“New music” – the new classical music that came out of the late 1940s (which few people are even aware of) – is facing a complex of problems. To do with identity, audience and funding. My letter has do with orientation, only that. Seeking a point to think from, as if one were consulting a map, prior to going on a journey.
“We badly need a reasoned argument as to why classical music should be government funded. And a further argument as to why contemporary music should similarly be funded”. But I offered to send a further letter after a few months, to cover that area – that is, what classical music is, and why it should matter to government departments.
I went on:-
“I can already give my view as to why the debate goes so badly for us. It is easy to argue that people need good health care and good transport. But when it comes to music, we are dealing with a spiritual phenomenon. The twentieth century, from which we emerge, has largely rejected the concept of ‘spirit’. Our feelings alone tell us that you don’t put a bulldozer through Westminster Abbey. And those feelings are so strong that it won’t happen. Yet the poverty of the argument is such that you might find it went along the lines – ‘it’s historic, it’s beautiful, leave it be’.”
“So yes, the Marriage of Figaro is also historic and beautiful. And then what?” This issue of why classical music (or its equivalent in other art forms) should be preserved and extended was one for a further letter, as I said to them. But I have not yet written that letter.
Musical taste in Britain in respect of classical music
“I want to address myself first to democratic concerns. I see that this week [May 2006] the BBC publishes the results of a poll of 20,000 listeners to Classic FM about the comparative popularity of British classical works. The top ten favourites are:-
1. Vaughan Williams, Lark Ascending
2. Edward Elgar, Cello Concerto in E minor
3. Edward Elgar, Variations on an Original Theme
4. Karl Jenkins, The Armed Man: A Mass for Peace
5. Vaughan Williams, Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis
6. Gustav Holst, The Planets
7. George Frideric Handel, Messiah
8. Edward Elgar, Pomp and Circumstance March No 4
9. George Frideric Handel, Arrival of the Queen of Sheba
10. George Frideric Handel, Zadok the Priest
Of those, only Karl Jenkins is alive. He is Welsh apparently. I don’t know his work.
If you analyse the list you can point to royal ceremonial, to the life of Christ, nostalgia and other forms of personal torment for the alienated romantic, deep love of landscape, the Tudor Golden Age……etc…
And we know that classical music puts in an appearance at funerals, weddings, in film scores, state ceremony……
I’ve probably missed something out, but I make the point that there is a small but crucial classical music ingredient to modern UK society that exists quite apart from the tastes of the, mostly elderly, music lovers who go to concerts. Only at one point does what we call contemporary music present itself to the general public – in film scores. But……still in democratic mode………we must see that the central musical issue of our time is that of popular song and popular dance – that deriving its spirit in great part from the African diaspora”.
I have been (and am) concerned by a certain snobbery that exists in my field. I have heard many composers talking about “outreach” – that is, abandoning avant-garde styles and adopting a more direct musical language that the public can engage with. Yet when it comes down to it, I find that these same composers are disinterested in what the public actually likes. I haven’t forgotten the “contra the avant-garde” English composer who, on a visit to Amsterdam, turned on me contemptuously when I said I liked Madonna. He spat out “WHAT do you like about her!” And I replied that I liked her music. So there is reaching out and then there is “reaching out”.
That’s why I began my letter by nailing some facts of life to the wall. If you’re going to talk about engaging the public, then take the subject seriously.