Tell Me Who’s Watching
One of the best perks of being a Twitterer is that occasionally someone will screw up and type 140 or fewer characters that he didn’t mean to. This must have happened last Thursday, when a sharp-eyed Twittering composer of my acquaintance alerted me that @BBCMusicMag (the Twitter presence of the BBC Music Magazine, unsurprisingly) posted and then hastily deleted the following tweet:
Worst period of music? Classical. It hasn’t got the sophistication of Baroque, nor the passion of Romanticism. So there.
Nice try, @BBCMusicMag. On the internet, someone is always watching you; sometimes, that someone has a weekly word quota to meet.
Living in the UK, I found that classical music has retained the luster of prestige much better there than it has in the U.S.A. A corollary of this heightened regard is that the “brow” of UK classical music discourse stretches lower than it does in the States; because a larger share of middle-class Britons patronize classical music, the conversation sometimes drips past the Times all the way down to Sun-level triviality. And if there was ever a word to describe the utter ridiculousness of declaring a “worst period of music,” “trivial” is it.
Is Haydn less sophisticated than Handel? I’d need to be convinced, and @BBCMusicMag’s smug flippancy isn’t going to convince me. Is Schumann more passionate than Beethoven? Who is @BBCMusicMag to render such a judgment? The years between 1750 and 1825 gave us two major democratic revolutions and a host of other Enlightenment palpitations. The changes that took place in art music during the same time encapsulate, in miniature, many of those same sociocultural developments.
I grok the opinion that the Viennese Classical era is maybe the least sexy of our received periods. Its holy trinity—Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven—are overplayed, and that familiarity has probably bred a certain amount of contempt among @BBCMusicMag’s cosmopolitan editors. The sound-world of large-C Classical music, perhaps, is less appetizing than elaborate modal counterpoint or unrestrained chromaticism. However, what happens in Classical music is what matters, its formal (or, to put it differently, experiential) possibility-space, its interrelational potential: the music, in other words, as opposed to the sound. Adorno’s theme-whistling dilettante must have stumbled upon the password to the BBC Music Magazine’s Twitter account; surely no professional music writer would make such an asinine statement before a global audience, even if he thought better of it shortly afterward. So there.