The Long Goodbye

From Phil over at Dial “M”:

Here’s the Dial M thought for the day:

The aesthetic ideal of pop is the perfect realization of the expected pattern.

Because of this, he goes on to say, “pop is a classicizing aesthetic, not an innovating, modernizing one”. Which probably goes a long way towards explaining the enduring popularity of Mozart.

Hey, wait a minute—isn’t Phil talking about American Idol? Same difference, I say: the main reason Mozart still packs ’em in, relatively speaking, is the main reason people can’t seem to get enough of the not-terribly-suspenseful “suspense” dished out by Simon Cowell et al. You see, they’re both a lot like a detective novel.

In his witty essay “The Myth of Superman” (reprinted in The Role of the Reader), Umberto Eco has a fascinating digression about detective novels.

The reader of detective stories can easily make an honest self-analysis to establish the modalities that explain his ‘consuming’ them. First, from the beginning the reading of a traditional detective story presumes the enjoyment of following a scheme: from the crime to the discovery and the resolution through a chain of deductions.

Eco points out that this particular “iterative scheme” includes not just the basic outline of the story, but a “fixed schematism involving the same sentiments and the same psychological attitudes”—returning characters show little emotional development from story to story. What’s more, the habits, preferences, and recognizable tics of the characters are also part of the scheme: Sherlock Holmes’ pipe and violin, Nero Wolfe’s orchids, Lord Peter’s incunabula, etc. Such props and mannerisms let us “find an old friend in the character portrayed, and they are the principal conditions which allow us to ‘enter in’ to the event.”

The attraction of the book, the sense of repose, of psychological extension which it is capable of conferring, lies in the fact that, plopped in an easy chair or in the seat of a train compartment, the reader continuously recovers, point by point, what he already knows, what he wants to know again: that is why he has purchased the book.

Eco compares this with eighteenth-century popular fiction, in which “the event was founded upon a development and the character was required to ‘consume’ himself through to death.” This was the preferred entertainment for a time in which ideas of class, morality, and tradition were fixed, unchanging, and continually reinforced. People living in a society of such constant, redundant messages had no need of redundancy in their fiction. Goodbye to all that, though:

In a contemporary industrial society, instead, the alternation of standards, the dissolution of tradition, social mobility, the fact that models and principles are ‘consumable’—everything can be summed up under the sign of a continuous load of information which proceeds by way of massive jolts, implying a continual reassessment of sensibilities, adaptation of psychological assumptions, and requalification of intelligence. Narrative of a redundant nature would appear in this panorama as an indulgent invitation to repose, the only occasion of true relaxation offered to the consumer.

Which is as sensible an explanation for the modern popularity of Mozart as any I’ve ever heard. People whose societal expectations have been continually upended crave redundancy, and eighteenth-century classicism, it seems to me, provides more opportunity for experiencing redundancy than any other “serious” musical genre. In comparison with the Baroque, it’s more regular in its phrase length and more digestibly discrete in its form; unlike Romanticism, it’s less liable to sonic novelty and more formally well-behaved. Themes come and go on schedule, cadenzas crop up right where they’re supposed to, and that familiar 6-5 trill brings every V-I cadence satisfyingly home. And Mozart’s talent was uniquely suited to the style. Bernard Shaw once quipped, “If it hadnt been for this cursed dexterity of his, Mozart would have enlarged music more than he did; for when there is no cliché that will serve he produces something new without effort.” Not just a Shavian paradox: it was the struggle to avoid such clichés that led less fecund composers like C.P.E. Bach towards more experimental forms and harmonies, which has relegated them to curiosity status, while Mozart still reigns supreme. (Can you make this argument for other canonical composers? To a certain extent, although I think Mozart works the best—and he’s also the most popular. Coincidence?)

So the next time I’m rolling my eyes at the nth variation on the thematic scold that modern music is too cerebral, too complex, “too much head and not enough heart” (love that one—think those people would want their doctor to adopt a physiological concept that outdated?)—in their view, not Mozartian enough—I can remind myself that the complainers simply don’t want the same musical experience that I do. I want to be excited, challenged, exhilarated, and changed; they want the experience of knowing what they already know, of having an idea of an orderly universe summarized and confirmed. (In the Idol universe, that order even gets confirmed by popular vote.)

Let me be clear: I’m not making a value judgment. People want what they want. Sure, I believe that listeners who go to a concert hoping not for surprise and wonder, but for its absence, are shutting themselves off from an awful lot, but what do I know? The popularity of a host of cultural artifacts mystifies me. But at least you can’t accuse American Idol of false advertising: the very season-to-season premise of the show, in fact, trumpets its own redundancy and predictability loud and clear. Whereas composers and musicians are working overtime to conjure up wonder and mystery for an audience of which a significant portion is just sitting around, waiting for that great “Elvira Madigan” theme to pull into the station again. Is there another medium that has this much disconnect between the intent of the producer and the expectation of the consumer? It’s like we’re selling them Henry James and they think they’re buying Tom Clancy.

What does this mean for the music of our own time? Well, if Mozart’s popularity is really due to his comfortable redundancy, then there’s no hope in convincing those Mozart listeners to embrace new music, be it tonal or atonal, minimalist or maximalist; its very newness, its inherent unpredictability, is what is objectionable. “Modern music” is now more deliberately audience-friendly than it’s been at any time since Mozart’s, and that hasn’t translated into a bumper crop of converts. (And don’t start arguing that atonality somehow scared everybody off for good sometime between the Kennedy and Nixon administrations. Was there ever a time when “difficult” contemporary music even came close to making up a majority of any mainstream classical ensemble’s repertoire? Besides, this is America—we don’t make decisions based on anything that happened more than five minutes ago.)

On the other hand, the forces that cause people to scamper back to the sonic safety of eighteenth-century Vienna may be waning. My generation is one of the last to have to make the transition from the pre-computer industrial age to the present information age, with all the insecurity that accompanies such disruptions. The present generation is growing up surrounded by a sea of information, and doesn’t seem to regard it with any great apprehension. The sheer number of new musical genres and sub-genres that have sprouted across the digital landscape would seem to confirm that redundancy is becoming less and less important as an entertainment value, or, at the very least, that there is room in the culture for a near-endless variety of different redundant schemes. Combined with lowered barriers to production and distribution, it’s a good time to be writing just about any kind of music.

Will Wolfgang be cast aside in this brave new world? Nonsense. I rather think that people will learn how to listen to him the way he meant: not focusing on the redundant aspects of his music, not taking temporary comfort in his similarities, but becoming alive to the invention he brings to each new piece, the subtle ways in which he toys with form and harmony and expectation. And once he’s hot again? I can’t wait for Zauberflöte night on Idol.


  1. The path is clear then. When they sit down, and considering the fear they’ll have of most “modern” concert music, we should be thankful they bother sometimes… waiting for the “Elvira Madigan” theme to pull into the station, while we’re advancing/breaking the molds and traditions of the past in innovative ways (while perhaps tame or obvious to the reader now, Beethoven played with sonata form in somewhat daring ways for his time) let us still manage to provide that content, harmonic, thematic, or melodic… which can make them…swoon.

    I agree with the vast majority of what you said, but it’s really easy as composers to write for other people who marvel at each others voicings and doublings in each others orchestrations, and at some essential point, forget to communicate with the listener. I’m not suggesting the score needs to be more “accessible”, or to dumb anything down. I’m suggesting that perhaps we all spend too much time writing for our fellow music nerds, and forget to connect with the lyric soul who we often times find ourselves most wanting to please.

  2. Fascinating essay, though I disagree with your “safe and usual” application for Mozart. The people who really enjoy regularity are the Go For Baroque Folk (Vivaldi, Telemann, Bach), and that’s been true for decades.

    Mozart is a special bridge character. His music is often used as baroque pablum on the radio, and he certainly wrote plenty of workmanlike incidental music, but his great works have a special quality unlike any other composer. Which means they’re not really all that soothing or regular.

    Your quote from Eco about detective novels was great. I’ve been wondering why everybody I see, including myself, is reading stupid genre crime fiction and it’s finally been explained. It’s a warm narrative blanket.

  3. Sfmike is completely right, of course; I think the point is that Mozart uniquely excels as both an innovative composer and a redundant one. (Your point about the Italian baroque is spot on—although being my perverse self, I listen to Vivaldi and Scarlatti hanging on for the proto-Expressionist moments.) Musicians play a lot of Mozart because the details are so finely wrought; those in the audience looking for a redundant experience like Mozart because he provides them with one in a manner that is polished, classy, and artistic. (Compare a Mozart recapitulation with a Dittersdorf one and you’ll see what I mean.)

    And wjmego is right about Mozart’s swoon-worthiness, but I don’t think that other segment of the audience is that interested in swooning. Again, I don’t want to judge that as an aesthetic; if people don’t want to swoon, that’s their business. It just strikes me that, if it’s true, a lot of people are listening to Mozart in a pretty one-dimensional way, and no amount of proselytizing is going to get them to hear the things that we listen to Mozart for.

  4. Sirs; madams:

    I must de-lurk in pique. Sfmike is not right.

    Yes, Sfmike seems spot-on about Mozart, but his odd dismissal of the Italian Baroque — or, actually, the entire baroque period (as he himself made no national divisions) seems strangely out of place in this argument. There is no question that both Vivaldi and Telemann wrote glib music — but also — as should be needless to say — some very startling, strange, and lovely things. Vivaldi himself refers to this argument about the expected and the disruptive in the title of his collection Il Cimento dell’armonia e dell’inventione — the cimento arises because the regularities of accepted armonia are interrupted by the perversities of inventione.

    Needless to say, any idiom — be it that of the High Baroque or of mid-90’s grunge rock or of the plucking of the classical zheng — may be dismissed by emphasizing its sameness — a sameness which is always ameliorated and modified by a more generous approach to the genre. Those willing to recognize and entertain the standard maneuvers of the idiom may ALWAYS move beyond the banality of repetition to understand moments both of “proto-Expressionist” disruption and also of a particularly beautiful and unusual craftsmanship. It took me years to actually appreciate Viennese Classicism because, precisely, it took me years to stop hearing the cliched gentility and pomp of the period and begin to understand why the Sturm und Drang are not simply tempests in a teapot. I speak up because I fear that a lot of conservatory teaching tends to enact this dismissal of everything before 1780 in the ends of a myth of teleology and post-Romantic “greatness.”

    Having said that, the High Baroque shares more, imhop, with the Classical period than with the late 17th C Baroque — in that the two 18th C styles both tend to strive for maximum horizontal integration. You do have to actually listen to notice many of the moments of drama and extremity, the means of tension — which doesn’t make them any less powerful. But this integration does mean that both 18th C periods are perfect fodder for background musak, because, as Mr. The Dog has indicated, much of the casually listening public doesn’t wish for disruption, interested more in a lack of jar than in the presence of jam. Music of the 18th C — Classical and High Baroque — gets lumped together because of a certain sociological function, performing as an anonymous signifier of sophistication and “high class” with no reference to musical specificities. Note that mall soundtracks do not include, for example, Bach’s “Chromatic” Fantasy; nor any of the brilliant, “neo-Expressionist” fantasias and keyboard sonatas of his much-maligned son (grrr, Soho, with your anti-fecundity); nor any of the 17th C Baroque works that examine vertical disjunction rather than the fluidity of melody.

    In short: In sneering at the Baroque, Sfmike performs exactly the same act of flattening that those who listen to Mozart for his regularity and predictability, rather than his innovation, perform. It is a disservice to these composers and their affective aims, their compositional ingenuity. Such an opinion conveys little about the specifics of these composers or their works; but rather is simply an expression of what Sfmikey likes.

    Okay. Having said that, I always love the posts and conversations on this blog. Soho, you’re a force.

    Now, back into the lurkarium.

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