The proms have always promoted new music. Every year there are a whole bunch of new commissions alongside UK premieres, and this is an important for the musical culture of Britain. Whilst many of the most hardcore new music fans won’t listen to this stuff at the proms on account of the fact that they may have to sit (or stand) through an hour of Mozart to get to their Carter or can’t listen to some Knussen without being held captive through the stodgiest Brahms symphony, the fact remains that the proms are important for the dissemination of new music, for funding its production. Well nothing’s changed there this year, and again we have an array of commissions, some UK premieres, and at the very least an acknowledgment that new music is important even if it might not bring in the crowds.
That being said, leafing through this year’s proms programme, anyone with an interest in the “avant-garde” and its history will notice a gap opening up. Where have the Darmstadt School and its most important members disappeared to? And what of the Second Viennese School before them? I know that these would not be the most popular concerts of the year. I know that they don’t exactly draw crowds in the same way that playing Beethoven, or even early Stravinsky does, but the lineage of avant-garde music is an important one both within musical and political contexts. I am also aware that the proms did happen to play a fair bit of Stockhausen and Messiaen last year, but doing it cos it happens to be an centenary or an 80th birthday doesn’t really cut it/ Without these movements represented or understood we would soon be reduced to playing meaningless drivel (read: James MacMillan, Arvo Pärt, Ludovico Einaudi, or any other number of people who unreasonably consider their music to be “new”, and waste endless airtime on the likes of ClassicFM.) So, why am I posting about this ostensibly non-political issue on a left-wing blog?
What one has to realise is that in the middle years of the twentieth century, music was taken to be a far more serious political issue that it is today. Now, when the overruling criterion for “aesthetic judgment” is this thing called taste we are condemned to no longer even have the ability to argue about the politics of music. When I can say a piece of music is good because I like it, another person says its bad because they dislike it and because neither has any particular reason to even want to convince the other of his reasoning all art becomes meaningless through some sort of utilitarianism. And yet, if at the very least we accept that art has something to do with truth or has something to do with social reality then it is a space in which the left should be engaging, should be arguing, and should be fighting.
I may have disagreements with others about the importance and relevance of either Darmstadt or the Second Viennese Schools. Many people have rejected this aesthetic, not least in the last 40 years, but these are the movements that have defined the landscape of 20th century (and 21st century) music. But the fact is that if the proms are going to be a serious cultural event, they must go beyond being “for music” and be “about music”, otherwise their commitment to new music becomes nothing but an empty acknowledgment that new art happens to be in production, and they’re all to happy for it to undergo the dubious scrutiny of taste rather than a consideration based in the history of music, the genesis of music, and the politics that all music (whether it likes it or not) music engage in.