Preserving Traditional Repertoire: A State of Confusion

Preserving Traditional Repertoire: A State of Confusion

I fear that we are beginning to lose a sense of the difference between what I shall call art music (or, God forbid, serious music) and popular music. As a presenter, I am flooded with material offering programs that “bridge the gap” when, in fact, I treasure the difference.

Written By

Lucy Miller

Lucy Miller

An NPR spokeswoman commented recently, “Music has become a rich melting pot of sound.” Why would I want to question that stew? We all know the melting pot’s overwhelming blessing: an enriching blend of cultures that excludes no one. If national identity is sacrificed in the mixture, so be it, since that notion has caused enough suffering in the world. In music, national identity is a fascinating and elusive idea that sometimes leads to nothing except an obscuring of musical genius.

And yet I worry. I worry that perhaps we have so sought inclusiveness, so broken down definitions in music that now, as they say, anything goes. And in that “anything” we have ignored an important principle in the arts: When one invention disproves another in the sciences, it is often called progress. Not so in the arts. Picasso did not disprove Botticelli, Schoenberg did not disprove Beethoven, Frank Lloyd Wright did not disprove the Greeks. In art, we can have our proverbial cake and eat it too, or, to preserve the analogy, have our soup and not lose the sense of its ingredients.

That said, we should ask ourselves what we want to preserve. I am not of the mind that Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven are going to disappear. What I fear is the loss of realization of how innovative, intricate, and artful those composers really were. I fear that we are beginning to lose a sense of the difference between what I shall call art music (or, God forbid, serious music) and popular music. As a presenter, I am flooded with material offering programs that “bridge the gap” when, in fact, I treasure the difference.

In his address at the 2003 national conference of Chamber Music America, architect Rafael Viñoly pointed out that music is the most abstract of the arts. It is this very sense of abstraction that I feel must be preserved.

Today we are afraid of using such phrases as “serious music” and “popular music” for fear of offending someone, or, even worse, because we see no difference between the two. Long, complex reviews of a new rock piece appear in magazines and on the radio. If popular music has grown that complex, perhaps it is no longer popular music but a new art form we have not yet defined. I, for one, would miss popular music as that wonderful form one can simply absorb, recognizing it, perhaps, as instant commentary on society and savoring whatever emotional identification it offers, serious or otherwise. Its lasting qualities are not in question.

In all art forms, the curatorial sense must operate. Within that sense, preservation will often take a back seat to exploration, but ultimately we need a balance between the two. Sometimes the curatorial sense may even call for the elimination of things. For example, the endless ribbon of minor Baroque composers played on classical music radio stations could, in my mind, be trimmed.

The preservation of traditional repertoire begs the question of what really is traditional? Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven? Hardly. On my own series, Market Square Concerts, Schnittke and Ned Rorem were the “traditional” composers in programs of new music. Recently a presenter colleague said wistfully, when he noticed we were doing Schoenberg’s Second String Quartet, “We could never do Schoenberg.” If that is the case, then Schoenberg is traditional repertoire that must be preserved.

Is preservation a conscious undertaking by experts or should it be left to popular opinion in a natural process of elimination? It would seem to me that conscious preservation is the duty of those of us in the chamber music field who play music, teach music, write about it, and program it. This duty cannot be driven by ticket and record sales. It must come from an understanding of the art form and a dedication to keeping it intact since it is irreplaceable. By keeping it intact, I do not mean playing only music before 1890.

In his Collected Essays and Lectures, 1937-1995, Elliott Carter spoke bravely of listening to serious music: “Serious music appeals to a longer span of attention and to a more highly developed auditory memory than do more popular kinds of music.” Perhaps it is time to relinquish some of the instant visual gratification that surrounds us and give in to our “auditory memory” that will lead to an understanding and appreciation and, yes, preservation of such music as Elliott Carter’s.

Curiously enough, the recent cancellation of a performance of Carter’s Fifth Quartet by a presenter who feared that it might alienate subscribers brought scathing comments from the press. Never mind that Carter’s Fifth (1995) is a brilliant work in the composer’s latest style, muscular but communicative, full of spry dialogue and texture. Never mind that removing Carter to placate a few reactionary patrons drives a stake through the heart of the Society’s artistic integrity and tightens the noose more securely around the future of classical music.

I felt my own integrity in question when we presented a half-classical/half crossover concert for, undeniably, the purpose of making money. We made the money we needed to preserve our “pure” chamber music series, but I think we did a disservice to music—classical and crossover and perhaps jazz was an innocent victim. Not that the classical or the crossover halves were not well performed. I simply felt their juxtaposition was silly and one detracted from the other, musically speaking. I feared also that some audience members might think the crossover was jazz. The music seemed to float somewhere between art music and popular music, but jazz it was not. I hated the confusion.

To add to my confusion, however, the following message came from an audience member:

What impressed me the most was the thorough enjoyment of the entire audience, in spite of its diversity in age, background, etc. It was a privilege to be part of last night’s performance, which was a clear demonstration of our respective missions to connect people with great music. More than ever, young musicians need to have access to live, smart music and performers who are inspirational, yet approachable.

Who am I to question such a reaction?

Robin Pogrebin’s January 24, 2006, New York Times article (“New Home For Jazz Gets Mixed Reviews”) underscores my concern about the preservation of jazz by suggesting that Jazz at Lincoln Center “has largely served up conservative fare, catering to an upscale clientele.” That seems unfair criticism of an institution that is presumably trying to preserve the art form, but, once again, the criticism comes from those concerned about “hewing to a classical jazz canon they deem middle-of-the-road.” This midway position, of course, points to the thing many of us dread most, crossover. An article in the Times by James Hunter earlier that month (“The Classical Crossover Conundrum,” January 1, 2006) unwittingly admitted that crossover is a marketing-based form of music. While it encouraged classical elitists to get with it, the article did little to support crossover as anything but market-driven.

Artists as well as audiences are confused. One young ensemble tried to sell itself to my series by “offering a new outlook on chamber music.” And what was that new take? Something called “music of high concept substance which was written for popular consumption.” That could very well be Mozart, but I’m afraid it wasn’t.

At the Chamber Music America conference in January 2006, the Lark Quartet gave a performance of Daniel Bernard Roumain’s Fifth String Quartet. Roumain, better known perhaps as the rock star DBR, was there in his disarming dreadlocks and cool clothes. I waited for the dreaded crossover, but it did not come. Instead, we had a string quartet rich in cultural references, elegant in form, and demanding in technique. There was no mistake about the seriousness of this music born not only of contemporary inspiration but also from an understanding of traditional compositional techniques and form. Roumain’s serious musical education as well as his natural gifts were evident in the work. The same could be said about Zhou Long’s quartet, Poems form Tang, performed in the same conference session by the Shanghai Quartet. This was not a mere matter of translating Eastern music for Western instruments. It was clearly a statement in that most demanding form, the string quartet, which used but transcended cultural references. Ravel did that, and so did Zhou Long and DBR.

The very phrase, “preservation of traditional repertoire” smacks of elitism. Yet as I work my way through a morass of conflicting words and ideas, I question that it might be elitism itself we are trying to preserve, but an elitism that redefines style, order, form, and beauty and perhaps even seriousness.

Lucy Miller is founding director of Market Square Concerts in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Her book, Adams to Zemlinsky: A Friendly Guide to Selected Chamber Music was published by Concert Artists Guild (New York) and is available at