Roots of the Classical: The Popular Origins of Western Music

By Peter Van Der Merwe | Go to book overview
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15 Modernism

The Modernist attitude towards popular art has generally been a mixture of hostility and wary flirtation. One thinks of the 'Dance of the Flower Maidens' in Parsifal, the waltzes and marches in Mahler and Richard Strauss, the ragtime movements in Debussy and Stravinsky. Even Schoenberg had a brush with jazz.

It is tempting to put this ambivalence down to business rivalry. There was no competition between Mozart and a Gypsy bandleader; they inhabited different economic worlds. But Wagner was competing with Johann Strauss, in the sense that a well-to-do burgher might equally well spend his money on Tristan or Die Fledermaus. This explains why the waltzes, marches, or rags of 'serious' composers usually have an ironic tinge: economists call it 'product differentiation'. It explains, too, why Italian opera composers, whose own product was so commercially successful, could afford to take a more tolerant view of popular music, and why Continental composers could be friendly towards jazz at a time when it was still an exotic and commercially unimportant novelty.

This economic insight provides perhaps the most satisfactory distinction between 'popular' and 'folk' music: while popular music is in commercial competition with 'serious' music, folk music is not. (Hence, too, the promotion of popular genres such as the early blues or jazz to the 'folk' category once they cease to be commercially viable.) And it explains the 'serious' composer's combination of hostility, or its milder cousin condescension, with surreptitious thefts—for this is exactly the attitude of a business rival. But of course there was more to it than that. If the motives of Wagner, Debussy, Stravinsky, et al. had been purely economic, they would have become popular composers themselves. If they did not, it was partly for fear of losing professional caste, but also because they felt themselves to be entrusted with the high mission of Modernism.

But what was Modernism? Evidently a complex phenomenon—almost as resistant to definition as the Romanticism out of which it grew. Its germ can be detected in the hostility of Joseph Berglinger, Wackenroder's ideal composer, towards his public and professional colleagues.1 It is worth noting, however, that

1 See pp. 341– 2.


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