For Roger Scruton the western classical tradition reigns supreme over modern music. But other harmonies are availableby Ivan Hewett / August 22, 2018 / Leave a comment
Published in September 2018 issue of Prospect Magazine
There are many ways to write a philosophy of music—but two in particular stand out. One way is to approach music with the curious ear of the ethnomusicologist open to all the varieties of music around the world. This critic sees them as embedded in specific forms of life—and only really comprehensible when viewed within them—and so is careful not to treat any musical culture as a yardstick against which to measure the others.
The other way, now seriously out of fashion, is to regard western forms of music, especially the classical tradition, as central to what music is, or ought to be, or could be. The problem with this approach is that other forms of music are inevitably found wanting when compared with these majestic works. All that matters, for this kind of critic, is the inner state of the solitary listener, communing with a long-dead composer genius.
It will come as no surprise to learn that Roger Scruton’s new book Music as an Art falls into the latter category. Scruton is a doughty defender of western classical music, a stance which is of a piece with his doughty defence of conservative values in general. His rage against musical modernism is very like his rage against architectural modernism. It’s rooted in his belief that evolution is always better than revolution, and that the wisdom of ages is better than the fashion of the moment. For Scruton it is our task to conserve the culture bequeathed to us and pass it on to the next generations. We owe a debt to the dead as much as to the unborn.
Music occupies a special place in Scruton’s life. It is the art to which he feels closest, and the one to which he has a practical connection. He’s an accomplished keyboard player, who often plays the organ at his local church in Wiltshire. He is the composer of an opera as well as other pieces. And he has written more about music than any other art form. This new book comes 20 years after his vastly impressive and erudite Aesthetics of Music, and nine years after his follow-up volume Understanding Music.
This new volume of essays amplifies the themes of those two earlier books. It is divided into two parts, the first of which tackles the nature of music’s connection to morality and the transcendental, and whether cognitive science can throw any light on the art. The second part, which is much more entertaining, offers critical reflections on all kinds of music, from classical quartets to heavy metal and the avant-garde. Unlike many philosophers with strong opinions on music, Scruton actually has a musical ear, and an ability to catch the expressive kernel of a piece in a pungent or witty phrase. In his essay on Britten’s “Lyke-Wake” Dirge, Scruton points out the way the melody sung by the tenor repeats imperturbably, refusing to be unsettled by the surrounding harmonic turbulence. “The music has the quality of a mediaeval fresco, with Christ in Majesty above the writhing bodies in the pit below,” he says, a striking image which captures something essential in the music. Scruton is equally good at catching the essence of the pop songs he professes to despise, so well that one wonders whether he doesn’t get a sneaking enjoyment from them. He remarks of Mary J Blige’s “Get to Know You Better” that its limited melody is “emphasised by the yukky 13th chords and droopy vamping which open the piece, with a sound that suggests someone trying carefully to puke into a wine glass.”