Last night, Friday, November 10, I attended a concert at Carnegie Hall in New York which included a performance of Saint-Saëns’s string quartet No. 1 in E Minor.
In the program notes, it was noted that Saint-Saëns was “an aesthetic conservative [who] railed against the stylistic innovations of Debussy and Les Six.” Les Six were a group of French composers that included Georges Auric, Louis Durey, Arthur Honegger, Darius Milhaud, Francis Poulenc, and Germaine Tailleferre.
The concert also included a performance of Brahms’s stupendous String Quartet No. 1 in C Minor, Op. 51, No. 1. A contemporary of Saint-Saëns (who outlived Brahms by a half a century), Brahms was considered a conservative within the romantic tradition.
That I like these two composers so much and am not crazy about the music of composers such as Debussy and Ravel (who Saint-Saëns also did not have a taste for) — for the most part (I am unfamiliar with the composers of Les Six) — makes me, no doubt, easily identifiable as having conservative tastes.
Yet, so many of the composers (and writers) whom I admire were profoundly original. This includes Beethoven and, yes, Shakespeare, to take in two spheres of the creative arts. I suspect that few would engage in dispute upon this. Many artists now ensconced in the canon were once regarded as being so original if not mystifying and transgressive that their works were often ignored or ridiculed.
Another thought occurred to me as a result of what the program notes said about Saint-Saëns: “Progress” in the arts, the new and avant-garde, is not always better. A distinction should be made between works that were “revolutionary” in their time and, also, indisputably great and many iconoclastic works that were perhaps intended to titillate or shock that will probably not stand the test of time. Take the visual arts for example. The Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum in New York City are chock full of works that illustrate this. And consider the many writers who seem to illustrate this: Céline, Kerouac, William S. Burroughs, to name just a few.
The dustbin of the arts awaits.
Creative geniuses are emerging all the time. Whose work is revolutionary and profoundly original. I would cite examples such as Alban Berg and Philip Glass in music, Thomas Wolfe and William Faulkner in fiction, and Hart Crane and Wallace Stevens in poetry.
— Roger W. Smith
November 11, 2017
Addendum: My good friend Bill Dalzell, an original thinker skeptical of much of what is considered orthodoxy, used to say, “Science marches backward.” A paradox. Meaning that, while it might seem absurd, there is an element of truth in it. Perhaps the arts don’t always march forward.