Most orchestral music composed since 1950, writes Oliver Rudland, pales in comparison with that of the previous 100 years. Even popular music, after its mid-century heyday, seems to be in decline. Why? Rudland has an answer:
On closer inspection, it is not hard to see the idée fixe that unites the vast array of varied talent [active between 1850 and 1950]: nationalism. To varying degrees of explicitness, whether through the deliberate inclusion of folk elements, or simply a general overarching style suggestive of national sentiment, [the great composers of this period] would quite happily have thought of themselves not just as composers but as French, Russian, Hungarian, English, German, Finnish, Norwegian, Italian, or Czech composers. . . . [A] good deal of what these composers set out to accomplish was driven by a passion for the language, history, customs, traditions, institutions, and, perhaps most prominently, the countryside of their native lands.
This surge of nationalist output, produced during the long 19th century, was an obvious accompaniment to the growth of the nation state itself. However, there is another, deeper set of convictions which the classical composers held in common, and upon which the nation states of Europe themselves were predicated: Christianity.
Even in opera, a seemingly secular arena, Christianity commonly frames the moral dilemmas of the characters on stage. . . . [I]n fact, I would go as far so to argue that there is a sense in which Western music is Christian. . . . Something of the wisdom of the Gospels and the Psalms shines out of the harmonies of Western music—which is that crucial balance between judgment and compassion—and this is why, even on the operatic stage, a Christian moral logic so naturally and fittingly flows forth from the voices of the characters and the machinations of their plots.