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Balancing new and old thumb

Balancing new and old

David-Cornelius-7It seems both interesting and curious that whilst our classical concert programmes are packed tightly with music written in the 18th and 19th centuries, the popular literary diet is not! We balance the occasional new pieces in our regular concert repertoire with quite an excess of older pieces from that period. Yet our interest in literature and poetry seems to reflect a reversion of this strange appetite. There is a constant public enthusiasm for new – even 21st century – literature, the latest in crime novels, horror and science fiction, fantasy fiction, modern children’s literature, English language writing from outside our own country, and even erotic and avant-garde works. This is in notable contrast to a reluctance and consequent nervousness in placing 20th century music, and particularly the work of living composers, in the programmes. Far more 19th century concerts programmed contemporary music!
Living authors and poets are widely featured in newspapers and providing thoughtful magazine reviews of their own work and that of contemporary colleagues. They seem to find their way onto discussion panels on radio and television to give critical comment to a wide diversity of creative material, and are invited to debate and read current or recent literary work at book fairs and literary clubs. But how often are composers asked to carry out a similar musical function? It is far more probable that the summoned authority is a scholar, a so-called ‘musicologist’, or simply a celebrity musical journalist or member of a recording or radio production team. It seems to be a carefully considered strategy to avoid placing a composer in a position similar to that in which a contemporary author or poet readily lands. And yet that’s where they should be.
The truth surely is that the music we most prefer to hear in our concerts and recitals is written by dead composers. The most effective commentators on the music of the dead must perhaps be those who have read about it rather than those who have had the experience of actually writing it. This is reasonable if it is accepted that the music dominating our concert programmes is of a period and an age in which the literature and poetry is of lesser interest – or at least, of rather more specialized interest. 18th century writers may be studied in appropriate English Literature courses, in which the rollicking novels of Henry Fielding, Tobias Smollett and Laurence Sterne shine out, John Gay’s Beggars Opera or the innovative ‘gothic’ novels of Horace Walpole are classic, Daniel Defoe still intrigues with tales of Robinson Crusoe, and the poetry of Pope, Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley and Robert Burns is quoted along with the entertaining parodies of Gray’s Elegy – which we are expected to know in order to appreciate the jest.
The 19th century of Dickens, Thackeray, George Eliot and Thomas Hardy stands rather less in the shade against concert programmes dominated by Beethoven, Schubert, Mendelssohn, Wagner, Brahms and Tchaikovsky, and it can be well argued that the notable literary characters of Victorian times – Sherlock Holmes, Dracula, Jekyll and Hyde and Phineas Fogg – survive well. But hardly do they command our literary programming, as do the musical giants. It would be interesting to anticipate the possible effect on commercial ratings if our radio, TV and cinema industry had similar appetites to those of the concert scene.
Yet it is just that same commercial consideration that obliges concert programmers to be careful with their concert presentations, while book publishers are more adventurous. We enjoy the visit of a new soloist or conductor – especially one who has been given celebrity treatment by agents or media – but we would still rather they played (preferably) a 19th century piece for us. If we are to revive Bram Stoker’s character, then all the better if it is given a ‘modern’ treatment, but just as well not present a Beethoven symphony in any ‘modern’ arrangement – at least, not to the traditional audience. Best to leave it as it has been for over 200 years.
It is a curious contradiction in attitude. If we are to go on exploiting the music of earlier centuries, surely we must ask composers to do something with it (if they want to take time off from their own creations). If not that, then at least get them to do as living authors and poets do, and provide the media with authoritative critical commentaries.
Image Credit: OCA student David Cornelius


Posted by author: Patric
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6 thoughts on “Balancing new and old

  • I suspect that language has a lot to do with it in several ways. Firstly, the language in literature is subject to the sort of change that makes historic (even if not all that old) language awkward and stilted whereas the musical ‘language’ becomes easier with familiarity so the older and more often heard music is more comfortable to our ears. After all much of the music so loved by today’s audiences was hailed as un-listenable when it was new. I suspect that the abstract nature of music as opposed to the more realistic nature of literature plays a part as well, music speaks of, depending on how you look at it, nothing or everything (maybe both), on the other hand literature deals with specifics that might become at least dated and probably out-dated.
    Mind you looking at the popularity of costume drama on the TV I am not sure that your argument entirely stands up in that area at least (and if I see another Jane flamin’ Austin remake I will scream!)
    Personally I would wish that concert promoters would be more adventurous and put on more contemporary music and less of the 19th C stuff that is so easily available in recordings in numerous different interpretations, then we would see just how conservative the potential audience really is.

  • I think Peter Haveland has hit the nail on the head. Whilst of course there are differences between written and spoken language, writers of, say, novels will tend to use language which is of their time and accessible to most people.
    As far as 20th century music is concerned I have myself experienced a reluctance to cope with something as inoffensive as Britten’s Ceremony of Carols by both my choir and the audience. I find this understandable as I can recall when hearing it for the first time myself that the dissonances (which are very mild) troubled me a little, but when I went to a recent performance of it (after our concert) given by The Sixteen it was pure pleasure. In this case familiarity breeds content.
    The time cycle for the general population of coping with change in musical orthodoxies seems to be longer than for the written word. The harmonies used by Bach continued to be used for at least two centuries and longer and as Howard Goodall has pointed out much popular music uses chord structures which are little different from those used by Mozart. Indeed the modal nature of many folk songs recorded at the beginning of the 20th century showed the use of much earlier tonalities going back to the 10th century and earlier.
    However the recent pace of change in art music, including jazz and some ‘pop’ (Zappa, Kraftwerk etc) has been intense and as the new forms such as atonalism and serialism are so radically different from all that had gone before the public has had little time in which to absorb them. Jazz has gone through the cycle of change even more quickly than art music (and has been influenced by it) but as a consequence has even fewer adherents than ‘classical’ music. So far as popular music today is concerned there seems to be a heavy emphasis on repeated riffs where harmony and melody only play a very small part. Why this is is anybody’s guess but I suspect it is partly that the young wish to embrace music which is actively disliked by their parents – e.g. Girlfriend in a coma and most rap. In my youth the Beatles were detested by the parents of some of my friends – then musicologists started analysing them! Abba have been compared to Schubert!
    Are audiences perhaps wanting music which is fairly predictable and relatively simple? Atonal and serial music is highly unpredictable and rather difficult to hold in the memory. I can’t think of any atonal hymn tunes or carols. Luther was wise in using tunes which were often based on folksongs. ( Then Bach came along many years later and harmonised them to become a high art form in themselves and stretched the boundaries of what was acceptable as anyone who has encountered Es ist genug for the first time will realise. As you will know Berg used this in his violin concerto and it integrates seamlessly).
    Are there perhaps other reasons why contemporary art music is difficult to include in a concert programme? Could it be that the BBC is doing less to promote the work of today’s composers – leaving aside the Proms? Have there been television documentaries about current composers as there were for Britten, with whole operas being broadcast? I can’t remember one. I do however remember Bartok being used as background music for Children’s Hour programmes – Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, written in 1936 so little more than 15 years old when I was listening to it. Are BBC producers getting much less adventurous than in the past? Finance has something to do with it. Composers who are out of copyright – i.e who died over 70 years ago – are cheaper to use and much cheaper than especially commissioned background music. The Three Choirs Festival in which I sang for a number of years has sung commissioned pieces by Macmillan – Sun Dogs (stunning) and Joubert – an English Requiem and another less memorable one but this is far from the heydays of RVW, Howells and Elgar.
    As to composers talking about their own works whilst to my shame I have listened to very few of the Proms I do seem to remember Mark Anthony Turnage appearing alongside other composers and though a conductor rather than a composer there was an extended documentary featuring Colin Davies in conversation in rather testy form as part of his obituary.

  • Well the BBC certainly does its best for John Cage! You can hardly watch a documentary without hearing at least a few bars. This is not a criticism of Cage whom I like a lot but does show a somewhat lazy attitude to music on the part of the corporation’s chosen editors. BBC radio 3 does its best (some seem to think too much) for contemporary music but people are not really willing to do the work that contemporary creative practice requires and so those whose livelihood depends on foot-fall or bums on seats tend to play it safe and feed them pap. I suspect that if you were to look at the publishing business and the percentage of contemporary ‘literature’ to escapism and reprints it might not be any higher than in music or the visual arts.

    • I don’t think you can overestimate the havoc reeked on Radio 3’s daytime scheduling by the introduction of Classic FM. The programming now seems to be in a permanent state of ‘competition’ in an attempt to justify their portion of the license fee – which mitigates against adventure.
      BTW, I’m not sure Zappa was ever Pop!

  • It surely doesn’t help that we use the term ‘Classical Music’ to cover all forms of ‘Arty’ music. The term conjures up something that requires learned scholars to assist with the interpretation of historical artefacts and appears to deny the possibility that living practitioners might have something interesting to say.

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