Wan Baochang (whom I learned of from Richard Spacek) lived some 1,500 years ago. According to the The Taoism Reader, Wan had a spiritual revelation in which he was told “the supreme God has sent officers of the highest heaven to show you the mysterious and subtle essentials” of music.
In the early 590s, when a certain nobleman completed a musical composition and submitted it to the throne for official adoption as court music for the newly established Sui dynasty, Emperor Wen summoned Wan to consult him. After listening to it, Wan said, “This is the sound of the destruction of a nation: sad, bitter, fleeting, scattered. It is not the sound of true elegance. It will not do for classical music.”
Presumably the translator wrote “classical music” for music of beauty, complexity, insight, spiritual rigor. In English, “classical” is the best one-word adjective we have; a pity, but also revealing. Consider that when Bach reigned “classical music” was just called music. We didn’t need a modifier, except for the intent (chamber group, organ, etc.) and style of compositions (mass, symphony, and so on). The real pity is what is called “music” today (even country!).
Subsequently Wan readjusted countless musical instruments, but their resulting tone was elegant and serene, and not in accord with popular tastes; so they never became fashionable.
When Wan heard a composition called “Forever and Ever,” he wept and told people, “It is licentious, harsh, and sad; it won’t be long before people are killing each other everywhere.”
Now at this time there was peace throughout the land and the economy was flourishing, so everyone who heard this statement of Wan’s thought he was all wrong. But by the end of the Great Works [618, when the Sui dynasty collapsed], Wan’s words proved true.
No better summary of our current (most) popular music exists than licentious, harsh, and sad.
Allan Bloom, in his The Closing of the American Mind, agrees. He correctly noted that the young were “addicted” to music, and this was before ubiquitous cell phones. “Today, a very large proportion of young people between the ages of ten and twenty live for music. It is their passion; nothing else excites them as it does; they cannot take seriously anything alien to music.”
Bloom explained the effects on university students of changing musical tastes, from classical to rock music. Of course, as his career lengthened, greater proportions of young adults matriculated, and so the “average” music taste necessarily coarsened.
Symptomatic of this change is how seriously students now take the famous passages on musical education in Plato’s Republic. In the past, students, good liberals that they always are, were indignant at the censorship of poetry, as a threat to free inquiry. But they were really thinking of science and politics. They hardly paid attention to the discussion of music itself and, to the extent that they even thought about it, were really puzzled by Plato’s devoting time to rhythm and melody in a serious treatise on political philosophy…
Plato teaches that, in order to take the spiritual temperature of an individual or a society, one must “mark the music.”…
It is hardly noticed today that in Aristotle’s Politics the most important passages about the best regime concern musical education, or that the Poetics is an appendix to the Politics.
Now rock music “attempts to tap the rawest passions” and does tap them, especially in “hip hop” or “rap”. Bloom said—and caught hell for saying—“rock music has one appeal only, a barbaric appeal, to sexual desire.” Perhaps it was then an exaggeration to say so, but today’s most applauded music, it is not. It is no coincidence the sexual revolution was set to rock music. “It may well be that a society’s greatest madness seems normal to itself,” says Bloom.
Worse, today’s popular music ” ruins the imagination of young people and makes it very difficult for them to have a passionate relationship to the art and thought that are the substance of liberal education.” Why?
Rock music provides premature ecstasy and, in this respect, is like the drugs with which it is allied. It artificially induces the exaltation naturally attached to the completion of the greatest endeavors—victory in a just war, consummated love, artistic creation, religious devotion and discovery of the truth. Without effort, without talent, without virtue, without exercise of the faculties, anyone and everyone is accorded the equal right to the enjoyment of their fruits.
If Wan Baochang’s prophecy about music is applied to our times is right (and it is), and all indications are that he is—hello riots!—then it won’t be long before people are killing each other everywhere.
In the novella Mozart on the Way to Prague by Edmund Morike (1856), we see Mozart at the home of new acquaintances, leading them through Don Giovani on the piano. The opera had not found initial success, but the guests knew its true importance. The following brief scene is amusing.
Mozart looked around in search of someone, evidently Eugenie; but as she was not there just at that moment, he addressed the question he had intended for her directly to Franziska, who was standing near him ‘What do you think of our Don Giovani on the whole? What sort of future would you prophecy for it?’
‘On behalf of my cousin,’ she replied laughing, ‘I shall answer as best I can. My own foolish opinon is, that if the whole world does not madly applaud Don Giovani, then God in Heaven will close the lid of His music box—for a long time, I mean—and given mankind to understand—‘ ‘And give mankind,’ broke in her uncle, correcting her, ‘a set of [devices] and so deaden people’s hearts that they shall henceforth worship Baal.’
In the original it was ‘bagpipes’, and not ‘devices.’