July 2020


John Borstlap
The Classical Revolution: Thoughts on New Music in the 21st Century, rev. ed.
Dover Publications, 2017

Borstlap's Gauntlet

Challenging the Musical Avant-Garde

by Frank Cooper

With the publication of this new edition of his book The Classical Revolution, first published in 2013, John Borstlap [more] (b. 1950) has again thrown down the gauntlet to the music world's avant-gardists--fearless, I suspect, of the jousts he will provoke.

A serious composer and informed "opinionist," Borstlap offers readers a careful analysis of the causes of Modernism in music since 1900. He dissects the fallacies that were put forth by the movement's pioneers and have been bandied about ever since as cant-ridden immutabilities. He also considers the long-standing influence of Pythagoras's discovery of the overtone (or "harmonic") series, as well as the development of tonality from modality. In addition, he examines what some considered to be the crisis in Late Romantic thinking about the future of musical harmony. Finally, he explains how meaning has always been conveyed--and will continue to be conveyed--through the faculty of hearing in human beings.

Candidly acknowledging that reviews of the book's first edition dubbed him "an idiot" and "vilified" his thoughtful consideration of multiple points of view, as well as his insights into them, the author boldly confronts his critics again. He reasons with exponents of biased institutionalized lore and urges the hide-bound to think afresh about aesthetic matters as important as--hold your breath--beauty.

Clearly a humanist, Borstlap dares to venture further--into such subjective areas as music's valuable role in emotional experience. He even delves into ideas of "self" and "soul" both within and beyond religious doctrines. Dante-dark territory that, and anathema to mere "sound-crafters" (or "objectivizers")--who, he deems, are not true practitioners of musical art.

"A work of art," he writes,

is the creation by a human being for other human beings: the maker, the work itself, and the human being at the receiving end all belong to the same system of signals and communication and hence, of meaning. The material side of this system . . . is a means to an end and not an end in itself. Understanding the means is thus something different from understanding the end, it is the difference between the understanding of the gynecologist and [that] of the lover.

In sum, Borstlap enters multiple frays of fact and opinion, tilting his intellectual lance at diverse targets. Classicism and what he terms "the shock of the old" fallacies besetting the evaluation of Modernism; then-and-now concert-hall concepts, design goals, and contributions to progressive failure of some musics in recent decades; the specter of the "enduring presence" of music from the past (a closely argued section); fruitless searches for meaning where few can exist, in our state of cultural relativism (its roots deep in the "humus" of colonialization, later Fascism) and its resulting lack of systems for value judgments; and, our Lewis Carroll-reasoned choices as from a "cultural shopping mall" with its commercialized, vulgar consumerism.

Curiously omitted from Borstlap's discussion, despite evident similarities, is The Agony of Modern Music, the 1955 polemic by Henry Pleasants--which was bitterly attacked and is still ridiculed, except by jazz aficionados. Borstlap's alternative to the avant-garde lies not in the immediacy of jazz, as it did for Pleasants, but in the "new classical music" created by composers such as John Adams (b. 1947), Samuel Barber (1910-1981), John Corigliano (b. 1938), Richard Danielpour (b. 1956), Frank Martin (1890-1974), David del Tredici (b. 1937), and Ned Rorem (b. 1923). Page length may have played a role in limiting Borstlap's examples and citations: his text is 137 pages, with ten additional pages of annotated "Further Reading," while Pleasants argued his way for 176 pages, with a two-page list of bibliographical sources.

Despite their relative brevity, both titles present countless ideas to stimulate fresh debate where it is most needed, among the informed who truly care for music as a humane attribute of civilized society.

[Links added by the editors.]

Frank Cooper [more] is Research Professor Emeritus in Musicology at the University of Miami's Frost School of Music, and founder of the Festival of Neglected Romantic Music. Numerous Cooper-related videos can be viewed on YouTube.