How music survived: The turn from romanticism to jazz

Modern music began with J. S. Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, which laid the foundations for a new harmonic structure of overlapping melodies to replace the medieval unison chorus, and Renaissance eclecticism. Bach took folk tunes and made them the ‘themes’ of his new architecture. After Bach’s ‘baroque era’ of the early eighteenth century, Mozart developed the bridging ‘classical era’ by separating leading melody from accompanying harmony, simplifying the technical Leviathan which Bach innovated. The reward for this move was allowing room for the artistic Behemoth of Beethoven, following from the artistic culmination of Mozart’s music on Requiem. Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata opened the space for a new piano-based era, this time in the ‘romantic’ mode. But this free-flowing artistic emancipation from rigid technical constraint came with a terrible cost.

J. K. Simmons’ stern teacher Fletcher, instructing Miles Tellers’ eager student Neiman, in Damien Chazelle’s opening gambit as a Hollywood musical film director: Whiplash (2014).

The cost is the eventual loss of either Bach’s technical unity, Mozart’s balance between technique and artistry, or Beethoven’s synthesis of the two. Romantic art supplanted baroque technique entirely as the shadow of classical balance faded. The early-modern ‘kingdom of light’ fell, as neomedieval darkness crept back into the world through the ‘spilt religion’ of poetic romance. Compare Mozart’s Requiem with Verdi’s cacophony of sounds which accompanied the latest Mad Max movie, or with Tchaikovsky’s ‘Hymn of the Cherubims’ which is indistinguishable with YouTube ‘dark academia’ scores. Romanticism, the cult of memory, almost destroyed music — and it is still wreaking havoc on our sonic landscape. like a wrecking ball of chaos to Bach’s elegant order.

But music survived the romantic turn, in part by developing the emergent rhythmic complexity in Tchaikovsky through the renewed baroque influence on jazz composers such as trumpeter Miles Davis, whose Kind of Blue is sometimes regarded as a modern version of Well-Tempered Clavier. Davis’ mentee, pianist Herbie Hancock, went on to incorporate electronic elements on tracks like ‘Chameleon’, inspiring more recently Hancock’s own protegé Jacob Collier to fuse pop and jazz sounds on the technically accomplished Djesse Vol. 4.

But Collier is better known through his other mentor, producer Quincy Jones, whose work with Michael Jackson in bridging between the ‘soul’ spinoff of jazz and blues, on the one hand, and the emerging ‘pop’ genres of rock and hip hop, on the other hand, is legend. Thriller stands as the best-selling album of all time, and a Mozart-style bridge between jazz technique and rock artistry.

Michael Jackson’s Bad deepens the rock sonic space, while the follow-up Dangerous draws on hip hop in the U.S. and U.K. music scenes. Hip hop is his defining legacy, as the next figures to popularise the genre are heavily inspired by the ‘King of Pop, Rock, and Soul’ (as Elizabeth Taylor anointed Michael Jackson): Eminem and Kanye West, the prince and king of hip hop, respectively.

Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, widely regarded by critics as a musical masterpiece of towering proportions, is accompanied by the ‘Runaway’ extended film, which opens to the music of ‘Lacrimosa’ from Mozart’s Requiem. On YouTube, ‘Yeethoven’ orchestral spinoffs from Kanye compare his later work with that of Beethoven — indeed, Kanye’s whole career is potentially divisible into an early baroque/soul stage, a middle classical/rock stage, and a later romantic/hip hop stage. But overall, it is clear what the direction of travel is for the presiding king of hip hop.

Like Mozart and Beethoven, ‘Ye’ has given rise to shadows of Verdi and Tchaikovsky, and classical balance has once again spilt into romantic extremes as the shadow of baroque technique fades. How can music be saved from this new romantic abyss?

Perhaps we can learn from the last reinvention of music, around a century ago. The ‘roaring 20s’ were torn between old romanticism and new jazz sounds. Jazz was experimental, in its ‘swing’ form. It took some time to crystallise into its mature technical reformulation of classical principles, fusing rhythmical and harmonic complexity into a new whole.

The pivot is artistically depicted in the films Black Swan and Whiplash. In the former, Natalie Portman portrays a technically accomplished but artistically rigid ballerina for the famous Tchaikovsky ballet. Her task — to bridge between the technical ‘white swan’ and the artistic ‘black swan’. But her attempt to do this comes with a cost: her own demise, simultaneous with her character’s, in the descent (or ascent) from technical ‘sanity’ to artistic ‘madness’.

Whiplash’s jazz drummer protagonist avoids this fate by stopping at technique, and hardly setting foot into the dark woods of artistry. Indeed, this is how jazz saved music from romanticism in real life: by pivoting from romantic art to neo-baroque technique, jazz saved music from itself, and turned an ending into a new beginning; from transcendent death, to immanent life.

But it is not enough to bring back Bach, with updates for a new age. After reassembling and expanding the foundations of music in a technical form, it is necessary to develop the superstructure of artistic content. Music requires a balance between technique and artistry — a balance that starts with the former and ends with the latter, before beginning again. It is, in truth, a cycle, one which seems to evade synthesis at every turn. But what was done before can be done again. Music may be dying, but it is also being born. In that process of becoming, we may yet find a new beginning.

Indeed, I think we may have already found it. Just as Dua Lipa and the Weeknd are echoing ‘80s-style soul/disco sounds, Billie Eilish and Finneas O’Connell are pushing the envelope of musical possibility with their eclectic mix of electronic and rock-infused sonic artistry. If Collier and Kanye are the Bach and Beethoven of today, then the O’Connell siblings have a claim for the position of Mozart as the key to balance. Meanwhile, Drake and Travis Scott turn hip hop in increasingly romantic and utopian directions, echoing Tchaikovsky, Verdi, and the near-death experience of music in the era of romanticism.

In truth, classical and modern genres and their representative artists, from J. S. Bach to Kanye West, have run their course. Bach is now the subject of study in the universities, while Kanye is focused on fashion and visual art. Music is left alone, and the woods of old have been singed to a cinder on a desolate desert of despair. Is there any hope for a new beginning in this new time of ending?

Perhaps music will just have to wait and see.

As well as writing about the history of music, I also write its future. The mix of my debut lead single ‘First Time’ from my upcoming EP ‘Born’ is now on SoundCloud.

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