D-Moll at the Mall – Defending Criticism Against its Critics / Yonatan Bar Yoshafat

One afternoon, as I was walking to the neighborhood supermarket with a shopping list in my pocket, the sounds of a string quartet caught my ears. Before long, I came across four street players in a sheltered area, delighting passers-by and hangers-on alike with some musical arrangement. Several elderly women sat on the benches surrounding the square. A young mother and her little boy were standing close to the players, listening attentively. Some vigorous lady dropped a coin into the violin case. A young fellow was standing nearby, holding a dog by its leash and talking into his mobile phone. The audience of shoppers was filing by. I crossed the square quickly, as a double counterpoint was accompanying my busy thoughts. It consisted of the quartet's tones combined with  reflections on my brief encounters with street players: identifying the piece, evaluating the playing, pondering the anthropological experience of performing in public domains under routine circumstances, and debating whether or not to toss in a coin, and if so – of what denomination.
My thoughts evaporated as I entered the supermarket, replaced by the smell of fresh breads. As I was leaving, loaded with groceries, the quartet just turned to the serious part of the program. Tones from the melancholic second movement of Bach's D minor concerto for two violins were filling the space. I was somewhat surprised to hear this solemn movement in that context, and although the careful playing immediately enticed me, I did not stay to listen but walked home as I was humming the music.

I recall this episode as I contemplate the Pulitzer Prize winning article by Gene Weingarten about an experiment involving one of the acclaimed American virtuoso violinists, Joshua Bell.[1] Bell, who normally draws crowds at his concerts in the best halls, was asked to play one Friday morning in one of the noisiest train stations in Washington, D.C., dressed like an archetypal American (denim, T-shirt, and baseball hat). The violinist filled the station for three quarters of an hour with beautiful tones from the canonic repertoire (Bach, Schubert), collecting $32.17. One passer-by who recognized the famous performer tossed in a $20 bill. Save for that lady, practically none of the masses of commuters paused to listen to the music. This experiment, if one may call it so, was aimed to shock the decent readers of the newspaper and to point out the dire state of the so-called classical music, drawing pessimistic conclusions about our ability, or lack thereof, to appreciate beauty even when it is in front of us. The article is rife with hypocrisy, and the results of the experiment are known in advance. What caught my eyes more than anything else were the priorities and the values present throughout the prose. On the face of it, the writer laments the loss of the universal, unshakable metaphysical halo of the inalienable assets of western culture and of its spirit. But if there are any solid foundations, eternal or measurable, of the lost quality the author wishes to bring back to its place of honor, they are all wrapped in banknotes. To give an example:

Bell had filled the house at Boston's stately Symphony Hall, where merely pretty good seats went for $100. […]This is from a man whose talents can command $1,000 a minute. […]  Bell bought it [a violin] handcrafted in 1713 by Antonio Stradivari when the price tag was reported to be about $3.5 million.

To these one may add the enthusiastic, almost erotic, descriptions of the player’s attractive, charismatic appearance:

Bell's a heartthrob. Tall and handsome, he's got a Donny Osmond-like dose of the cutes, and, onstage, cute elides into hot. …he walks out to a standing O, looking like Zorro, in black pants and an untucked black dress shirt, shirttail dangling. That cute Beatles-style mop top is also a strategic asset: Because his technique is full of body – athletic and passionate – he's almost dancing with the instrument, and his hair flies. …He's single and straight, a fact not lost on some of his fans. … the very few young women in the audience … every single one of them – a distillate of the young and pretty – coalesced at the stage door after the performance, seeking an autograph.

Apparently, Weingarten can live with the insult to Bach and Schubert (and to the "commonplace" street players) caused by the audience's ignorance, but can barely cope with the public's unreceptive attitude toward his fetishistically admirable object, that American star waving his luxurious instrument. After all, if you will pardon such generalization, the commuters, described by the writer as "mid-level bureaucrats" from the business world, may not be committed to universal values, but surely recognize financial values. But we should shun such generalizations. The waving of one’s mane and other mannerisms are not Bell's innovations; they have been documented in the nineteenth century, among others, as part of Chopin's and Liszt's performing practice, and have accompanied us ever since. Fetishist worship of superstars, too, is by no means unique to the USA.

One of the drawbacks of the experiment stems from the very choice of the central piece: Bach's Chaconne in D minor for solo violin. Indeed, if I was surprised to hear an arrangement of the morose movement from Bach's concerto at the supermarket plaza, playing the Chaconne at a train station (Bell's own choice) is downright absurd. One does not need to recruit Kant, as Weingarten does, to argue that the experience of appraising an artwork is damaged without optimal conditions, or prompt such passionate declarations (in the spirit of the "end of history") about the end of "classical" music after watching that video. After all, a lighter, virtuoso piece would have achieved more positive feedback. In the purposeful context of the train station environment, Bach's weighty music and the violin's piercing decibels, which reverberate forcefully in the acoustic space, turn into a real nuisance. Bach's Chaconne, which gains ardent praises from Bell ("not just one of the greatest pieces of music ever written, but one of the greatest achievements of any man in history. It's a spiritually powerful piece, emotionally powerful, structurally perfect"), needs no further approval for its place in the musical pantheon. Indeed, the crowd's indifference to this piece in that context confirms this: the apathy expresses the intuitive rightful understanding of the layman that Bach – not he – is misplaced.

The piercing question is, of course, where is the "natural place" of the "classical" repertoire these days, and what happens in such interactions between an audience and "classical" music.[2] In this respect, too, Bach's situation is fairly good, because contemporary experimental music, for instance, by no means leaves the public indifferent, but normally arouses revulsion and antagonism.[3] Indeed, many musical works of the western canon are innovative, experimental, challenging our listening experience without being contemporary, be it Bach's Chaconne, Beethoven's Grosse Fuge, or 20th century masterpieces (which, owing to their age, especially when compared to other musical styles, should have already belonged to the "early music" category). In the following pages I shall clear up the various aspects of the issue, focusing on three elements: the aesthetic aspect of the artwork, the sociological aspect of its reception, and the discourse aspect.

It may be embarrassing to admit that for the acquainted listener, the experience of listening to a live performance of Beethoven's Grosse Fuge may cause certain amusement owing to the great surprise of those in the audience who thought they were paying for "more pleasing and more joyful sounds", but find themselves dealing with absolutely modern music. The amazement is often transformed into familiar nervousness (tuberculotic coughs, aggressive thumbing through the brochure, anxious movements in the chairs, and so on). Nevertheless, leaving the hall demonstratively in the middle of the concert, not unusual behavior at performances of contemporary music, is less common under this circumstance, arguably because Beethoven's status is well rooted in our collective consciousness as a "classicist" who should be honored as such.

We may assume that a similar uneasiness reemerges like a leitmotif throughout the history of music because in every period complex and demanding music existed side by side with popular and catchy music. Such oppositions may be found between melismatic organums and isorhythmic motets, on one hand, and dances and strophic galliard songs in the Middle Ages, on the other; between contrapuntal masses and mannerist madrigals, and homophonic chansons and frottolas in the Renaissance; between fugues and minuets in the Baroque; between symphonies and divertimentos in the Classical period; between "gesamtkunstwerk" and operettas in the Romantic period; between atonal expressionist works and neo-classical works in the 20th century, and so on.

Needless to say that the above comparisons are downright false. They inclusively contrast "weighty" genres with "lighter" ones, but just as there are countless poor artworks that belong to the "serious" genres, many superb works conform to rules of the "inferior" genres. Genre cannot form an evaluative criterion in itself. At most, it can indicate a declaration of intent.

What grants "serious" genres their high status? Here we should explain what turns a genre into a substantial one. For example, it is not clear whether we can find a common ground between a melismatic organum and a symphony. We may say that many of the works that conform to the conventions of these genres are constructed from elaborate elements or manifest complex aspects of organization and form. Nevertheless, it is possible to argue justifiably that galliards, frottolas, divertimentos, and many neoclassical works were successfully designed following such principles as elegant simplicity, vitality, candor, economy, and wittiness, and were free of certain aspects of complexity and scholastic artificiality that were typical of some of the heavy genres. Moreover, a musical work written in a "serious" genre is not necessarily a complex and weighty work. Many works that belong to the heavy genres often contain clear signs of humor, sprightliness, "simple" beauty, direct expression, etc. This is also true for the opposite situation, where artworks written in "light" genres contain "high" materials and complex techniques. Furthermore, notwithstanding the importance of the complexity criterion, it cannot by itself cast a halo of quality on an artwork. Many composers have demonstrated remarkable control over complex techniques, but created dull and uninspired works.

The question about the place of the "light" and the "serious" is, of course, not unique to music, but becomes highly charged when we inject popular culture into the equation, and within this framework, what is called "light" music.[4] Throughout the second half of the 19th century and most of the 20th century, the distinction between the "classical" and "light" repertoires was perceived as self-evident: the former was recognized as belonging to the category of art, the latter to the category of entertainment.[5] And yet no term is free of ideological contexts and social motivations, and therefore neither is the term "classical" in its musical context, representing a hierarchical standpoint with regard to other types of repertoires. Postmodern musicology, often dubbed "new musicology" in the USA and "critical" in the UK, has greatly contributed to the understanding of the political aspects that shapes both the musical "text" and its reception. With a postmodern outlook one may justly argue that the traditional dichotomist view acts as an agent of social and cultural exclusion, that it has institutional and economic functions, that it aims to define a moral position based on consumerist taste, that it pretends to possess universal and trans-historical aesthetic truths while hiding the tangible element, historical and class-related, which engendered these truths, and so on. Indeed, can we place the entire western-artistic repertoire of more than a thousand years of music under a single "classical" roof? Is there any point in referring to the enormous repertoire, accumulating since the second half of the 20th century "outside" the concert halls, as one "popular" entity? Apparently, more than pointing to any internal essence, concepts such as "classic" and "light" music function as a mutual mirror image of one another, their significance being chiefly limited to mutual exclusion. Nevertheless, the above arguments alone by no means rule out the claim that it may still be possible to refer to different musical types as distinct qualitative categories, and to try to evaluate these based on their internal aesthetic rigor.

Among the decisive opponents of hierarchical distinction between the "classical" and the "light" is the American musicologist Richard Taruskin, whose writings do not necessarily represent postmodern musicology. Among his valued contributions to the study of western art music one may count his remarkable History of Western Music, a project consisting of 4,000 pages written over 13 years.[6] In an article from 2007, Taruskin referred to Weingarten's aforementioned article with well-deserved sarcasm in order to raise the question of the "condition" of classical music these days.[7] A thorough trouncing of three writers who defended the unique status of "classical" music forms the lion's share of Taruskin's article.[8] This is not the place to address the authors' arguments or Taruskin's objections to each. In general, Taruskin wonders whether it is still possible to defend his "beloved repertoire without recourse to pious nonsense, double standards, false dichotomies, smug nostalgia, utopian delusions, social snobbery, tautology, hypocrisy, trivialization, pretense, innuendo, reactionary invective, or imperial haberdashery."[9]

Taruskin attacks the beliefs of "classical" music devotees concerning its power to elevate the listener to an aesthetic level that lies beyond the immediate experience of emotions—an experience identified with the decisive (but not exclusive) level of the field of entertainment. Sentiments, he argues, were an indispensable part of art from its very start, and they may take different and varied forms, not necessarily sensual or emotional. He mentions, among others, guilt feelings as an example. And talking about guilt, the main candidates to be blamed for cultivating such ideals associated with the "classical" music world—ideals that in many respects are still linked to it—are the romantics, whom Taruskin criticizes. Note that contrary to their common image, the romantics, notably the early ones, have developed a revulsion toward the traditional viewpoint that regarded music as a means for arousing emotions. They pinned their hopes on the more abstract aspects of music, on the inner logic of its constituent elements, and on its capability to reach the transcendental levels of human experience.[10] Either way, whoever nowadays sticks to the belief that art music, in its essence, elevates beyond the emotional sphere, is consciously or unconsciously a romantic and will be blamed by Taruskin (without guilt) for pretentiousness and haughty nostalgia.

It is possible to espouse the criticism against the pretentiousness of abolishing the status of emotions in artworks while turning the argument on its head: too often have we learned that the added value of the western canon lies in its complexity, intellectual rigor, elevation beyond emotional dimension, multiplicity of voices (both technically and as a metaphor for interpretational layers), and so on. It may have been forgotten that part of the canonic repertoire indeed meets these criteria, but additionally it is intensive and emotionally pressing. The emotive intensity in Bach's and Beethoven's works is indeed an overload, then like today, for the average ear which is used to immediate and easily digested satisfactions and is insensitive to other layers, and alienated by them. Indeed, we may point out the integration between the last two layers, Nietzsche's Dionysian and Apollonian, as a unique characteristic of any great artwork. Even the early romantics knew this: Schlegel, as opposed to Kant, argued that "the beautiful is what is at once charming and sublime,"[11] that is, the fusion between the sensual and the metaphysical takes place at the core of the aesthetic dimension. But Taruskin's dispute with the devotees of high artistic music is not related to surplus or lack of sentiment or its place in the artwork. Rather, the dispute concerns the argument whereby "classical" music has depth that other types of music lack, and the pretentious moral and educational conclusions derived from it. For him, arriving at moral positions based on aesthetic preferences at the beginning of the 21st century is nothing but deviant pretense (not to say hypocrisy and social snobbism). Taruskin's critical attitude ought to be adopted by and large. Regrettably, history has shown that cultural education has not delivered the revolutionary message that the people of the enlightenment had hoped for (we need not go as far as the gates of Auschwitz to retell that the marchers were led to their death accompanied by cultural-musical activity to the delight of their torturers). But likewise, one should also apply some degree of critical thought to Taruskin's desperate tone about the aspiration (legitimate in itself) to preserve (or reestablish) an interrelationship between aesthetics and ethics, between "high" music and education.

In the context of the above, one cannot escape of mentioning Theodor Adorno, philosopher and foremost sociologist of the arts, and one of the designers of critical theory, also known as the "Frankfurt School." A comprehensive discussion on Adorno's theory is beyond the scope of this essay. I shall focus instead on his influence and applicability to the "here and now." Adorno holds a central place in such fields as Marxist discourse and the sociology of arts, but the reception of his ideas within the musicological discourse, particularly in the Anglo-American one, has always been ambivalent. Several possible causes for this are the topics he addressed, his unique writing style, his Marxist views, the gradual and limited translation of his writings into English, the challenging interdisciplinary richness of his thought, and so on. But through an ironic turn of history, Adorno, who in the past century was regarded as an original and radical critic, became these days an emblem of reactionary thought, especially because of his harsh criticism of various aspects of "light" musical styles, such as pop, jazz, etc.

Perhaps only in a postmodern age can a rational theory of liberation, if one may call it so, be viewed as a reactionary standpoint. Apparently, some of Adorno's arguments have become obsolete. But attacking Adorno is akin to attacking Freud, who greatly influenced the former:  we ought to show more awareness to the historic context and limitations of their theories, but cannot do without them. Regrettably, large portions of Adorno's critical writings are more relevant these days than ever. Particularly relevant are those parts where he did not write directly about music, but analyzed the dynamics of art in the modern age by means of sociological tools, together with his foremost colleagues, usually ignored in musicological discourse: Max Horkheimer and Herbert Marcuse. Consider, for example, the paradigmatic concept "culture industry," which still arouses antagonism and is not always understood accurately. Already in the 1940s, critical theory aimed to account for the rise of fascism in Europe as opposed to the U.S. where liberal democracy was preserved. Their research investigated the dialectic place of culture in society, leading to the forlorn conclusion that despite the customary brutality of oppression mechanisms, these may also act in charming ways, through seduction, using manipulations that seemingly fit the "democratic," free will of masses of "consumers"—as they do in the west. Such degenerated seductive oppression à la late capitalism is indeed less violent than that employed in totalitarian regimes, but therefore it is also more resistant against rebellion, and in that sense more dangerous. In capitalist society, the individual is directed to identify his autonomy with his purchasing power; although his condition is better than that of his peer living in the third world, he earns enough only to continue binding himself of his “free” will to his chains (indeed, his free choice is guided toward these "chains"[12]). This voluntary castration is achieved through the so-called (in Marxist jargon) "false needs," encouraged by an overall mechanism dubbed the "culture industry."

Despite the elitist image associated with them, Adorno, Marcuse, and other thinkers of the Frankfurt school did not address the dichotomy between "high" and "low" art in order to defend the "respectable" genres and styles against popular ones (essentially a bourgeois attitude). Rather, they investigated the conditions enabling the creation and reception of enlightened, subversive, and liberating art, as well as the counter conditions, which produce "objectified" and "objectifying" art. And this is quite a different matter. Intellectuals of the Frankfurt school believed in the power of the autonomous artwork to affect object-subject relations and to propose an anti-oppressive alternative, one of reflexive immersion rather than domination. Their analysis revealed that the culture industry, as opposed to art, does not deal with the sublimation of authentic desires but in generating and replicating false needs, that is, in oppressive conformism. For example, in his book One-Dimensional Man, Marcuse argues that in the late capitalistic age every opposition is absorbed into the culture industry, enthusiastically adopted by the corporations, becomes a hit, and its belligerent Eros is neutralized. In the realm of music, there is barely any "dissident," "fringe" genre that has not found its way to the "mainstream:" the black protest songs in America of the beginning of the 20th century were "bleached" and changed from blues into commercial rock, the protest songs of the 1960s became part of the comforting pop industry, electronic music and rap made their way from the gutters and the streets into every parlor with the help of MTV, Oriental music occupied center stage on the most profitable radio channels, trans became part of the curriculum of modern music colleges and in cultural-studies courses, jazz and "classical" music are retailed as part of indulging package deals at festivals, and so on. The rebellious artist has ever fewer choices these days: in order to influence he must sell, must reach a large audience, and therefore must become commercialized. And so, according to the logic of the system, he is forced to betray his goals.

Adorno will probably be labeled forever as the elitist who hated jazz, pop culture, cinema, and Stravinsky's music, and therefore will continue to arouse antagonism. In truth, sharp expressions of revulsion are not characteristic of his writing style. Moreover, he showed interest in cinema, changed his mind about some of the jazz he has listened to later in life, and harshly criticized what he regarded as ethical deficiencies in Stravinsky's works–precisely because he regarded Stravinsky as one of the most important composers of the 20th century. True, he liked Beethoven and Schoenberg above all, but these facts are irrelevant to our discussion. His likes, dislikes, and personal taste have remained his private matters; his criticism alone is what matters. And here also lies the main difficulty. Recruiting Adorno the modernist in a postmodern atmosphere is by no means a simple task. His critique is based on the assumption that art has an inner essence, which is, or at least ought to be, realized in an autonomous sphere, with regard to both its compositional and reception processes, and that it is, or ought to aspire to be, resistant against the surrounding elements, which establish it socially. Now, when a relativist viewpoint dominates, such absolute values as inner essence or autonomy of art are almost instantaneously ruled out. Even private, seemingly unmediated experiences, such as reflexive listening to art music, are interpreted as social constructs. Under such circumstances, judgment and evaluation of music and listening conducts are rejected for belonging to the old "authoritative discourse." In this manner, for example, Steven Hinton sums up his critique – otherwise interesting and informative – of three English translations of Adorno's writings:

The frequently recurring image of passive victims succumbing to the culture industry, based as it is on the Marxist notion of ideology as "false consciousness" and on an unremittingly bleak view of society, seems disturbing nowadays to the extent that it is out of touch with how many people experience the things Adorno was writing about. Herein lies both the truth and the ideology of his vision of the world, the powerful fundamentalism of his time. It is a vision that needs to be appreciated in all its datedness. Only when the writings on music are viewed in their fractured totality—in the fullness of their historical contexts, in the diversity of their text types, and in the variety of their critical opinions – can justice be done to the eloquence of their many parts.[13]

I would have phrased this almost the other way around. Indeed, Adorno's pessimistic vision was formulated at a specific historical point in time, but it is precisely from the perspective of time that his vision has gained strength. In his time, the culture industry included mainly Hollywood films, silly TV comedies, and sentimental pop. This was before the time of advanced digital media, dozens of cable channels, extravagant advertisements, home theater, Internet, mobile phones, mobile stereo, video and filming systems, video games, virtual reality experience, and additional technological inventions that have indulged our life experience and filled it with intensive pleasures, accessible and alluring. (What would Adorno have thought about the fact that his own writings are available on the Internet, alongside thousands of links to his ideas? Perhaps, that similarly to the most prevalent topic on the Internet, there is no substitute for the real thing.) Either way, his arguments are evidently disturbing not because they lost contact with the reality of our time, but rather because they became more pronounced with time.[14]

Taruskin, who shoots in every direction with his witty ridicule, obviously does not spare Adorno:

The idea that in popular culture production equals consumption was already a canard when first handed down from Adorno's Delphic armchair. (Think of all those rockers driving taxis who by his logic should be millionaires). That his followers still parrot him only shows how utterly ideology trumps observation in the world of "critical theory," of all academic stances the least critical by far.[15]

Several paragraphs later, he cites the following sentences from Fineberg's essay:

An art like contemporary classical music is doubly burdensome. Composers don't produce wealth as they become more successful; they consume it. Bigger, more prominent events lose even more money (and require more subsidies) than small student concerts. The success of a composer can be measured by taking the inverse of the composer's market value: The more negative the market value, the more important the composer.[16]

For some reason, Taruskin chooses to interpret Fineberg's arguments as the self-serving complaints of an academic (as if he were not one as well); but the ridicule is not justified because Fineberg's account is true to reality. Taruskin is right, however, that critical theory is not the suitable candidate for saving the status of "classical" music, but the reasons he proposes are absolutely wrong. Such exploitation is poor both for critical theory and art music. First, the "industrial" system is not limited in any case to operating within the fields of light culture alone. All those levels of artistic autonomy (transcending the dictates of fashion, development informed by the internal logic of the material, authentic denial of the "conclusive other," the urge to protest against the oppressing surrounding setting, in short – all the elements that constituted a "great" art work) – these too are threatened to be absorbed within the culture industry. Some degree of artistic autonomy may possibly be preserved as long as the artist is aware of the hunger of the culture industry, which knows no satiation, and refuses to succumb to the tyranny of the rating. But the majority of consumers of music expect it to comfort, indulge, and "relieve" them, and most "classical music" consumers are in the same boat, sailing in the same shallow water, bringing with them similar expectations even when listening to challenging music, which plainly demonstrates how a musical canon becomes falsified cultural capital, nearly devoid of content. Second, as hinted at the outset, it is about time that we become disabused of the belief that the entire western music, old and new, deserves the status of "classical" canon, not only because this approach is Eurocentric,[17] or because consensus about "canonic" repertoire changes from one period to another and according to need,[18] but also because such approach does not stimulate critical thinking about the music under discussion. Preferably, we should refer to a specific artistic repertoire, mostly western (but open to other influences), which juxtaposes the canonic and the esoteric, the avant-garde and the conformism, the high quality and the trash, where most of the works included are somewhere between the two poles. Adorno knew this too, and therefore did not hesitate to criticize "classical" works, of the past and of his own time, and pointing out the sterilization process of the high music by the industry.

In her book After Adorno, Tia DeNora shows the path that the sociology of music ought to take, reflected in the double meaning of the book's title: after Adorno, but also beyond him.[19] In the first chapter, entitled, how else, "Adorno defended against his devotees," DeNora enumerates the significant ideas in his music criticism: Adorno contributed to a profound analysis of the way in which society shapes music (and was among the first to explore aspects of music perception – not only the musical "text" in itself). At the same time, he sought to comprehend music dialectically, namely, to interpret it both as a heteronomic (social) and an autonomic (aesthetic) phenomenon. In other words, Adorno understood art music as being shaped by external forces, but overcoming them by realizing their inner artistic logic (what he called "law of movement").[20] However, DeNora also underscores two of Adorno's main deficiencies: his prejudice against light music and his inclination toward the abstract and general at the expense of consolidating his arguments empirically.[21] Like Taruskin, DeNora aims to defend some principle against his foolish devotees, and like him she does more harm than good. It is unnecessary to readdress the "prejudices" and the relevance of personal taste, but it is worth mentioning the principal criticism leveled by the Frankfurt School against empirical sociology, which it regarded as the factor shaping consciousness no less than expressing it. Observation from the sidelines is also a form of taking a stand – one of not taking a definitive stand, toeing the line of the institutionalized power and becoming yet another tool in the service of the dominant ideology. Critical theory does not rule out empirical inquiries (important empirical research has been carried out at the Frankfurt institute), but it is aware of the internal tensions of the discipline. This was the source of Adorno's reservations toward traditional sociological tools and toward what DeNora calls "abstraction." Adorno was not satisfied with an objective account of social reality; like any good Marxist, he wanted to change it, or at least to prevent its deterioration.

To be sure, many believe that it is not merely the reality that is improving, but the discourse, too, becomes more enlightened. Terry Eagleton describes those who hold such worldviews as being willing to throw the "objective" baby out with the "self-serving" bath water, when he writes:

Capitalist society is a battleground of competing interests, and cloaks this incessant violence in the guise of disinterested ideas. Those postmodernists who quite properly see through this illusion often enough end up pitting against it a 'radical' version of the very market-place behaviour it conceals. In espousing a rich plurality of contending viewpoints and idioms as a good in itself, they turn an idealized version of that market-place reality against the monistic certitudes which help to hold it in place, thus seeking to undermine one part of capitalist logic with another. It is then no wonder that their 'radical' politics are a little strained and bleak, or at the worst (one thinks of Jean Baudrillard and Jean-François Lyotard) entirely vacuous.[22]

Musical reality, and the discourse about it, are not independent of the political-cultural environment described by Eagleton. It is worth noting, therefore, for the sake of those who may have missed it, that one of the outcomes of the anti-judgmental relativism and global pluralism of our time is that high music, which in the past represented such values as aesthetic and ethical greatness, ingenuity, as well as an authentic denial of the oppressive reality and a triumph over it, was not only stripped of its titles but is also degenerating and becoming marginalized, whereas types of commercialized music are conquering in a totalitarian way its place as "the new universality." The dangerous coalition of postmodern atmosphere and extreme capitalist indoctrination encourages, even if innocently, the ignorant worship of the golden calf, the keen devotion to the cynical industry that is prepared to sell one’s soul for a fistful of Dollars under the cloak of "democracy," "equality," and "political correctness." In such a cultural context, those wishing to continue ascribing privileged status to "high" art are akin to a reactionary person who should not be allowed to come out of the closet once again. Pluralism does not truly like that which is different from it (and worthier).

What is the source of such iconoclastic Schadenfreude about "classical" music? Why has it become a "problem"? It is essential to separate the common dismissal of anything associated with elitist establishment from the self-righteous de-constructivist qualm, coming from certain branches of the very same establishment, over the moral legitimacy of the western art canon (along with its musical works). Apparently, "classical" music, as opposed to "high" artworks in other fields, touches an exposed nerve in certain people. The exclusiveness reserved for canonic works in such fields as plastic art, theatre, poetry, and cinema does not irritate those who anyway do not interact with them. Art music, however, awakens antagonism even among consumers of high culture from other fields. It is identified with dead culture, a trace of snobbish hegemony of ancient elites, speaking an awkward and unapproachable language. Indeed, any great art requires an intellectual effort to comprehend and experience it, but music, more than any other artistic medium, is expected to deliver an immediate and direct sentiment, and when this condition does not materialize, the uneasiness mentioned at the outset reemerges.

As noted, some employ this "cultural uneasiness" as a means to establish an academic career under an intellectual guise. But often, even when a socio-historical truth lies behind such criticism, it remains foreign to the innermost essence of art (an essence that this kind of  criticism clearly denies). In this context, it is worth pondering about the changes that have taken place throughout western history in the theoretical discourse about music. Music studies have come a long way from the medieval quadrivium to the Renaissance trivium, from an instrument for deciphering the universal order to a means for expressing the human spirit. From the beginning of the modern age, music itself has gradually become, in all practical and theoretical aspects, the core object of its inquiry, and during the Romantic period the image of the composer, in addition to his works, was added as an important topic for research. It was then that the hierarchical conception was established that placed the composer, the representative of genial inspiration and Sisyphean effort, at the top of the pyramid, the performer as a mediator and interpreter in the middle, and the audience as a polite visitor in the temple of culture at the bottom. The romantic attitude was felt deep into the 20th century, and such expressions as "Bach the great," "the divine Mozart," or "the sublime Beethoven" were common currency in the discourse of researchers, performers, and music teachers alike. Such superlatives have long disappeared from current critical discourse, although one may still find them in explained concerts for the public at large, exuding an aura of fake and saccharine nostalgia. Is this good or bad? In our cynical age, there is a measure of embarrassment in attaching superlatives to those who had established the canonic repertoire, not merely because they no longer need anyone to attest to the value of their works (only new works or pieces by forgotten composers who have been rediscovered still gain such high superlatives), but mostly owing to the semantic voiding that praise terms have undergone. In a time where any person, by the mere waving of a magic brand, can turn into a superstar, little room is left on the shelf for real heroes. The problem does not lie in the fact that the genial composer has reverted, under the critical gaze, to his human dimensions (compared with the romantic apotheosis), and that he, along with his oeuvre and its reception, are regarded as a socio-historical "construct." The problem concerns the privileged position that critical discourse appropriates within the equation. Taruskin, for example, is right when he writes that "music is far too important to be left to the composers,"[23] but the researcher, too, ought to have some degree of intellectual modesty, unless he seeks to define his mission in a neo-mediaevalist spirit, for in the Middle Ages, too, theory was held in higher regard than practice.

Intellectual narcissism is clearly a failing not confined to postmodernism. Indeed, postmodern musicological research, seeking to expose the various relations between the musical work and its socio-political context, follows in many respects Adorno's critical path, while bringing it up-to-date methodologically with novel, trendier disciplines (culture studies, for example, focusing on gender or ethnic issues, etc.). The problem is that when principles of pluralism and free market are seeping from the economic sphere into that of culture and music, it becomes difficult to uphold the critical theory's worldview against the culture industry phenomenon; this happens because the formers act to blur the differences between various objects in favor of worshiping multiplicity of opinions and goods, whereas the latter is grounded in a value-based aesthetic and moral differentiation. In fact, the pluralism espoused by new musicology acts in two contrasting directions: on the one hand, the construction of "other" musical narratives, and on the other, the de-construction of the "classic" musical narrative. Consequently, one may ask whether a discourse that binds the resurrection of the music outside the "classical" ghetto together with the destruction of the "classical" is truly pluralistic, and if the exposure and cultivation of one narrative requires the annihilation of another. This question applies to a far wider sphere than that of intra-academic politics.

Lawrence Kramer, for example, argues that the new musicology seeks to resurrect the interaction that "classical" music once had with the public sphere, a contact that was severed around mid-20th century.[24] In his opinion, the resuscitation will not come about by bringing the old discourse and its contents back to the forefront but by restoring the central role of discourse in society and culture. This is indeed an important objective, but then he adds: "If it [the mission] succeeds, it can help revivify classical music by demystifying and de-idealizing it: by canceling the Faustian bargain that lofts the music beyond the contingencies, uncertainties, and malfeasances of life at the cost of utter irrelevance."[25] In other words, Kramer seeks to "redeem" "classical" music by means of "returning" it to reality and forgetting about its autonomy, a redemption that recalls the one Wagner advocated for the Jews at the end of his infamous essay on Judaism in music.

Some of Susan McClary's ideas may exemplify the fulfillment of Kramer's vision. As is well known, McClary did not hesitate to interpret the pounding music in the recapitulation of the opening movement in Beethoven's Ninth as a representation of a "murderous rage of a rapist incapable of attaining release,"[26]a description that has provoked great polemic. Indeed, uncovering the oppressive hegemony and sexual aggressiveness of the white male is a favored (and overused) theme in postmodern critique in various cultural fields of the past few decades,[27] so there is no wonder that it was warmly welcomed in abstract music, too. McClary's principal idea was recently reinforced in an article by Robert Fink, who argues that her assertion is consistent with the interpretive spirit of the 19th century. He finds analytical corroboration for that "sexual frustration" in the form of Beethoven's unconventional use of voice leading in the said moment.[28] More outrageous than the way in which music analysis becomes a sexy topic owing to the sexualization of such multifaceted music is the fact – rightly noted by Julian Horton – that it is not clear which mechanism may justify the interpretation of voice leading as concrete libidinal energy.[29] Furthermore, both McClary and Fink derive an explicit narrative based on the first movement only, without referring to the piece as a whole. Yet the problem is not only analytical but also interpretational: what did we gain by trading the illusion of brotherhood in the piece for the composer's urges, save for de-legitimizing the emancipatory possibility that was concealed in this "high" music? Apparently, it seems that whenever criticism is directed at popular music, an offence against "political correctness" appears automatically, and the critic is labeled a conservative, uncritical "ideologue"; conversely, whenever criticism is directed at "classical" music, it bespeaks of up-to-date research and pure reason.

If in the past there was general agreement about the pure and unique essence of high art music, nowadays this type of music is barely left with legitimatized institutional support. "Classical" music, like the street players, has no relevant and dominant space of its own. Despite this grim situation, or rather thanks to it, art music has not merely a glorious history but also a future hope, particularly if it sheds the romantic term "classic." The moment art music becomes "classic," it instantly expires, and not because there is no space in the world for such values as a deviation from daily life (or at least for the aspiration that good artworks will continue to encourage us to accept the interpretive challenge in the future); rather, because an artwork can be such only in retrospect.[30] As noted at the outset, the novelty of a work does not depend on its age. Whether we deal with four-hundred-years-old music or with a piece that was just recently composed, its classical dimension becomes clear only retrospectively, as long as it remains modern, or in other words, current, in the non-topical sense of its date of composition. If a work such as Monteverdi's L'Orfeo still manages to instigate interpretative disagreements, to challenge performers, listeners, and music scholars, and… to excite, it deserves that dubious title. But a work that wins, in the year of its composition, an institutional prize under the category "classical work" for its affinity with some academic tradition, reluctantly serves the institutions that appear to be supporting it by granting it money and status, but which in fact slowly strangle it. Cultural institutes indeed suppress art music, both spiritually (for under their sponsorship it can barely express a true protest, and becomes part of the culture industry, however peripheral and esoteric), and physically (for it obtains those morsels that keeps it alive, defeated, and grateful but do not allow it to evolve, to rebel, and to live its truth). I do not suggest terminating the support for art. On the contrary, every artist ought to earn a living, and contemporary composers' labor, especially in Israel, is typically Sisyphean and unrewarding. My argument is normative: it may be possible to apply the term "classical" to the music style of the turn of the 18th century, although I doubt it that all those composers whom we label "classists" considered their status and works in this term;[31] but perhaps it is time to avoid using this term in relation to challenging art music. It is not merely a terminological issue but one that concerns our thinking about music.

Can high art still influence object-subject relations and represent an alternative to oppressive experience? Apparently not every artwork was designed to lead to spiritual liberation; there are other good reasons for listening to music, as Taruskin argues. But can we at all reach a general agreement about the criteria for "liberating" music? And if so, will every act of listening to works that meet such hypothetical criteria bring about such liberating experiences? In each and every listening? For every listener, educated and uninformed alike? Under any listening conditions, including the mall elevator? Can any late quartet by Beethoven, for example, arouse a profound spiritual feeling when one may "get it" on the Web in one click, sample it hastily, then disengage without any commitment and difficulty, forfeiting its "halo" in the age of mechanical reproduction, to use Walter Benjamin's terms? And more generally, does "high" music still hold a privileged status? Can we not achieve such an authentic liberating moment through other types of music?

We return to the "light" and "weighty" problem. What is light in such albums as Coltrane's A Love Supreme or Genesis's The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway? What can one regard as uncomplicated or meager in an album such as Bjork's Debut? A poorly attended student concert, a rock concert in an intimate club, or listening to early music on the road – the world is filled with opportunities for alternative, non-commercialized sound experiences. Surely, the criteria for alternative music do not depend on style, genre, instrumentation, or any other artificial dichotomy. Adopting a Marcusian rather than Adornian stance, nobody needs precisely Beethoven or a respectable – and expensive – concert, in order to achieve spiritual elevation, because like any other authentic experience, there is no predetermined, fixed formula that will yield this; such consolations exist only in religion and in its updated form, the new-age. But there are probably types of music and situations that boost the sense of self-criticism. One need not be a postmodernist in order to criticize rigid ways of thinking. This is, indeed, the essence of modernity: to question, criticize, and be transformed. But the attitude whereby any work may lead to any type of experience is a dangerous fraud. It is worth seeking earnestly the borderline beyond which it is difficult to assume that critical, emancipatory foundations will be preserved for the benefit of the listening subject. A significant gap lies between the frozen canon and the global supermarket, even if it is extremely difficult to define it. Otherwise, we can go back and play Bach at the train station.

Recapitulating Taruskin's list of dangers, I adopt most of it except for one malaise that we ought to preserve, namely the utopian delirium. True, the idea concerning the autonomy of art is part of an ideological conception (and is not postmodernism one as well?), but this fact does not necessarily subvert the vital aspects of this autonomy. There is an indulging and gratifying art, replicated and easily digested, and there is a challenging, brave, and critical art that constantly seeks to reinvent itself and challenge those who show interest in it.

The niche of classical music (without quotation marks), as music with depths as opposed to surface music, confronts these days two internal risks that threaten its authenticity: the vulgarity of  pompous avant-garde on one hand, and the vulgarity of fake kitsch on the other. Despite all this, it remains more heterogeneous, liberal, and daring than most alternative styles surrounding it, and is needed not merely for its richness of expressivity but also for the emancipatory prospect it can offer. But this is only one of many other possibilities. The negative dialectics, as Adorno noted, cannot "come to rest within itself, as if it were total; that is its form of hope."[32]

(Translation: Tamara Balter)

[1] The article was published in 2007 in the Washington Post and appeared in Hebrew translation in one of the leading newspapers in Israel. You can read the complete article and watch some videos documenting parts of that incident by following this link:


[2] Throughout the article the term "classical" is used within quotation marks for two reasons: (a) to avoid confusion between general categories of musical types and periodic-stylistic categories, as the Viennese classicism of the end of the 18th century or the neoclassicism of the beginning of the 20th century; and (b) to emphasize the problematic baggage of meaning that this term (as well as other related terms, such as "art music," "high music," and "concert music") carries. All these terms are similarly problematic and limited, as I show here.

[3] Similarly to previous terms, "contemporary music" is an empty term. A fundamental part of the repertoire that is ascribed to it had been composed even before the two previous generations (parents and grandparents of the audience) were born.

[4] Yet another problematic concept. Just as it is difficult to define precisely what "classical" music is, it is fairly unclear what "light" or "popular" music is, and where the borderline between them is. The aesthetic aspect is not the only culprit. For example, there are numerous "classical" works that have become popular, just as there are works and styles in the field of "light" music that have gained "classical" canonic status.

[5] See, for example: William Weber, The great transformation of musical taste: concert programming from Haydn to Brahms (New York, N.Y.: Cambridge University Press, 2008).

[6] Richard Taruskin, The Oxford History of Western Music (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005).

[7] Richard Taruskin, "Books: The Mystique – Defending classical music against its devotees," The New Republic, 22 October, 2007. The full article may be found online at:


The article also appeared two years later in Taruskin's book of collected essays (the citations here refer to the version in this book): The Danger of Music and Other Anti-Utopian Essays (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009).

[8] Julian Johnson, Who Needs Classical Music? Cultural Choice and Musical Value (N.Y.: Oxford University Press, 2002); Joshua Fineberg, Classical Music, Why Bother? Hearing the World of Contemporary Culture Through a Composer's Ears (N.Y.: Routledge, 2006); Lawrence Kramer, Why Classical Music Still Matters (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007).

[9] Taruskin, "Books: The Mystique", p. 332.

[10] See, for example: Carl Dahlhaus, "The Esthetics of Feeling and Metaphysics", in The Idea of Absolute Music, trans. Lustig, Roger (Chicago, Illinois: The University of Chicago Press, 1989 [1976]), pp. 58-77.

[11] Friedrich Schlegel, Fragment 108 from "Athenaeum Fragments," in Philosophical Fragments, tr. Peter Firchow (University of Minnesota Press, 1991).

[12] The Hebrew word used here for "Chains" also means "Cables," i.e. TV cable channels.

[13] Stephen Hinton, Reviewed Works, Journal of the American Musicological Society, Vol. 56 No. 1 (Spring 2003): p. 213.

[14] Note that critical theory does not defy progress as such and expresses no romantic nostalgia for a pre-technological world, à la Heidegger, for example; it does not advocate abstinence from the riches offered by technology, as the problem does not lie with technology alone but rather with its misuse. It is important, however,  to be aware of the ways in which the "means of production" change the needs, of the danger of total narcosis that they may cause—today more than ever before—and of their influence on the way in which we perceive and experience music.

[15] Taruskin, "Books: The Mystique," p. 345. Incidentally, the title of Taruskin's article is a parody of an exchange with one of Adorno's (problematic) essays: Theodor Adorno, "Bach Defended against His Devotees" [1951], in Prisms, trans. Samuel and Shierry Weber (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1981), pp. 133-146.

[16] Taruskin, "Books: The Mystique", p. 346-347.

[17] It is apparently possible to find a musical canon, like any canonic repertoire, in any culture with a preserved tradition (although in the west, the preservation of a large canon was possible owing to enhanced documentation means – notation, recording devices, etc.).

[18] The canon in the 19th century does not resemble the definition of the canon at the beginning of the 21st century. Dramatic changes can be found even by a simple comparison between different editions of one of the most influential books on the teaching of history of western music (Norton History of Western Music), since his first editions in the 1960s to this day.

[19] Tia DeNora, After Adorno: Rethinking Music Sociology (Cambridge University Press, 2003).

[20] "Art can be understood only by its laws of movement, not according to any set of invariants. It is defined by its relation to what it is not. The specifically artistic in art must be derived concretely from its other; that alone would fulfill the demands of a materialistic-dialectical aesthetics. Art acquires its specificity by separating itself from what it developed out of; its law of movement is its law of form. It exists only in relation to its other; it is the process that transpires with its other." Theodor W. Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, tr. Robert Hullot-Kentor (Continuum Impacts 2004 [1970]), p. 3.

[21] DeNora particularly refers to the chapter about types of listeners, which opens his book on the sociology of music. This chapter has provoked angry reactions from several scholars: Theodor Adorno, "Types of Musical Conduct," in Introduction to the Sociology of Music (New York: Seabury Press, 1976 [1962]), pp. 1-20.

[22] Terry Eagleton, Ideology: an Introduction (London: Verso, 1991), p. 166.

[23] Taruskin, "Books: The Mystique," p. 347.

[24] Laurence Kramer, Classical Music and Postmodern Knowledge (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995), p. 5.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Susan McClary, "Getting Down Off the Beanstalk,” in Minnesota Composers Forum Newsletter (January 1987), p. 128.

[27] See, for instance, John M. Ellis, Against deconstruction (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1989), especially chapter 5.

[28] Robert Fink, "Beethoven Antihero: Sex, Violence, and the Aesthetics of Failure, or, Listening to the Ninth Symphony as Postmodern Sublime," in: Beyond Structural Listening? Postmodern Modes of Hearing, Ed. Andrew Dell’Antonio (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004), pp. 109-153. Fink attributes great significance to the fact that the F-sharp (major third of D, at that shaking moment in the reprise) does not conventionally resolve through G-sharp to A. See in particular pp. 124-137.

[29] Julian Horton, Review: Beyond structural listening? Postmodern Modes of Hearing, ed. Andrew Dell'Antonio (University of California Press, 2004), in: Current Musicology, No. 78 (Fall 2004), p. 97.

[30] George Steiner defines classical works of art as signifying forms which "reads" the audience more than the audience reads (listens to, perceives) it: "Each time we engage with it, the classical will question us. It will challenge our resources of consciousness and intellect, of mind and body […]. The classic will ask of us: "have you understood?";"have you re-imagined responsibly?"; "are you prepared to act upon to the questions, upon the potentialities of transformed, enriched being which I have posed?", in George Steiner, Errata, an Examined Life (London: Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 1997), p. 19.

[31] James Webster, one of the greatest researchers of 18th century music, suggested renouncing the term "classical" even within its stylistic context, and replacing it by the term "the first Viennese modernism." See: James Webster, "Between Enlightenment and Romanticism in Music History: "First Viennese Modernism" and the Delayed Nineteenth Century," in 19th-Century Music, 25/2/3 (2001-2002), pp. 108-126.

[32] Adorno, Negative Dialectics, Trans. E. B. Ashton (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1973), p. 406.


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