Thursday, 10 December 2020

Conservative music?

The classical music world is often accused of being conservative. But in what sense could the field be conservative? And what is meant by 'conservative'?

In colloquial speak, conservatives want to freeze things - mostly things that are considered precious and from the past - so that they stand still and are thus preserved for the present and the future. For people with a gusto for life, this means 'death': no new creativity, no new developments, no change - the priority of life is change. But change without purpose is meaningless, since it can lead to both something good and something bad. So, there is a need for measurement and standards. But which, from where, and how to apply them? This is the big dilemma of the last century.

Classical music as a genre is not conservative, at most it is conservative in the sense that the medical profession is conservative, in a literal way: to help the human body to withstand the ravages of life, but not to make it stop living, but instead to make it living more fully and with better quality.

The accusation of conservatism (always meant as a pejorative gesture) stems from the misunderstanding of what a cultural tradition is. Because the arts wanted, at the beginning of the last century, to liberate themselves from a restricted and orthodox version of tradition, they threw-out the baby with the bath water, and did not look beyond 19C academism. Before the academisation of music took hold in the educational systems of Europe, tradition was an utterly practical availability taken for granted, and freely adapted, varied, explored, and developed - it was something living, and not 'academic' at all. Composers learned from each other and from works of the past (for instance, Mozart absorbed the style and techniques of J.S. Bach later in life, and in some works created an amalgam of baroque and the classical style, and incorporated baroque elements in his symphonies). So, a cultural tradition that is viable, is much alive, but without any orthodoxy. In comparison, the 20C orthodoxy of trying to be consciously 'progressive' has merely done damage to the minds that want to follow what others do - conservative minds, in fact.

So, a true cultural tradition is not 'conservative' at all, but open to interpretation and variation, as a language is when it is still used in the reality of life. But what about the self-proclaimed conservatives who defend the classical tradition in music? Aren't they then the orthodoxists, wanting to freeze something that was alive? When, for instance, you read Roger Scruton - a famous / notorious self-proclaimed conservative philosopher and musicologist - on music, like his Aesthetics of Music, you find that there is nothing 'conservative' in anything he has to say on the subject, 'conservative' in the freezing sense. In contrary, he demonstrates the life and the continuous development that Western classical music has undergone over the ages. 

And what about the progressive camp in culture, treating music and the visual arts as instruments for dissolving any quality standards and as a weapon for social justice, or trying to paint Western culture as merely a product of Western imperialism and appropriation, of war mongering and racism, of suppression of minorities? With all the quasi-moral taboos and misconceived accusations, born from ignorance? The typical group think that escapes from that cauldron when we lift the lid, signifies the well-known smell of conservatism, the orthodox mindset that results from clinging to a very limited perception, wanting to freeze it for eternity and for everybody else, and is prepared to sacrifice any precious achievement of the past on the altar of immature utopias.

So, the notions of 'conservatism' and 'progressiveness' appear to be so malleable that they becomes quite meaningless, and entirely inappropriate in reference to classical music as a genre and its practices in concert life. And if progressives or conservatives hit upon a truth, that does not mean that this truth suddenly becomes progressive or conservative; it means that finding this truth is to their credit, whatever their world view.