Don’t fear if you hear a foreign sound to your ear

The latest chapter of Greg Sandow’s online book-in-progress is up, and he brings up (among other things) Brahms—specifically, how Brahms and his generation were the first composers laboring under the weight of a pre-existing canon of great music (Bach and Beethoven, mainly). Along the way, he makes an interesting comparison:

Later, when Brahms encountered Robert Schumann (a composer who embodied, though in his own poetic way, reverence for the pantheon), and both Schumann and his wife (a famous pianist) hailed him as…well, as what rock critics a dozen years ago would have called “the new Dylan,” what they meant, of course, and quite explicitly, is that he was the new Beethoven. This didn’t only bring encouragement. It brought responsibility; the pantheon was weighty, and composers who aspired to it had to write the kind of weighty music Beethoven had written, which above all meant symphonies.

Think about the contrast between Brahms and Dylan for a moment. Brahms held off writing a symphony for years because of the anxiety of Beethoven’s influence and the awareness that others regarded him as having inherited the master’s mantle. Can you imagine Dylan, on the other hand, putting off Blonde on Blonde because he was worried about what, say, Pete Seeger would think? (Anxiety of expectation isn’t a classical-vs.-popular issue, either—consider Brian Wilson post-Pet Sounds or, in another medium, William Friedkin’s post-Exorcist filmography.)

In an important way, though, Dylan represents an attitude and a temperament that’s almost completely absent in the classical world. I can’t think of a classical composer who ever adopted the sort of persona Dylan did in order to deflect and neutralize the “responsibility” that comes with a public anointing as a “great artist.” It’s that character—the trickster, the charlatan, answering questions with aphoristic absurdities, and going out of his way to subvert the expectations of loyal disciples—that classical music could use more of. John Cage is the closest example I can think of, although maybe you could make a case for Michael Tippett. Lukas Foss has done a fair amount in this vein, but (unjustly) has never had the public reputation of a canonical composer; Stravinsky never really risked his public reputation, for all his stylistic peregrinations. (I need to hear more of R. Murray Schafer—he seems like a possible candidate.)

With all the big premieres I’ve heard, in every case, good or bad, the piece pretty much confirmed what I already thought about the composer. It’s been an awfully long time since a classical event unleashed a ruckus like Dylan going electric, or even, dare we say it, Self-Portrait. What’s missing? More premieres, for one thing; most composers are lucky if they get even one major commission, and it takes a special kind of recklessness to risk a train wreck, even a spectacular one. But the dominant ethos of the classical music industry these days is to play it safe, even with regards to innovation. (It’s one of the reasons there’s more early music than new music—early music is unusual and novel without being threatening.) And when the big organizations do program contemporary music, they bend over backwards to make sure it goes down easy (well-known composers, advance publicity, pre-concert talks, reassuring program notes, etc.). Why not just pull the rug out from under people every so often? It’s worked for Bob.

One comment

  1. Dylan’s in-plug was regarded, in part, as a political betrayal. So perhaps there’s room for a George W. Bush Overture, complete with Predator drones buzzing the audience.

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