|First performance of Mendelssohn's Elijah at Birmingham on |
26th August 1846
Some shallow thinkers like to blame it all on financial cuts, but English music achieved its greatness not as the result of the kind of limitless governmental support so many people seem to regard as a right today. It achieved its greatness as a result of two things, and it is the loss of these that has put English musical culture into apparently terminal decline.
|Hymns Ancient and Modern - the standard hymn book |
of the English church at the end of the 19th century.
When, in later life, I was involved in teaching music and auditioning boys to join cathedral choirs, one knew that every child would know these nursery songs and hymns, and it gave them an immediate point-of-reference from which to embark on their musical lives. As a teacher I could train students to recognise intervals by associating them with one of these tunes; a perfect fourth (“Away in a Manger”), a perfect fifth (“Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star”), a major sixth (“Crimond”), while to assess the vocal abilities of a six-year-old potential chorister, one only needed to ask him to sing one of these songs; he didn’t have to learn something new just for the audition.
A nice side-effect of all this common shared culture was that those of us who sang in church choirs were able to communicate to each other in a kind of code which involved hymn and psalm tunes. It was second nature for us to call on phrases from hymns to help us with both our musical and our linguistic communication skills, and I recall a game music examiners used to play during interminable overseas tours; we would compete to see who could refer to the most psalms or hymns in a single report. It added a lovely spice to the usually bland language of an exam report while often making the meaning rather clearer to the reader than the stock phrases most examiners call on. That this last skill has long gone was made painfully clear to me when I read a report in a British paper about a policeman who was accused referring to popular song titles in evidence he had given before a court in a fatal shooting trial. He was accused of peppering his testimony with such phrases as “Enough is Enough”, “In the Line of Fire”, “Point of No Return” and “You’ve got to have Faith”. Now, in my ignorance, I would normally take these to be bland clichés from a man with little education; but it appears these are song titles by Donna Summer, Dogwood, Immortal Technique and George Michael respectively. (It seems ironic for a policeman to be quoting George Michael, a fellow who seems to run up against the law on an almost daily basis.) How sad! In my day it required real intelligence to slip in phrases such as “Abide with me”, “Immortal Invisible”, “In death’s Dark Vale” or “Hobgoblin nor Foul Fiend”, actual phrases from hymns which examiners have, incredibly, been able to slip into reports apparently unnoticed.
So, with nursery songs and hymns forming a common cultural heritage accessible to every English child (and for those who bemoan government cuts, I hasten to add all this was available free-of-charge), they had a head start over foreigners (with no such broadly-based musical culture) when it came to joining together in musical activities requiring teamwork, such as playing in an orchestra or singing in a choir. And it is the loss of those two musical elements, inculcated into most English children from infancy, which is at the root of the terminal decline (as I see it) of English musical culture, and which needs urgently to be restored before England becomes a Third World Country on the musical stage.
In recent years, social historians have decried apparently innocuous nursery songs for their celebration of England’s colonial past, its involvement in the slave trade, its persecution of Roman Catholics and the horrors of the Great Plague which wiped out everybody, it seems, except the White, Middle-Class and Middle Age (hence our pariah status today). So Nursery Songs are a no-no and poor, deprived British children, believing themselves to be so much more enlightened than we were in our childhood, are spared the malign, insidious influence of “Ring a Ring a Roses”, “Georgie Porgie Pudding and Pie” or “See-saw, Margery Daw”, with their subversive lyrics (and if you want to read “the true stories” behind these once-considered-to-be-harmless children’s songs, refer to www.rhymes.org.uk). Instead they have such wholesome fair as “Born this way”, “I Just Had Sex” and “Fuckin’ Perfect”. The decline in English children’s linguistic skills is already painfully obvious; the musical decline is every bit as vivid. Nursery songs had memorable tunes which you could hum, sing, whistle or make out with one finger on the piano; that’s not the case with the computer-generated, video-centric music forced on today’s English youth.
For as long as Cranmer’s legacy held sway over British society, the country was famed for its brilliant performers on the dramatic as well as on the musical stage. Is it merely coincidence that, as England dispenses with his legacy and dumbs everything down in the name of that pernicious and wholly unhealthy concept of “multiculturalism” – a buzz-word for reducing everything to the bland and superficial – it is destroying its culture and denying itself a place at the forefront of the musical nations of the world; a place it has held since at least 1611?