The Mirror of Art

The arts are the mirror on society. Is this why society can never accept contemporary art? Art that shows the truth that people don’t want to see. When looking back at history the music of each period perfectly fits the period’s image, to a modern viewer. The music of the renaissance and Baroque periods were reserved and followed strict tonal rules, mirroring the reserved nature of the aristocracy and the control exerted on the population. The reserved nature was mostly driven by a desire of the commissioners for music to dance to. The reserved feeling continued into the classical period but by the time of Beethoven the link between commissioner and composer had diminished. There were fewer court composers and so less commissions for music to dance to. This left composers free to do as they pleased but still kept the tonal rules, though stretched quite excessively.
Composers such as Beethoven almost completely threw away the ideas that music had to be small and reserved. During the classical period the French and American Revolutions occurred showing a breakdown of aristocracy’s dominance over the population. This is quite obviously mirrored in the music of the time in things such as the diminishing use of dance rhythms and the larger freer motivic and harmonic development. These ideas though freer than before still have more than a little semblance of tonal structure, implying that the control by the ruling class is still very much there.
Then we get into the romantic period, of long flowing free melodies that seem to wallow in their own art. This art was being imported from all over the world such as Debussy being influenced by oriental oils and carvings. The world was getting smaller, society becoming more homogeneous, different ideas imported and exported and the influence on the music was again obvious. When Debussy started playing with the colour of notes on the piano he was scoffed at by his teacher. Like all other composers before he was criticised for ‘bad’ music simply because it did not conform to previous expectations and the rules used by previous generations. He was showing freeness in composition that was unheard of 50 years ago yet the freeness was a sign of the freer nature of society.
Very swiftly after we get Vaughn Williams who was a massive patriot and used English folk tunes of the time as the basis of his music. This mirrored English society’s longing for older times, as the colonies were definitely gaining freedom at this point. Though at the very same time we have the second Viennese school. A school of thought and composition that encouraged untold of control over music through serialism but also the complete breakdown of tonality. Even though serialism was a massive controlling influence Schoenberg taught that a composer should create the tone row and then compose as before. In other words write what you like within the confines of the tone row. These two completely contrasting ideas again mirror society at the time of their fruition. Vaughn Williams the nationalist, showing the nationalistic feelings of Europe leading up to WW1 and Schoenberg the serialist showing the increased mechanisation of the time. After WW1 the control in serialism and the nationalism of Vaughn Williams can then be combined to show the ideologies’ of the Nazis this time leading up to WW2.
Skip ahead a little and we get into the domain of Boulez and Messiaen. Boulez is experimenting with total serialism and Messiaen is playing with colour in the same way as Debussy. The control has become great with Boulez and the colour more vivid with Messiaen. This again is societies mirror. Messiaen is showing the colour of the 60s while Boulez is showing the control the state is beginning to have.
Listen to the music of today, what does it say about today’s society? Does the music imply stately and reserved, happy, bright, controlled, dark or sad? Has the control that was once serialism bled into music so much that even if society is totally free the music is now unable to express it or is the new harmonic language of this generation generally darker than previous generations? The world seems to be slipping into a state of more control and anguish and this is reflected in the music. Atonal music can be beautiful but it is also almost always angular. Look into the mirror that is music and the arts, what is the world today?

The idea for this came to me earlier when I was reading the first lecture in Orientations by Boulez. I’m sorry if it rambles a bit but it is very much a stream of thought I wanted to get down there may be edits done sometime soon but not tonight. Its almost 3! Any comments are more than welcome I would quite like to get other peoples views on this.

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