Greg Sandow has really gone into important territory with his last three posts: Connections, Power metal and my own composing, and Judging conservative composers.

In the last one Mr. Sandow points out that critics have frequently misjudged their conservative contemporaries. He ends with this:

And what their evident mistakes about Sibelius and Brahms might show is that --while we laugh at a lot at critics who can't understand advanced new music -- critics who can't understand the conservatives of their time can be equally absurd. Who are we misunderstanding now?
In order to answer that last question we have to be able to say what would constitute "conservatism" in composition today. Anybody got any ideas?


  1. What constitutes "conservatism" in music today? For starters, anyone who thinks there's still a debate to be waged between "tonality" and "atonality" is already operating within a conservative mindset. "Conservative" and "progressive" works have been composed within the frame-work of both harmonic idealogies. The very idea that it's an either/or proposition is in itself a conservative position.

    Conservative composition today comes in at least two flavors: (1) Pro-establishment and (2) Populist. The first kind lives in the tight provincialism of Pulitzer Prize committees and walled-in grant commission societies. It's in the music that adopts the aesthetic flavor most likey to gain institutional favor or align with the "correct" position between east-coast and west-coast cliques/prejudice. The populist strain of conservatism is the consciously retro-neoromantic orchestration used in mainstream feature films. In this respect, Danny Elfman stands to be a misunderstood composer by contemporary critics. (Misunderstood all the way to the bank).

    The more interesting question is: what constitutes "radicalism" in composition in a post-Cage environment?

  2. Thomson's "I realize that there are sincere Sibelius lovers in the world, though I must say I've never met one among educated professional musicians" is obviously absurd and typically provocative, unless he truly thought Koussevitzky, Kajanus, Walter, Barbirolli, Toscanini, etc. etc. etc. were uneducated and unprofessional (or, I guess, unless he never met any of them). I think a comment like that makes it pretty difficult to take anything he wrote about Sibelius seriously.

    As for G.B. Shaw and the Brahms as conservative argument, well, for every G.B. Shaw there's a Hanslick, always has been and always will be.

    I do think, however, that as time goes by and the history of "western art music" (for lack of a better term) becomes more and more rich, being "conservative" (if such a state exists) is actually becoming more and more difficult.

  3. Anonymous9:53 PM

    We often hear such negative terms as "populist" or "pro-establishment" appointed to the general idea of conservatism in the arts. Why are those, who wish to build on the traditions of the past, continually regarded with such hostility? The difference between a conservative and a "progressive," is that a progressive is one who insists that great, single leaps should be made across chasms of undeveloped potential. The conservative would rather build a bridge. The most typical fate of those who identify as progressives, is the fall into the oblivion of the chasm which they catastrophically attempted to ignore.
    Walter Ramsey