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Common Knowledge 9.1 (2003) 78-99

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Consequences of Canon
The Institutionalization Of Enmity Between Contemporary And Classical Music

William Weber

When concerts of "classical music"—only recently so named—arose in the nineteenth century, they brought with them a culture of intense enmity between new and old music. Ask any composer in the avant-garde today what symphony orchestras have done for him or her, and you will unleash a barrage of resentment against such institutions. Then ask a subscriber to orchestra concerts how much new music should be performed, and you will get the contrary reaction: an accusation that composers do not care about the public, that they write only for each other. We take these expressions of enmity for granted now; they seem natural, inherent to the musical landscape. The dense polemical meanings of the term "modern music" define an area of high art where proponents and opponents have little common ground and where conflict has become institutionalized. When agreement periodically occurs—there is a popular taste for various works by Igor Stravinsky, Aaron Copland, Henryk Gorecki, and John Adams—the agreement is quickly disclaimed by an avant-garde anxious to recategorize modern pieces in concert repertory as "merely popular." Myself, I love much music by avant-garde composers but despair of their polemics; I therefore wish to help make possible a language, built on historical foundations, by which to understand the stalemate between the contemporary and the classical.

To comprehend how the stalemate happened, we must investigate the [End Page 78] process through which classics replaced contemporary music, first in concert programs and then in opera, and next investigate how that change spawned a separate world of new music largely isolated from public life. This cultural framework, in both its polemical and institutional aspects, was in place by around 1910. By that time, classical-music repertories dominated the great majority of the most important concert series, from those of symphony orchestras and chamber-music groups to those of solo recitals. The public had become instinctively skeptical of anything new, and living composers had begun to build their own concert world. Composers' anger at their limited access to key concert repertories led them to define new music as a moral cause for high art; the composers developed concerts dedicated to the performance of serious contemporary music—concerts run by themselves, by musicians, by their patrons and friends, and usually attended by few others.

Musical modernism, in other words, did not create the problem. It was not that composers alienated the public by writing music beyond what most people would like or could understand. Rather, by 1910 concert life had shifted its focus so much from contemporary to classical repertory that new works now took up a problematic, often marginal place within musical life.

Still, in the long term, the very rhetoric that divided classical from contemporary music has served as a means of negotiation between the two. While the two sides have deprecated one another intensely from the beginning of the twentieth century, they in the process have worked out practices by which new music has maintained at least a limited standing in the life of the average concertgoer. However much the stalemate between new and old music has become institutionalized, new musical and social pressures have brought both sides to adapt to change and devise new ways, if usually small ones, by which contemporary music can relate to the larger musical world. The language of deprecation has proved politically malleable, despite its harshness. Thus did the British Broadcasting Company fund extensive performances of avant-garde works beginning in the late 1920s, and four decades later the National Endowment for the Arts in the United States began requiring ensembles given grants to offer some new music on their programs. Whether those moves helped or hurt public appreciation of contemporary music is of course an open question. 1

The epitomes of twentieth-century musical enmity are books published in the 1950s by the British critic Henry Pleasants and the Russo-American encyclopedist Nicolas Slonimsky. In their...


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