A CONCERT is made up of three indispensable human elements: the performer, the composer, and the audience—all embedded in a given social setting. But it is after all for the benefit and excitation of the audience that the complicated and costly structure of the symphony orchestra exists. Its repertoire is subject to a continuing plebiscite of the audience; and withdrawal or diminution of its patronage, for any one of many possible reasons, would endanger its very existence. Therefore any realistic analysis of the repertoire and prospects of the orchestra must be grounded in part in the human nature of that audience, and in the conception of the nature of beauty to which the audience adheres.
It may seem embarrassing to raise, and impertinent to attempt to answer, questions on the nature of beauty which have occupied the thought of mankind at least since the time of the Greeks. Many may, in fact, feel that such questions are irrelevant to the enjoyment of great music. But they are implicit in history, and their tentative solutions in every epoch are a part of the very process of living. Man not only acts, but he also reflects on his actions in order to make them plausible to himself and to his fellow man.
During the nineteenth century, when most of the standard repertoire of today had its beginnings, the problems of art and beauty were considered the province of philosophy and metaphysics, in keeping with the revived Platonic theories which dominated the arts of that romantic era. Beauty was Truth, unencumbered by the vicissitudes of mundane life. It was a kind of Universal, compelling on every perceptive intelligence. This view still has many disciples in art pedagogy and in the critics’ fraternity, and explains the passionate enthusiasm and missionary fervor with which certain tastes are promulgated, the esteem in which the artist is held, the 380 conception which some artists have of their own role, and the awe of the layman before a creative work.
However, with the development of the social, anthropological, and psychological sciences,1 and their analysis of the diverse primitive and modern art forms, the tremendous variety of equally valid aesthetic standards could not but impress the conscientious and informed observer. The prestige that any given standard may command among its devotees takes on a rather provincial hue when examined in the light of the myriads of others that may be cherished with equal passion by their own adherents. In this great diversity of historically approved standards lies the reason for the supposed insolubility of the problem of beauty. Furthermore, new beauties are constantly being invented and old ones discarded. The solution is clearly not to be found exclusively in the nature of the beautiful objects themselves, nor exclusively in the human nature of the subject who enjoys them, but in the interaction or relation between both elements.
In view of the antiquity of the aesthetic problem, and the illimitable variety of data which might be mobilized for its solution, one century may seem a narrow base on which to build an edifice of artistic theory. But it is quite adequate for a generalization. A chemical experiment, for example, is interpreted not only in terms of the immediately observed data, but also in terms of all related experiments in the history of the subject. A novice, who has no knowledge of the history of the subject, and is unable to make comparative observations, could not be expected to extract intelligent conclusions from the experiment at hand. In a similar vein, this hundred-year cumulation of a small segment of art history is the occasion, but by no means the exclusive material, out of which the reflections of this chapter are fashioned. To some authorities, the taste of a century may not turn up striking mutations. But if taste can change a little in a short time, it can and does change even more in a longer period.
In explanation of these fluctuations in art tastes, it would be too simple and dogmatic merely to derogate as “decadent” those periods whose preferences differed significantly from the present, and to exalt those “golden” ages whose likings conformed to our own, only to have the next generation modulate, or even reverse, our judgments. A competent student of art history will easily demonstrate how such terms as Renaissance, Gothic, Baroque, Rococo, Romantic and other styles have some descriptive value, but are actually “loaded” abstractions which contain the retroactive judgments of another era, floated with conviction and great confidence, but signifying essentially a periodic re-evaluation of taste. It therefore has little meaning to state that, during his eclipse, critics were “mistaken” about Bach, and that his sons were “blind to his greatness”; that Brahms was long “undervalued” and Raff and Tschaikowsky “overrated”; or that “true” judgments cannot be ventured until after repeated hearings. The question is not intended to be facetious: Why should posterity always have the last word? Unless a given epoch exalts its own verdicts to a level of infallibility—as it often does—it must be acknowledged that every epoch, every age, is entitled to its own standards of judgment in matters aesthetic. The invidious distinctions so often drawn between epochs are psychologically and sociologically indefensible, and derive from a misconception of the nature of aesthetic “truth.”
The standard of “truth” in matters aesthetic differs fundamentally from that of science. Aesthetic “truth” or appreciation is a psychologically terminal experience, a subjective and contemplative state of mind, in which every percipient differs from every other in slighter or greater degree according to his accumulated experience.2 It is therefore essentially incommunicable except to the extent that the subjects’ backgrounds are identical. Since aesthetic experiences are ends in themselves, and represent a state of personal fulfillment, they cannot be demonstrated as truthful or false by any external tests, for they reach their convincing termination in the subjective sense of gratification. Hence, aesthetic tastes cannot be “disputed,” although their derivation may be traced and “accounted for.”
In contrast, scientific opinion rests ultimately on a means-end scheme in which efficiency, or the test of adequate means for the achievement of a given end, is the criterion of “truth.” Since the means toward the attainment of a given end are constantly subject to improvement, the scientific world permits of progress. Increased knowledge of physiology, and the analysis of meteorological phenomena represent improved means of accomplishing the socially approved purposes of curing disease and predicting the weather.
Since each stage in the development of science is more efficient than the preceding, one does not ordinarily conceive of a renaissance of the horse-and-buggy days. Revival of forgotten aesthetic stages is, however, not only possible but of frequent occurrence. This does not argue the “higher truth” of the revived music, literature, or the arts, but rather the flexibility and versatility of human habits. However, this adaptation to older art forms is never perfectly made. Modern man cannot view Greek sculpture with the eyes of a Greek, nor read Homer with the Hellenic mentality, nor listen to Bach with the ears of the Leipzig parishioners. If science is concerned with efficiency, it is, of course, absurd to speak of Catholic or Communist science. The results of the means-end tests are not dependent on one’s ideologies; in fact they sometimes contradict them. There may, however, be Communist or Catholic art which speaks to the cultural interests of those groups, and is not easily interchangeable.
These distinctions have extremely important implications for the function of “experts” in the respective fields. In the area of science the basic assumption is the possibility, indeed the necessity, of absolute agreement between the experts. Consequently the judgment of the expert is compulsive on the less experienced layman. However, the aesthetic taste of the art “expert” does not possess that compulsive sanction. Art tastes are subjective rather than objective; they represent expectations and habits that arise from the experiences of the subject, and exist in terms of these experiences. Although technical workmanship, fidelity to tradition, stylistic details, and the like are objective and subject to “expert” opinion, these should not be confused with the actual aesthetic thrill derived therefrom, which ultimately remains a subjective personal posses-, sion. Therefore, according to Donald Tovey, British musicologist, when critics aver that “such and such a classic ought to inspire us with noble feelings because its sentiments are edifying and its form perfect, we may legitimately argue that it is useless to tell us that we ought to feel this and that, when as a matter of fact we fee\ quite otherwise.”3
Since scientific “truths” are subject to the pragmatic tests of truth or falsity, scientific inventions have never engendered the messianic fervor which have accompanied artistic products. Simply because artistic convictions are not subject to empirical disproof, they thrive on, and accumulate, an authority which it is heresy to deny. Hence scientists, whose truths do not depend on belief or subjective conviction but on demonstrable objective evidence, can afford to be more tolerant than the exponents of nondemonstrable aesthetic or moral “truths.” Intolerance rests on the psychological fact that aesthetic faith is not easily subject to contradiction, since it is self-contained within the subjective life of its interpreter and therefore engenders a sense of great introspective certainty.
Changes in aesthetic taste and judgment do not emanate solely from the dicta of aesthetes. They do not proceed from an exalted metaphysical realm, whence they are communicated to the chosen few who, like the apostles of old, feel called to share these privileged communications with the lay masses. The pattern of the repertoire, which constitutes musical taste, changing by small accretions, is formed by crosscurrents of many major and minor personal decisions and compromises made every time the program of a concert is selected or an annual series projected. The identity and strength of these forces differ from time to time and from place to place; but they are not capricious and whimsical—the patterns are too uniform for that. Nor are they automatic and preordained: the variations are too obvious for that. One can only conclude that musical opinions and tastes, like political and economic preferences, are forged in a matrix of social and psychological forces and, at any given time, represent a blend of both traditional factors and current experiences. One cannot come away from a study of a century of musical tastes without being struck by the perennial revision of human judgments, and the conviction that, under different circumstances, our tastes would have taken other channels with which we today would have been equally contented. And, unless human mentality reaches a saturation point, at which further development in’forms, harmonies and rhythms cannot be absorbed or invented, society will continue to revise its most considered and hallowed judgments in the future, as it so obviously has in the past.
Of all the current theories designed to explain changes in aesthetic tastes, one of the most prevalent, and also the most suspiciously simple, is that art is a “reflection of the spirit of the age.” According to this familiar principle, the stream of history is divided into broad periods, each of which is characterized by a “spirit” which pervades its totality and which binds it into a recognizable unit. There are many versions of this “spirit of the age,” and not all exponents of this view would necessarily subscribe to the rather comprehensive formulation which avers that
Some very general trend in the evolution of mankind controls all forms of human expression and all the ways in which they act, be they politics, economy, thought or art.4
But no social scientist views society as a homogeneous entity in which an over-all “spirit” can be identified. Society is enormously more complex than the Hegelian Zeitgeist seems to assume. Instead of an integrated Society with a capital “S,” society is rather a federation of various and diverse groups, each with its own interests and tastes, sometimes cooperating with one another, but quite frequently in mortal conflict. This unitarian view of Society, which has often been so congenial to totalitarian national aspirations as well, has lost much of its credibility in the more thoroughgoing, empirical methods of the twentieth century. This theory of an enveloping spirit has led to positing spurious relations between music, architecture, and other phases of life literally too numerous and too wellknown to cite. The social approach to history is inconsistent with the synoptic notion of rolling into one the economic, technological, political, psychological, and other factors and labeling them with an intangible “spirit.”
There is also the semantic objection, that an explanation of an event in terms of the “spirit” of that event is tautological. To explain rococo by the “spirit” of rococo, baroque by the “spirit” of baroque, is to explain something in terms of synonyms, which is no explanation at all. This is a grave methodological error that gives a satisfying sense of certainty for the simple reason that there is no possibility whatever of being contradicted. One reads the “spirit” from a few observed facts, and then reads it right back again into the unresistant period. “Spirituous” liquors analogously had their origin in similar verbalisms, but today modern chemistry and physiology have found more palpable explanations for the source of their potency.
It is noteworthy that this synthetic procedure is more successful when applied to bygone periods than to the present; living persons and the readily recognized multiplicity of circumstances make the omnibus phrase much less convincing. Past periods are more likely to be viewed as ways of action which have survived in the lore of scholars and in the visible remnants of the epoch. The distant perspective, which either magnifies or belittles fragments of history in accordance with our present biases, and purges them of inconvenient contradictions, portrays the past in exaggerated unity—a naivete of which we are quickly disabused today by a vigorous election, a war, a religious or economic persecution, and all the ideological battles and the myriad other ugly symptoms of “man’s inhumanity to man.” For every theorist who posited an integrating “spirit,” there has been another to underline the equally obvious “lags” and the “contradictions” in our social order.
This is not to say that there are no harmonies or adaptations in our social relations but such an oversimplified unity can be constructed only on the basis of a vague pseudo-psychological formula. It is a seductive intellectual enterprise, this pinnacling of all knowledge into an integrated whole; it represents scholarship run riot propelled by a questionable philosophy of history. One must therefore view with regret the borrowing by musicologists of such terms as “baroque” from its architectural origins, and its inflation and application to a broad span of geography and time, in a manner that cannot survive mature analysis. One cannot but deplore the defense of modern music by its alleged conformity to the “modern age,” when many more specific arguments are at hand.
Some exponents of contemporary music, for example, lament the lackadaisical acceptance of the music of the “court age” instead of an energetic sponsorship of a type of music more “consonant with the machine age.” But embarrassing questions must follow in the wake of this reasoning. How prove that the composer actually reflects the modern age? What are the earmarks of machine-age music? Is not the audience, which enjoys the allegedly anachronistic music, also a part of “the age” and therefore entitled to reflect it? May not the composer, who often leads a sequestered existence, actually be less representative of the significant forces and implications of the age than an intelligent, versatile, mobile man of affairs in the audience?
Although it has seemed to some students that this is the first time in musical history that the compositions of “the past” have so dominated the performance of the present, it is by no means a unique phenomenon. In fact, it is a historical commonplace that there has always been a lively borrowing and diffusion from other cultural epochs both in technology and in the arts. Literature, painting, and architecture reveal a clear “ancestor worship.” Even the primitive and folk arts have been adopted eagerly and without mental conflicts by the most sophisticated cultures. The supposed incongruity of a capitalistic society enjoying ancient Greek art disturbed Karl Marx, who was also an advocate of the theory of the totalistic society and therefore felt that he had to reconcile this “contradiction.” This he did by citing a person’s normal enjoyment of an occasional childhood experience, which was equivalent to society’s enjoyment of Greek culture, which represented the “social childhood” of our culture.5
The most irrefutable argument against the supposed incongruity between old music and the new times is simply that pleasure is undebatable. If a mature twentieth-century audience simultaneously enjoys the baroque Bach, the rococo Mozart, the romantic Schumann, the neo-classical Brahms, the Gallic Debussy, the Teutonic Wagner, the percussive Stravinsky, and the eclectic Shostakovitch, who is derivative of them all, how can one assert that it is enjoying them “by mistake” or that there are ethical and psychological reasons why it should enjoy something else. It is difficult to compose by fiat, but it is still more difficult to enjoy by fiat. Both processes are accomplished only by a process of conditioning, in a world whose systematic complexity we have not yet completely fathomed. ‘
We therefore cannot resist the conclusion that musical taste is a system of very specific tonal habits, conditioned by the incessant flow of experiences of the individual person as a participating member of a complex culture group, A great range of experiences might conceivably contribute to the end-result of finding pleasure in many given types of music, much as some trivial incident might influence the degree of affection for or aversion toward another person. In order to understand more fully how the aesthetic quality of a musical composition is acquired, it will be necessary to ascertain its psychological components, and to explore how the standards of beauty become established.
Because of the human propensity to read into the object what is actually in our heads—”the elliptical fallacy”—it is often thought that the merit of a composition resides within it; and once that has been established by some kind of authority, there is a certain aesthetic obligation imposed on the auditor to put himself en rapport with the established masterpieces, and to attempt to “discover” foi himself the beauties resident in those works of art that have been vouchsafed by “qualified” listeners.
However, psychologically and sociologically speaking, this is an unfortunate assumption. Beauty is not a transcendental entity waiting, perhaps in some outer sphere, to be incorporated into a composition by a sensitive composer; nor is it a quality resident in the object, or in the relationship between its parts, waiting to be discovered and enjoyed by an observer—any more than pain is resident in a red-hot stove, or the essence of patriotism in a multicolored flag. Beauty in music is not a fact but rather a human experience, a judgment that results from the contact between the particular arrangement of sounds and the particular background of the auditor. Beauty “happens” to an object. If there were no observer, there would be no beauty; if there are two simultaneous observers, the same object could be—and usually is—both beautiful and ugly simultaneously. Two or more persons, with approximately the same training, background, and fund of experiences, observing the same object, would necessarily be in approximate agreement as to its degree of “beauty.” Hence, the cultural agreement on many masterpieces. Any object can be beautiful if it is matched with the appropriate observer who has the corresponding accumulation of experiences and store of habits. Thus it is false dichotomy to segregate the thinking subject from the object of thought. The real issue does not lie in the segregation of the two, but in the manner of their collaboration.6
When listening to a musical composition, we therefore do not hear only that composition, but rather a blend, or fusion, of the pattern of sounds in the immediate work plus the innumerable arrangements of tones that have been stored up in our own consciousness. It is against that background that the present experience is selectively perceived, defined, and evaluated. According to this principle of selective perception, we do not listen with our ears, but with our past experiences: sometimes called in academic psychology “apperceptive mass.” Consequently, there are many things “out there” which we do not perceive; and there are many things which we think we “perceive” that are not “out there,” but are “in our heads.” No criterion has ever .been established by which a concrete boundary line can be defined at which the irreducible minimum of raw music stops and the associative experiences of the listener begin. The psychoanalytic schools of thought would go far indeed in extending the scope of these associative experiences.
But audition is not only a matter of passive receptivity to tonal stimuli. It is also a process of fulfillment or denial of active expectations set up by the listener’s past experiences. When the nineteenth-century audience first listened to Wagner with the expectations of hearing Beethoven’s progressions and resolutions, they felt a degree of nervous frustration rather than aesthetic delight. In that sense it is inevitable that radically new forms of tonal organization will meet with delayed appreciation, until new habits of listening are formed. Every composer, depending on the degree to which lie deviates from the past formal habits of his auditors, must retrain his audience in new listening habits and expectations before aesthetic pleasure can ensue. The successful composer thereby actually creates the public that later approves him.
It is evident, therefore, that a new composition may bear sufficient resemblance to the past—e.g. the early Beethoven to Mozart and Haydn—to be readily assimilable and appreciated by the audience. Or, in the case of the later Schoenberg and many other modern composers, the style may be so incongruous with current musical habits that the compositions become the subject of highly cerebral and clinical analysis, on another level of enjoyment, for the specialized auditor, devoid of any spontaneous lay audience appeal whatever. A small increment of novelty is essential; without it there is no interest to touch off attention and stimulate appreciation. It is for that reason that older compositions, having become too familiar through repeated hearings, are often greeted only with apathy or boredom. From this danger of satiety, the greatest masterpieces are not exempt. Its onset will vary according to the background of the auditor, the intervals between hearings during which one may “forget” a part of what has been stored up, and the degree of variety within the composition itself.
Such an analysis partially explains the differences in the contours of the performance curves of Tschaikowsky and Brahms. Tschaikowsky, a prolific composer, whose melodic turns were easily grasped, provoked little controversy, and harvested quick popularity. But he has been on the wane from sheer saccharine monotony. On the other hand, the polyrhythmic and compact Brahms, whose name was once the synonym for all that is intellectual and esoteric, has only recently been generally apprehended after a vigorous campaign on the part of conductors. Nevertheless, many can still listen with pleasure to Tschaikowsky—but not nearly so often. Others can no longer endure the deification of Brahms. The interest and sense of “novelty” in Mozart, Beethoven, Haydn, Debussy, Franck, and the rest can be maintained only by increasingly infrequent repetitions. The immortals can remain immortal only by not insisting on being too much alive. They may be resuscitated, or satiety may be delayed, by an additional increment, such as improvement in the quality of the performance, slightly unconventional interpretations, or such miscellaneous strategies as omitting repeats, and the addition of scholarship and formal analysis to the background of the listener, thereby diverting his attention to hitherto unnoticed detail.
There is, then, after repeated hearings, an optimum point of appreciation after which the law of diminishing aesthetic returns sets in, the attainment of which may be accelerated or delayed, but which in the long run is psychologically inevitable. With the introduction of newer technological mechanisms for the dissemination of tonal pleasures—records and radio—familiarity with these compositions will be increased and the approach of satiety hastened. Under such circumstances the repertoire may more quickly burn itself out than in the olden days of the New York Philharmonic, when it was literally impossible for even the assiduous concert-patron to hear Beethoven’s Fifth more than once every couple of years! According to this principle of accelerated culture change, it is highly unlikely that there will ever be another “Beethoven” whose music will dominate the repertoire for over a century. Unless unforeseen circumstances intervene, life spans of composers will probably be shorter, particularly if the democratization of the audience, with the possible necessity of catering to less espteric tastes, continues at its present pace.
Furthermore, audiences have undoubtedly undergone a temperamental change. Their disinclination to endure a long apprenticeship to an extremely novel tonal structure, which could formerly be overcome by the zeal of such missionaries as Theodore Thomas, does not augur well for a long life span for a composer. Half of the span of Brahms, for example, is an investment in endurance on the part of the audience in order that aesthetic pleasure may be reaped at the peak, which will gradually dissipate during the descending half of his musical life cycle.
It is not that modern twelve-tone scale is necessarily beyond the ultimate comprehension of the average music lover. But it is a new grammar which never comes easily no matter how spontaneously the composers profess to compose in it. If we cultivated it as assiduously and as long as the American audience did Brahms, it would probably fall into place, for it is probably impossible for Man to create anything to which he cannot become accustomed. But, without intense motivation and without belief in the infallibility of the composer, a modern audience is ill-disposed toward making the intellectual investment in an “esperanto” so long as the current language serves its aesthetic and social purposes.
There are those who may be offended at so prosaic a treatment of the arts, which suggests that good music is ephemeral and transient, and subject to the material vicissitudes of life. They would prefer to believe that Art secures its sanction from a higher realm, or that it at least possesses some distinctive objective trait to give it permanence and universality in its appeal to the discerning auditor. Such was the fervent faith of Leopold Damrosch, Theodore Thomas, Gericke, and Muck, who laid the foundation of the now traditional standards of taste. It is the long dominance of such a figure as Beethoven, more recently joined by Sebastian Bach, which appears to give plausibility to the faith in a universal Beauty. It is such phenomena which create the illusion of timeless beauty that transcends the ages, the passing of which is uncomfortable to contemplate. A well-developed historical sense, however, will awaken the realization that a century—or a thousand years—is but a moment in civilization. Bach and Beethoven are not “universal”; they merely have lasted a long time.
Such an argument is not at all nihilistic. It does not proclaim the nonexistence of standards. For it is an error to suppose that, if norms cannot be absolute or eternal, there can be no norms at all. But so intense is the quest for certainty that the difference between absolute and period norms is often overlooked. However, it is the only point of view that makes the incessant fluctuations in taste plausible and is, above all, consistent with the current conceptions of the workings and nature of the human mind.
Detailed studies such as these are therefore frankly postulated on the assumption that musical composition and its enjoyment is, in the largest sense, an acquired craft of Man, circumscribed by the interacting physical, biological, and social circumstances, and subject to all the psychological and sociological principles which underlie all other human behavior. Factual and quantitative studies have their place in any analysis of Man and his works, as a healthy counterbalance to the romantic terminology which so often surrounds the discussion of beauty and its production, endowing it with a spiritual, entity that modern empirical thinking finds hard to assimilate. There is much mysticism in creativity; but no more than in the test tube. As self-evident as such a view might be, it is still true that to many persons it is neither desirable nor even possible to study the processes of musical composition and their social survival. Each composition* it has been asserted, is a unique product of a creative imagination, about which generalizations, by definition, would be excluded. Accordingly, musical preferences are subjective and personal; “there is no accounting for them.’’
Since no two compositions are identical, and since pleasure is by definition quite subjective and personal, such a view carries superficial credibility. But a second glance at the history of composition must convince an observer that “unique” is far too extreme a term. If a composition is actually unique, or as it approximates that description, it is to that extent alien to the stream of human thought, its language is not understood; it would evoke bewilderment rather than curiosity and aesthetic interest. The composer who flouts the current folkways of taste, and disregards the norms of consonance and form prevalent at the time, incurs the same risks of rejection as any other innovator in the political, social and economic, religious, or linguistic world. Not even the greatest innovators who have survived, have been so indiscreet. The deviant modern composers who rationalize their frequent failures to capture the approbation of public and critics by the complacent cliche that “all music was once new” and that the audience is “always about twenty-five years in lag behind the composer” do not take the penetrating view of history which would have warned them that not all good music of the past was equally new, and that the audiences of Haydn, Mozart* Beethoven, and even Wagner, were not a generation behind the composer. Haydn, who expressed appreciation for the tolerance of his benefactor, experimented well within the limits of that tolerance. The early works of Beethoven—with all the isolated points of departure from tradition pointed out by contemporary philistines—bore a sufficient family resemblance to their musical ancestors, to which his hearers were accustomed, that his new works were anticipated with obvious pleasure. In explanation, it is sometimes claimed that Beethoven and Mozart had an “intelligent” leisure-class audience who were educated in the arts. But modern audiences also include a large segment of cultivated and intelligent auditors, who are nevertheless sufficiently mystified by many current departures to raise serious questions.
The currently prevailing myth, that great composers of the past were not appreciated in their day, has its roots in the fact that the accepted manners of the day are less likely to be commented upon in current chronicles than are the departures therefrom. If this holds good for aesthetic criticism, as can be demonstrated, one can understand how certain radical aspects of Beethoven, for example, received disproportionate attention, and are now exhumed and quoted while the more conventional aspects of his compositions were accepted and enjoyed without much comment. To modernize the illustration, future historical students, reading the torrid criticisms of Franklin Roosevelt in journals and periodicals, will have great difficulty in understanding how he could have survived four elections. News records are simply not necessarily completely representative of heterogeneous public attitudes.
Changes in musical taste cannot be, and actually have not been, rushed—as impatient conductors like Theodore Thomas have been exasperatingly aware. Even revolutionary changes are less rapid than is usually implied in the concept, for all these changes have their definite antecedents. The fact that musical tastes change slowly is consistent with the very requirements of social life. Without a certain degree of uniformity and continuity in norms, no publishing enterprise, no educational system, no critical standards, no concert organization—in fact, no common social existence would be possible. This fact confers on aesthetic taste its social nature. Although there is no psychological law which would prevent the development of a perfectly unique taste on the part of a hermit-like artist, it is a sociological impossibility that such a taste could survive in a social world. In a collective world, only collective tastes can qualify for survival, because the overhead in time, effort, and financial investment necessary for the implementation of a “taste system” is so great that only collective effort will sustain it.
Musical taste systems are further stabilized by having their material embodiment in huge financial investments in auditoriums, accoutrements for professional training, pedagogical institutions, printing of scores, manufacture of instruments; and have their nonmaterial formulation in a vast corpus of literature, theory and ideology which galvanize it into a major institution resistant to changes that threaten it with extinction. Under such circumstances, a composition may, indeed, possess an individuality, but its “uniqueness” is reduced to a mere variation of a general norm which constitutes the basis of critical judgment.
For norms to exist, it is not necessary for them to be eternal. Although anyone with even a modicum of historical sense must recognize the long-term inconstancy of norms, nevertheless they -are relatively stable over a period of time, and evoke considerable sentimental, ethical, and special-interest attachments which get codified into legal, religious, or cultural and critical mandates. This holds for the economic and political systems as well as for aesthetic standards. In sociological language, these general social norms are called “folkways.” After they have persisted for some time—as have the norms of family life, the folkways of government and religion, and the folkways of classic musical taste—they tend to sprout a halo of uncritical acceptance, creating the illusion of general and absolute validity which condemns all deviant forms of behavior as “immoral” or “in poor taste.” This predisposition to universalize the standards of one’s own culture is called, in technical jargon, “ethnocentricism.”
Musical norms conform to these characteristics of social folkways. The norms are codified and transmitted from generation to generation with increments of change, but are also subject to considerable sectarian fervor. They are defended, not like scientific truths, but rather by an aesthetic “conscience” which may even proselytize for what is considered “true” beauty, and declare J. S. Bach “universal” when he is quite obviously attached to time, space, and circumstance, as is every other mortal, great and small.
If the social necessity of norms in general has been demonstrated, one may still inquire how any particular norms, e.g., current musical standards, arise. By far the major portion of a given musical taste is culturally inherited from the past, as are also the folkways in religion, government, language, and other realms of social affairs. Even scientific inventions and works of art which are presumed to be “new” consist of a relatively small supplement to what has already accumulated in the past. Ninety per cent of the electric light and ninety per cent of Beethoven’s First Symphony existed before Edison and Beethoven were even born. In fact, so small may be this increment that the transition, for example, between the “London” Bach and Mozart is almost imperceptible today, and the Jena symphony attributed to Beethoven “could have been written by various contemporaries.” Beethoven is quoted as having told his friend Ferdinand Ries that “although I have taken lessons from Haydn, I have learned nothing from him.” Wholly aside from the question of personal and professional honesty in this comment, sociologically it is, of course, untenable that Beethoven should have “learned nothing” from Haydn and from all his other numerous musical forebears. No artist is the free, creative spirit he sometimes conceives himself to be. There obtains a “principle of continuity” in cultural as well as biological heredity which suggests many damaging reservations to the “great man theory” which alleges that “history is but the lengthened shadow of the genius.” The genius is much more the creation of history than he is the creator of it. He is as much the product of previous ages as of his own.
Furthermore, even the new “creative” elements in music can be intimately related to the past that links the new with its logical ancestry. Such devices as the multiplication of voices, juxtaposition of old keys which were formerly considered inimical, omission of modulational steps formerly required, extension of the vertical chord structure one more interval, the abandonment of resolutions of dissonant chords—all these formalities make “creation” intellectually recognizable and comprehensible. This is not intended to detract from the general mystery of nature in general, or musical composition in particular. But such a formal catalysis is in effect the grammar of music which, like a language, is spoken with great fervor and spontaneity, but in reality is the final fruition of many years of individual practice and training, of frequent correction, and much intellectual planning.
When these social principles are applied to the specific institution of the symphony orchestra and its music, there is still much more in the orchestra than meets the ear. Many of the factors which condition our tastes are quite external to music itself, but nevertheless exert significant pressures on repertoire trends.
One of the important factors limiting the performances of musical works are the inflexible boundaries of the repertoire; the fixed number of programs and the inevitable limits in playing time. Unless the length of the season is increased, the adoption of a new composition or composer will inevitably mean the reduction of the frequency, or the total abandonment, of an old one. Since music cannot live without being performed, there results a perennial struggle for aesthetic existence which is provisionally resolved every time a program is constructed. Every composition will ultimately lose its rank in the hierarchy of aesthetic survival, and every work of art may confidently look forward to the probability of its displacement by some newcomer.
The rate of this turnover is, of course, affected by the rate of production of new compositions, their character, the virility of the old compositions, and the energy of the audience in acquiring new tastes. The rising curves of Tschaikowsky, Wagner, and Brahms approximately equaled the decline of Beethoven, and new compositions today are continuously edging one another for entrance on the lower levels. As compared to a century ago, concerts have become more frequent and rehearsal time has been greatly extended, with the consequently steeper slope of the learning curve of both orchestra and audience. Such circumstances are favorable to the acceptance of new works, with the result that the repertoire today is much more diversified than a century ago.
In a strategic position to direct the course of taste changes is, of course, the conductor, whose prestige and authority seem to be reflected in repertoire policy. In fact^ it is a classic complaint that the repertoire does not represent the “taste” of the audience, but rather that of the conductor who constructs the programs and whose aesthetic ideology determines his choices. With a kind of parental solicitude he is said to apportion the musical diet, not according to the likes of the audience, but according to what is “good for it.” Anyone familiar with the missionary career of Theodore Thomas and the pertinacity of Gericke, will realize that many a program does anticipate the level to which the conductor aspires, rather than the actual spontaneous preferences of the audience. For reasons that have been set forth elsewhere, such program building was more characteristic of the early twentieth century than of the time of Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven.
However, there are lengths to which even a dictator cannot go, since there are genuine public restraints upon flouting social opinion. Therefore, for every severely classic Gericke there is an indulgent Max Fiedler; and for a stern Mahler, there is a popular Stransky; and even Theodore Thomas interspersed among his symphonies the. Strauss waltzes and other delectable bits of relief. Even the most obstinate conductor dared not, even if he would, flaunt his own eccentricities and ignore the basic communal repertoire that resides in the habits and expectations of the public.
The deterministic role of the conductor has been grossly exaggerated—as have the roles of all other leaders, political and social. Regardless of who wields the “authority,” there is a basic repertoire, often referred to facetiously as the “standard fifty pieces,” which is not fiction but reality.7 When opera-conductor Seidl, who was innocent of the standard symphonic repertoire, was injected into the responsible position of head of the New York Philharmonic, he lost no time in acquiring the repertoire demanded by the musical mores of the day. The’ easy interchange of conductors between distant orchestras—even internationally—is both evidence and a product of this standardization of musical “parts.” This cannot be said of men of the cloth, national officials, lawyers, and pedagogues.
Where the conductor does manifest his individuality is on the periphery of the repertoire, not in its core. The conductor is permitted liberty, but not license. The traditional core being taken for granted, the conductor often indulges in tangential explorations, at which certain elements in his heterogeneous audience may take offense; but which other elements may applaud. Like all other public servants, musical leaders do not meddle much with the basic way of life of their time, although they often attract disproportionate attention for the variety with which it is spiced.
It should also be remembered that a large proportion of an audience actually desires a program a little above its heads. To such listeners the symphony concert is more than mere musical delight; it is ritual and ceremony of which all the social trappings and even the intellectual affectations are a part. To many patrons, concerts are a fashion in which prestige of participation takes priority over spontaneous aesthetic relaxation. Concerts are often “bought” like hats—more for style than beauty. But it is, nevertheless, the taste of that audience. There are various types of listeners in the heterogeneous audience, ranging from the iighthearted to the intellectual and studious extreme to whom every new composition is a puzzle which they delight in solving. It is a semantic question whether this whole range of audition should be included in the concept of the aesthetic. But its diversity does go far in explaining the variety of attitudes to the items in the repertoire.
Contemporary events usually leave visible traces on the repertoire, which tend to be as ephemeral as the events inciting them. Finland, in the thirties, was unique in international annals in keeping faith by repaying the installments on her American war debts. For the American concert audience, Sibelius epitomized all that was Finland, and their gratitude and curiosity sought expression in the playing of his music, his percentage registering the intensity of American sentiment for his country. World War I, which propelled the French to unprecedented heights, and tumbled Strauss from secure pre-eminence to temporary insignificance, is a long story fully covered in this history. It is important to note, however, that most of these effects were evanescent, indicating that musical tastes are conditioned by more abiding factors than passing hysteria, however intense it may seem at the moment.
The scientific and material world has also made its contribution to the formation of aesthetic taste, remote as science and art are popularly alleged to be. Certainly, much of the scientific activity is irrelevant to matters conventionally considered artistic; however, in the orchestral repertoire the science of physics and acoustics has revolutionized the repertoire simply by revolutionizing the instruments on which the repertoires are played. The old natural horns, with their removable crooks, had become increasingly awkward as the scores became more complex, demanding numerous key changes and chromatic passage work. The valves, of course, simplified the execution of these passages and made Wagner and Strauss, to say nothing of the later moderns, possible. The woodwinds, the violin (Tourte bow)^ the piano, and all other instruments were at various times the beneficiaries of corresponding technological improvements, with analogous evolution in the standards of musical structure and aesthetic tastes. It can therefore be unreservedly asserted that physical science is an integral element in the formation of aesthetic taste.
To these strictly musical applications of technology and science must be added the equally important technical advances in printing, architecture, communication and transportation, without which musical developments would have remained sterile. For, what benefit the chromatic creations of Wagner and Strauss without the facility to print the huge scores, to promulgate them rapidly and economically throughout the nation and beyond its borders, and the acoustical architectural setting to exploit them? It is said that the art of printing made democracy possible. A similarly daring generalization may be made about music; the art of printing probably exerted no less influence in the creation and dissemination of aesthetic tastes than in the formation and propagation of political beliefs.
The discussion of repertoires ultimately raises the problem of “good” taste and “good” music. There is no room here for the Olympian dictum that there are only “two kinds of music, good and bad.” Such alternatives do not specify the concrete quality of the music to which these appellations are to be applied.
The question of “what is good music” is often shrugged off as being both impossible and unnecessary: impossible because the inner feelings of aesthetic conscience cannot be made rationally articulate; and unnecessary, because one need only to emulate those “qualified” persons who possess “good” taste. However, the whole foregoing text is a refutation of that dual evasion.’If the repertoire is the result of individual choices, there should be no objection to an attempt to determine the possible criteria on which these choices are based.
The classification of our innumerable and diverse experiences into the desirable and undesirable, into the good ? which we seek to perpetuate, and the bad, which we seek to avoid, is one of the most elementary human judgments. But it is complicated by the manifold use and meaning of the concept. The concept of “good,” when applied to taste or action of man, can have only four basic meanings.
(1) The instrumental or utilitarian meaning: an action or thing which is good for something. Spinach may be good as nutritious diet (but “I don’t like it”). The study of mathematics may be good for your efficiency, but you may not enjoy the discipline. A Strauss waltz may have therapeutic value in hastening convalescence, and coincidentally be quite thrilling and “good” to listen to.
(2) Personal pleasure, as an aesthetic end in itself: an article of food may be consumed, a piece of music may be listened to, with utter delight, without any ulterior thought of health or prestige for having listened to it. It will earn from the consumer the pronouncement of “good” when he probably should proclaim more accurately, “I find it good,” “I like it,” “it gives me pleasure.” He may experience such profound satisfaction that it will be difficult for him to realize that many another person may experience other and contrary reactions. However, this propensity to universalize and to dogmatize concerning beliefs and tastes that are intensely felt is a common phenomenon and results in attempts to impose on others our religious, political, and aesthetic beliefs whether or not they are appropriate. It emanates from a psychological myopia, which renders nothing more convincing than our own inner experiences and beliefs.
(3) Conformity to an established social norm: moral behavior, styles of dress, and certain art forms are labeled “good” when they conform to certain pre-established standards or norms. These norms usually reside in certain authoritarian sources, such as historical and critical documents, in tradition, or in the behavior or tastes of a social class. Thus, monogamy is undoubtedly “good,” though many enjoy violating it at times. A new hat may be in “good” style prescribed for the season—”that’s what they are wearing”—though “it is not becoming to me.” The concert patron who lacks confidence in his own judgment may say: “I suppose it is good music, but I don’t like it.” These well-established technical and aesthetic standards, representing as they do the .composite judgments of large groups over long periods of time, carry the weighty sanction of tradition, and are therefore considered more valid than any individual judgment. The individual does not readily pit his momentary opinion against the judgment of time/These norms are received in the social heritage, give great intellectual security, and deserve the laudatory title of “good.” They promote; social solidarity, permit predictability, while social customs undergo their slow changes on the experimental growing edges.
(4) Related to the definition of the social norm, but differing in its sanction, is the criterion of Truth or Goodness which is presumably independent of any human being’s belief or judgment. This metaphysical notion, characteristic of the romantic doctrines of the nineteenth century, posits a Truth which resides in cosmic nature, inherent in the Universe, which finally gains acceptance through the agency of the clairvoyant leaders who possess the genius to translate it into mundane objects of art. This doctrine makes of the musician a kind of priest who interprets by inspirational and intuitive means, Truth and Beauty. This makes of Beauty an objective entity rather than a subjective human judgment. When fervently believed in, it confers on an artist and his interpreter a sense of self-confidence attained by no other means. It is a widespread dogma which, though not always articulately explained, lies at the root of many aesthetic pronouncements among pedagogues as well as laymen. ‘
These familiar dilemmas testify to the necessity of coming to grips with the semantic implications of our terms. If “good” music is a social norm, and “taste,” which approves it, is a more or less enduring and definable pattern of preferences under given conditions, then “good taste” will fluctuate and be subject to all the laws of social folkways. This definition conforms to all the observations which have been made throughout this work. But taste is never pure. It is a pluralistic phenomenon compounded of various ingredients which consist not only of spontaneous pleasure, but also of the overtones of fashion and prestige and technical erudition that emanate from the leaders. Conductors, musicians, and other members of the elite make the decisions for the public, very much as do the leaders in politics and public opinion. The norm may therefore be strengthened by the authority of a group which practices it, by a social ideology which sanctions it, and by the fervor with which it is promulgated. On the other hand, it may be weakened by competing groups, who are, for various reasons, opposed to the conventional norms, and seek to replace the “embalmed classics” with a modern style.
Ultimately, the established taste is a grand cooperative enterprise between the external physical object—which is neutral—and the audiences who endow it with “beauty,” and who have been conditioned by their past experiences, their ethics and religion, the physical environment and the innumerable factors which impinge upon their lives and determine their choices. It would be more precise, therefore, to discard the “truism” that “good music survives,” and to substitute the more realistic view that music which, through various social, material, and psychological circumstances survives, and which contains features that society values, is adjudged and labeled aesthetically “good.” Sometimes this judgment is held in abeyance for years, while these forces are doing their work.
The goodness or beauty of an object is therefore a superimposed quality with which an observer, according to his system of values, endows an object. If he confers beauty on an object, he also withdraws it after it has been conferred, or .withholds indefinitely such a distinction.
This system of aesthetic theory, often denominated “subjectivism,” may be variously criticised, but it appears to many to be most vulnerable because of its supposed nihilism in standards. If one can never assert, so runs the charge, that “this is beautiful,” but is permitted to admit only that “it is beautiful to me,” one must conclude that every man is his own critic, and every criticism is cosmically as valid as any other. This would, in the end, lead to rampant individualism, a negation of all standards, with the disquieting result that all aesthetics would flounder in a morass of solipsisms. If the common denominator between all good music is only that it is “thought” good, that “there is nothing good or bad but thinking makes it so,” it would necessarily wipe out all genuine distinctions between “good” and “bad” and right, and wrong, thereby making all judgments meaningless. It would deny the validity of a procedure which mankind has always followed.
As a matter of fact, the “confusion” of voices which the above argument deplores does, to a certain extent, exist. Historically, it is simply true that aesthetic preferences do differ, not only between epochs and between national cultures, but also between classes and groups in the same society. There is even a great diversity between the art objects that are enjoyed by a tolerably versatile and experienced individual patron.
In spite of this, there is no end to the search for objective criteria of good music which would be compelling on all rational beings. In a strictly technical sense, there may be moderate consensus on this question. Probably most musicians would agree on certain standards of workmanship, clean handling of instrumentation, and many other processes. But fine workmanship is not inevitably translated into an aesthetic thrill. The sons of Sebastian Bach, the detractors of Stokowski’s transcriptions, the critics of “atonalism,” the auditors who hold themselves aloof from the flamboyant Wagner—all are the final refutation of a presumed identity between an objective description of an art object and the thrill of the listener. Technically, such music is “good”; aesthetically it is “bad” to many listeners.
Consonant with these changing conceptions, the function of the musical critic has undergone a metamorphosis. The days of Hanslick and Krehbiel are past, when critics were considered pontifical / authorities on the elusive questions of beauty and ugliness in musical ethics. Today, most of them eschew the function of keeper of musical conscience. They would rather express their aesthetic reactions not as final absolutes—an infirmity from which they have been cured—but as stimulants to public imagination, aids in appreciating the contents of the musical work. They have become technical specialists in the instruction of their readers. Like lawyers, they serve to bridge the gap between the expanding complexity of their field and the preoccupied layman who seeks guidance and self-assurance in an aesthetic labyrinth. This work as liaison agents will never be complete, for there is no final consummation in the social process. Society is in a constantly evolving state in which the standards of the true, the beautiful, and the just are constantly being refashioned in the context of the times.
Today most theorists are reconciled to an indeterminate prolongation of the unstable equilibrium in social, aesthetic, and other relations. Many aestheticians have sought for the relative certainty of laboratory science. But the mutability of standards is shared with all other social fields where social judgment is an issue. If aestheticians feel the need, they may seek consolation by stealing a glance at the field of law, where judgments of justice and their rationalizations constitute the essential content. Judge Benjamin Cardozo, for some years on the United States Supreme Court, affirmed his own sense of insecurity in delivering his critical opinions.
We live in a world of change. If a body of law were in existence adequate for the civilization of the day, it could not meet the demands of the civilization of tomorrow. Society is inconstant. So long as it is inconstant, and to the extent of such inconstancy, there can be no constancy in law.8
No legal scholar conceives of this admission of human fallibility as undermining the validity of his legal decisions, or ruining the usefulness of his profession. This is not a helpless and futile subjectivism. On the contrary, it is a constructive view which renders the fluctuations of history credible and makes peace with reality.