Quadrant Music

Saving Classical Music from Itself

Sir Roger Scruton (above) wrote two operas and published six books on music. Three of these books concern Wagner’s operas, a subject about which Scruton was irrepressibly passionate—and as brilliant an analyst as any contemporary Wagnerian. Another book, The Aesthetics of Music (1997), is a landmark synthesis of philosophy and musicology. It is a rich and complex work, fully navigable perhaps only by those with a strong grounding in music theory, aesthetics and philosophy. For the layman listener, we are left with Scruton’s two published collections of musical essays, Understanding Music (2009) and Music as an Art (2018). Music became ever more important to Scruton as he aged, and his pen turned more often to the musico-cultural as he entered his final years. It is these two books which should give the greatest heart to those who continue the fight to conserve classical music’s great tradition.

As Scruton reveals, this fight has not gone particularly well over the past century. Truth, beauty and a sense of the divine have been all but extinguished from our shared musical palette, victims of modernity’s anti-aesthetic march and the neo-Marxist will to destroy. The false promise of the avant-garde, and the slovenly kitsch of “classical culture”, have dulled our ability to discern what real music is. One cannot read Scruton on music and remain deluded that if we simply carry on as we have, our children’s lives will be blessed by the same magnitude of artistic accomplishment that has shaped our civilisation.

This essay appears in October’s Quadrant.
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Sir Roger died in early 2020. It may well have been a merciful death in the sense that Scruton, perhaps the most under-appreciated musical thinker of the early twenty-first century, did not live to witness classical music’s full descent into post-Covid, post-George Floyd, and post-#MeToo madness. The contemporary classical music world, now at the vanguard of high-cultural wokeism, has enthusiastically followed the inclinations of the socio-political milieu in which its foremost practitioners tend to move. As elite Western ideological sensibilities have torn themselves asunder from all normality, so too have the mores of Western art music.

Covid brought us the shutting down of music as a social activity. In the professional realm, there was the ludicrous sight of masked musicians playing to empty halls. Black Lives Matter accelerated an existing trend towards empty racial virtue-signalling in the (increasingly poor quality) programming championed most vociferously by orchestras. MeToo endorsed a regime of so-called “positive discrimination”: several major American orchestras now unapologetically advertise for female-only conducting roles, cheered on giddily by major newspapers. And now London, ever the symphonic world’s eternal city, has gone crazy—quite literally—with the Philharmonic advertising for “neurodiverse” conductors, and the Sinfonia commissioning new music “based on conversations with neurodivergent people”.

We can only speculate on what Sir Roger would have made of the present insanity. I suspect his argument would have rested simpatico with the magnificent prose of the Manhattan Institute’s Heather Mac Donald. Mac Donald is American conservatism’s most aggressive defender of the classical tradition, and perhaps also its most courageous. In 2021 she described an emergent “suicide pact” in classical music in a series of essays for New York’s City Journal. She frames the problem well: there is no future for classical music if it is determined to destroy the very inheritance that made it great in the first place.

It is in recapturing that greatness that Sir Roger’s evergreen essays can help. He confidently identifies the generative sources of objective musical qualities, distills these qualities (and their antitheses) to their essences, and argues unashamedly for their revitalisation. If they are read as widely as they should be, Understanding Music and Music as an Art will form a kind of curriculum for the willing—a starting point to reconnect with the truth, beauty and divinity that are music’s great miracle and its enduring contemporary promise.

Understanding Music (2009)

As good philosophers do, Scruton devotes much time to definitions. The first six chapters of Understanding Music clarify what our experience is when we hear music. Scruton goes to great lengths to explain what is human about experiencing music, helpfully drawing the reader’s attention to the difference between animals that can merely hear sounds, and human beings who can make musical sense of those sounds. This is a critical point of discussion, and one that will challenge the erroneous and oft-made assumption that musical understanding is a “naturally” occurring phenomenon, in the way that birds tweeting and waves crashing are in a sense, “musical”. In drawing this distinction, Scruton links the rational development of musical understanding with the rational development of human beings in our evolving civilisation.

In this opening section there are further chapters on Wittgenstein and the Philosophy of Music, Movement (and/or the perception of movement) in music, and what constitutes musical expression. The truly revelatory moment, however, lies in the chapter titled “Rhythm”. Here is Scruton at his scintillating best, as he effortlessly draws together the threads of philosophy, musical performance, art history and anthropology to explain the effect of rhythm and beat. He illustrates how history’s greatest music draws on patterns which express the rhythm of common experience. He contrasts this with the oppressive “invented”, or “superimposed” rhythms of avant-garde, pop, electronic dance music, or simply shallow and unthinking compositions, and sounds a warning at the deleterious effect such music has on our emotional faculties over time. This constitutes part of the inter-generational dulling of our artistic and spiritual instincts—a subject which Scruton has explored in his broader body of works, and which he believed posed a grave threat to human flourishing.

The second half of Understanding Music is devoted to case studies of composers, pieces, and major thought-movements in music. The sections on Mozart and Beethoven are particularly moving. On Mozart, Scruton’s thrust is towards Mozart’s embodiment of the Enlightenment spirit. Scruton posits that Mozart’s mode of musical discourse broadly reflects the project of the great modern philosophers. He sees that, as did Rousseau, Kant, Locke, Smith and Hume, so too did Mozart, in his own language, perpetually hold up the individual to examination against society. In this task of evaluating the man against the crowd, the Mozartian scheme performs the task of, as Scruton says, “sifting truth from falsehood”. Here I think Scruton is correct, and observably so to the everyday listener too. Though it is Mozart’s operas that Scruton singles out most conspicuously for attention, I would suggest that the late piano concertos support his point even more emphatically. The final rondo movement of the twenty-third, for example, almost manically tests the veracity of its own musical ideas. Whether introduced by soloist or orchestra, Mozart engages his own music in a kind of Socratic dialogue, as one would imagine a master interrogating the whimsical offerings of a precocious student.

On Beethoven, Scruton performs the heroic feat of disentangling the Ninth Symphony from the morass of contemporary critical claims against it. He is determined to extract the musical truth out of the cultural fallacy, his critique ringing with a strange hybrid Burkean-Kantian vigour:

[Beethoven] conceived the finale of the Ninth Symphony as an answer to the private and inward-directed emotions of the initial three movements, an answer which would turn the spirit once again outwards—not to a narrow community conceived, as the French revolutionaries had conceived it, in nationalist terms, but to the universal community of mankind.

Also in this book, Scruton explores Central European music. He is effusive in his praise of Janacek, Scriabin and Szymanowski, who he considers to be the true torchbearers of the Western tonal tradition from the nineteenth into the twentieth century. He is cutting in his criticisms of Arnold Schoenberg and his great advocate, the cultural critic Theodor Adorno. In particular, he links Schoenberg’s twelve-tone system and the hijacking of the classical tradition to the broader globalist project which sought to destroy local culture and community:

Schoenberg is not able to win through to the human heart, since the heart is fulfilled not by abstract laws or a universal culture but by the concrete customs of a community rooted in a place and time.

 There are also two chapters dedicated to Wagner, where Scruton makes the case for the great Ring Cycle operas as representing the zenith of all human artistic achievement. Wagner, of course, has been a prime target for those who like to scream “Nazi!” at their political opponents since long before it became fashionable to do so. That Wagner held some repulsive anti-Semitic views is not in doubt. However, he was hardly the pre-Hitlerian monster that historians would have him painted as. The Ring Cycle, contrary to the protestations of the noisier members of the peanut gallery, is not an anti-Semitic treatise. It is refreshing then, to have Scruton offer a well-reasoned explanation of where Wagner’s anti-Semitism ends, and where his sublime musical genius begins.


Music as an Art (2018)

Music as an Art is a similar book to Understanding Music, with one critical difference. That difference is in the urgency of the writing. It is clear that in the decade that had passed, the “fight” for classical music has slipped further into confused chaos.

In the past ten years, “woke” programming has infested the orchestras of North America and Europe, with musical quality increasingly taking a back seat to intersectionality and progressive statement-making. Scruton is writing at a time when there are more than passing suggestions of a return to unscreened auditions, in order to redress “racial and sexual injustices” in the constitutions of our leading music organisations. Further, many of our once-great conservatories are engaged in the wholesale trashing of the Western tonal tradition, with Brahms, Beethoven and Bruckner being ousted in the name of “de-colonising” the academy. I remember clearly an episode at the University of Sydney in 2018, where a group of composition students proposed to drape a sheet over the busts of the old masters displayed in the Conservatorium library, in retribution for the alleged historical silencing of women and “people of colour” composers. As Scruton’s own cover note makes clear:

We live at a critical time for classical music, and it is my hope that this book will contribute to the debate, of which we stand in need, concerning the place of music in Western civilisation.

As in Understanding Music, Music as an Art has six preliminary chapters which deal with the philosophy of music, before the rest of the book is devoted to musical case studies.

The chapters “When is a Tune” and “Music and Cognitive Science” again try to frame the human experience of music, albeit in more sophisticated terms than in Scruton’s earlier book. They are not easy chapters, especially for readers without a basic musical education. On defining melody, Scruton’s attempt is somewhat novel: the “when” in the chapter title suggests that within any given series of tones, there will be an identifiable temporal balance point. The passing of this instance allows us to categorise mere notes as now substantially belonging to the gravitational centre of a newly unified entity—“the tune”.

The next series of chapters are where the thrust of Scruton’s argument for music as a pillar of Western civilisation is constructed. In “Music and the Moral Life” he draws the reader to an understanding of music as a shaper of personal virtue. Scruton proposes that in listening deeply, we in essence “dance” internally in sympathy with a given musical work. If that work is imbued with a deeply noble character (say, for example, an Elgar symphony), then through listening we can reach communion with a conception of nobility, shaping our own virtue in its image. If enough people listen deeply, then we can, as he says, “improve the moral temper of humanity”. In this way, he is a writer after Plato. There is the suggestion of aural discrimination implicit in Scruton’s argument, although he frames the issue more positively than Socrates does in Plato’s Republic: Socrates wants to stop children from listening to music which will make them bad. Scruton wants to encourage all citizens to listen to music which will make them good.

The chapters “Music and the Transcendental” and “German Idealism and the Philosophy of Music” set up an understanding of the way music can move us beyond what we perceive to be normal earthly experiences. These chapters explore some of the ideas of Kant and Hegel, and have a strong thematic link with much of the writing in Scruton’s 2012 book The Face of God.

Of the musical case studies in this volume, Scruton advocates most strongly for Schubert, Britten and the contemporary British composer David Matthews. These chapters are crucial reading for music students seeking to understand the present crisis of competence in classical composition. In a happier world, they would post-haste be made part of any serious conservatoire curriculum. Scruton connects the technical skill of harmonic composition to a philosophical exploration of human existence. This is a nearly impossible task to undertake, and I am certainly grateful to Scruton for carrying it off with such trademark flair.

It is important here to understand why Roger Scruton was a unique author on this subject. Vanishingly few people have ever simultaneously possessed the degree of skill in both musical analysis and philosophical inquiry as Roger Scruton did. We would have to go back to Nietzsche (himself a failed composer) or more likely, to Schopenhauer, to reliably find prominent authors with a comparable confluence of interdisciplinary abilities.

From this unique position, Scruton is able to illustrate how a deep understanding of melody and harmony must be the foundation stone for a composer concerned with uplifting humanity through art. As schools and universities increasingly turn away from the disciplined teaching of harmony, rewarding students for mere sound-effects over real musical composition, Scruton shows us why a return to learning Western music’s melodic and harmonic roots is of critical importance to its survival.

The cornerstone of Scruton’s argument here is understanding the art of voice-leading. More pressingly, the issue is understanding why voice-leading, the true craftsman’s skill of harmonic authorship, is being lost both by design and by default in our academies. The quest for effect is now held in superiority over the quest for affect via the dialectic process of working harmonic progression. Contemporary culture demands the shock of discombobulation, but true classicism preferences the grace of the artist who can be shockingly individual whilst conforming to ancient principles of form and balance.

Roger Scruton could fight like a savage whilst maintaining the poise of a gentleman. His skill at the deft takedown of ideological opponents gave great heart to his supporters, and infuriated his adversaries. Scruton’s chief musical opponents are Arnold Schoenberg and Pierre Boulez. Whilst Schoenberg is dealt with throughout both books, Boulez receives his own dedicated shellacking in the closing chapters of Music as an Art. And not before time. For decades, Boulez has been an unapproachable figure, an über-elite member of France’s artistic aristocracy. As a self-described Marxist-Leninist for much of his career, he subscribed to that religion of perverse destruction, making himself responsible for the evisceration of Western music’s sacred inheritance. Scruton exposes the damage Boulez has done to the common man’s confidence in serious music. He dismantles the Boulez legacy with clinical precision, exposing his fraudulent claim to music’s future, and highlighting the real and tangible harm done to classical music in his wake.

The fight for music that Roger Scruton engaged in was, and still is, a vital one. We should be eternally grateful that he was willing to undertake it. Though his death remains a huge loss for the musical world, we are lucky that in his volume of works, he leaves behind the foundations of an argument for music, and its place in Western civilisation. In particular, Understanding Music and Music as an Art should be read, studied and promoted by musicians, philosophers, students, teachers and interested listeners alike. Like so many of Scruton’s works, they provoke us to examine not just the subject matter at hand, but the very question of what it means to be human, and what it takes to reach out without fear for the true, the good and the beautiful in our lives.

Benjamin Crocker is Academic Programs Manager at the University of Austin, Texas, and a Research Fellow at Common Sense Society in Washington DC. He is the curator of the Sir Roger Scruton Music Library, held in trust by Common Sense Society in Budapest. His Substack column is https://crockerscolumns.substack.com. He wrote “George Pell and Jim Molan: Great Australian Patriots” in the March issue

7 thoughts on “Saving Classical Music from Itself

  • Tony Tea says:

    Pop music (in all its forms) is just advertising jingles for recording companies, 1% of which is brilliant and 99% of which is gibberish for imbeciles and teenagers.

  • Stephen Due says:

    The important part of the Western musical tradition from my perspective is the long stream of sacred music that emerged from the Middle Ages onwards. Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis is more important as a work of art than his Ninth Symphony. Bach, who wrote ‘soli deo gloria’, is more important than any other composer. The heights – the Alps – of Western music are Christian.
    Music can be ‘great’ and ‘brilliant’ technically, and even artistically, but corrupting and degrading at the same time. Music is not a vehicle for a pure art. Rather it necessarily carries the moral and spiritual expression of the composer. We can all see why Beethoven tore up the dedication of the Eroica. But until we can see why Handel wrote the Messiah and Bach the B Minor Mass, we are still some way from the summit.

    • guilfoyle says:

      Totally agree with this perspective- to characterise Mozart in terms of the ‘Enlightenment’ is to miss much of the nuance implicit in the interaction of various images. The Faith of all the major musical geniuses undercut their work and reflected undefinable layers of their musicality. This applies to Beethoven, Hayden, Vivaldi, Bach -all of whom were religious, all of whom created religious works, all of which were the consequence of Christian tradition. The Christian foundations also explain the desire to destroy this tradition.
      Much of what was presented to us in music and visual arts has been the consequence of marketing and promotion, accompanied by the bullying with which we are getting used to in regard to everything that cuts against the cultural push. It is interesting that there seems to be a push-back, both in regard to the visual arts and music, where people seem to be prepared to call bs.

      • guilfoyle says:

        As to above – to clarify: when I say what has been presented to us in music and visual arts, I am referring to modern music and art- subject to market forces and promotion and effecting social change (Scruton referred to Shoenberg – much of the abstraction of modern artistic pretensions reflected the deconstruction following upon twentieth century activist philosophy).

  • Tezza says:

    Sir Roger could have built a third book solely on the role of ABC Classic FM in destroying the history of the West’s classic music in Australia, in direct defiance of the explicit instructions in its charter. It is now often unlistenable programming with ever diminishing genuine classical music, diversity hires for announcers, aboriginal place names for everything, commissioned didgeridoo concertos, film music, game music, silly polls (eg ‘your favourite instrument’), and chatter among announcers as if they are in an inanity competition with commercial radio drive time ‘personalities’.
    As always with the ABC, it combats diminishing audience with spending more taxpayer money to create a new streaming service, Classic 2, which boasts no announcers except for messages to boast the ABC brand.

  • Margaret O says:

    There are no mothers left at home to introduce their little children to beautiful music; so they are not exposed to it in their early formative years. The first bar of Bach’s Concerto for Four Harpsichords would be the clarion call for my children to run into the lounge and we’d dance to the opening movement before resuming whatever we were busy at. Love of classical music really starts in the home.

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