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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    



HOW MUSIC WORKS
Sweet dreams are made of this:

Classical music is a turn-on for more of us than ever before, whatever the doom-mongers might claim, says the composer HOWARD GOODALL

 

The weight of history hangs heavily upon classical music’s shoulders. In the carefree, people-friendly world of popular music, Sandi Thorn can sing "Oh, I wish I was a punk rocker (with flowers in my hair)", not batting an eyelid at the absurdity or the historical inaccuracy of the statement. It mars nobody’s enjoyment of the catchy hit. But no such easy forgiveness is available in the classical world, where opus numbers, arcane Italian terms, obscure jargon and let’s face it pedantry can interfere with one’s enjoyment of the actual music. Which is why I feel it is partly my job, on television, to blur these boundaries and to remove the mystique that can prevent a normal listener from surrendering to "older" music.

However, it is has also been my aim to remind those whose first love is classical music that much popular, folk and world music is worthy of their respect. interest and investigation. In my Channel 4 series How Music Works, it has been my priority to demonstrate the techniques, tricks and rudiments of music through examples in every conceivable style. A rhythmic device might be heard in a rap by Twista or an Invention by Bach. My hope is that musical complexity, cleverness and sophistication should henceforth never again be seen to "belong" to western classical music, nor that uncomplicated, fun, easy listening should be seen to be the sole province of popular music. I do not believe there is, in fact, so mighty a gulf between the music of the classical masters and their modem successors in the popular field, but the gap in public perception of the two genres is canyon-like. And it is widening with every year.

Any survey of classical music’s place in contemporary culture is hampered by an endless supply of myths surrounding the subject. One such piece of hokum is the notion that "youngsters these days don’t like, understand or appreciate classical music". First of all, there was never a time when all young people were into the music beloved of their parents, grandparents or distant ancestors. It is part of the point of being young to find your own music, preferably distinct from, and definitely louder than, that enjoyed by the previous generation. This was as true for Beethoven and his contemporaries as it is today. Still, commentators bemoan the lack of classical music in the daily diet of contemporary youth.

This is odd, since roughly 10 times more young people take GCSE, AS and A-level music than they did 40 years ago, and a fairly hefty slice of the syllabus is devoted to listening skills associated with western classical music. More young people play in orchestras, bands and other ensembles than ever in our history by a long chalk and much, if not most, of what they play is classical music. In 1960, the UK had one specialist school for music. Now there are more than 30, as well as roughly 300 performing arts colleges and academies.

I would go as far as to say that the current generation of young people is probably the most musical that ever lived. That they like music from every genre is to their great credit While classical music enjoys overwhelmingly the lion’s share of public subsidy to music, it is but one branch of the musical family, and modern youngsters are right to see it as such. Given that the taxpayers’ millions are mostly soaked up in preserving this, the heritage department of the music world, it is hardly surprising that young musicians are attracted to the grungier, more spontaneous parts of the contemporary live music scene. Just because a teenager doesn’t like Jane Eyre, it doesn’t mean she doesn’t like reading; Malone Blackman, Philip Pullman or Tolkien will do fine. Charlotte Bronte’s always there for later in life. So is Mozart.

This brings me to the second myth: that the public at large has "gone off’ classical music. In the 1960s, between 300,000 and 600,000 listeners might on average tune into the BBC Third Programme to hear a classical concert. Nowadays, the loyal weekly audience for Radio 3 and Classic FM combined is in excess of 8m. The idea, then, that fewer people listen to classical music these days is a big, absurd. out-of-all-proportion myth. Never mind that a third of the population hears Carl Orff providing climactic moments for The X Factor week in, week out.

Orchestral managers worry that the audience for classical concerts is dwindling or ageing, or both. But they dare not confront one of the reasons for this. To put it bluntly, in the 1950s, going to an orchestral concert was one of only a few things you could do of an evening, so people who wanted a night out, who liked music, but didn’t enjoy scratchy records, tinny gramophones or their claustrophobic sitting rooms, trooped off to the town hall to get a fix. Now there are loads of things to do with your evening thank God.

But here’s the rub. There are more orchestras now than then, playing the same pieces to the same constituency, vying for the same celebrity soloists, competing with high quality sound systems in every home. London has five professional symphony orchestras. Five. It is a myth that only old people like classical concerts, anyway, as you will find at any Steve Reich, John Adams or Philip Glass performance. Younger audiences prefer younger music, that’s all.

There has been a trend, in recent years, to think of a new name for classical music, because advocates for it sense that the label sounds old-fashioned and frumpy. Alternatives such as "concert" or "art" music have been put forward from time to time, but one current favourite is "serious" music. This is the third myth, and it is a dangerous one. There is a streak of snobbery running through much discourse on classical music, a snobbery that looks down its nose at the paraphernalia of popular culture its MP3s. downloads, iPods, samples as well as the kind of folk who enjoy it, and this snobbery has tried to claim that classical music is more ‘serious" than all those other frivolous forms —jazz, hip-hop, pop, world. musicals and so on. It is an insult to the brilliantly skilled and committed musicians in all these other genres, but it is an insult that most of all damages classical music’s own reputation, since it confirms the prejudices of many: that classical music is an exclusive, lah-di-dah, members-only club, a club that apparently decides what is musically serious and what is not. It saddens me that the beautiful, thrilling works of, say, Gustav Mahier, Gabriel Fauré or Igor Stravinsky are tarred with this hoity-toity attitude. They are quite capable of standing on their own two feet; they do not need to be granted some badge of seriousness by anyone else.

People are afraid of the "insider knowledge" that seems to be attached to the classical repertoire. I have done my best to chip away at this misconception in my TV programmes over the past decade or so, but it is an illuminating and refreshing experience watching, at the Schools Proms every year (Monday to Wednesday of this coming week at the Albert Hall), hundreds of young musicians playing and hearing pieces of dizzying variety, back to back, devoid of historical or intellectual "context". They experience the music without its programme-notey baggage, its opus numbers, its "schools of" and its isms. Because the concerts are a deliberate mishmash of classical and non-classical, the boundaries between styles lose their meaning. For a composer like myself, it is a liberating reminder of what music at its best can be abstract, emotional, free and endlessly surprising.

The Schools Proms are the best antidote I know to the grumpy resentment that occasionally attaches itself to discussions about classical music. More often than not when a figure from the classical world pops up in the news, it is to complain. Funding for the arts has doubled under Blair, but the general public would never know it, the way famous conductors go on. Don’t get me wrong complaint has its place in the world, and many arts organisations do struggle to make ends meet but the litany of woes that we too frequently hear about marginalisation, about how the British are not as interested in "high art" as the Germans, about the prime minister liking rock (oh, crikey, crime beyond imagination!) and so on, only reinforce the public perception of a group of privileged artists for whom nothing is ever quite good enough. By contrast, pop, jazz and world musicians appear just to get on with the job in hand and, frankly, seem to be enjoying themselves rather more.

This is what I have tried to capture in my television programmes. At its simplest, it is an everyman/woman’s rudiments of music theory the nuts and bolts of musical technique. But I wanted very much to demonstrate that these techniques are common to many different forms and traditions of music. I wanted someone whose passion was Hendrix to see what links Jimi’s chords with medieval church music, and for someone whose passion was Wagner to see that unresolved suspensions, his trademark, were still alive and well in the songs of Coldplay. Above all, I want music to be celebrated as a universal gift and, especially now, a common language whose magical vocabulary is still in vigourous use from Soweto to Salzburg, from Mumbai to the Rockies.

How Music Works, a four-part series written and presented by Howard Goodall, starts on Sat Nov18th at 8.25pm on UK Channel 4

This article first appeared in The Sunday Times Culture November 12 2006
Photo: Patrick Rowe

 



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