The definition of a style period consists of a list of commonly held social assumptions. It is the character of these assumptions that defines the era. The people of any time period all share a specific perspective on the changeless all of existence; although the content of this vision is eternally fixed in timelessness, the sequencing of the time dimension creates, for the observer, now this perspective, now that; and the differences in perspective result in unique changes in the experience, interpretation, and expression of reality. The people of any time period will share in a certain a prior conceptual framework, a unique method for:
1. structuring ideas, and
2. verbalizing commonly held social attitudes.
Each phase in the progress, each link in the chain of thought, is forged from and flows out of the thought of its historical predecessor.
I have mentioned, in passing, the idea that many composers have been ahead of the current thinking of their time, while some have been behind their times; very few have been in perfect sync with the spiritual movement of their historical time period. Some few composers, like Beethoven and Verdi, have been capable of expressing, in their best art, a generalized summary of the conceptual world of their eternal present; these summaries, vibrant with archetypal resonance, telescope the moment into an articulate focus of now, and give us a streamlined view of the attitudes and values of an entire age.
This type of "contemporary" artist gains acceptance because he is capable not only of giving the public exactly what they want, but of making the public want what he wants them to want. This is not to say that this would be the artist's conscious goal (or at least his ONLY goal)--that he, like any Hollywood hack, has set out to give the people (whoever they are) some watered down approximation of what they think they want (never all that they are truly capable of)--it is simply to observe that, at certain precise moments in time, it has been possible for the faces the composers and the faces of their audiences at large, to be all turned in the same direction; all seeking after that same ineffable truth contained in that same set of articulate collective expressions.
In the collective mind resides all truth, expressed in all possible configurations of subjectively and objectively oriented media; but the collective mind is also in a constant state of flux, revolving on an axis which exposes, to nearest view, first this configuration of articulate expressions, now that one. The collective mind is not opaque nor obtuse, it merely IS, in its current state of revolution, on its infinitely turning axis, aligned at a certain time to expose a certain constellation of conceptual entities, and at a different time a different constellation. The essential truth always comes out the same, but the character of the expression, the mask of the truth, must vary from age to age. When the composer's vision and the majority's vision is the same--well, you do the math.
Many other composers find their personal vision at odds with their own time; these are the misunderstood composers, the outcasts, the geniuses who march to a different drummer, and who achieve varying levels of professional success in exact proportion to how FAR OFF the mark they are. This out-of-syncness happens because of an inherent danger in any clearly defined style: any style can make a creator lazy; the cliches out of which the style is made tend to relieve the creator of the responsibility of reaching deep inside himself for the cosmic interpretation of the archetypal symbols; for the hack composer it is enough to parrot back the stylistic patterns without deep consideration of their abstract relationships to each other. Stylistic fashion has always been a substitute for real effort.
In the following quotation from C.S. Lewis's The Screwtape Letters, the demon comments on the spiritual significance of fashion:
"The use of Fashions in thought is to distract the attention of men from their real dangers. We direct the fashionable outcry of each generation against those vices of which it is least in danger and fix its approval on the virtue nearest to that vice which we are trying to make endemic. The game is to have them all running about with fire extinguishers whenever there is a flood, and all crowding to that side of the boat which is already nearly gunwale under. Thus we make it fashionable to expose the dangers of enthusiasm at the very moment when they are all really becoming worldly and lukewarm; a century later , when we are really making them all Byronic and drunk with emotion, the fashionable outcry is directed agains the dangers of the mere "understanding." Cruel ages are put on their guard against Sentimentality, feckless and idle ones against Respectability, lecherous ones against Puritanism; and whenever all men are really hastening to be slaves or tyrants we make Liberalism the prime bogey.
But the greatest triumph of all is to elevate this horror of the Same Old Thing into a philosophy so that nonsense in the intellect may reinforce corruption in the will. It is here that the general Evolutionary or Historical character of modern European thought (partly our work) comes in so usefully. The Enemy love platitudes."
"The Enemy love platitudes."! I love it. The archetypal symbol suffused with spiritual radiance, a platitude! Ha! No attentive mind would make so insensitive a reductio ad absurdum. And yet inattention in the search for the truly anomalous now, yields as vapid a product as insensitivity to "platitudes."
My son has urged me many times to shorten these blog entries by breaking them up into pieces. I finally think that's a good idea. We will continue this discussion next week with a look at some composers who were unstuck in time.
March 29, 2011