|What was his finest work?|
Along with Berlioz’s Memoirs, Vaughan Williams’s National Music is the book on music I turn to the most often for pure pleasure (most certainly not, in the case of the Berlioz, for factual reference). The writing style is easy, the content interesting and the views expressed so uncompromisingly direct and personal that it always lifts the spirits after wading through pages of the politically-correct and culturally-sensitive ideas flavoured by an egotistical self-belief which are the stuff of most books on music today. There isn’t a writer around who could even get close to the egotistical self-belief of Berlioz, while VW’s complete disregard for the niceties of cross-cultural tolerance would be met with horror if uttered today by any academic.My very favourite VW quote from National Music – and one which I have referred to more than once in this very blog – is this;
“Unfortunately for the art of music some misguided thinker, probably first cousin to the man who invented the unfortunate phrase 'a good European', has described music as 'the universal language'. It is not even true that music has an universal vocabulary, but even if it were so it is the use of the vocabulary that counts and no one supposes that French and English are the same language because they happen to use twenty-five out of twenty-six of the letters of their alphabet in common.”
Like any self-respecting Englishman, VW was here having a dig at the Europeans – how Margaret Thatcher would have admired the man! – but his sentiments have a resonance on one international musical interface (there goes the linguistically-complex academic in me!) to which he never referred and, possibly, never even acknowledged. In his day, British English was the language to be used, and if former colonial possessions, such as the USA, decided to deviate from the path of true linguistics, that was of no concern to him. Yet the Americans have devised their own musical language, and have thus hammered even more nails into the coffin of the discredited cliché that “music is an international language”. The only problem is, the Americans have improved it immeasurably.I refer to the words they use to describe aspects of rhythm.
The British English terminology is so obscure that it actively prevents young students grasping the concept of rhythm. Here’s a tale from the examination room, which might show you what I mean. Asked to describe a 3/8 time-signature I got this;
“There are three beats in each bar, and each beat is worth a quaver which is worth half a beat, and there are three quavers in a dotted crotchet, which means this is a compound time signature and there are really eight beats in each bar”.
Of course, the Americans are never really original, and they stole their terminology from the Germans. But in 1934 Vaughan Williams was hardly likely to hold up the Germans as a shining example to the English and, in any case, the English still giggle at the German’s silly habit of giving pitches different names (what language is daft enough to call a black note B??). So even for the most ardent anti-Teuton, English people should really discard their antiquated and eccentric quavers, crotchets and minims, and adopt the American terminology. I have always taught my students to use American terms, and we never have difficulty understanding time-signatures or note-values. Of course, there is a problem when it comes to exams; the major music exam boards are English and while they tell their examiners to accept either British English or American English terms, in reality both their own publications and many of their examiners refuse even to acknowledge that there are alternatives to quavers and crotchets and minims. A student of mine told an examiner that the note was a quarter note, only to be told that was not an acceptable term and he had to say whether it was a crotchet or a quaver,
And American sense does not end there. How much more sensible it is to describe the interval between two bar-lines as a measure. The English (with their fondness for the consumption of alcohol) like the word bar and use it to mean two different things in music; the dividing line and the spaces it divides. So we have the crazy situation where you refer to a bar by number and nobody know whether you are referring to the bar line or the bit after/before the bar-line. I have to confess, too, that I much prefer staff to stave, the former giving a clearer picture that notes are supported by those five lines.
Are these short measures at the bar?
I know of no international orchestra, conductor or ensemble who use British English terms, and those brought up with British English terminology are obliged to learn the American terminology if they take music professionally. Why do we not simply discard these terms and allow the Americans to hold sway? After all, they have a pretty universal hold over what we watch (on cinema and television), on what we eat (the ghastly MacDonald’s), on what we drink (the appalling Starbucks) and on what we write our blogs (God bless you, Messrs Gates and Jobs) so why not let them cast their influence over our music. Just for once, we can do something to make music more of a universal language.