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Youth - the Golden Age of Music


Arthur Butterworth

It was in 1948 that the musical establishment in Britain first really became aware of the musical potential of young people. Until then there had always been a patronising acknowledgement that young people - children - could, on occasion display unexpected musical talent, seemingly beyond their years. Up to that time there probably still persisted the notion that "children should be seen and not heard". That said, throughout history there had been instances of an adult maturity sometimes being vouchsafed to unusually gifted young people, such as Pitt, the prime minister in his twenties, mathematicians and scientists of seemingly tender years, young kings and princes, apparently able to establish authority. In music perhaps the most obvious young musical genius of all time was Mozart. In later times there had been gifted solo performers, even singers although it had to be realised that the voice, physiologically, could hardly ever be expected to reach a full potential until full adult-hood. However in instrumental ability there had been notable examples throughout the ages: Vivaldi‘s string orchestra of young girls in Venice, for instance. In the twentieth century there had even been a spate of orchestral conductors who were thought to be curiosities of popular appeal because they were still only children: Willi Ferrero, aged 7½ in 1914 who drew admiration for his conducting, and was still remembered in Italy as a reliable and capable conductor, attracting stable audiences in 1946. In the late 1940s there was also Pierino Gamba, who at the age of about 9 appeared as guest conductor with the Liverpool Philharmonic. His photograph in the popular press showed him being chaperoned by some of the kindly women string players of the Liverpool orchestra.

It should have been no surprise when Ruth Railton (later Dame Ruth Railton) founded the National Youth Orchestra in 1948. For quite some time afterwards it was treated with a faintly patronising incredulity on the part of blasé London critics. That a huge orchestra - around 130 to 140 or more players - comprised of teenagers could actually play a major work such as a Tschaikowsky or Sibelius symphony, or a Wagner overture was thought to be almost unbelievable. Now, after sixty years, the National Youth Orchestra is no longer regarded in the demeaning way that it once was; rather it is acknowledged as an enormous cultural asset. It inspired numerous other youth orchestras both in this country and abroad. The youth movement was not, of course, confined to the promotion of symphonic music; it brought about the National Youth Brass Band - established in 1952, by Dr Denis Wright - the National Youth Jazz Orchestra, and the National Youth Choir. Not only at a nation-wide level though: county youth orchestras and bands sprang up throughout Britain. There was a rising tide of culture in the 1960s which made it de rigueur for all county education authorities to promote the teaching of musical instruments. Peripatetic teachers of orchestral and band instruments were widely sought after by all local authorities. In the earlier years these were very often former professional players, who, having retired from the hard grind of constant travelling and (largely indifferent pay) as members of professional orchestras; They brought to young people the real, practical experience of professional performance, more often than not totally - and mercifully- un-fettered by academic background. Times were good, or so it seemed. So how are things now? Education - in the widest sense - has "rationalised" the way we teach children in just about every subject. Academic qualification has become an essential in whatever one aspires to. However, there are some aspects of life where academicism is of secondary importance to practical skills. Now it is all very well for educational establishments to offer all manner of degrees and diplomas in musical academia, but the performance of music does not primarily consist of ‘book-knowledge’.

Like other handicrafts - engineering, farming, workshop skills - it benefits from some kind of apprenticeship under the guidance of one who has himself or herself "been through the mill". While many of the earlier peripatetic teachers had themselves been performers - perhaps knowing little or nothing of the dates or other academic facts about the composers whose music they were called upon to perform - they certainly were able to bring the essential practical skills of playing the wide repertoire of the concert hall.

To some extent a following generation of peripatetic teachers had not themselves "been through the mill" of experience in a professional orchestra, so were to some extent unable to bring to their pupils that ‘hands on’ experience of the repertoire.

In Germany there had always been a different approach to musical education: Hochschule meant practical study of an instrument, rehearsing in a chamber group or orchestra. On the other hand Universität (‘Musikwissenschaft’) meant academia. In Britain it was at one time possible to attain a degree (Mus.Bac., Mus.Doc.) without ever being asked to demonstrate any skill whatsoever in an ability to play an instrument.

So that, to some extent, otherwise academically well-qualified young teachers were not always as good as their earlier - essentially practical - and thoroughly experienced predecessors who had been members of professional orchestras. However, in more recent times almost all the musical educational institutions have sought to rectify, and bring together these disparate attitudes to musical studies, by offering some kind of combined courses in which practical skills are required alongside purely academic approaches.

How has this affected attitudes and the eventual abilities of young people involved in music in the widest sense? For those fortunate enough to attain a higher level of education it has, of course, been a great advantage. However, not all practical music at school level has benefited, for many schools are not able to afford the kind of teaching skills that were so readily available forty years ago, and in almost all cases parents are now called upon to pay for such specialised instrumental instruction whereas in the halcyon days of the1960s instrumental teaching in schools was free, provided for in just the same way as English, mathematics, science, geography, history, languages or sports.

There is however, a dilemma perhaps more marked now than ever before: the numbers of capable and well-qualified (in both senses, practical as well as academic) music students who have come up through the ranks of efficient youth orchestras and bands and sooner or later seek employment in some branch of music. There are now more professional orchestras than a couple of generations ago, but there are potentially vastly more players seeking posts in the profession. Fifty years ago applying for a job in an orchestra could be a matter of competing with three or four other aspiring young applicants for the job; but now the prospect can be fearsomely competitive: An oboist, viola-player, or trombonist (or for that matter any other instrument) can expect to compete against forty or more others equally desperate for a permanent post. Do we then train too many musicians? Do we encourage members of youth orchestras to expect a job in the profession at the end of their few years in a youth orchestra? What should the purpose of ‘youth music’ (in the widest sense) be?

There has been much concern in recent times about the way ‘serious’ (‘classical’) music is going. The huge interest which seems to have been brought about in the 1940s and 1950s does in many ways appear to be in a decline: cultural tastes have inevitably changed. Young people overall, while demonstrating a maturity which seemed at one time to be exceptional, are now accepted as being the norm: they are more independent; seek out their own cultures. Some indeed, are fulfilling expectations in serious music, but others choose a different kind of cultural self expression.

So what is the purpose of the youth orchestra? Accepting that most players, even the most proficient and enthusiastic are not likely to become ardent professional performers, devoted to and successful in the art, at least the phenomenon of the youth orchestra is still a rewarding and indeed heartening one, in that it keeps alive a great culture and inspires those who have been members of a youth organisation of this kind to appreciate all that the long classical tradition of music has meant to society.

Arthur Butterworth

April 2008


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