Amid the rising din of millennium-inspired commentary, a single remark floated free recently, then fluttered down to lodge quietly in the mind. It didn’t come from a pundit looking to say something portentous. It came from the British pop-music composer turned classicist Joe Jackson, introducing his brand-new, evidently unconventional “Symphony No. 1” with the sensible remark that “on the eve of the 21st century, a piece that is symphonic in structure doesn’t have to be written for a 19th-century orchestra to qualify as a symphony.”
Mr. Jackson touched unwittingly here on the sensation everyone experiences faintly at the turning of a year, more strongly at the turn of a decade and overwhelmingly — we imagine — at the turn of a century, never mind a millennium: the sense of things falling into place, the feeling of having finished something and moved beyond it. It could be compared to the feeling one gets closing, successively, a page, a chapter, a book and a series (although a better metaphor for the end of the millennium might be walking out of the library, shutting the door and heading for the cybercafe).
With each act of closure, what before had loomed large enough to fill one’s whole mental horizon retreats and diminishes, ranked by context. The mountain that blocked out the sky is suddenly just part of a range extending infinitely backward. What had seemed a given becomes an option — like 19th-century orchestral styles or print media. What had seemed a bedrock part of the human condition — the Great Chain of Being, the British Empire, the Emperor system — is worn down by the flow of years until it is nothing but a quaint relic, a handful of splendid dust. Call it perspective or simply a sense of history, it is brought into focus whenever we celebrate one of these utterly artificial markers in the river of time. And now the biggest marker in a thousand years is just around the bend.
Admittedly, it is not around everybody’s bend. Some people, including the scientific community, insist that the 21st century does not logically begin until 2001, making all these millennial musings premature. Many more, including the Muslim world and most of Asia, mark the passage of historical time according to their own calendars and are therefore theoretically indifferent to the upcoming watershed.
The year 2000 will be a hard thing to avoid, however. So vast is the reach of the world that runs by the Christian clock that even in non-Christian countries, the Western calendar exists as at least a parallel system. And since it happens that the supranational cybersphere is programmed according to the Christian calendar, a date-related problem such as the Y2K glitch makes this millennial turning, willy-nilly, a global affair. As for the numerical purists, their point seems a petty one. This year, next year, what does it matter? The “turn of the millennium” encompasses both. So the sense that a momentous psychological transition is at hand really is, as nearly as it can be, planet-wide.
As a composer, Mr. Jackson may be right that it has taken a full century to escape the shadow of the 1800s. Historians, however, will surely feel that the second the year 2000 closes the book on the 1900s the world will look different. As long as we have been in the thick of it, our own century has always seemed so colossal, its defining events so significant: two world wars, the rise of the United States, the withering of Europe’s empires, the birth and death of the Soviet and Japanese empires, the short-lived, convulsive experiments of fascism and communism (though the latter still flickers in China and Cuba); humanity’s leap into space; the cybernetic revolution. At mid-century, our towering historical figures — Vladimir Lenin, Josef Stalin, Adolf Hitler, Mao Zedong — looked set to cast their shadows well into the next millennium. They certainly hoped to. Yet the leveling and winnowing process that is history at work has already begun. By next century, these leaders of failed revolutions will be nothing but a quartet of ghostly scarecrows. By then, however, the sifting process of time (not Time) may also have revealed the 20th century’s truly significant figures: saints, poets and scientists, one hopes — and musicians, who make life worth living.
And that is just one century. The mind aches at the thought of assessing a whole millennium, but surely the same principles apply. What seems huge at the time is likely to shrink, and vice versa. Empires rise and crumble, but some things remain constant, among them war, antisemitism and the futility of power. Oh, and this truth, written in the middle of the 20th century but truly one for the ages: “Where is the sky hurrying to/ Over my head?/ Where it will be hurrying to/ When you are dead.”
Happy New Millennium.
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