, but also in many others (for a contemporary example see mahnkopf). it is difficult to compare boulez with beethoven because they are too apart. however, you could make it, inserting some other composers between them, like, making beethoven-brahms-berg/webern-boulez and inserting bizet-debussy on the other side, with bits of strvinsky/messiaen for rythm.

    this view has of course, been criticized a lot, because it normally leaves a lot of interesting and important composers out of the “main historico-technical compositional development line”.

    adorno’s “aesthetic theory” talks about this kind of development. i have the quotations in portuguese though.
    in lyotard’s “inhuman” there is another progressive line that traces the development of western concert music from the dialectical relation of the liberation of the compositional material, and incorporation of any sound together with the possibilities of controlling it.

    • I should look at Adorno again – he does have some nice things in The Philosophy of New Music. What I find lacking so far and it is likely because I am looking in the wrong places is a solid discussion of the notion of “progress” in some sort of teleological terms: If we are moving away from the old toward the new, how do we know that? What if Boulez is an example of degeneration and not progress? What makes his complex music worth “getting into? I have to say that contemporary music takes a lot of effort (even if in most cases it does pay off), so it is obviously quite inaccessible (or is often perceived as such) – is that good or bad? Must I always work hard to be able to appreciate a piece of music or is it a sign of modernist elitism?

      Concerning the liberation of the compositional material, I came across this idea in various formulations several times. However, I am suspicious because no one, for example, talks about a liberation of numbers in mathematics – why should they be so bound by strict rules and so on? If musical material is in need of organization and not liberation, then liberated compositional material is not music…

      • 1. well, at least for adorno, the movement involves the notion of tabu. the old transforming itself into “culture” and then some aspects of it can be then seen as a tabu, which the new generation addresses as a problem which must be solved. in that sense that music can maintain a sense of progression or teleology, because it seeks that which is not “culture”. music that does not participate in that movement is not progressive.

        2. if you look at harry lehmann there is a luhmanian point of view of the progress of art http://www.harrylehmann.net/neu/wp-content/uploads/2011/04/Harry-Lehmann_Avant-garde-Today.pdf

        3. this is an article by mahnkopf, following lehmann: http://www.claussteffenmahnkopf.de/pdfs/Mahnkopf-Musical-Modernity.-From-Classical-Modernity-up-to-the-Second-Modernity–Provisional-Considerations.pdf

        4. however, it seems that there is no path towards “the end of music” or the integration of music into the fabric of life which the dadaists, for example, tried. i am not very fond of these hegelian theses of ends, but i think experimental music could, after cage, be treated as a musicalizing the world and thus be somewhat used to think this issue. also, soundscape works (westerkamp specially) could be thought in their effort to make a difference in daily hearing habits of the (canadian) population.

        5. well, in the history of music, liberation follows control, always, and the next liberation is thought as if coming after there is enough of control in the previous. so dissonance was liberated: thirds were considered dissonant in the beguining of renascence, etc but then not in the baroque. as for mathematics, i think there were expansions, like from integers to naturals, irrationals, imaginaries, up to non-euclidian, no?

  2. Barenboim is one of my preferred conductors- he has an extremely wide knowledge of the musical world and has conducted many works. I trust that his version of Beethoven is good- he has too much experience for it not to be. Thoughts?

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