What do we mean by progress in music

What do we mean by progress in music


norman lebrecht

January 23, 2016

The second essay on the Future Symphony Institute is by a regular Slipped Disc polemicist, composer John Borstlap.


There may be progress in terms of physical means – like the types of pigment used in paint, which became more stable in the last century, or the relatively cheap paper for musical notation that became available with the advent of the 19th century industrial revolution, or the iron fittings in architecture that allowed builders to vault bigger spaces….

But expression, artistic vision, the quality of execution has never been dependent upon the physical means of an art form: Vermeer has not been superseded in terms of artistic quality by Picasso or Pollock, Bach not by Mahler or Boulez, Michelangelo not by Giacometti or Moore, Palladio not by Gropius or Le Corbusier.

And we can appreciate the brilliance of the “primitive” masters of Flanders, who lived before the great surge of 16th century inventions in Italian painting, just as we can the music of Palestrina, who had no clue of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven or Chopin simply because he lived in an earlier time.

Read the full essay here.


manitas picasso


  • Peter says:

    Very essential thoughts.
    We have to accept that progress – in time – does not simplistically is always correlated to progress in achievements of excellence and common standards.

    Decline is always a possibility. Even with more resources and money around, which makes it so sad and hopeless.

  • Milka says:

    Poor pathetic being is stuck in the past .He should not be ridiculed nor disparaged
    as he seems not to understand either the past nor the present .To label him a
    polemicist is unkind since he only evokes laughter and the sad feeling the poor
    soul is out of touch with reality .I hope that Mr. Lebrecht is not making sport of him
    it would be unkind .

    • Ellingtonia says:

      But it his opinion and he has every right to that opinion. I may fundamentally disagree with much of what Mr Borstlap writes, particularly his definition of “high art” but none the less he has every right to his opinion. It ill behoves you to make such disparaging remarks, but reminding myself of your usual polemic when you contribute, it does tend to be overtly critical and negative about almost everything.
      Tell me, do you actually like ANYTHING?

      • Furzwaengler says:

        Actually, on first reading I thought he was writing about himself.

      • Milka says:

        Has anyone one said otherwise … of course he has every right ,the observation was that
        we should treat him kindly however stupid and ignorant the essay .

        • Gonout Backson says:

          “Stupid” might be a matter of… taste, but “ignorant” is quite easy to prove. Tell us, please, where does Mr John Borstlap show his “ignorance” : errors of fact, or no facts where they should be.

          • milka says:

            He shoots himself in the foot in the opening paragraph,the humble violin alone shows his
            ignorance to the art -its evolution from 3 strings to 4 and its evolution from the Amati concept to Guarneri and on–the make up of the strings – and the history of the bow
            all this determined what was written at each step in the evolution of that instrument .
            Artistic vision ,expression and all the rest of the mumbo jumbo went hand in hand with
            the physical changes of the instrument .The Bach partitas and sonatas for strings are written for a 4 stringed instrument not a 3 – the bow a study in itself .If the physical change to the instrument had not occurred the flight of creative fantasy as we hear his works
            to-day would not have occurred , it would be something else for 3 strings .Each change allowed the creative artist to spread his wings , the same was for painting, from mixing
            your own paint to buying it in a tube allowing you to go into a field etc.
            Chopin playing on three different pianos Pleyel Erard , Broadwood with his own comments on how they affected his composing and rare public appearances . Wagner
            inventing a new instrument for a certain sound he wanted .The facts are that artistic
            expressions is given flight through the” physical means” that enable the artist to create .
            Mr. Borstlap may not like the results … that is another story .

    • Peter says:

      The right to free speech gives our resident troll the right to speak, but has our resident troll ever said something? Created a meaning? It’s fascinating in a watching-road -accident kind of way, how an organism can produce apparently nothing but excrements.

      • Milka says:

        What irkes you is that free speech points out basic ignorance to the evolution of the
        arts .I always thought the mentally limited resorted to name calling and time has proven me correct, as for excrement it is a subject it seems with which you would be most familiar.

    • Anne63 says:

      Nothing if not predictable.

    • John Borstlap says:

      As Mr B’s PA, and in name of his staff, I have to inform readers of SD that he is heartbroken that mr/mrs Milka did not approve of his essay,which he specifically had written to please him/her, assuming from his/her entries that he/she must be a very dedicated lover of classical music and a fountain of wisdom in cultural matters. After weeks of isolation in the library, which were for us a heaven of peace, this afternoon our boss came-out completely restored in his good spirits, especially when he discovered that the cook had been dismissed, and just as we were taking advantage of this mood and asked for a pay rise, he read mr/mrs Milka’s condemnations, stormed out to the stables and went for a ride on Valkirie. We have as yet not seen him returning and sent-out one of the grooms into the woods. We would like to request mr/mrs Milka to have some consideration with our position here, which is already greatly impaired by our also having to prepare our own meals. Music is fine, but when it begins to erode our wokring conditions, we feel obliged to object.

      • Holly Golightly says:

        I very much enjoyed your essay and am in general agreement with it. Those who become defensive on the subject – rather than engaged and animated to the extent they can actually lucidly argue another case – usually have another ax to grind. Maybe they are over-infatuated with ‘sound design’; who can say.

        Another consideration with regard to so-called “progress” (which always assumes the Darwinian model, IMO) is that a change doesn’t necessarily mean an improvement. Today I heard a fine, new work on the Berliner Philharmoniker Digital Concert Hall. A violin concerto by Magnus Lindberg – a piece commissioned by the BPO – and a splendid performance it was, too, from Frank Peter Zimmerman. In short, there is much wonderful new music being written which I would regard as musical ‘progess’. But, at the same time, there’s twice as much musical ‘land fill’ being produced IMO.,

  • Webster Young says:

    SOME NOTES ON “PROGRESS” (these statements may be of help here…this is from an essay on music and the arts)

    Artistic progress (and musical) was never separated from larger ideas of progress.

    The general idea of “progress” assumes that humanity is gradually moving “upwards” to some future to which it is destined. Personally, I do not think this progress is a straight line. It may be a spiral, or it may have set backs built in.

    This is fundamentally a religious idea – most great religions address the question of progress, usually couched in terms of “ages”. But not only religion may have an idea of progress. Jungian psychology shows that the visions of this progress are in fact an “archetype” of the human psyche. The visions of the human psyche, and even more so, the visions of religion, tell us where progress is taking us. It is slowly leading humanity to what has many names: “the Kingdom of God”, “the New Jerusalem” descending from heaven, are examples.

    There are also ancient myths that explain the current world as a devolution from a Golden Age. In these myths one encounters the opposite of progress as the explanation for what humanity encounters in its current phase. Often these myths follow some hero who restores or saves the lost Kingdom.

    Even in an agnostic or secular world, such as exists in a large part of society today, secularists might agree to conceive of the “new heavenly city” as an archetype of psychology: the dream of the coming to a better world is a part of the human psyche.

    Given the above, we might try to identify dynamics of progress.

    One must be humble in looking at progress. Humanity is not capable of large leaps at a time. When large leaps are seriously tried, disaster is usually the result. Communism, Nazism, and technological revolution (which includes nuclear weapons and possible global warming as by-products) are the most recent examples.

    So we may already identify one characteristic of progress: it is reflected in a few, small steps that take humanity a little bit further on, in a true movement towards a better world. In truth, these few, small steps turn out to be immense.

    It is important to point out that destiny is a shaper, because in what we will call the “small amount” of progress that is destined for each age, we need help in recognizing the small innovations that are the concrete hints ( the small steps) on the path to this destiny. If we are only looking for revolutions and earth shattering ideas, we may miss the quiet and solid true steps right under our noses.

    This leads to an interesting consideration. What is true or false innovation? Is it innovative simply to be prolix? Is the creation of an anomaly truly creative? Is there not some quality of an innovation that makes it true or false, and if so, how do we judge the “truth” of an innovation?

    • John Borstlap says:

      That may all be true, but in the field of (serious) art, the idea of ‘progress’ has a different meaning. What do we mean by ‘progress’ anyway? Something that gets better, is progress; something that is newer, is/was – in the arts – often already considered ‘progress’, which is nonsensical since something that is newer can be worse. In the arts, a difference should be made between a historicist view (the time line) and a qualitative view. These two different things were mixed-up in the last century, and still many people suffer from that delusion (as some entries here strongly suggest). It is because in many fields progress really does happen, that in the arts the impression took hold that also the arts are part of such trajectory. In the arts, the material level is distinct from the artistic level. Where progress on the material level extends the means of the artist, former artistic achievements are not ‘outdated’ thereby in the sense of: have become meaningless. The expressiveness of a medieval romanesk church is not diminished by the later, newer development of the technically far superior gothic style. Artistic vision often leads to extension of the material means, and the other way around, but progress on the material level (contained as it is in a historical context) does not obliterate artistic visions based upon a former historical context. Modernity has focussed so much upon material progress, that decline in other fields is often not even noticed, with quite desastrous results… just two contemporary examples out of thousands: the current technology which makes it possible to have high-quality TV in the home, with its great number of channels, does not stand comparison to the incredibly low level (in all respects) of a majority of the programmes thus on offer. The technical capacities in terms of media use of IS is entirely modern and advanced, but the mind set operating it is far off the scale of humanity. And so on…

      • Milka says:

        From an essay that was an ill conceived and uninformed bit of nonsense we have come down to this exchange which amounts to how many angels can dance on a head of a pin .

        • John Borstlap says:

          So it must seem for a medieval mind.

          • Milka says:

            Poor Mr.Borstlap he can’t extol the past enough- differ with him and he
            uses the past (medieval ) as a put down .Seems to be riding the poor horse
            in two directions .

          • Holly Golightly says:

            I do agree with you and, in particular, the principle than an ‘advance’ may not actually mean progress. That’s apposite. From the musical point of view (as I know precious little about the visual arts), all musical movements should be taken on their own merits – as a reflect of their culture, values and technologies. It’s ‘musical Darwinism’ to talk about music and the arts following a path from simple to more complex and sophisticated forms. I’m in total disagreement with this. But some interesting issues have been raised here by yourself and Webster Young.

            I don’t know why you’d want to dignify the comments of the ubiquitous troll on these pages whose grasp of the English language and sentence structure is a reminder that some people can attend school every day of the week and still learn very little.

      • Augusto Maurer says:

        Dear Mr. Borstlap,

        which is/are your current facebook profile(s) ? I want to add you to my timeline in order to better know your ideias. But I found many profiles under your name – none of them, however, appearing to having been updated recently.

        Many thanks !

        Augusto Maurer

  • Holly Golightly says:

    I’d say “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” is a rapid progression from the bi-plane of the Wright Brothers.

  • Anne63 says:

    Milka – a question for you.

    Do you have a blog of your own, or is there another site where you take the opportunity to explain in some detail what you are in favour of and what you actually believe in?

    You see, I strongly suspect that you prefer to hang around in places like this, throwing words like ‘pathetic’, ‘stupid and ignorant’, ‘mentally limited’ and ‘nonsense’ at people you disapprove of.

    Maybe you’re just misunderstood and I’m thinking that perhaps your blog will shed some light on how your mind works.

    Or perhaps not.

    • Milka says:

      You are transparent , but in any case I do not to anyones benefit have to explain myself .
      What I favor or believe in is of concern only to me. I do not disapprove of people ,
      only of their writing if it warrants a response as to its accuracy .Stupid, ignorant , mentally limited , are observations made in their context.The words may not please you but that is your problem .From your query I have a good idea how you mind works or perhaps not .

      • Anne63 says:

        “but that is your problem”

        I don’t have a problem. At most, you are a mild irritation, like the fly that refuses to leave the car.

        Only truly challenging arguments can present a problem.

    • John Borstlap says:

      It is wholeheartedly recommended to leave mr/mrs Milka alone… and not treat him/her seriously. He/she always makes me think of that London story of the little barking unattended dog who peed daily at the base of Nelson’s column on Trafalguar Square in 1863, and was thought to be a reincarnation of Napoleon.

  • Milka says:

    Ann63 might note this latest from Borstlap …unable to have a discourse concerning his fault
    ridden essay he goes in for a personal attack with a pissing dog story .Her hero just
    can’t deal with certain truths , never mind facts .

    • Holly Golightly says:

      I’d go further to recommend the DSM-V for Milka. It would, “hold, as t’were, the mirror up to nature” (his!).

      • Milka says:

        I do have the feeling there may be a chapter just for you with prognosis as something
        not found in nature……..