Where are the Mozarts of today?

"...but where are the Mozarts of today?" -- Anonymous

Contemporary composers are asked this question with amazing frequency. It is, however, used to mask a larger issue, an issue that is the real question of modern composing: "Can composers working today ever hope to write 'great' music, that is, music of any historical significance?" To put it another way, do we live in a cultural climate where the body of historical works (the canon) is receptive to the inclusion of new material or is the canon of 'Great Western Music' closed?

The words "great" and "historical" have an underlying link, a link that is the key to understanding the cultural epoch in which we live. Both words, by definition, assume that some authority must decide both the value and level of importance of the piece or composer historically and aesthetically. The question addressed in the past has always been 'who is the great artist?' whereas today we ask 'who is the authority that can validate the great artist?'

One of the reasons that classical music finds itself increasingly at odds with popular culture is in the way that both cultures define the nature of truth. In popular culture, the individual creates truth. If an individual likes something, she consumes it, in whatever form it takes. There is no quest for 'validation' of any kind. This is the antithesis of what we know as "traditional art," which instead seeks to arrive at a consensus of authority before issuing an edict regarding the quality of a work.

Estimates of a work's innate 'quality' or 'significance' are carefully pondered. One is reminded of the study of law when discussing the academy, as precedence is extremely important in both fields. This academy, which is responsible for deciding what constitutes 'music history,' is structured in an archaic, top-down format. This structure dates to a time when all culture and ideas flowed from the fountainhead of monarchy. The monarch was not only the prime financial impetus behind most art (not to mention literary and scientific endeavors), but was also the arbiter of taste.

The monarch wielded authoritarian control over which information was to be disseminated to the culture, and which information was to be recorded historically. Indeed, the idea of "historical greatness" itself finds its roots during this period. It was, of course, impossible for any dissenting ideas or opinions to find purchase within this society, as the requisite network of communication to promulgate these ideas did not exist. As the monarchs controlled the media of communication at the time--newspapers, concert programs, publishing, the commissioning of new works--so they also controlled the flow of ideas within those media. As the monarchs of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries ascribed to a politics of imperialism, so their cultures were cultures of imperialism.

In the present, however, we no have longer a politics of imperialism. Likewise, the culture of imperialism is gone, leaving us with a culture of capitalism. With the globalization of our economies, cultures, and indeed, our very ideas, we have rejected the concept of imperialism. In today's world, popular culture thrives on the democracy of global communication, media and consumerism. The contradictory positions offered by our media only serve to enhance the possibilities of choice, as it is choice that separates the politics of the consumerism from that of an authoritarian monarchy. Though the intent of consumer capitalism and global media is to offer a variety of choices to the buying public, the sheer volume of information brought to us brings to light that truth itself is a relative term, contingent upon what information is available to us and from what cultural value system we derive our standard of measurement.

So what we are left with is a situation where the composers of today are no less "great" than their colleagues in the past, but that there is no longer a unified cultural perspective to evaluate them by. It should come as no surprise that, according to a 1992 New York Times study, 92% of all classical music concerts consist of the music of only three composers: Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert. The canon of the standard repertoire had to close in order to maintain its structural integrity against the weight of relativistic thinking of the present day. Yet in its closing, it only reinforces the very thing which it is resisting, the fact that it is but a single criterion of measurement. With the closing of the canon, the works composed in the present are set against the broadest possible frame of reference, and it is not our music, but the term "historical greatness" which finds no place in our discussion of contemporary art.

-Dr. Kenneth Lampl 12/1/00

The Juilliard School