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Every day we post 10 new Classical CD and DVD reviews. A free weekly summary is available by e-mail. MusicWeb is not a subscription site. To keep it free please purchase discs through our links.

  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    


MUSICAL SPORTS DAYS by Arthur Butterworth

All living things are competitors; the tearaways and thugs of the garden: dandelions, bindweed, couch-grass, docks and nettles mug the gentle and delicate flowers we so carefully tend. Insects, birds, fishes, animals of every kind struggle for supremacy; all strive for the best place in the sun or for advantage over their rivals. This universal instinct for survival is fundamental, and often leads to intense violence and the total annihilation of the weak. Humans are as competitive - and as ruthless - as any other living thing. Wars have always existed since humans first gained supremacy over all other creatures. Despite this mankind has been able, for his own benefit, to find a way to sublimate this fearsomely self-destructive instinct. Although it has not, and never will, provide a permanent solution, at least it is sometimes able to mitigate the violence of war: Sport is a way of rendering instinctive rivalry and aggression acceptable by symbolic means in games of every imaginable kind. Even young animals play games: the playful tussle between young puppies, foxes or tiger cubs is merely a preparation for adulthood when they will have to fight for real in order to survive.

With human sports however, there has arisen perhaps by common consent, a way of deciding who shall be the winner of a particular game. The very nature of the game ensures this: in motor racing it is the car and its driver who reaches the finishing line first; in ball games the player or team who scores the most goals, runs, or other kind of points; in running and athletics, the competitor who gets to the winning post first, or maybe who is able to make the longest or highest Jump. Even the intellect can be put to use in a competitive way that can be fairly and justly measured, in chess or the many varieties of other card games. The good thing about all this is that there need be no dispute about who is the winner, for the outcome is plain for all to see for themselves: the one who scores most goals, runs, or whatever, is the winner. Of course this is not to claim that even such plainly obvious facts are never disputed: crowds at big sporting events often think there has been, for whatever reason, some element of unfair play. But the principle of sport is not in itself at fault: every observer is able to verify who the winner is.

The performance of music is often used as a means of satisfying the instinct for competition: who is the best singer, violinist, pianist, male voice choir, school recorder group, or guitarist. Musical competition has been practised for as long as the art of music itself. The singing competitions that provide the very basis of Wagner's "Die Meistersinger", the prestigious international piano competitions: Moscow or Leeds, the Llangollen International Eisteddfod, The International Sibelius Violin Competition, The Swiss Organ Competition, and the BBC Young Musician of the Year. The list is endless, and almost all countries promote some kind of musical competitive events. At more modest levels local competitive music festivals provide a public platform for amateur musicians of all ages and capabilities, enabling them to compare their performance with others of similar standing. Adjudicators on such occasions are carefully listened to when they make their summing up remarks, and the benefit can be considerable. The more prestigious international competitions usually employ not one, but a panel of specialist, often celebrated and very distinguished musicians to assess the prowess of already very accomplished professional performers. The rewards for the winners can be immensely life-enhancing: entry into the upper echelons of the international celebrity performing circuit. All this can be very good and useful indeed.

But there is a downside to all this. It resides in the fact that, compared with sport as such, where it is plainly evident to all observers who has won the game or competition, the performance of music cannot really be measured accurately or fairly in the same way that a football match can be. Music after all, is fundamentally a kind of language; a means of conveying ideas, emotions and matters of the spirit; something that cannot, by its very nature be measured. How musical performance strikes the listener is not at all like the visible outcome of a game of football or a race. What appeals to one listener may not appeal at all to another. Of course it is possible, even for the most inexperienced, or non-musical person to tell the difference in technical achievement between a raw beginner on the violin or oboe, and that of an accomplished concert-artist; but musical competitions between such widely disparate levels of technical ability are never made; they concern the assessment of performers who are of obviously comparable technical and interpretative standards.

While it may be possible for a listener - an adjudicator - to state a personal preference for one performance more than another, it is not possible to measure such preference in hard and fast arithmetical terms and say without contradiction that such and such a performance is the "best' in the same way that a referee or umpire can decide the outcome of a game. With the presence of a large panel of expert assessors - at prestigious international festivals - it is fair to say that justice is generally done and that, by common consent as it were, the winner has deservedly won his or her victory in having impressed the listeners more than the other competitors have done.

Now most competitions do acknowledge that it is not a matter of 'points' being scored, but of the general impression that a performance makes on its listeners, both the general, non-specialist members of the audience, and the highly qualified expert adjudicators or assessors, and the outcome is accepted by all concerned. At smaller local music festivals it has been customary for the competitors to benefit from the constructive criticisms that the adjudicator offers to the them after each class of the festival has been heard - say - the under-12's piano class, or the senior violin class, or whatever. Competitors are willing to listen patiently to the adjudicator's remarks before the actual list of winners is announced. In this way there is certainly a benefit to be gained from competitive music making: one learns from hearing the example of others, both in what to try to emulate in matters of technique or interpretation, and perhaps equally in what to try to avoid.

However, there is one very specialised, and exclusive kind of musical competition that stands apart from all others: the brass band contest. The brass band, perhaps the most indigenous of all British musical institutions, has ever stood apart from all other kinds of music making. To investigate this admittedly sweeping statement can hardly be entered into as part of this brief essay; it is far too large and involved as a musico-social subject in its own right. Suffice to say - for those unacquainted with the brass band tradition - that for various reasons, social, technical, historical, or even national - brass band music has generally been a musical phenomenon unto itself. Although in the past few decades brass band music-making has, as it were, "come in from the cold" and become more generally accepted in the more sophisticated concert world at large, it maintains a very particular attitude towards the notion of musical competitiveness. The 'British Music Year Book' that compendium of musical life in Britain and the rest of the musical world lists every kind of musical activity: composers, performers, concert agents, all the specialised industries connected with music-making: recording-studios, broadcasting, and so on. Orchestras, soloists, conductors, singers, all manner of performers are listed; The status of such performers is generally inferred from the kind of organisation they are and sometimes advertising matter in the pages of the annual edition hints at the relative standing and prestige an organisation or individual performer enjoys. The section devoted to brass bands however, goes a step further, and one might be forgiven for thinking that these pages have been culled from a sports directory rather than one on music. Immense importance is attached to listing all the contests a band has won in recent times; this furnishes the whole basis and essential purpose, so it would appear, for the bands' listing in the directory. No other musical organisations or individuals list their competitive prowess in this way. With the brass band however, the whole ralson d'etre for making music at all would seem to be primarily if not solely, to use it is as another vehicle for displaying sporting prowess. The stature, effectiveness, emotional or intellectual content of the music itself seems to be of little or no account whatsoever so long as it makes good material for competition; so that while the brass band has always provided a form of light entertainment for a general - and often undiscriminating - public, its main function is to provide 'serious' material for its own introverted purpose: competing with other bands to see which is best! This is the downside of competitiveness it perverts and prostitutes the art of music reducing this noblest of human expressive emotions to a mere testosterone-fuelled sport. Band contesting, like dog-racing, can involve a lot of big-money. It becomes an absolute obsession: who wins is all that matters. That other bands' performances might be equally as inspiring to the listener is really of no account; only the winner is acclaimed. At band contests, the result is demanded almost before the adjudicators have had time to make up their minds; and any attempt by the adjudicators to assess the proceedings or give general comments or recommendations about the performances they have just heard is impatiently brushed aside: the bands only want to know who has won, nothing else matters, Then they can cheer in that gung-ho way that moronic football supporters in their mass-hysterical way greet the end of a match. Though bandsmen will claim that contesting stimulates and encourages better performance, they seem not to take the Quaker maxim to heart:

"Do they best and rejoice when thy neighbour shows thee how to do better"

Winning is all that matters - music is merely incidental.


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