What Is Quality in Music?

A professional’s judgment of music or painting or poetry is invariably more convincing to me than any amateur’s and more than that of any publisher, dealer, or other distributor. Even the learned, though I trust them on facts and on urtext (hoping that their own colleagues will have kept them in line about these things), I do not consider responsible as judges of content. Of iconography perhaps, but not of form or of expression. And as for the caretakers of the fine arts, with their game (rather like Monopoly) of trends and influences and market values, it rarely fits in with the values of form and content as these are thought of by artists. For in all these matters a consensus among workmen is not hard to arrive at. It is only for dealers and distributors and for the historian-verbalizers that the values come out different. And for the amateurs, of course, whose reactions to art, being disengaged from responsibility, are subjective.

Am I throwing away the enlightened, the seemingly engaged amateur? Certainly not. He is our customer, our sweetheart, and our dream. That is to say, he is when he loves us. When he does not, he is an unenlightened amateur. Whereas the most treacherous rival is no amateur at all, but wisely aware, we are certain, of all our excellences and of their danger to his career. And neither are the reviewers and the historians to be discarded. If they admire us, we can use them. If not, their judgments may seem to us something less than final.

My thought seems to be leading me toward the conclusion that in art the doers are the knowers. And that the doers, though they are rarely paying customers, are nevertheless to us the most impressive of all consumers, because they use us not merely in the living that they are doing, as ordinary customers do, but also in the art that they are making. For no work is uninteresting to a workman. And the workmen in any domain, particularly the “creative,” constitute for that domain an élite of true critics, of experts whose judgment defines quality goods. The most enlightened reader or listener has no such authority, nor has the best-advised collector of art. For all these, though powerfully related to distribution, have little to do with the art they buy. Their place is in the history of taste, not of creation.

Now taste has little to do with quality, since quality can exist in any style. It has everything to do with distribution, because the mode for certain styles or subjects is the highway by which artifacts are circulated. The financial beneficiaries of distribution—dealers, publishers, collectors—naturally would like to manipulate the mode as if culture were women’s wear, which indeed it rather tends to become. But the culture market, but-tressed as it is by consecrated scholars and historians who do not share in the profits, resists hasty or brutal manipulation. So firmly, indeed, that public favor in the arts and letters, as in women’s wear, seems to follow folklore patterns highly unpredictable rather than the consensual opinions of professional designer-workmen. Others have experience certainly, merchants of market trends, educators of what can be fitted into a young person’s mind. But none of these is responsible to the artist élite; they even think sometimes that they are the élite. Which they are not, since they are interessés, as artists are not. And they are usually working for other persons (also interessés) and above all working purposefully, which your artist is certainly not. Your artist may think he is inspired by money or the hope of fame, but predominantly his working is compulsive—“a private bell,” as Tristan Tzara put it, “for inexplicable needs.”

How does musicians’ taste run in music, if all tastes tend toward consensus? I should say that it is filed in two compartments: what we are and what we use. What we are, the music we live by, as descendants of the masters, goes no farther back than Beethoven, with as collateral relatives of unquestioned authenticity only Schubert, Schumann, Chopin, Debussy, and perhaps Bizet. Wagner and Verdi, from a more distant branch of the Beethoven line, are more useful to addicts than to professionals; and so, I fear, are most of the other composers of opera from Monteverdi to Gershwin. As are also, very sadly, Brahms, Moussorgsky, Tchaikowsky, and Bartók—the second-line instrumental masters.

Music earlier than Beethoven, even that of Haydn and Mozart, very much that of Handel and Bach and the other Baroque ones, and completely that of the Renaissance and Medieval masters, all of this has, from its pre-Napoleonic, pre-French Revolution antiquity, a certain heirloom flavor, a museum smell. Its difference from our world, which begins only with Beethoven and Schubert, lends even to its greatest masters, even to Bach and Handel and Haydn and Mozart (though to Haydn the least, I think) something of high mannerism, almost of camp, that makes it forever untouchable inside.

And our century has mannerists too in plenty—Ravel and Stravinsky, Schoenberg, his pupils, and Satie, not to mention the ever-so-impressive John Cage, Karlheinz Stockhausen, and Pierre Boulez. But mannerism, whether truly that, as with the mass of our century’s modernists, or merely an illusion of history, as with Purcell, Palestrina, Lassus, and Josquin (though Guillaume de Machaut must have been the real thing), makes up a vast repertory of what T. S. Eliot (was it not?) called so ironically the “usable past.” We cannot be said to steal from Beethoven, Schumann, Chopin, Debussy, because we are their direct heirs and have a right to their wealth. But the other branches have left behind chiefly a marvelous attic of old costumes to dress up in and of unclaimed furniture, props, scenery, even scripts, for putting on plays. This is the music we use knowingly, along with that of our uncles and cousins the modern mannerists. For we have no shame in diverting to our purposes, just as scholars and distributors do to theirs, any music that entertains us or that in its own day was in any way quality stuff. All this with or without reference to an aesthetic called neoclassicism, since all music in all times has used models and openly quoted from its past.

Our time has been sewn through and through with mannerism, and I presume it is our knowledge of history that has made this so. Painters, sculptors, and musicians know pretty well how everything looked and sounded in our now flood-lighted past. But since they do not know, can never know, what any of this meant in its time and place, since myth and magic, modes of feeling, and motives for passion are the variables of history, not its constants—the only elements usable out of all this repertory are forms and shapes and sounds and textures meaningless to us, at best abstracts of ornament and pillars of structure.

Thus it has come about that virtually all the art of our century has been at once eclectic and abstract—eclectic because its forms have been chosen from travel, from ethnography, and from the whole of history, abstract because its forms have lost their content. Such a galaxy of ways and approaches has given to the time its manneristic tone. And the insistence of artists that the only meaning in any of their work is the mere existence of that work has turned them inevitably toward an effort to create through semantic and structural complexity an intrinsic interest. And this has led, as eclecticism and mannerism always do, to academicism, to an art in which the means employed are elaborate out of all proportion to the expressive end achieved.

Today’s “advanced” music, for instance—electronic, aleatoric, post-serial—though advertised by its makers as from its very novelty “progressive,” has little to offer save curiosity value. Its expressive content, when comic, suggests a sorcerer’s apprentice. And where the comic spirit is not invoked, it is prone to imitate the afflatus (and the alienation) of a Mahler or the tinklings of a distant orientalism. Our judges among musicians have not clustered round it, as they did round the new music of before 1914. Nor has the public either resisted it or adopted it. I fear, indeed, that it is for the most part minor mannerism that fails to accomplish the major renewal that its progenitors had hoped for.

That hope, as declared by the Italian Futurists in 1909 and re-proclaimed by many a publicist of the new in recent years, has been to hasten the burial of classical music, which it considers to be no longer “relevant” and to construct a new art out of casually selected noises. It claims to be looking forward, although its substitution of unplanned acoustical encounter (however diverting) for a meaningful organization of the intervalic phenomenon—for eight centuries Western music’s glory—seems by its sacrifice of a major dimension retrogressive. Its faith, moreover, in “innovation,” as even the tiniest novelty is now called, in the “absurd,” or unpointed joke, and in asymmetry as a unique metrical aim all seem directed toward a limited achievement. Again, the means employed of electronic calculators and synthesizers and of stochastic predictions may well be far out of proportion to the expressivity achieved or even to the simple delight. I find it revealing that this music has been adopted with enthusiasm in the American universities, where the apparatus of scientific research and the applications of mathematics seem so much safer an expenditure than unpredictable adventures with mere talent.

The composer of music is like a cook—a classical cook in some cases, in others an inventive one varying the classical recipes, a diet cook (like the serialists) limiting his output to what he thinks is good for you no matter what it tastes like, or an ingenious housewife always running up something tasty out of left-overs. There is also in music a cuisine canaille—foods redolent of curry, garlic, saffron, hot peppers, coarse herbs, or asafoetida—which can be enjoyable to eat and highly digestive but which tend to abuse the taste buds. I do not mean here the elaborations of many a Romantic or modern master, but rather the casual sumptuosities of Muzak, of elevator loops, of so much heard by radio or with films, of all that commercial stuff which by any sensible standard is overharmonized, overorchestrated, overornamented, overslippery, or oversweet. But it is music just the same, designed for consumption by everybody, though the discerning may, as with cuisine canaille, use it sparingly.

Authenticity is the requirement for jazz and blues, since their largely anonymous production procedure denies them authorship. A singer of blues can also be authentic, since his work is as much a part of the joint message as that of any participant in a jam session. Commercial popular music, on the other hand, though it may be, like that of the Beatles, a high product in its line, internationally used and advertised, has no authenticity at all. The forced consumption of it through the plugging mechanism removes practically all authentic artist-to-consumer relation. As for the quality content of rock music, let me comment only that its lovers tend to behave like addicts. But for that matter, so did the “cats” and “alligators” of the 1930s listening to swing played by name-bands.

But if authenticity, while applicable to jazz and blues and to large regions of folklore, has no meaning in Tin Pan Alley, quality can dwell there as comfortably as in the highest altitudes of art. A popular song after all is a song, a union of words and music; and a foxtrot or beguine is not by definition inferior to a gavotte or polonaise. There is a rare song by Irving Berlin (rare because in three-four time) called “All Alone by the Telephone” which any composer might well be proud to have signed, so shapely is its melody, so well tailored the harmonization, so easy and right the fit of its words and music. There are many small master-pieces of this kind from every country that has a Tin Pan Alley—from France, from Germany, from Spain, in the nineteenth century from Austria, nowadays from Mexico and Brazil. And the common dance meters with their opportunities for physical suggestion have long appealed to composers of every degree, our century having found the waltz and the tango particularly responsive to depth treatment.

The rhythm formerly known as rock-and-roll, nowadays as rock, has lately been the subject of dithyramb in the press and of ecstatic cries even from musicians. I am sure there must be excellence in some of it. Not in the rhythmic patterns, however, which are likely to be over-simple and quite monotonous, having early got crystalized that way for serving a public aged nine to fourteen. Their monotony has nevertheless facilitated poetic expansion, so that we have now in Bob Dylan, for instance, a current-events verbal content comparable in wit and in forthrightness to that of Caribbean calypso. Unfortunately that same monotony invites, as a substitute of pain for tedium, high-amplification. As a result, I have not looked far in rock for masterpieces. Mostly the numbers I have heard have been flawed by rhythmic poverty and by an over-insistent level of delivery.

Education is a branch in which both authenticity and signed quality are cultivated. If its offerings are not authentic, heaven preserve us. And if the community of scholars is not a quality group, then billions of dollars have been wasted. Education is not commercial; it runs a deficit. For the arts and letters in both their productive and their reproductive functions are a money-spending operation, not a money-making one. Only their distribution still hopes for profit. And just as any musician is in my view essentially a cook, a school is a restaurant for public feeding. Some universities add public housing, not always free, but not aimed at profit either.

The late Sir Thomas Beecham, Bart. used to insist that Americans were ruining the English language and women ruining music. Myself I subscribe only to the first statement, reserving too some distrust for what the British are doing to our speech. But I do not share his apprehension regarding women as composers. Considering their rarity, I doubt very much their making soon a harmful impact. Italy, Germany, Russia, Japan, and Spain seem to have produced none. France has known them from the twelfth century, when nuns wrote religious operas; America welcomes them, even far-out ones like Boston’s Pozzi Escot, but does not promote their works; the British Empire has given us the late Dame Ethel Smyth, Elisabeth Lutyens, from Australia Peggy Glanville-Hicks, and from South Africa Priaulx Rainier. All these are quality workmen meriting praise rather than unfair treatment. England and France use them best. Their non-existence in Germany and in Italy suggests that they are not encouraged in these antifeminist states. What then of Russia and Spain, where women are far less put upon? I do not understand how it comes about that these countries, which have excellent women poets, lawyers, doctors, and scientists, have not yet furnished female composers.

To return to the matter of agreement among professionals: in music this tends for sure to rub off on the consumer. An enlightened public, by which is meant a public informed by musicians and containing many persons who can play an instrument, such a public takes part in the forming of musical taste. The exposure to this public of new music and of newly resurrected old music produces a reaction that is not in itself dependable as judgment, but in the presence of which musicians themselves can estimate carrying power. Myself I have long preferred hearing recordings in front of students to hearing them in solitude. Naturally these must be students with some preparation for listening; the plainly unmusical will not do. But communal enjoyment of the auditory faculties sharpens those faculties and brings them into line, very much as the molecules in a steel knife are lined up by its being plunged into hot water.

The performance of music is therefore not merely a social ceremony; it is an occasion for joint listening. Even individual reactions of delight or its opposite become an essay in judgment when expressed publicly by bravos and boos. And such an essay, when carried on by further hearings and by examination of scores and recordings, tends to produce an agreement among musicians that is shared by the enlightened public, this term meaning here consumers whose convictions regarding excellence follow the professional consensus.

Now this consensus in effect approaches the infallible, since there is no other that can be trusted. And its time for firm establishment is about twenty-five years. But foretastes of it appear right along with the earliest exposure of a work. A world-wide whisper instantly informs all professionals that here is something likely to interest them. So that long before the consensus occurs, each lively work or author achieves a certain acceptance. This acceptance does not necessarily lead to popularity, but the general recognition that something real has come into existence is in all cases preceded by a grapevine message to that effect. There is no example in history of an unknown composer suddenly making the historical big-time. Great masters, though often persecuted, have never been ignored. Some quality group in the music world has always known about them.

It is on the basis both of early recognition and of final consensus that our century has accepted Debussy, Stravinsky, Ravel, Varèse, Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern for original masters. Also that a delayed consensus regarding serial music has called into question the excellence of a great deal that has been composed by that method. And today’s smaller far-outs, for all the excitement they stimulate (I had almost said “whip up”), are not really in possession of the electricity they boast; of that I am sure. Cage, Boulez, and Stockhausen had it early. Xenakis and Berio seem to have it now. Time plays already against the rest.

The great dead masters are known, at least by name, to all musicians. Smaller ones as well are of good report. And the moderns one can be fairly sure about, even those like Boulez and Berio who have come up since World War II. Similarly for the visual arts. When shopping for a picture, be sure to take a painter along. And if you need guidance about record purchases or concert tickets, ask a composer, if you know one. If not, ask three performers, instrumentalists preferably.

Teachers of Appreciation will not be much help, nor reading books unless you are something of a musician. As for the musical magazines, though BBC’s The Listener is not bad, in America they are hopeless—advertising organs every one, or else run by some pressure group. The chattering busy-bodies of the daily press are almost better, though their ignorance of what today’s or even yesterday’s far-outs are up to renders them virtually useless as talent scouts of composition.

In the long run music, though, like religion, at the service of all, is administered as a rite and its meanings are defined only by its ordained ministers. I am perfectly serious about this. For when its observances are disrupted by dirty hands, the miracle does not take place. Nor does that constant defining of the qualities embodied that keeps its past a living thing and its present a historical experience. This consensus, renegotiated constantly, is at the basis of music’s major continuing action, which is the creation and performance of living works and the classifying of certain among these as public monuments not to be destroyed.


Artists Anonymous September 11, 1969

Artists Anonymous September 11, 1969

Sorry, Marshall Lee July 31, 1969