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Education: Rotterdam Conservatory, Cambridge University // Activities: composition, writing

Monday 14 February 2022

Booming classicism

In contemporary architecture, from more or less the sixties of the last century onwards, a small alternative movement to modernism has sprung-up in Great Britain: new classicism. Long laughed at by the architectural establishment as silly pastiche by and for people who had no understanding of modern times, it has meanwhile developed internationally into a broad delta, and its ideas have fertilized the barren soil of many an urban landscape damaged by the monstruosities of mass utopianism in glass and steel.

One of the fathers of the movement is Léon Krier, who developed a brilliant body of theory and cultural philosophy, describing the possibilities of a new form of classicism and a much better urban planning based upon real human needs and inborn aesthetic perception. He also showed the problems which lie at the heart of modernism as a mindset, which were already clear at its beginning in the early 20th century, and have always accompanied negative reactions to its aesthetics, but were always rejected as 'reactionary ignorance'. Krier has built, from the eighties onwards, the model town of Poundbury, where new classicism was explored, experimented with, and has found very satisfying solutions for new building for the 21st century.


While new classicism in architectural is booming - and increasingly understood as a 'way forward' in relation to the climate crisis and economic instabilities which inevitably come in the wake of modernity - not much of a comparable awareness is seen in the world of classical music. And this while already from the seventies onwards quite some composers, especially in the USA and the UK, have explored this rich territory. Why is this so? Is the artistic quality of the works insufficient? But how do we know if the music is so rarely heard? Also, there does not seem to be any public awareness of this promising movement, as if most interest of audiences for contemporary music has dwindled with the musical form of modernism - sonic art and its progeny - and the often deplorable banality of what can best be called postmodern hip, new music which borrows from popular and film music to become 'accessible'. 

Architecture stands in the middle of public opinion because it is defining in a direct way the human environment, you cannot escape it. But art music lives in a bubble of a complicated practice, which developed in the course of the 19th century when the bourgeoisie created the public concert hall and the public opera house; it takes place in special buildings outside the regular walks of life, and is often seen as a sophisticated fringe entertainment or luxury business for the happy few. How misleading is such an idea.

Music is always later in terms of development than the other arts. Painting has already for decennia opened her arms to realism and other kinds of figurative creation; music has its own tempo due to its complex realisation process, and the existence of a core repertoire which funishes almost all space on the concert programmes. Modernism in music wanted to create an entirely new kind of experience and for that reason had to break with the past, the entire past; but it is with traditions as with human nature: that which connects with our deepest needs will always return to the surface, no matter what. There are elements in artistic aesthetics which are connected to patterns of perception and interpretation which are deeply embedded in the human psyche; and we see them form a continuum through history in all cultures of the globe. Also we see regularly a revival of older practices, because in certain periods the need for continuity and connection requires a delving into the timeless sources of artistic beauty and meaning, simply to confirm our humanity. Some examples: the 'Golden Age' of the Augustan Renaissance during the Roman Empire, a period of revival of cilvilisation under the first emperor Augustus (27 BC - 14 AD); the Carolingan Renaissance under Charlemagne (9th century); the Italian Renaissance in the 15th and 16th century. The entire period from ancient Greek times onwards till and including most of the 19th century can be seen as a culture of Hellenism, in which tropes, ideas, aesthetics and repertoires are continuously interpreted according to historic circumstances and collective tastes. So, it is clear - given historic evidence - that quality creation, individualism, variation and development can happen while dipping into the flow of tradition, which is not something dead or merely a museum, but a living stream in the collective subconscious. Classicism is again rising-up from the depths of condemnation by totalitarian utopists, and is offering again its atemporal experiences about the human condition.

One of the problems that new classicism in music encounters, is the educational one: the craft is nowhere taught, while in painting and architecture there have now been set-up educational trajectories at various academies and universities internationally. But the composers currently carrying the movement, have mostly been self-taught, exploring for themselves the techniques which were handed-down from generation to generation in the past but which were cut-off after WW II by the protagonists of 'progress in music' (which, by th way, does not exist). All the more admirable that they have been able to reclaim the richness of a practice which is the basis of all great art.

Another problem is the way, how concert life is organised: it is mostly handled as a business where money is the bottom line. Musical considerations take a backseat in organising concerts, and staff dealing with the many problems of the practice, have not much background in music - they have to deal with practical and financial problems which would simply torpede concert life if they were not solved. It is to be hoped that orchestras and opera houses will be better aware that here, a rich source is offered of audience success, which is both benefitting the financial department as well as honoring the contents of the practice: artistic quality and renewal, without which the art form would be suffocated to death.

New classical music is, in short, the fresh breath the concert world desperately needs if it will sustain itself in the 21st century. Therefore it should look at other art forms and architecture, how new classicism is developing in those fields, and take some ideas from its successes, which promise a flowering of artistic quality that has not been seen for a long time.