What’s Wrong with the World

The men signed of the cross of Christ go gaily in the dark.


What’s Wrong with the World is dedicated to the defense of what remains of Christendom, the civilization made by the men of the Cross of Christ. Athwart two hostile Powers we stand: the Jihad and Liberalism...read more

Our Great-grandfathers... (updated)

...were better men than we are.

Here's a video I uploaded to youtube a while ago, but never posted here, before:

The music is from the 3rd movement (Adagio) of Sir Edward Elgar's 1st Symphony.

The visuals are pieced together from various photos of the Malvern hills, where Elgar lived.

So here's the thing:

This symphony was an absolutely sensational success, at its World Premiere in Manchester, and at it's repeat, a few days later, in London, in 1908.

People were climbing over chairs & standing on shoulders to get a view of the composer, when he came out to acknowledge the thunderous applause.

But it wasn't the simple grandeur of the opening march...

...nor even the concluding apotheosis of that march, assaulted by wave after wave of escalating orchestral violence...

...that roused them to their greatest enthusiasm.

No. It was the Adagio - the infinitely sensitive Adagio - that brought them to tears, and to their feet.

* * * * *

It was the work of centuries to build an audience capable of such a response to such music.

All gone, now. All gone.

If only I could have been there.

But I was born too late.

* * * * *


Sorry - I should have noted that what I find most remarkable about the audience reaction at the premiere of Elgar's First Symphony is that this was brand new music - and music in a very advanced idiom - at the time.

Hundreds of grown men sitting still for an hour's worth of abstract art - and then going wild with ethusiasm at the end? Now that is amazing. Where else in all of human history does one see the like?

But in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the audience for "classical" music didn't just accept new music - it demanded it. New works by composers like Brahms and Tchaikovsky and Dvorak and Richard Strauss and Jan Sibelius (not to mention Edward Elgar) were hotly anticipated, and their premieres were major public events.

Old stuff by composers like Bach and Mozart was brought out for an airing, now and then, and the writers of program notes begged listeners to give such stuff a chance. But it was an uphill struggle: what the audience really wanted was the latest thing.

Flash forward a few short decades, and all that had changed - utterly and, it seems, irrevocably. The concert hall had become a museum where patrons dozed comfortably to the familiar masterpieces of the past, and dreaded new music like the plague. The only way to get the audience to sit still for the premiere of a new work was to schedule it for the middle of the program - between, say, a Rossini Overture and a Tchaikovsky Symphony - so that they couldn't get out of it by arriving late or leaving early.

So what had changed? Was it the audience? Or was it the music on offer?

Comments (7)

Very nice, I don't think I've heard Elgar before.

Prof. Donald Kagan has compared democratic Athens to pre-phonograph musicmaking. Just as symphony audiences attracted large audiences whose members themselves were often musicians capable of judgment, he argued, the Athenian assembly was composed of citizens capable of making sound criticisms of their politicians' arguments and actions.

I have no great music insight, but I have listened to great composers from my youth. It certainly seems to me that the answer to the question is: it's the music. We went from Tchaikovsky's 5th symphony to Stravinski's stuff to completely atonal garbage in a few short decades. I am pretty confident in saying that atonal crap is not great music.

However, that change would not have occurred had there been no change in the culture of the audience as well. And at the same time that music was moving from the Romantic to the Impressionist to the modern to the atonal, so also other art forms were moving through very similar changes: painting through Impressionist to modern, and poetry moving to who knows what (since nobody actually proposes a "school" of poetry anymore that anyone else pays the least attention to)? All of these gradually lost their audience: first, they lost the common man with a glimmer of good taste; eventually the generally educated man with ordinary sensibilities, and finally the highly developed art lover, who finally (in the post-modern period) admits that he never actually liked the modern garbage, but accepted the novelties and discords out of a sense of loyalty to the pretentious proponents of new philosophies of man and nature and art.

The change in music would never have occurred without a change in philosophy and culture along-side, and the music would never have lost its audience had it not first lost its reason for being.

I would posit that the reason Elgar's symphony was greeted with such overwhelming enthusiasm is that, even at that time, 1908, the trend toward garbage had already taken hold, and this work was so clearly a refreshing return to the true, the good, and the beautiful from the bygone era. It was not its "newness" in the sense of new breaking out against barriers of good sense and good taste that make it appealing.

The reason modern programs need to sandwich a 20th century work with two older ones is that 70% of the 20th century works are worth less than dog food.

"Most of the music written in any age sucks." That's what I used to tell myself. And it is true for most of the music written in the last couple hundred years. But I've been disabused of this notion. As the early music movement has matured, the many really superb ensembles that specialize in the Baroque era have been recording the works of obscure composers. Just listening to our local classical station, I now hear every week the music of another man I have never heard of. They are uniformly delightful, often brilliant.

It's wonderful to have all these treasures exhumed from monastic and noble libraries all over Europe and delivered to us again as living things. But it's depressing to see just how far, and how consistently, the stuff that sank into oblivion in 1700 surpasses the top-drawer stuff of today.

Then again, the Baroque may have been special. The Baroque may have been to music what the Gothic era was to church architecture, or the Founding Fathers were to politics.

Then again, the Baroque may have been special. The Baroque may have been to music what the Gothic era was to church architecture, or the Founding Fathers were to politics.

And the height of the age of Athens to western philosophy.

I think that may very well be the case. And yet, that does not excuse those (we) who came after for sinking lower than their forbears. We who have the opportunity to be pygmies standing on the shoulders of giants may be excused for not being giants ourselves - but we can never be excused for jumping off the giants' shoulders for novelty's sake, and then being surprised at how much less we can see. Still less does it excuse jumping off the giants' shoulders, and then chopping at the giants knees to make sure nobody is taller than we are, for the sake of equality. Each of these depraved attitudes is produced by the false new philosophies that went hand in hand with the false modern art forms.

Once the depravity is entrenched, it is very hard to overcome in the culture. My kids are taking piano lessons from a pretty darn good teacher (technically). But when they get advanced enough, she keeps on pushing them to acquire some modern trash in their repertoire. She does not get it that we have really basic reasons for resisting this, not just a disagreement in a matter of taste. This is what she was taught. How does one turn around the schools?

I do think that there are some kernels of real beauty coming through in small ways, here and there. I hope that the internet self-marketing by individuals and groups makes it possible to get past the mass-media major-marketing monopoly on music. Hmmm?

OT: Kristor, do you have a blog?

It's beautiful music, especially if you play it with an instrument instead of plugging it in.

Where else in all of human history does one see the like?

An example of mass-movement passions might be a charistmatic church service or CCM concert. It may be a vice, but I'm averse to spectator phenomena wherever they occur--in politics, in religion, or in some anonymous crowd of socially advancing dionysiacs. In any case, a reaction like this is about social behavior that doesn't need beautiful music per se.

Kristor writes: "Then again, the Baroque may have been special. The Baroque may have been to music what the Gothic era was to church architecture, or the Founding Fathers were to politics."

I think so, Kristor. Trying to capture, possess, hold, and control beyond what time allows is another one of those maladies that conservatives may be prone to.

Post a comment

Bold Italic Underline Quote

Note: In order to limit duplicate comments, please submit a comment only once. A comment may take a few minutes to appear beneath the article.

Although this site does not actively hold comments for moderation, some comments are automatically held by the blog system. For best results, limit the number of links (including links in your signature line to your own website) to under 3 per comment as all comments with a large number of links will be automatically held. If your comment is held for any reason, please be patient and an author or administrator will approve it. Do not resubmit the same comment as subsequent submissions of the same comment will be held as well.