Bridging The Gap: Modern Music and Popular Opinion

How many people could name their favourite composer as one that is alive today? I imagine the number would pale in significance compared to those that prefer say, Mozart or Beethoven. Reading a post yesterday on ‘The Future Of Modern Music’, prompted me to start writing my own piece on the subject. I have been meaning to do this for a few weeks but had put it off until now. The article mentioned above highlights how many modern composers are not getting the recognition they deserve. In doing this it focuses on two books, which are believed to give an unfair appraisal of modern music. The argument being that far more attention is given to the ‘master composers’, while modern works are either summarized briefly, or ignored entirely. This seems to be a trend that extends to


portrait of Mozart

encompass a far wider area than just the written literature. A quick look at the forthcoming concerts in my local area supports this claim. The next few concerts include works by, Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Schubert, Tchaikovsky, Brahms, Vivaldi, Handel, Mendelssohn and Monteverdi to name a few. Most of these composers, if not all, will be familiar names to many. There were also a few more modern composers, like Elgar, Vaughan-Williams, Satie, Copland and Gershwin, but these would hardly be considered the cutting edge of new music. Of the forthcoming events I looked at, only one featured a brand new work (‘Three Oxford Songs’ by Philip Moore), and although more modern works can be found, they are usually short pieces that serve to fill up a more traditional program. Concerts devoted entirely to contemporary music do appear, but they are greatly outnumbered by the more ‘classical’ events.

Today’s music it seems, is essentially yesterday’s music. Many of the most revered pieces of our time coming from a hypothetical ‘golden age’ of composition. An age in which the likes of Haydn and Handel reign supreme and everything else is considered second-rate in comparison. This was not always the case though. In Richard Taruskin’s ‘History of Western Music’ he describes the fifteenth century as a time when the opposite was far more likely to be true. Music theorist Johannes Tinctoris is quoted as saying in 1477, that pre-fifteenth century music was “so ineptly, so stupidly composed that they rather offended than pleased the ear”. The music Tinctoris refers to though, is music of the literate genre. Music for the nobility and the learned upper classes, which the majority of the population would not have been familiar with. This situation highlights a distinction between popular and art music that still exists (although in a slightly modified form), to the present day. So why is it then, that in the present day we tend to give more weight to the achievements of the past, than the present? And how is this effected by the cultural division between ‘popular’ and ‘art’ music?

folk music

Folk Music Group (Photo by Markvall)

The conception of the artist as genius may have a part to play in answering these questions. The artist-genius being recognized as someone who is born with some kind of divine gift. A gift which is necessarily beyond the reach of the average person. This conception may lead to the familiar idea that great works of art are not understood in their own time. A notion that I believe is an integral part of the way we understand music as art today. If we subscribe to this way of thinking, then popular opinion can have little impact on what is defined as art. A recent post by Andreas Bick, entitled ‘Revolutionary or Critical Music’, provides many valuable insights on this subject. Music critic Tom Service explains how contemporary classical music is valued in the exact opposite way to any other type of music. This seems to support the idea that works are not appreciated until a later time. Popular music is just that, popular, whereas contemporary classical music is far less so. Tom Service is quoted when he asks the question, “Is it enough to write music that ultimately will probably only ever be accessed by a tiny minority of new music nerds, as opposed to even attempting to communicate with a wider public, and having a genuine chance of changing people’s minds or influencing their approach to the world?

It could be suggested that the classical music of the master composers, has almost become a genre of popular music. Contemporary classical music on the other hand, prides its self on the fact that it is unpopular. It may be the case that certain masterworks were not understood in their own time, but today’s new music shouldn’t be judged by the same token. I think it is extremely unlikely that today’s experiments with different tonal systems, complex rhythms and unusual timbres, will ever become popular in any age. Personally I find this kind of music fascinating, but it is an acquired taste and I understand why a lot of people are put off by it. It may be the case that the masterpieces of the future are the ones that find new and original ways to bridge the gap between pop and art. And in doing this realise that it’s okay to make music that appeals to a wider audience. By paying more attention to producing music that moves people, we may look forward to a healthier musical culture for all involved. This is not meant as a criticism of experimental or progressive music, and I don’t mean to imply that all modern music is inaccessible to the average listener. What I am suggesting is that if music is to make progress, and also be valued by more than a select few. It may have to find a balance that relies less on pushing boundaries, and more on creating new forms of expression through traditional means.

Please feel free to comment on this post, any input good or bad will be gratefully received.


About Gary Skinner

Second year music student interested in composition
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