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Firm foundations

In a series of meetings with Goethe, the great poet and dramatist in the 1820s, the young Mendelssohn engaged the aging poet, then in his seventies, in discussions of great depth regarding the importance of hearing and creating music as the continuation of tradition.  
Goethe was having a difficult time understanding new music; he was after all born the same year Handel wrote the Music for the Royal Fireworks, and was over sixty at the first performance of Haydn’s oratorio The Seasons in the spring of 1801.  Mendelssohn was unable to make Beethoven’s music appeal to the old man (although it is interesting that he should try: the 50-year old composer had an eccentric reputation), but they did fully agree that ‘nothing new is worth anything unless its roots are well and profoundly planted in the inherited earth’.
A century later T.S. Eliot wrote in praise of tradition in his essays For Lancelot Andrewes –  “it is impossible to write anything original unless you are steeped in tradition“.  Nadia Boulanger repeatedly insisted on ‘the chain’, her concept of ‘a continuing series of links from before Monteverdi to now‘ (she said that to me in the early 1970s).  How arrogant then are those who proceed in ignorance of the roots of their craft to attempt the making of art for public display, knowing or caring nothing of its traditions.
Chefs and composers may have something in common.  The chef aims to please and nourish the body as the composer feeds the soul.   But if the chef decides to defy tradition, discard the usual ingredients and create dishes of wood shavings, engine oil, aspirin, creosote and fertilizer, insisting that traditional flavours are outmoded and it is time to eat adventurously, how would we react?  “Whether you like it is not my concern,” cries the chef, “it is intended to be troubling, to be something quite original, owing nothing to the old values which have been successfully liquidated – it is new!
I doubt whether that chef would survive for long, but it is, in my view, an unfortunate fact that an equivalent composer may well achieve a serious hearing from a large audience of bright people, an arts funded grant, commissions from great performers and maybe a comfortable university post teaching others to do the same.  The press reviews may even be favourable – but is such work really any good to us without its roots?  Are we able to distinguish between work inspired by a fine craftsmanship derived from understanding and appreciating the skills of the past, and work that is opportunist noise making?  Perhaps more interestingly – do we care?
There is a distinct difference between a Chippendale chair and one bought as a flat pack in IKEA, but if we don’t recognise Chippendale’s craftsmanship, the cleverness of the IKEA product will get the vote.  Not knowing the difference between a horse and a donkey can be a serious problem for the innocent buyer!


Posted by author: Patric
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One thought on “Firm foundations

  • I think the more you appreciate the Arts the more you realise that quality is universal and that novelty art forms have a limited life span.While more experimental music might have migrated to the area of conceptual art alongside theatre and performance at least great music can still be heard on the radio and in concert halls. I remember attending a concert by Cornelius Cardew where he climbed a step ladder and sprinkled torn paper onto the stage. It was entertaining, but was not profound.

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