Over at amati.com, Tim Rutherford-Johnson has written a fine piece about a live and unsettling topic, music that relies for its impact on our remembrance of things past, though I wonder if in Colin Matthews he picks the right target. CM has written ‘after’ and orchestrated enough great composers to find the difference between evocation and intimation, and a work like Broken Symmetry has a sufficiently strong sense of identity to be entirely of its own time.
My own problem’s more with irony than nostalgia, though I wonder if the two aren’t inextricably linked. That Russian school of music that’s always on the verge of saying goodbye – Silvestrov, Korndorf, some of Schnittke, etc – brings the model (mostly late Schubert) so far to the fore that I sometimes wonder, what are they really adding? Wouldn’t I be better off just listening to D960 and have done with it? That doesn’t mean that what they write isn’t often beautiful to me, and I believe genuinely expressed, though that brings up the thorny topic of intentionality. What’s John Adams really doing with his models in Harmonielehre (even the dreaded Schoenberg, so wittily/ironically referenced in the title), for example? Is My Father Knew Charles Ives ‘simple’ nostalgia, or a deft piece of self-promotion? ‘Remember when composers wrote tunes that people actually liked? Yeah, I know, I miss it too.’ Ah, the corrosive force of irony. Yet why is this so different from Brahms burying Haydn and Palestrina in his work? Or (to think back to the Four Last Songs) Strauss reviving his younger self at the very end of his last work as he quotes Death and Transfiguration? When does nostalgia become irony? Is that the same question as asking how long it takes for old things to become new again?
The question seems more pertinent in the wake of last Saturday’s Eurovision, won by a bearded lady whose stage name roughly translates as ‘Cute Little Pussy Cock’. Conchita Wurst could have stepped straight from the pages of Hogarth’s 1733 London, or Kurt Weill’s 1933 Berlin, and yet she’s feted for now as the new face of tolerant Europe. She deserves her 15 minutes, but does she ‘say’ anything about gender politics?