Music's dying fall

In every generation there are those who bemoan the death of classical music. But what if, this time round, they are right? A living musical culture is being crushed between easy-listening commercialisation and an unmusical avant-garde which speaks only to itself
August 19, 1998

Strange how potent cheap music can be, and funny how a line from a pop song can linger in the mind. Don McLean's American Pie wasn't about what we misleadingly call classical music, but the line "the day the music died" echoes now through concert halls and opera houses. At the end of the millennium, are we living through the age in which the music died?

In this country, a whole series of merely technical or administrative woes distracts attention from our deeper musical crisis. We have a government which is actively hostile to the fine arts-or at least to "elitist" art-as made clear by the effusions of Chris Smith, the Colonel-General Zhdanov of the Blair politburo, and the regime's determination to build its absurd Millennium Dome at a cost many times exceeding what the arts of civilisation receive in public subsidy for years on end. Meanwhile, Nicholas Kenyon is forced out of Radio 3 for insufficient populism; the London orchestras need to be reformed but won't be; while the baroque farce of the Royal Opera House has passed from "the situation is serious but not hopeless" to "the situation is hopeless but not serious."

But these are peripheral problems. Suppose that we had the best opera houses and orchestras in the world: still there would be a question of what they were there for. Are they part of a vital culture, or monuments to something once great but now moribund? And it was great. To say something as simple as this is unfashionable; the musical tradition from Palestrina and Monteverdi to Bach and Handel, Haydn and Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert, Wagner and Verdi, Brahms and Bruckner, Schoenberg and Stravinsky, represents the greatest single achievement of the human spirit. What those particular dead white European males created is something which in itself justifies our existence. If their line were to end-if we no longer had a living, integral musical culture-then it would be a tragedy of epic proportions. Unlike Nato expansion or monetary union, the death of music is not a trivial subject.

Music's death-knell has recently been sounded from various points by a disparate group of doom-sayers. Norman Lebrecht has written When the Music Stops: Managers, Maestros and the Corporate Murder of Classical Music (Pocket Books). Roger Scruton continues his own reactionary aesthetic polemic in an essay on music in The Future of the European Past (Hilton Kramer and Roger Kimball, editors; IR Dee). Julian Lloyd Webber, cellist and brother of the more famous Andrew, gave a speech at the unlikely venue of the World Economic Forum in Davos in February, attacking "the dictators of modern music." Ivan Hewett of Radio 3 has joined in with an intelligent vein of pessimism.

Their threnodies are challenged by Charles Rosen, the distinguished American pianist and musical writer, for whom reports of the death of music are much exaggerated. If music is in crisis, he says, it always has been-or there have always been those who thought it was: "The death of classical music is perhaps its oldest continuing tradition." Whenever the old was forced to give way to the new, conservative musicians claimed that the end was nigh-as far back as the age of Monteverdi, whose expressive style was held to be killing the true madrigal tradition.

A century later, Bach's music baffled his contemporaries. Then 18th-century musicians bemoaned the florid and vapid new style of Italian virtuosity which was destroying the true art on which they grew up. And so on, through one generation after another who thought that Beethoven, or Wagner, or Schoenberg heralded the end of music. Rosen might have added that even with such a distinctive brand of popular-cum-art music as jazz, less than a century old, every decade for at least the past five has heard voices bemoaning its death. Those near contemporaries with so little in common (politically at least), Philip Larkin and Eric Hobsbawm, both claimed that jazz died in the 1950s or 1960s (by an act of parricide, in Hobsbawm's view: "rock murdered jazz").

All of this defence is presented by Rosen with forensic skill and wit, and he will appeal to anyone who instinctively dislikes the "give-us-a-tune-we-can-whistle" brigade. Julian Lloyd Webber's Davos attack on modernism was notably saloon-bar-ish, with its over-heated denunciation of the "gauleiters and f?hrers" who have turned the public away from music by dictating a diet of atonal tunelessness.

And yet, like Ivan Hewett, I think that "the cellist may, in his muddled way, have put his finger on something that Rosen misses." With all his musicianship, Rosen makes a series of what lawyers would call bad points, or self-defeating arguments. Behind his elegant denials, there is a crisis in our musical culture, and I believe that it can be shown to differ in kind rather than degree from earlier episodes when the end of musical life was proclaimed. The crisis concerns music's contacts with its roots in society.

For Lebrecht, the culprits are commercialisation and greed on the part of record companies, agents, promoters and musicians themselves. Music has become a racket, with singers, conductors and sometimes instrumentalists demanding absurdly high fees. Concerts are confined to an increasingly hackneyed repertory; the output of recording companies even more so because, as Rosen concedes, "the music business, like publishing, is controlled by multinational conglomerates that care nothing for art."

Although there is something in this, it is not the nub of the problem, and it is only partly true in any case. Only the rich can afford to go to the Salzburg Festival. But London teems with concerts at affordable prices, and it is significant that the epicentre of musical life in the capital is now the Wigmore Hall, where more good music can be heard in one month than all the year round in most of the rest of England.

What Lebrecht calls a disease may really be a symptom. More worrying than the commercialisation of music is its atrophy. The late Hans Keller, musician, writer, teacher, and the most musical man I have ever known, used to say that music was undoubtedly better performed now in technical terms than it ever had been-which was far from saying that we were more musical. Atrophy through virtuosity has come in succession upon singers, pianists, orchestras and maybe even string quartets. One can adapt for many performers now (and even some composers) Karl Kraus's saying about journalists: people who have nothing to say and who know how to say it.

Even more pernicious is the sheer availability of music, the misleading appearance of abundance. Never has there been so much music-and never has it been so little understood. Never has so much music been heard and so little listened to. Muzak or background music makes pubs, restaurants and shops unbearable for anyone with the misfortune to be musical. It is bad enough when the background music is worthless schlock. Much worse is when what you hear while eating and drinking is some masterwork by Mozart or Brahms, hackneyed and polluted in the process. On a recent visit to Bosnia, I saw some harrowing sights but experienced nothing as personally disagreeable as the piped extracts from Lakm? at the airport, and Schubert's Rosamunde played interminably in the aircraft awaiting take-off.

Canned music isn't only a form of legal torture, it represents the extreme case of degradation by inanition: music as wallpaper, as atmosphere. And yet a Muzak-hating music-lover who works for Radio 3 would have to recognise some degree of collusion on his own part. As Walter Benjamin famously recognised, the inventions of recording and broadcasting have together been a great blessing to music, and a great curse. They have vastly extended the availability of music, and this has vastly diluted its intensity. More has meant less.

Background music in one sense or another has always existed. I don't imagine that from antiquity to recent times courtiers listened with any seriousness to the tunes strummed as they feasted in their palaces and castles. We know that 18th-century audiences often treated musical diversions as opportunities for gossip and flirtation (although that may explain why Mozart was glad to escape from Salzburg, and Haydn outgrew Esterh?za). But now we shall have music wherever we go, whether we like it or not. And we can turn on Radio 3 or Classic FM, or put on a CD, to cheer ourselves up, to change the mental subject. Many people, even intelligent people, can't concentrate on what they are writing or reading without the presence of music; to which, by definition, they can't be listening.

This is one aspect in which Michael Berkeley's Radio 3 programme Private Passions is so riveting (not all of which aspects are intentional). The programme is an up-market version of Desert Island Discs; the people who appear on it are a fascinating collection of cultural nobs, famous all the way from north London to north Oxford, if nowhere else. And their collective tastes are likewise fascinating, if sometimes depressing. Quite apart from an alarming tendency to admire the piano-playing of Glenn Gould, one after another of these artists, writers and illuminati confesses to playing Music While You Work, as another radio programme used to call it long ago. The other Saturday, sculptor Anthony Caro admitted that the only place he did "listen" to music was at work in his studio.

What this means in terms of concentration, or lack of it, scarcely needs spelling out. And along with concentration, the ubiquity of music also means that we have lost one of the most precious necessities for truly enjoying and understanding it: silence.

We have also lost the inspiration of unfamiliarity. Almost no young person today comes to a first live performance of a Beethoven or Brahms symphony with fresh ears: they will have heard it over again in recordings or broadcasts. A century ago, the musical boy or girl would indeed almost certainly have been familiar with the symphonies, by playing them in piano duet. Now, not only do they not play the piano, they will have grown up on a diet of the famous classics: CDs of the "best of" great masterpieces, here a movement, there a highlight, no complete works to tax the listener, a final degradation for the age of the short attention span.

Perhaps it is no coincidence that all this happened as the avant-garde has lost contact with its roots in a living musical culture. This is not to echo Lloyd Webber's rant against "the new f?hrers of the musical establishment, for whom tonality and harmony are dirty words." As Rosen points out, Lloyd Webber's claim that traditional composers such as Aaron Copland and Samuel Barber were dismissed as dated in the postwar decades is simply untrue. In fact, they were performed much more frequently than American avant-garde composers. But it is certainly the case that there was a concerted effort by William Glock and others at the BBC in the 1950s and 1960s to extend the musical horizons of their audience, and a non-modernist composer like Berthold Goldschmidt really was neglected, partly for doctrinaire reasons. So was George Lloyd, who died in July aged 85.

All that means is that musical fashion, like any other kind, goes in cycles; it wasn't many decades ago that any composer who merely tried to keep abreast of what was happening in continental Europe was liable to suffer from the same persecution. Elisabeth Lutyens studied at the Royal College of Music in the 1920s when "Brahms was the god of the new music." She was one of the first English composers fruitfully to digest serial technique, and was ignored to the point where, for much of her life, she lived in poverty.

We should be careful about making too much of any such cases. The history of musical taste shows how dangerous it is to predict which of our contemporaries will endure. Around 1820, Spohr was admired at least as much as Beethoven by some music-lovers. In 1898, any sporting musician wanting to bet that, of composers then active, the three who would be revered 100 years later would be Mahler, Janacek and Debussy, would have found a musical bookmaker giving odds of several thousand to one for that particular trio.

If we don't know what will endure, we should not be afraid to follow our instincts. It is plainly wrong to claim that "no one" likes contemporary music: Rosen is correct in saying that much is not only composed but also listened to with sincerity. I myself listen to and admire (to name only compatriots) Peter Maxwell Davies, Harrison Birtwistle, Judith Weir, Michael Berkeley, Thomas Ad?s. And yet...

Musicological analysis aside, these composers are wrestling with a technical problem which reflects a larger cultural problem. It is possible to recognise Schoenberg's greatness, and to understand what led him to break with tonal music, while also thinking that tonality or the key system was-and is-the compass of western music, as pianist Andr?s Schiff called it, and that atonality was a dead end. Indeed, Schoenberg seems to have recognised this, when trying to find a substitute in 12-tone composition.

But the difficulty confronting composers today is that they are working not in Beethoven's tonal universe or Schoenberg's atonal or serial universe, but in a bewilderingly eclectic musical climate. Everyone can pick and choose. Some use serial technique, some don't. There is no common formal background which links composers, players and audience-and, just as important, which composers can react against.

Rosen makes another of his bad points when he says that much great music was considered difficult in its day. So it was; but it not only had an audience, it sprang from a living musical culture in a way which is simply no longer possible. The very birth of an avant-garde was a symptom of decay-though not in the sense that cultural reactionaries assume. Hans Keller used to say that in Haydn's and Mozart's time, everyone was avant-garde and so no one needed to get hung up about it (I paraphrase). But as Keller also said, Haydn's and Mozart's string quartets and quintets-"than which no greater music exists"-were written to be performed by upper-class amateurs.

Is that conceivable today? In what Ivan Hewett rightly calls the baffling cultural melting pot we now live in, there is no longer that connection between intelligent and cultivated music-lovers and the music they should be playing. Our own Prince of Wales plays the cello-or used to; can you imagine a great contemporary composer writing quartets for him to play, as Mozart wrote his three "Prussian" quartets for the cello-playing King Friedrich Wilhelm II of Prussia?

For all the Emperor Joseph II's notorious "Too many notes, my dear Mozart," after the premi?re of Die Entf?hrung aus dem Serail, his brother and successor Leopold II could discuss the latest music of the day intelligently, comparing it with the latest poetry of the day. How very different from the home life of our own dear Queen. Nor has any of her family played the part of the Archduke Rudolph, Beethoven's pupil and patron. But then, how many other heads of state could emulate Leopold? Where is today's equi-valent of Rudolph? Which ambassador-from any country to any other-compares with Count Razumovsky, the Russian ambassador to Vienna, to whom Beethoven's Op 59 quartets were dedicated?

The bond between composer and patron in that golden age 200 years ago is all the more remarkable in that chamber music-as in the Razumovsky quartets-is not inherently a popular medium. By contrast, opera is the most popular and accessible musical form. Despite the mess at the Royal Opera House, opera is "in" at present; unmistakably chic. It might seem perverse to connect this popularity, too, with the crisis in music, but a connection exists.

Opera was once the great popular expression of the European musical tradition: popular, that is, far beyond the circles of musical dilettanti for whom great keyboard and ensemble works were written. Operatic airs were the pop songs of their day. In the last act of Mozart's Don Giovanni, as Giovanni is about to entertain the Commendatore to supper, the stage band plays a medley of recent operatic hits, from Martin's Una cosa rara, Sarti's Fra due litiganti and "Non pi? andrai," from Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro. Leporello calls this last a bit stale-a joke by Mozart against himself. It is the only tune which audiences now recognise, but at the 1787 opening of Don Giovanni, Mozart's Prague audience recognised them all.

Even before another first night, Verdi's Rigoletto in Venice in 1851, gondoliers were already whistling its big hit number, "La donna ? mobile." In the first decade of this century Caruso's recording of "Vesti la Giubba" from I Pagliacci was the second album ever to sell a million copies. In the following decade, the Italian army sang "Ch'ella mi creda libero" from La Fanciulla del West during the first world war (as the Tommies sang "It's a long way to Tipperary"), a few years after Puccini composed it. Today, the dread Three Tenors would never sing anything less than 70 years old, nor would their audiences recognise it.

From the 17th to the 20th centuries, opera was popular in the sense that every season numerous new works were put on in one European capital or another. Only a few have survived. As an opera composer, Mozart was at the bustling heart of showbiz, just as Shakespeare had been. Verdi was to his time what Andrew Lloyd Webber is to ours, God help us. You have only to look at operatic life today to see the contrast. Birtwistle and Weir are fine composers; but London cabbies did not whistle extracts from The Second Mrs Kong; and our squaddies in the Gulf or Bosnia don't sing numbers from The Vanishing Bridegroom.

What is true of the detachment of opera from the public applies a fortiori to purer art music. Rosen is right to defend Schoenberg, still the butt of the musical fogies almost 50 years after his death. He is right to say that 12-tone music can be played from memory and also that the emotion in Schoenberg can seem "intense to the point of hysteria," but we have to acknowledge that Schoenberg is not a composer with a wide following, even among what might be called the upper-middle-brow concert-going public. In fact, Rosen acknowledges just that: Schoenberg has a small audience still, he says "(and I am not sure if it will ever be a large one)."

Why not? Of what great European composer before Schoenberg could that have been said half a century after his death? It will not do to say, as Rosen does, that great artists for many centuries past have been difficult: "It has not been sufficiently emphasised how hard it is to understand much of Shakespeare. Even Dickens is not an easy read, and the later novels are extremely tough."

This is another bad point. All great artists have infinite layers of meaning: they offer more and more according to the reader's, viewer's or listener's intelligence, sensibility and willingness to make an effort. That is as true of Shakespeare as anyone. It does not alter the fact that Shakespeare wrote for, and was presumably enjoyed by, an audience of supercilious courtiers and illiterate groundlings. Dickens, likewise, was an enormously popular writer as well as a great one: a combination which has become more and more difficult to achieve in most art forms, and all but impossible in music.

When Rosen cites Wagner as an example of a composer who was thought difficult and deadly-to-music, he is making his final bad point. To be sure, Wagner's early career was a struggle (no one was more conscious of this than Wagner), and his music was considered freakish by academic conservatives or the loutish members of the Jockey Club who whistled it off the stage in Paris. But before the end of his life he was (for better or worse) all-conquering. Not only were his operas performed in one country after another, not only did pilgrims come to the new Bayreuth Festival from all over Europe, but he had also acquired a near-hysterical following of the kind we now associate with pop singers or movie stars: there were Wagnerian circles and societies from London to Bologna, Paris to Vienna. What art-music composer today has any comparable following?

The truth is that the argument between musical radicals and conservatives is exhausted. Today we look woefully on what Hobsbawm has called one of the most important cultural developments of the last decades of the 20th century, the final and complete bankruptcy of the avant-garde. Revolutionaries no longer know what they are trying to change; the garde doesn't know what it is avant. Keller used to say that whereas many orchestral musicians had always been unmusical, our own age was the first to witness the unmusical composer. Sitting through some concerts or operas by contemporary composers, it is easy to understand what he meant.

The recent sorry fad for "minimalism"-endlessly repeated note clusters bearing little connection with music from Bach to Schoenberg-is itself another symptom of the crisis. I can only say that most of Philip Glass and Steve Reich, and Gavin Bryars's Doctor Ox's Experiment, the latest new opera in London, seems to me rightly named, with minimal musical content.

One other fad, for "authentic performance," is a further sign of the decay of a coherent musical culture, as well as the related fad for early music. We may be reluctant to impugn the sincerity of musicians who say that Ockenheim and Josquin des Prez mean as much to them as Haydn and Schumann, but we can only trust our own ears, and I believe that many of those who claim to like pre-baroque music really like the sound of it, rather than the music itself.

Twenty years ago, Keller said that he had never heard an authentic performance which was truly musical. That is no longer true-if it was then: no one could say that who has heard Simon Rattle conducting the tiresomely named but musically admirable Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. But Keller's memorable definition of authentic performance as the impossible attempt to recreate the conditions of performance in Haydn's and Mozart's time, which succeeds only in reducing Haydn and Mozart to the mediocre level of their contemporaries, still has a ring of truth. However it may be with Rattle, I have rarely enjoyed Bach performed on the harpsichord and never enjoyed Mozart played on the fortepiano. Authenticity too often becomes an exercise in academicism, which is death to any art. Even the best period performances represent a further petrifaction of musical culture, another retreat into the mausoleum. We have the Academy of Ancient Music, whose name is not only arch but bitterly ironic: 200 years ago, "ancient music" meant any music more than a generation old-Schoenberg, in our chronological terms.

We live in a fissive and inchoate musical culture, where no one can really be sure what he likes. Conservatives sullenly refuse to listen to new music, but progressives are terrified of making the mistake of those who sniggered behind their hands at Beethoven's late quartets (now a byword for the sublime).

In many ways, our civilisation has reached a point of sophistication and abundance far surpassing anything ever known before. But can anyone look around honestly and say that western musical culture is as healthy and vigorous as it was 200 years ago, when Mozart was lately dead, Haydn was in his last years as a composer, Beethoven was in his earliest, and Schubert was a baby? Has music anywhere to go, or is it the end of an old song?