Published online by Cambridge University Press: 28 March 2008
The predicament: a musical culture at the margins
From the perspective of the first decade of the current century, the career of high-art concert music during the twentieth century is not a story with a happy end. A significant number of contemporary participants in the world of so-called classical music, particularly journalists, look back at the twentieth century as an era of deepening gloom and decay. The last century, it is argued, bequeathed to the next an unresolved and deepening crisis. The traditions of instrumental and vocal music cultivated in the public sphere since 1750 gradually lost their appeal and a significant hold on the public imagination. Despite striking developments in the transmission of music by electronic means throughout the twentieth century (thereby ensuring music’s wide accessibility), classical music moved to the periphery of culture and politics. In particular, new music for the concert stage commanded less attention during the second half of the century than at any time in the previous two hundred years. The suggestion made by Carl Dahlhaus in 1972 that the Mahler revival of the 1960s might function as a bridge between the traditions of the nineteenth century and the avant-garde of the twentieth seems, in retrospect, not to have been prescient. The embrace of Mahler coincided with a shift away from modernism. The accessible postmodernism of Philip Glass, Louis Andriessen, and Arvo Pärt has not succeeded in creating a resurgence of wide audience interest in new music, the brief success of Henryk Górecki’s 1976 Third Symphony (Symphony of Sorrowful Sounds) notwithstanding.