December 28, 2005

American Romanticism

One interpretation of history places Romanticism as a reactionary movement to the Enlightenment. After the French Revolution backfired, an elitist, anti-egalitarian philosophy must've made a lot of sense. The artist-as-prophet mentality of the Romantics has its remnants today, including the somewhat disdainful attitude that so many composers show towards their audiences.

On the other side of the Atlantic, however, the Enlightenment did not fail. For many, the American Revolution was a sign of the solidity of its ideals. Romanticism developed in this country, but its proponents (Emerson, Whitman, Ives) were raging populists. "I love to go to hear Emerson, not because I understand him, but because he looks as though he thought everybody was as good as he was." They had "prophetic" visions, but they also felt them to be within the reach of the common man.

Along with the composer-audience relationship, there is also the composer-performer relationship. The overly-exact notational habits of many 20th century composers did not help this one much. Some composers still think that it's okay to hand a performer an unplayable score and just have them "deal with it." Composer knows best. Lou Harrison on this issue: "Write what you want. Sooner or later a generation of musicians will come along who haven't been told that it's impossible to play. And they will play it!" He has some of the mindset that says that composers are only beholden to themselves, but he doesn't completely discount the capabilities of his performers. American Romantics may not believe in compromising themselves, but they never lose faith in their audiences.


Hucbald said...

Happy New Year Adam!

It seems to me that a free market economy combined with a libertarian society (Which the US used to have, but no longer does) allows for the fairest and most natural path to orderly social stratification. Thomas Jefferson said, "My grandfather was a farmer, so that my father could be a businessman, so that I could be a lawyer, so that my son could be a poet." I don't think greater economy of expression has ever been brought to bear in encapsulating the American ideal than that.

For myself, I consider the audience not to be co-equal with me per se, but they are the AUDIENCE, and I am attempting to bring something into their lives that they will derive some benefit and enjoyment from, so I would never be distainful of them. They, after all, provide me with my living! It's a partnership is what it is: I create things they can't, and I perform them; and they take a recognition of ideal and excellence from the experience, as well as pure enjoyment.

Artists who look down their noses at the audience are a regrettable product of institutions of higher learning and a "grant-based artist culture" that unnaturally insulates and isolates those "artists" from the audience and the marketplace of ideas that they represent. IMO, of course.

Adam Baratz said...

Happy New Year to you, too!

What do you mean by "orderly social stratification"? My understanding of American society before the Civil War is that wealthy businessman and others in positions of power found just as many ways to abuse the system as they do now.

I agree, the composer/audience relationship is never truly a co-equal one. You summed up the situation pretty well, so I'll just stop here instead of being redundant. :)