09 March 2011

A Disappearing Culture


One of my first jobs in Malaysia was to record the music of some 26 indigenous groups in Sarawak whose culture was likely to be destroyed by the construction of a government-sponsored mega-project.  Although I knew nothing about ethnomusicology – and was even less interested in it – I nevertheless appreciated the importance of preserving a musical culture, even one which was utterly alien to me.  A recent visit to England has made me think that the time is due for someone to be equally determined to preserve that land’s unique musical culture.  It seems to be dying out, here killed off by social rather than physical “progress”.


First performance of Mendelssohn's Elijah at Birmingham on
26th August 1846

What is so special about English – as opposed to European – musical culture? What is it that has inspired every major European composer since before Handel to make a pilgrimage to England?  Mozart, Haydn, Mendelssohn, Chopin, Wagner, Brahms, Dvořák, Tchaikovsky…You name them, they went there.  Why?  They went to hear their music performed by the finest performers, orchestras and choirs in the world and before the most eager and informed audiences.  English culture is not conducive to producing creative musicians – you can count the number of international-class English composers on the fingers of a single, mutilated hand – but it produces performers, and especially team players (orchestral players and choral singers) which have long been the envy of the world.  And, for the moment, they still are, but I see the culture which nurtured this pool of great talent dying in front of my very eyes.

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.

Although it’s unfashionable to be one today, I am proud to call myself a White, Middle-Class and Middle Aged Englishman, and like millions of other White, Middle-Class English children, I was brought up on a daily diet of nursery songs and hymns.  Before starting school I sat with my mother listening to a wonderful programme on the BBC Home Service called “Listen With Mother” in which a lady with immaculate RP enunciation (a standard to which we all aspired since it meant we could be understood where-ever we went in the UK and nobody would judge us according to pre-conceived prejudices on background prompted by regional accents) told us stories and sang nursery songs such as “Little Boy Blue”, “Baa Baa Black Sheep” and “Ride a Cock Horse”.  When I started school, we had a daily assembly during which we sang such hymns as “All Things Bright and Beautiful”, “Hills of the North Rejoice” and “There is a Green Hill Far Away” and in class we sang nursery songs.  As a result we all had, irrespective of religion or background, a fund of musical tunes which were common to all. 

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.


Thomas Cranmer

Equally serious is the loss of the hymns.  The cultural identity of the UK is centred around the Anglican church, its matchless contribution to the language (and with this being the 400th anniversary of the death of Thomas Cranmer, you would have thought everyone would celebrate the work of a man who devised the timeless linguistic glories of the Book of Common Prayer) and, especially, its musical treasury.  As a boy, I could walk into any Anglican church anywhere in the UK and know the service, the music, join in the hymns and sing the psalms.  I could share with complete strangers a common heritage which opened doors to all sorts of professional and social relationships.  Not any more.  Usually, when in the UK, I wander into a great cathedral and lap up the wonderful words and music of evensong, but on this visit I found myself on several occasions attending ordinary parish churches.  In each one I was on totally alien ground.  Gone was the familiar and comforting order of service (they don’t even seem to say the Creed anymore – the basic tenet of Christian faith – presumably expunged in the interest of not offending those whose first language is not English), gone were the familiar bits of music – Merbecke or Martin Shaw – usually in favour of some derivative drivel from the church’s egocentric organist, convinced he could write better music than a professional, and, most distressing, gone were the old hymns with their instantly singable melodies and their thought-provoking words.  In place of such delicious and moving linguistic gems as “Craftsman’s art and music’s measure” we had plain language (one hymn included the ghastly lines “Feel the Pain of the Violated Woman/Feel the Pain of the Unemployed” – honest sentiments, but surely they could have been wrapped up in more elegant language) sung to unsingable melodies, often derived from popular songs and invariable totally unmatched, syllabically, to the texts.

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?

1 comment:

  1. Dr Marc,

    I enjoyed reading this posting. And as one opinionated middle-aged, middle-class, Englishman to another… I can say it resonated in a saddening way.

    Howard Goodall has something along similar lines to say in the final chapter of his book Big Bangs. If I may paraphrase him:
    … the church has been the back-bone of European musical development for much of the last 800 years, but in the 20th century the traditions which could be traced back to plainsong chants, Palestrina and Bach had been abandoned by catholic and most other denominational churches alike. In France, for instance, in mid 20th Century, the cathedral choir tradition was systematically dismantled, and today there is no trace of it. It is not mourned, for it is forgotten. The same has happened throughout much of Europe, with the exception of Britain so far; other than certain celebrated choirs such as Bach’s St Thomas Kirk, the church has been “replacing its ancient choral style with either no music at all, or music of droning banality. This fate awaits the choral tradition of Britain, should the view of Anglican modernizers prevail.” The English cathedrals, Oxbridge college chapels, parish churches and choir-schools, the Music Colleges and the BBC are all intertwined in a musical tradition that gives us an unbroken link with our medieval musical heritage, and it is something that connects most British-trained professional and amateur musicians alive today.

    It is ironic that the Anglican (more generally the Christian) church has inspired great art, great music and great literature, and yet sees this legacy as a barrier. It seems eager to discard much of it in an attempt to stay relevant and popular.

    I was in UK over the summer, and visited the church where I had been a chorister; where I learned how Parry had been glad, how Ireland had “stood upon his watch”, and how the setting of Wood-in-F could be sung enough times for the gentlemen of the choir to call it the F-in’-Wood. Sadly, the oak pews were replaced by pine chairs, the organ was out of order, and where the neo-gothic choir-stalls had been was a Yamaha keyboard, a drum-kit, and a table-top-football set. But, the church did seem to be fuller than I remembered it, and with people of all ages, and it was still functioning as a church. Whether they gained enlightenment, inspiration or just tea-and cakes, I could not tell. But the cakes were good !

    Dr Peter

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