Taking Arms Against a Sea of Troubles

While reading John Lanchester’s article on recent books about finance, I was brought up short by this:

… finance, like other forms of human behavior, underwent a change in the twentieth century, a shift equivalent to the emergence of modernism in the arts – a break with common sense, a turn toward self-referentiality, and abstraction and notions that couldn’t be explained in workaday English … In classical music, it was, perhaps, the premiere of “The Rite of Spring.”

No, no, no, no, no – and again no! It’s a measure of my eccentricity that this view continues to bedevil me. I don’t disagree with Lanchester’s point, but his example is all wrong. Self-referentiality in music beings with Schoenberg, with the creation of a system that is only about its own structure (Schoenberg, I don’t think, ever considered the ramifications of his process, which was meant to preserve the past). The Rite of Spring, for all it’s dissonance and discord, is about something, it is narrative in structure and derived directly from folk music, it is echt-Romanticism.

Cultural critics need to know about culture, and although they can’t be expert in all media, they need to be literate. Music is the area where critics tend to consistently fail, half-hearing pieces, lacking knowledge of history and certainly lacking technical knowledge. I blame editors, too, who let this kind of thing by – why is musical knowledge unimportant?

Music is the secret history of Western culture, certainly since the advent of recording technology. It is the plain where the forces of culture, race, racism, colonialism, class, revolution and reaction meet, where identity is born on an individual basis, where the past is examined and the future imagined. I am far from the first to point this out, and it’s no secret to anyone willing to both listen and think at the same time, but somehow it’s outside the moderately learned edges of intellectual culture.

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