Does the great arc of history, as in the words of Martin Luther King, point toward justice? Does the “change” that so many of us seek, lead to a better outcome? Have each of us, in our time and place, anything at all to do with providing the answers that we seek? I have been brooding over these questions while plodding my way through the signature work of Jacques Barzun, “From Dawn to Decadence” his survey of the cultural history of the West from 1500 to 2000. Though Barzun, a widely recognized cultural historian, seems upbeat enough about his conclusion that we are essentially at the end of a great cultural era, I find the book depressing. While he finds, as I find, much to enliven and enrich our lives in the great works of art and of statecraft that our predecessors have left us, it is depressing to think that we are simply standing by as our age leaves an ever diminishing source of spiritual uplift and political and social inspiration for those who will come next.
Is Barzun wrong in his observations? I don’t think so. Since he published this book in 2000, totalitarian tendencies have supplanted more democratic ones in Brazil, in Turkey, in Hungary, in Poland, in India, in the Phillipines, in Russia, in China and, at least up until Nov. 2, 2020, in the United States. Most of these tendencies have been considered backward turns of the clock…interruptions of progress which, at the next bend of the arc, will resume their paths toward justice. How many of these “turns back of the clock” do we endure before we have to realize that perhaps these turns are not backward at all but “progress” as our times and situation have combined to define it?
For an answer, and a depressing one at that, I look at music, as it has evolved since about 1913, when much celebrated new works by Stravinsky and Schoenberg radically changed the idiom of our most revered new music and, it turned out, within a few decades, made the use of the musical language that produced the masterpieces of the 18th and 19thcenturies out-of-bounds for any aspiring new composer. All my adult life I have believed that the arts foreshadowdevelopments in the political and social world. They anticipate, rather than simply holding a mirror to, those political and social tendencies…and when they do hold that mirror to the world around them it is a distorting. enlarging, exaggerating mirror causing the depicted syndromes to multiply themselves like the Sorcerer’s Apprentice’s broomsticks.
Since the music of the ancient Greeks and Romans was not preserved in any way that we can fully understand it, I feel that I am an outsider to the area of cultural history that seems to articulate the view that great civilizations, rival to the best of modern civilizations, existed in the Hellenic and Roman periods, but were unable to sustain themselves. Indeed, the signs that something akin to the Fall of the Roman Empire and all of its glories is in the process of happening: enough of the world’s population and the power centers that move it, are on a path to enabling sociopathic totalitarian persons to replace the fruits of Democracy, and, whether successful in sustaining the first frontal attack on American democracy launched by Donald Trump or not, will regroup and offer even more lethal attacks in the near future.
The sign from the arts that I see pointing that way is the turning away of all the authenticating centers in music from the language that enabled music to achieve surpassing sublimity in the 18th and 19th Centuries. To me, it seems to have been a sign that the umpires of culture said, at a certain point, enough of this 18th Century stuff: the ENLIGHTENMENT IS NOW OLD HAT. WE’VE TRIED IT. LET’s move on and try something else. That something else in music had to be anything at all except a music of singable melodies above chords based on natural harmonies progressing through a system that enabled the listener to measure the distances it travelled from a starting point and find the way back to a harmonious conclusion.
Like the musical language that was transmitted to us by the likes of Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Mendelssohn, Berlioz, Dvorak, Brahms, Tchaikovsky and Faure, the political product of the Enlightenment…democratically elected and replaceable leaders with powers shared with independent legislatures and judiciaries flourished. I don’t think the intellectual world…political, social, economic, cultural, has ever paused to realize how right the 18th Century got it before moving on. In fact, I don’t think we yet know how good the 18th Century ideas (in music and in politics) were, BECAUSE WE HAVE NEVER REALLY TRIED THEM! The age of Enlightenment is climaxed in the lines of the American Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal.” That is the touchstone from which the balanced democratic system of government flows. But even the Founders who proclaimed the equality of all did not practice it when it came to the Native Americans whom they were mercilessly chasing from their native lands, or the Africans they were capturing to use as slaves. They did not even include their own ethnic Europeans of the female sex. And in many cases, they also excluded those not owning substantial property.
No: the ideals of the 18th Century were proclaimed in 1776 but have never been fully tried, even to this day. And I believe that many have made the mistake of concluding that the ideals of the 18th Century must therefore have been invalid and need to be supplanted by something new—something which can only be instituted by a totalitarian government with a leader who cannot be removed. A new dictatorship whether of the so-called proletariat, or a supposedly superior race or religion. Sorry: I think a colossal mistake is being made if we conclude that the ideals of the 18th Century have failed us. We have never really tried them. And we have failed, I think, to recognize that the passionate efforts underway today to bring justice to the marginalized people, be they women, Blacks, gays, or indigenous people are, and should be recognized, as efforts to catch up with the ideals of the 18th Century. I believe that the efforts to achieve justice for these groups—and it is vital that such efforts continue until they are successful—would have an easier chance of success if it were understood that they should not be considered a new force shocking the world like the most “far-out” art, but rather are an attempt to catch up with the ideals of the 18th Century before those ideals are thrown overboard completely.
If you wonder why the music I write continues to follow the idiomatic norms of the 18th and 19th centuries rather than those of the so-called modernists who continue to take their starting point from the abrogation of those norms, part of the reason is that I believe that the power centers of the intellectual world have moved away from…have discarded as passe, the great norms introduced by the Age of Enlightenment. Perhaps, at some future point, there will be good reason to discard the assumptions of the 18th Century, above all that all humans are created equal and should be given the rights that said equality demands, but before we even think of doing that, we should make the effort to absorb those ideals. There is more improving to do in our use of the model of Democracy. And I believe, along those lines, that such improvements can be foreshadowed by art (in my case that means music) that also holds to the ideals promulgated in the 18th century. Wasn’t it Schoenberg himself who, at one time in later life said that there is still much good music to be written in C Major? I am earnestly looking for it and trying to add to it. It would be good if you looked for it too: good for music, and good for a better world that it would anticipate; not the world of screeches and screams or other forms of primitivism.