The Big Easy vs. The Big Shots

“Get Funky Jazz Performers” by Renie Britenbucher

“Life without music is unthinkable, music without life is academic. That is why my contact with music is a total embrace.”

- Leonard Bernstein

In early 20th century Western classical music, there was a growing, conscious effort to move away from ‘the confines’ of diatonic harmony and create a ‘modern’ approach to music. Ever-growing disdain for consonance and tonality was a hallmark of this period, and atonality – the ultimate musical ivory tower – the inevitable result. Touted as the most important musical development of the century, atonality has had almost no real impact on the music people actually listen to – unless we’re talking about ear-grating horror movie scores.

At the same time, New Orleans, Louisiana (including, to a large extent, the Mississippi River Valley all the way up to St. Louis, Missouri) had become perhaps the most potent musical hub in the world. As opposed to the official music capitals Vienna and Paris and the big Western universities, The Big Easy’s influence was undeniable and enormous; yielding the most influential musical styles of the last hundred years, including ragtime, jazz, blues, doo-wop, rhythm and blues, rock and roll, funk and disco.

Even if conservative, diatonic harmony were indeed starting to sound hackneyed to some, these offered solutions. For example, the blues employed blue notes (flatted 3rd, 5th and 7th notes) as well as adding 7ths to the tonic, subdominant and dominant chords, while maintaining their original functions in the harmony. Jazz involved unconventional improvisation, with harmony- and melody-bending interpretations of existing music that also moved away from, yet remained in the orbit of tonal music.

African-Americans such as Scott Joplin, Jelly Roll Morton and all sorts of intriguing characters of early rhythm and blues or jazz directly or indirectly shaped the destiny of of 20th century music. What is interesting is that the progenitors of these lively and groundbreaking styles weren’t at all interested in pushing the envelope; they just loved playing music. If the mainstream musical culture of the time had reached a self-wrought dead end, this explosion of unabated, raw creativity provided the escape route.

And it’s not about classical vs. popular music or high brow vs. low brow. Western classical music isn’t snooty or self-indulgent by definition; it had become subverted, beginning with bigheaded Romantic ideas. The same thing eventually happened to jazz. Its creators and proponents realized its sublimity and in the second half of the 1900s it became equally contorted and stale. Art, it seems, must remain a means to an end (that of enhancing the human experience); it must not become the end itself.

And it’s not just pomposity, (Romantic) solipsism or excessive refinement that result. It’s the self-conscious creative process whereby one strives to consciously be original or groundbreaking; observing oneself and attempting to tame and direct forces that are beyond one’s control. Truly fresh and imaginative songs and styles are born when this result is the last thing on one’s mind.

This touches on the general principle: On cause mieux quand on ne dit pas «Causons» (“One converses better when one does not say, “Let us converse.”) It’s like the children in C. S. Lewis’s “The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe”, who couldn’t enter the magical world of Narnia when they consciously wanted to. Art arises from just doing one’s job well and hopefully enjoying it. It comes from adversity and accidents and not conscious planning.

Romantic Amadeus?

Most people who have seen Milos Forman’s classic film “Amadeus” realize the artistic licence taken with its portrayals of both Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and his ‘rival’ Antonio Salieri. When Peter Shaffer wrote the original play, historical accuracy was doubtless the last thing on his mind. The story was more of a retelling of the Cain and Abel story; of the resentment arising from perceived Divine favoritism (or at least undemocratic distribution of talent…).

The film is laden with blatant historical inaccuracies such as Mozart’s buffoonery and alcoholism, his apparently unmerited talent (even though a prodigy, Mozart studied the works of masters endlessly), the cause and circumstances of his death, Salieri’s second-rate compositional ability, not to mention his diabolical scheme to destroy Mozart, right down to meticulous homicidal plans. These attract all the attention because they constitute central themes and a foundation for what is probably one of the greatest cinematic studies of morbid jealousy in the character of Salieri.

What is taken for granted, however, is the anachronistic inclusion of peculiarly Romantic perceptions and concepts, which appeared at the tail end of the 18th century and only started gaining ground in the 19th. Of primary concern is the fictional Salieri’s obsessing about the importance and grandeur of music; deeply resenting the immortality guaranteed Mozart by his music.

But Mozart and his contemporaries didn’t even think of themselves as artists. The concept of writing for posterity was completely alien to them. They considered themselves skilled craftsmen supplying a commodity, nothing more. Any forward-thinking a Mozart or Salieri would have done during composition most likely revolved around their paycheck. Yet this theme of eternal glory is even more central to the plot than all the other historical inaccuracies in the film.

And this isn’t confined to “Amadeus”. The achievements of composers like Mozart are often reframed in an imaginary progressive scenario. For instance, a well-known modulating passage in the 4th movement of Mozart’s 40th symphony is often labeled as ahead of its time; a precursor of the Schoenbergian 12-tone system. But suggesting that Mozart would have, consciously or not, been striving towards 20th century atonalism is fantastic and silly. Just as perceiving creativity as some sort of endless forward march is. It seems that it is better when it is for here and now; for the purpose at hand.

But these sorts of misconceptions are hallmarks of contemporary thinking about the past. It seems to come as a surprise to many that history’s great and influential minds weren’t thinking in the same categories as us or aspiring to the same things. It was, perhaps, for the better.