Opinion: Is Baroque the most High-brow Music?



There is something of an arms race in (some) cultural circles. Everyone wants to be the edgiest, most new, most challenging – highest-browed – composer/writer/musician in all the world. I am a bit more cautious, a bit more conservative. I think if you take labels too seriously, you stop caring about the substance of a work of art and worry too much what your friends will think of it. Not the audience. This is, I think, a big problem in the musical world.

I recently read an interesting cultural artefact that made this point for me. It’s from Life Magazine in 1949. It’s a graph of various tastes with different activities (clothing, music, even alcoholic drinks). It’s very much a product of post-war America – beer is low-brow, tweed is high-brow, the theatre is middle-brow. In one sense, it reflects how much styles change. How many businesspeople have you seen wearing tweed recently? And yet, when I read the column about music, it struck me how much things have stayed the same. Jukebox music is low-brow – Cole Porter and Brahms is in the middle. And high-brow includes all that is “Bach and before, Ives and after”. Bach and before?

Everyone understands what I mean by the Three Brows, don’t they? It’s a system of categorising a cultural product. Simple stuff is low-brow. Complex art is high-brow. The middle is a mix of both – serious art with one eye still on the audience. Middle-brow art is, at its best, accessible and sophisticated. The very concept of “middle” is a creation basically of the United States. It is a democratic notion, an incredibly optimistic ideal.

These three archetypes are associated with particular classes – it’s assumed that the upper class (doctors, academics, businesspeople) will enjoy the higher-browed stuff and blue collar workers will enjoy the rest. This is definitely (somewhat) true.

I should make it clear that this is not a judgement of quality. Low-brow movies can be great. High-brow authors are often unreadable (damn you, Phillip Roth! Curse you Cormac McCarthy, you magnificent bastard!). Love Actually, for instance, is actually a really great movie. It doesn’t try to do too much, and it totally nails that goal. It’s a really enjoyable flick to watch with friends – which is the highest praise that a low-brow film can earn. But culture can do more. The Godfather Two and Toy Story Three are both great movies – but which movie left you thinking about what it meant after the end of it?

Something can be written within one brow and evolve into another. The Blue Danube was low-brow when Strauss wrote it, high-brow when Kubrick used it in 2001: A Space Odyssey – and middle-brow when Andre Rieu butchers it for the blue-rinse brigade.

High-brow stuff, too, can be completely worthless, but rarely for the same reasons. Bad low-brow culture is bad because it’s lazy or unskilled. Bad middle-brow literature is bad because it doesn’t fit the audience, or the zeitgeist. Bad high-brow literature is the worst of all. It is arrogant or self-obsessed or not as smart as it thinks it is. The Human Stain (which, to be fair, is the only book by Phil Roth I’ve read) is terrible because the book is so important it doesn’t have time for a plot. Or much interesting dialogue. Or more than one character with more than two motivations. Let alone a joke. Perish the thought! Much too serious a book for it to try to actually entertain anyone.

The danger of trying to make a work of art that actually matters is that you have to be arrogant enough to want to. You run the risk of writing it right up your own arse.

But I digress. How does this relate to music?

I think that’s exactly the reason people consider earlier music aesthetically and almost ethically superior to music of the romantic or classical era. Objectively speaking, the baroque era is worse than the classical. That’s just fact. Music evolved. Humans made mistakes and corrected them – style improved. We can have a debate about the relative merits classical and romantic styles, but Mozart easily outweighs Vivaldi. CPE Bach is not less sophisticated than JSE Bach. Nobody thinks that. That’s just pure affectation.

It’s terrifying and disturbing how firmly entrenched that affectation is. In 2014, as in 1949, people still pretend to believe that Palestrina’s music is more pure than Schubert’s. Or put Handel’s over Verdi’s. I once watched an American choir that will remain nameless – one of the most technically proficient I’ve ever seen. Gorgeous tone, beautiful phrasing. They only sang motets. That’s as stupid as it is dishonest. Where do we get this idea that the best music ended when Bach died?

Regardless of whether you consume or participate in culture for leisure or for fulfilment – whether, in other words, you are a high-brow or low-brow person – you should be honest about what you like. It is truly frightening to think how many people are not.

Check out the full Life Magazine 1949 graph here.



Image via Wikimedia Commons.

1 Comment on Opinion: Is Baroque the most High-brow Music?

  1. “Objectively speaking, the baroque era is worse than the classical. That’s just fact. Music evolved. Humans made mistakes and corrected them – style improved.”
    Huh? So, human development in all fields is a matter of continuous improvement?
    And is is really stupid and dishonest for a vocal group to specialize in motets? Presumably they sang a capella and the repertoire for that is limited.
    I realize this piece is meant to be thought provoking and probably provocative, but I’m afraid it comes across as just silly.

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