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Classically classical

A Bulgarian radio dispute suggests audiences miss old classical music

A. DAGLI ORTI/De Agostini/Getty Images

Classically classical
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Critics have written much about the break that occurred in the 20th century between the traditional and the experimental branches of classical music, usually with an aim toward explaining the dwindling popularity of the genre as a whole.

Two recent articles shed new light on the situation.

In a Balkan Insight piece headlined “Classical Music Boosts Bulgaria’s Public Radio,” Mariya Cheresheva reports on a 20 percent listenership increase experienced by Bulgarian National Radio since a contract dispute with Bulgaria’s largest music copyright holder has limited BNR to playing music produced before 1945.

The data, based on a monthlong survey of a dozen BNR outlets, provides no explanation for the uptick. But a BNR representative, while granting that “recent political events and news” may play a role, opined that the new (or is it the old?) musical diet—one rooted in centuries’ worth of tonal melodic refinement—probably explains a lot.

To put the matter simply, Bulgarians apparently prefer music they can hum along to.

Serialism and atonality, the movements most responsible for making 20th-century serious music distinctly less hummable, existed before 1945. But not until much later did they usurp the place of baroque, romantic, and classical-period music in the hearts of tastemakers, composers, and performers.

Critics have tended to explain this usurpation as just one more shift in fashion. As the possibility of making fresh music with the elements of old forms dwindles, imaginative composers inevitably seek new ways to combine notes and rhythms. And (so the argument goes) thus has it always been.

The problem with that logic is that new fashions generally become fashionable because lots of people like them. How is it, then, that serialism, atonality, and their offshoots have become “cool” while simultaneously alienating the masses?

Writing at The Duran, Adam Garrie lays the blame on, of all things, the CIA—particularly its funding of the anti-communist organization that it founded in 1950, the Congress for Cultural Freedom.

As part of its anti-Soviet Cold War strategy, the Congress for Cultural Freedom promoted art and music condemned by the USSR. And, because of its radical emphasis on freedom, no music was more condemned by the Soviets than that without a tonal center.

Thus, Garrie reasons, a generation of critics, musicians, and professors were raised on a steadier diet than they otherwise would’ve been of composers who, all things being equal, would have remained marginal. It was these gatekeepers who eventually shaped, or distorted, the contours of the classical landscape.

If Garrie is right, listeners have been living downstream of a dam dividing them from one of their heritage’s most important streams for over two generations. It’s that stream that Bulgaria has begun rediscovering.

16th-century choruses

Three new recordings hold out the hope that the Bulgarian revolution may spread—and that it may prove as spiritual as it does aesthetic.

Da Pacem: Echo der Reformation (Deutsche Harmonia Mundi) by RIAS Kammerchor and Capella de la Torre and the two-disc Ein Feste Burg Ist Unser Gott: Luther and the Music of the Reformation (Ricercar) by Vox Luminis and the organist Bart Jacobs have been timed to honor the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s 95 Theses. Both albums showcase devotionally rich compositions contemporaneous and consonant with that watershed moment in breathtakingly radiant settings.

Missa Reges terrae (MSR Classics) by the a cappella ensemble Choir of St. Luke in the Fields comprises compositions by the 16th-century Catholic composer Pierre de Manchicourt. The prismatic -glories of the choir’s dozen voices permeate the entire project, but it’s the world-premiere recording of the 37-minute title suite that makes Manchicourt’s belated recognition feel the most overdue. —A.O.

Arsenio Orteza

Arsenio is a music reviewer for WORLD Magazine and one of its original contributors from 1986. Arsenio resides in China.



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