Stephen Mager: Composer -- Conductor

On musical rhetoric – an historical analogy

Here is an historical assessment of literature and rhetoric in the late Roman Empire. It provides an interesting analogue with the state of  serious” music and art in our own time. For the word “conventional,” substitute “academic.” For “gentleman,” substitute “contemporary composer.” For the names of Latin authors, substitute “Elliott Carter,” “Milton Babbitt,” or whomever you like. This proclivity in modernist and post-modernist art composing persists even to today.

Stephenson and Lyon’s Mediaeval History, for decades a standard text on medieval Europe, makes the following observation about education and learning, and in particular, the art of rhetoric in the fifth century Roman Empire [fourth (1962) edition, pp. 76-77]:

“In the time of the principate it had been customary for Romans of good birth to learn Greek… By the fifth century this was no longer true…  accordingly, the finest thought of the ancient world became inaccessible… other Roman studies had lost all contact with the realities of life.

“Traditionally, the mark of a gentleman was training in grammar and rhetoric—what we should recognize as literature and public speaking. But the goal of his ambition was now merely to compose and pronounce declamations on conventional subjects in a conventional way. According to the accepted standard, the truly cultured should never be interested in practical questions, should never say anything simply and directly. Themes had to be drawn from classical sources; argument had to proceed by the weaving together of literary allusions; the style had to be elevated, intricate, and ornate. The more difficult it was to understand what the author was driving at, the more necessary it was for the refined audience to applaud the product; and the narrower the group that could play the game according to the rules, the greater the distinction of belonging to it. Such was the circle of elegant conversationalists pictured for us in the pages of Macrobius (d. 423), and still reflected in the letters of Apollinaris Sidonius (d. 488) while the Goths were completing their conquest of southern Gaul.

“Under such circumstances, little could be expected of Latin literature in the fourth and fifth centuries. Although there were many writings, they all suffered from the blight of artificial rhetoric. The best historian of the age was Ammianus Marcellinus (330-400). As a literary artist, he was greatly inferior to Tacitus, whose work he sought to bring down to date… The compositions of Symmachus (c. 375), regarded by contemporaries as a peerless stylist, now seem only a mass of turgid phrases, quite empty of meaning. Much of the same criticism can be made of Ausonius (c. 375), whose poetry, while occasionally giving us a valuable glimpse of the author’s native Gaul, is generally wearisome. Claudian (late fourth century) is better; he at least knew how to compose musical verse in the true classical manner—enough to mark him as a genius in that age—but his subjects were unworthy…”

What goes around, comes around.

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