I’ve been working my way through the score for Steven Stucky and Jeremy Denk’s new opera, The Classical Style, preparing the role Beethoven for this summer in Aspen. Using a blend of music-theory nerd comedy and playful imagination of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven’s afterlives, the work speaks to the timely conversation of classical music’s relevance to contemporary life, and the timeless conversation of what constitutes great art and the mutations of taste over time.
Seeking the late musicologist Charles Rosen, author of the book The Classical Style that inspired the opera, Beethoven states “It’s no longer enough to be great. We need to be relevant.” The question of relevance is one I’ve batted around since rededicating myself to music in 2013. What is the relevance of the classical cannon for contemporary life? This in turn, begs the question, what is relevance? Is it a useful measuring stick for art?
I hear relevance, and I think of critical engagement with the forces shaping our world – economic polarization, ecological devastation, the inherited legacies and present realities of racism, colonialism, capitalism, and patriarchy. I imagine a production of Le Nozze di Figaro that presents the revolutionary power of love to subvert the class distinctions between Count Almaviva, Figaro, and Susanna in contemporary terms of the 1%, working poor, and undocumented immigrants. I ask how works, old and new, deepen our individual and collective self-understanding and enable us to make sense of and ethically navigate our relationships with one another and the Earth. Indeed, this is a form of relevance, but to define relevance as realized or potential political value in a work draws a partition between relevance and aesthetic experience.
I began drafting these thoughts in rehearsal for Haydn’s The Creation – Frank Corliss playing the piano reduction as Helen Zhibing Huang sings "Nun beut die Flur das frische Grün" on the lip the stage. The syncopation of her melismatic passages pulsating through the warm harmonies creates an incredibly potent pleasure – hearing, experiencing the pleasure that well-crafted music induces circumvents the intellectual, perhaps ideological, partition I’d built. Beauty is a form of relevance. Or, perhaps better said – beauty can create relevance. The relevance that emerges from beauty outlives the practical relevance of art.
Perhaps relevance is a flimsy term and a cloudy lens through which to experience art. It is hazardous to aim for relevance as an artist – in its truest form it emerges in the relationship between the individual, community, or culture and the work, often retrospectively. Thoughts?