In a series of meetings with Goethe in the 1820s, the young Mendelssohn engaged the aging poet, then in his seventies, in discussions of great depth regarding the importance of hearing and creating music as the continuation of tradition. Goethe was having a difficult time understanding new music; he was after all born the same year Handel wrote the Music for the Royal Fireworks, and was over sixty at the first performance of Haydn's Seasons. Mendelssohn was unable to make Beethoven appealing to the old man (although it is interesting that he should try), but they did fully agree that 'nothing new is worth anything unless its roots are well and profoundly planted in the inherited earth'.
A century later T S Elliot wrote in praise of tradition (in his essays For Lancelot Andrewes) -- 'it is impossible to write anything original unless you are steeped in tradition'. Nadia Boulanger repeatedly insisted on 'the chain', her concept of 'a continuing series of links from before Monteverdi to now' (she said that to me in the early 1970s). How arrogant then are those who proceed in ignorance of the roots of their craft to attempt the making of art for public display, knowing or caring nothing of its traditions.
Chefs and composers have something in common. The chef aims to please and nourish the body as the composer feeds the soul. But if the chef decides to defy tradition, discard the usual ingredients and create dishes of wood shavings, engine oil, aspirin, creosote and fertilizer, insisting that traditional flavours are outmoded and it is time to eat adventurously, how would we react? 'Whether you like it is not my concern,' cries the chef, 'it is intended to be troubling, to be something quite original, owing nothing to the old values which have been successfully liquidated -- it is new.' That chef would not survive for long, but an equivalent composer may well achieve a serious hearing from a large audience of bright people, an arts fund grant, and maybe a comfortable university post teaching others to do the same. The press reviews may even be favourable -- but is such work really any good to us without its roots?
Copyright © 31 January 2005 Patric Standford,