Classical music and the subject of modernity

Tue 6 Nov 2007, 00:00

This lecture presents the thesis that what is generally understood by western ‘classical music’ is of a piece with ‘modernity’, something that makes it exceptional rather than the norm within the context of world music. While classical music is difficult to isolate entirely from all other forms of music in terms of its materials and structure, it is more securely defined in relation to a particular historical tendency which embraces an ensemble of cultural practices. One of the ways it relates in particular to modernity is through its association with a particular range of human subjects.

The ‘autonomous’ human subject has been honed as an efficient, individual entity within modernity, and is thus as much a purposely artificial construct as an embodiment of natural human impulses. Western modernity, its many dark episodes and dangerous potential notwithstanding, has clearly been tremendously successful. But this success is such that many of its original imperatives, such as secure and consistent subject formation, have slackened, and many alternative ways of being have been facilitated by the surplus that modernity has produced. I suggest that it is this move towards a post-modern condition (i.e. one definable to the degree that modernity has achieved all it has set out to do – and thus not uniform across the world, or even across a single community) that has rendered classical music extremely problematic if it is to be regarded as ‘the’ music of our world. If we wish to preserve it, we need to rethink our relationship towards it and devise ways of regenerating it within current and predictable circumstances. An attitude of ‘restoration’ is not to be dismissed, provided it is clear that we are not trying to return musical culture to exactly where it stood a century or so ago; indeed, ‘restoration’ might afford us a sense of historical rootedness that late modernity has tended to efface. A rethinking of the culture of classical music may also have some relevance in helping us understand and assimilate some of the ideals of modernity - and particularly the enlightenment project - that might have become obscured in our current condition.

Professor John Butt was elected a Fellow of the British Academy in 2006. He is an historian of seventeenth and eighteenth century music. He is also a scholar-performer concerned with historically informed performances of the music of the past. 

Professor John Butt FBA, Gardiner Professor of Music, University of Glasgow

Lecture chair: Professor Nicholas Cook, FBA, Professorial Research Fellow in Music, Royal Holloway, University of London

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