In my days as a university lecturer I invariably began my course by asking the students to define music in a way which could not be confused with anything else. It is, I believe, an impossible task. One of my favourite definitions is that which defines music as expressing thoughts and emotions which cannot be put into words. This is a definition which has, in various forms, been ascribed to all manner of writers, and while it certainly does not fit the bill of uniquely defining music, it comes pretty close.
Another common description of “classical” music involves the word “beauty”. It seems that the vast mass of the non-musical population feels that “beautiful” and “classical music” are almost synonymous. And few commentators can mention “classical” music without such phrases as “universal language of peace”, “touching the heart”, “soothing the soul” and “calming the mind” bubbling to the surface. An interview with Lang Lang on the BBC’s Newsday last week was wrapped up by the Singapore anchor, Rico Hizon, never a man to use words when he can express himself through wildly waving hands, clasping his hands tightly together (a sure sign of seriousness) and proclaiming; “I find classical music so beautiful and calming”.
The Times of India, reporting on a recent festival in Pune marking World Music Day (a day which, I have to confess, totally passed me by) gushed; “Music is the universal language, each and every one understands it heals broken hearts and sets the spirit free”. It went on to talk about “Famous soprano singer Payal John” whose performances of English, French, German and Italian songs “were very touching to the hearts of the audiences”. At the end of it all we learnt that “The audiences had a joyful and refreshing time at this event, all flowing into the musical mood”.
The picture we get, then, is that the function of music is to provide a mood and serve as an innocuous and calming background to ease the stresses and tribulations of every day life. Cultural escapism, if you like.
I particular enjoy the claim about music being a force for unity and universal understanding. Ask the management of the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra, continually being harangued by their musicians, or the musicians themselves constantly battling against what they regard as the dictatorial and unsympathetic manner of their Principal Conductor, whether music is a unifying force. Ask the string players in the Singapore Symphony Orchestra, getting angry blasts over stage rehearsal time from the brass, whether music calms their stressful lives. In fact, visit any orchestra anywhere in the world and you enter a hotbed of stress, anger and vitriol. And not only orchestras. My music examiner colleagues spend much of their time venting their wrath on the latest inept and money-wasting scheme emanating from Head Office, and this on top of the pressure and stress of working to a frighteningly tight timetable of listening to back-to-back performances of music.
One thing is certain. Music is by no means a calming or uniting art, and to define it in such terms is seriously to undermine the intentions of its creators and executants. There are certainly intensely beautiful moments in music – I regard a moment near the end of Vox dicentis, clama By E W Naylor (and there’s a one-work composer if ever there was one) and the “Alleluia” from Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms as among the most sublimely beautiful moments in all music, and I’m sure you can all find a dozen more – but that’s not what music is all about. Both Naylor and Stravinsky achieve intense beauty only as part of a much more wide-ranging and emotionally-challenging canvas, and the glory of the music is only fully revealed when one brushes aside the beauty and listens to the message behind it all.
Even Chopin, the composer who prompted Rico Hizon’s comment and whose music many regard as “beautiful”, had more to him than that. His music may have been superficially sweet, but it had an iron heart: as Schumann so memorably put it, he produced “Guns in Roses”. I sometimes wish we were more conscious of the guns and less distracted by the roses.
They talk about football as “The Beautiful Game”. That’s of course utter rubbish; the nearest a footballer ever gets to beauty is either the synthetic and silicone-enhanced blonde in the bed beside him or the vast reams of noughts at the end of his daily pay cheque. For a musician, beauty is a much more meaningful element of their art, but it is still only a small part of what they set out to achieve, and to be regarded as simply “beautiful”, “calming” or “soothing” relegates the musician to the level of the footballer whose passion for blondes and bucks keeps him off the field for an entire season. They’ve been a few of those; and the world rightly dismissed them as human failures. Perhaps it’s time for us to remind the public that such “beautiful musicians” as Richard Clayderman, Katherine Jenkins and Russell Watson are, mega bucks in the bank notwithstanding, failures at their art.