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Things Can Only Get Better

The announcement of the UK General Election for May 6th brought to mind the song Things Can Only Get Better, written by Peter Cunnah. It was originally released by D:Ream in 1993 but achieved wide prominence when used as the Labour Party’s campaign theme in the 1997 General Election. It perhaps has a somewhat ironic feel now, but at the time reflected an air of optimism and the sense that the country was looking forward confidently and positively for change.
Beethoven must have believed that things can only get better after his experience at a concert in Vienna on December 22nd 1808.

Beethoven in his Vienna flat

On the programme were world premieres of his 5th and 6th Symphonies, 4th Piano Concerto, Choral Fantasy and Mass in C. Sadly, the players were under rehearsed, the hall was very cold and, by the end of a 4 hour epic of new music, the audience were absolutely exhausted. History records that subsequent performances did indeed get significantly better!
In his book entitled On Music, the conductor Raymond Leppard convincingly argues that, prior to the rise of the historically informed performance movement in the second half of the 20th Century, the received wisdom for centuries had been that in the musical world, things can only get better.
This had vast implications. For example:

  • as musical instruments evolved, becoming more robust, more stable in pitch, and with larger ranges, why would anyone want to go back to playing earlier versions of the same instruments, with all their limitations?
  • as musical notation became more established, with conventions being shared across national and stylistic boundaries, why would anyone want to go back to original scores, with all the uncertainties over interpretation?
  • as musical works became more complex and extended, why would anyone want to listen to earlier music based on simpler forms, using conventions that were now out of date and with (for the most part) less harmonic diversity?

This perhaps goes some way to explaining why:

  • harpsichords virtually disappeared for the entire 19th century. Keyboard players preferred to play JS Bach or Domenico Scarlatti on modern pianos (in so far as they played this repertoire at all). Pianos have the advantage of being touch sensitive and able to retain their pitch for longer than an hour or so – two features sadly lacking in Baroque harpsichords!
  • when works from previous generations were published, editors routinely ‘corrected’ perceived errors and inserted additional material to cover perceived ‘gaps’. Mozart, for example, added new parts to Handel’s own orchestration of the Messiah.
  • great works from previous generations were simply not performed. For example, many of Haydn’s symphonies were not even published until the 20th Century, let alone performed and there were no productions of Monteverdi’s operas at all between the 1640s and 1960s.

Some people would argue that the pendulum has swung, if anything, too far in the other direction. Nowadays it is easier to sell new recordings of concerti by Vivaldi, say, than Elliott Carter or Gyorgy Ligeti; and it is easier to fill concert halls for choral pieces by Handel, say, than James MacMillan or Arvo Part.
So have we ceased to believe that, in a musical sense, things can only get better? That is surely a leading question – and hopefully a stimulus for some controversial responses!

Posted by author: Andrew Fitzgibbon
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2 thoughts on “Things Can Only Get Better

  • Couldn’t you argue that the reason that Elliott Carter or Arvo Part struggle to get performed is that they are not writing for a market? Mozart understood his market and mass produced works to suit it. Nowadays this is seen as the domain of pop music – more serious composers who look to the market can expect short shrift from the classical establishment – as in this review of work by Michael Nyman – I think it is called damning with faint praise.

  • Thanks for the post, Terry.
    I agree that Mozart was nearer to the popular culture of his day than, say, Elliott Carter is in our generation. I also take your point about the establishment appearing to damn with faint praise. The experience of Michael Nyman is not dissimilar, perhaps, to that of other mainstream composers who have produced film scores (e.g. Vaughan Williams and William Walton). Whereas those whose reputation relies almost entirely on film and TV work (e.g. John Williams and Maurice Jarre) seem to be placed in a category of their own, outside of both the ‘pop’ and ‘classical’ worlds (the language is unhelpful here, of course).

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