31 January 2015

Beethoven's Backers

An email from a colleague asking for money is nothing out of the ordinary; not, I hasten to add, that musicians are in the habit of sending begging emails to each other.  Such emails are generally the consequence of our spending so much of our lives travelling to far-flung corners of the globe.  We are obliged to make use of open Wi-Fi channels in hotels and, when we baulk at the exorbitant charges so many hotels levy on Wi-Fi connections, even less secure internet cafés, so are particularly prone to having our email accounts hacked.  Thus it is that I frequently receive fake emails using colleagues’ accounts asking for urgent financial assistance.  The first of these I received came from my good friend and examiner colleague James Griffiths, and it offered a most plausible – and pitiable - story about how he had lost all his money in the Philippines and needed immediate cash aid to help him out of a tricky situation.  As it was, I knew full well that no exams were being held in the Philippines at the time and that it was the last place on earth James would have visited for any other reason, utterly content, as he always is, to luxuriate in the soaring summits of Snowdonia and the murmuring mysticism of Ynys Môn.  When a whole host of identical emails started arriving from different colleagues in different parts of the world, the cat was properly out of the bag, and now they merely bring on a welcome bout of risibility.  However, this latest email appeal for me to dig into my empty pockets is a genuine request for me (and the many other recipients of the same email) to give our support to a musical organisation of which my colleague has recently been appointed Chairman; the Beethoven Piano Society of Europe.

I heartily approve of societies which devote their energies to promoting the music of a particular composer.  When I was the piano playing part of a duo alongside a fine bass singer by the name of Ian Dollins, we explored the riches of Peter Warlock’s songs to the extent that we began to think he was one of the true wonders of British music, and for my part I took an active, if ultimately short-lived, interest in the work of the Peter Warlock Society.  An unforgettable encounter with the gargantuan “Gothic” Symphony fired me with the enthusiasm to support the Havergal Brian Society, while after I made a commercial recording of York Bowen’s organ Fantasia someone from the York Bowen Society suggested I might to join that.  At various times I have been a member of societies (now mostly defunct) devoted to the music, among others, E J Moeran and Sigfrid Karg-Elert.  The thing they all have in common is devotion to the music of a composer they feel has been unjustly neglected by the musical world at large. 

But Beethoven?  And, more particularly, Beethoven’s piano music?  This is hardly neglected territory.

With the possible exception of Mozart, is any other composer in the history of music so well known even by those who never listen to music?  Ask anyone in any street if they know who Beethoven was and, apart from those sad souls whose horizons are limited by movie channels on TV (who will associated Beethoven with a dog) you will find nearly everyone has heard of him and most will even be able to quote a piece of his music; I would think that the opening four notes of the Fifth Symphony are more universally known than any other non-visual, man-made object.  And as for his piano music, while modern scholarship may have adjusted our ideas now to talk of his six piano concertos and 35 piano sonatas, few bits of piano music are better known than the “Moonlight” Sonata or “Für Elise”, and comparing the exhaustive list of his piano works in Grove with recordings easily available free-of-charge online, you will find that there is no significant area of Beethoven’s piano output which needs any further promotion; let alone by a society specifically created for such a purpose.

Of course composer-centric societies often do more than promote overlooked composers.  Some years ago I had a highly entertaining coffee morning with two devoted ladies who ran a Chopin Society.  They agreed that Chopin’s music needed no promotion amongst today’s generation of pianists; rather they saw the function of that society was more to encourage pianists to play Chopin better.  With a whole generation of hammerers and crashers (as they saw it) taking on Chopin in some kind of gladiatorial contest, promoting subtle, delicate and sensitive performances of their hero’s music was, as they saw it, the prime purpose of their society.  I’m not, sure, however, that with the likes of Alfred Brendel, Paul Lewis and Richard Goode out there striding through Beethoven’s oeuvre with magisterial authority, we need a Society to do more.

Perhaps there is a place for a society which encourages its members to look behind the usual perceptions of well-known composers and try and assess their place in musical history without the bias of accepted fact.  Why is it that we all seem to accept as an unquestionable truth the so-called Classical Canon; that list of composers (all, of course, German) drawn up by a coterie of 19th century German critics who proclaimed them the “great” figures in music?  It irks me that so many people blandly describe Bach as a “great” composer, but when asked to justify this claim, resort to mentioning the St. Matthew Passion and, at a stretch, the “Brandenburg” Concertos.  In many ways these are a-typical of Bach’s output; which would seem to imply that in the bulk of his “typical” music Bach did not achieve greatness.  As an organist I am intimately acquainted with Bach’s manifest weaknesses;  that grotesque glutinous glob of Grave G major which forms the turgid core of the Pièce d’Orgue (BWV572),  that pointless note-spinning in F major of the BWV540 Toccata (which Bach then compounds by regurgitating in C), and, most obviously, that tiresome and silly Prelude and Fugue in D (BWV532), which would never have got a second glance if it was by anyone other than a composer some 19th century Herr Doktor decided in a fit of nationalist fervour to tell the world was “great”.  But what shortcomings there are in the piano music of Beethoven have been amply explained and justified by a whole host of compellingly articulate scholars (not least among them being Barry Cooper) and we do not need to form a society to put it to the world that Beethoven was a flawed genius.

So, with apologies to my colleague, I do not feel moved to hand over my hard-won shilling (or euro) to the Beethoven Piano Society of Europe.  But there will be many who disagree with me - not all of them current members of the Beethoven Piano Society of Europe – and for them I would be failing in my duty if I did not point them in the direction of the Society’s website (http://bpse.org) where they will find, among a lot of other things, details of their exceedingly modest subscription rates.

28 January 2015

Why Learn Western Classical Music

Commenting on the problems music teachers face in promoting Western Classical music to the parents of prospective students raised in my last blog post, a friend asks why anyone would want to teach Western Classical music to those who live in a culture where it is neither appreciated nor generally known.  On the face of it that seems a valid point.  When people can survive and thrive unaffected by Western Classical music, is there really any need for them to study it, let alone develop any kind of skill in it? Might not the music teachers be accused of trying to create a demand where none exists and then satisfying it for their own financial benefit? 

For any person of any culture learning about their native music - be it Somerset Folk music,  Ethiopian Tribal music or Indian Classical music - there is the obvious benefit of deepening their own understanding of their inherited culture and appreciating an aspect of their common sociological make-up.  Western Classical music encompasses so many different cultures and societies that it can not be regarded as having the same historico-social value to those who study it.  But studying it brings benefits relevant to all people from whatever cultural background they originate; even if, in daily life, they never have and never will again hear a note of it.

A basic trawl through internet resources will harvest a huge crop of articles - for some reason aimed at “kids” (in my book, kids is a term which, when not applied correctly to the offspring of goats, is a perjorative word implying something akin to delinquency) - extolling the virtues of learning musical instruments and making all sorts of extravagant and often downright ridiculous claims.  Look at this list from the New South Wales education department;

·         Kids who study music from an early age can do better at a range of subjects.

·         Children who play music learn there are rewards from hard work, practice and discipline.

·         Playing a musical instrument helps develop kids' creative thinking and motor skills.

·         Music helps kids become more active listeners.

·         It can also enhance their health and wellbeing and increase their stamina.

Wow!  Reading that last point, how the members of the Sierra Leonean government must be kicking themselves.  If only they had instituted a programme to teach their children how to play a musical instrument years back they could have prevented the spread of Ebola.  It certainly seems a rather more worthwhile claim to the value of learning music, however, than this remarkably wishy-washy one from a British website called “Kidsunlimited” (it sounds like a site from which to buy baseball caps designed to be worn backwards);

·         “Music is a great way for people to bond — often people will bond over their mutual love of one band or a particular taste in music that they both enjoy”

This does not seem to me to make music much different from a shared love of soccer, suet puddings or sex clubs.  Frankly, if I wanted to improve my social skills (which I most certainly need to do) I would choose a less time-consuming course of action than spending years learning a musical instrument.

But silly claims apart, the huge benefits to be derived from learning a musical instrument are well documented and supported by numerous academic studies.  It needs no further comment from me, other than to suggest that teachers should realise that they are undertaking a more important role than attempting to nurture the next generation of great performers; they are in reality training the next generation of audiences.  Less well publicized, but certainly no less significant, are the huge benefits to be derived from a study specifically of Western Classical music, either through the medium of instrumental tuition or through something more theoretic or - dare I say it? - academic.

I identify three major areas where the study of Western Classical music has a unique and lasting benefit which cannot be derived from any single other area of study.  The first is the development of the skill of listening.  In my experience very few people know how to listen and even fewer understand that listening is a trained skill rather than an instinctive ability.  A baby makes gargling sounds, but needs years of intensive training to transform those unthinkingly-created sounds into comprehensible speech, and even more years to develop further into an advanced system of oral communication which, even today, many adults do not possess.  So it is with listening.  We can hear from almost when we are born, but it takes years to develop those hearing skills into focused listening and even more years to be able to process the full range of those aural stimuli.  Because Western Classical music is made up of complex and often extremely multi-layered sounds, the ear needs to be trained to a high level of refinement to both recognise and then disseminate them into some coherent intellectual order.  If one can trace the contrapuntal textures of a Bach Fugue, recognise the differences between Subject and Answer, Countersubject, Inversion, Extension, Compression, Modulation and so on, one’s listening skills are sufficiently advanced to cope easily with even the most complex aural demands placed on a single person in any area of human activity.

Which leads to the second area in which a study of Western Classical music has benefits far beyond an understanding and appreciation of the music itself; intellectual enlargement.  Once the ear can distinguish and unravel those complexities in a Bach Fugue, the brain needs to process them, which it does by means of a complicated combination of extended pitch memory, a cognition of shapes (rhythms) and an mental facility to rotate and distort aural images and to recognise connections between them.  But I run before I can walk.  Much more important, possibly, is the training given to the mind to grasp purely aural concepts and to process them according to a fluid set of rules and conventions which subtly change in every context (which is, in effect, what composers do to musical form – an element which, in its extreme complexity, is unique to Western Classical music).  After a matter of months, even a child’s brain can begin to grasp the intangible concept of musical form and appreciate the excitement that comes with the reappearance, after a prolonged absence, of a principal theme or idea.  There is a delightful story about how César Franck, at the première of his Symphony in D minor, turned to the audience at the point in which, near the end, the big tune reappears marvellously transformed, and physically drew their attention to a moment which, he was appalled to realise, many of them had not observed.

On top of that there is the comprehension of a written system of notation which is remarkably complicated in its presentation of a number of disparate elements (a musical score has coded indications relating to gradations of speed, time, rhythmic patterns, pitch, dynamic, attack, release…the list is huge); in short the ability to read the notation by which, uniquely, Western Classical music is disseminated across all linguistic barriers, is equivalent to breaking a highly-advanced code.  In short, an understand of form, structure, balance, pitch, rhythm, historical context, religious background and social history along with an ability to interpret highly specialised written symbols and complex aural messages are all integral to any study of Western Classical music: and these things are routinely taught to and absorbed by those still under the age of ten.  Does any other field of study offer so much intellectual expansion at so early an age?

Thirdly, there is the emotional enrichment which comes hand in hand with any study of Western Classical music.  Taking the famous Victor Hugo quote - about music expressing that which words cannot - purely at face value, we must accept that the “message” behind Western Classical music is often one which cannot be expressed in any spoken or written language.  Its emotional range is such that it creates an outlet and a channel for those deep human emotions which, otherwise, remain an obstruction to a person's emotional equilibrium.

At moments of personal unhappiness during my student days I used to turn to a pop song by Gilbert O’Sullivan which, in three minutes, covered just about every personal tragedy a human being could expect to suffer in an entire lifetime (“Alone Again (Naturally)”).  I derived a measure of comfort from hearing words and a gentle tune which seemed connected to my feelings at the time, but in three minutes it barely was able to satisfy me beyond the superficial response; “yes, that’s how I feel”.  Listening to the slow movement of Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony – a 15-minute expression of such profound beauty that it seems to encompass all human feelings – offers a level of deep-seated emotional satisfaction Gilbert O’Sullivan could never have attained.  He was after providing a hook on to which we could hang our superficial troubles; Rachmaninov is stirring emotions many of us do not even know we have. 

Find me a culture where the ability to listen intently, to respond intellectually and to channel ones emotions is not important, and you will have found a culture where Western Classical music is irrelevant.  I suspect such cultures do not exist.

27 January 2015

Unequal Music

Visiting a group of my former students who have set up a new music school in India, I was told of one particular problem they were facing and for which their foreign education had not adequately prepared them.  How, they wanted to know, could they persuade parents in India that there was any benefit in teaching their children Western Classical Music.  As one of the former students put it; “All is progressing well until visitors go the pupil’s house, see the piano and are told that the child is having expensive music lessons.  ‘Play us something’, they insist, and when the child plays a simple Minuet by Bach or Beethoven the visitors are appalled.  ‘That is not proper music.  Why waste money learning to play that?’  And the parents think; ‘Yes.  We do not hear our child playing real music at home.  What is the point?’ And they stop the lessons.  For the visitors and the parents – for, in fact, most of the older generation of Indians – music is Indian Classical music.  Western Classical music is an irrelevance and so alien to them that when they do not hear anything they recognise as music, they feel we are bad teachers.”

As ever in any field of education, there is a potential problem when a child is being taught something beyond the parents’ knowledge.  The parents perhaps feel intimidated by seeing the child exposed to an area of knowledge alien to them, and, more significantly, cannot appreciate the value of learning something which they themselves were denied during their successful journeys to parenthood.  This is very much a problem amongst Indian and Chinese communities where, only a generation or two ago, hardly anyone was exposed to Western Classical music.

In our discussions one former student had a very strong idea of what needed to be done.  “We first must brainwash the parents against Indian Classical Music.  Then we get the child to play some simple Bollywood songs which the parents can understand, and then we progress to Western Classical Music.”  That seemed to strike a chord with the others who all agreed that Western Classical Music was in some way better or more intellectually advanced (and therefore of more educational value), and so, as a priority, parents had to be convinced that perceptions of Indian Classical Music as “real” music were wrong.

I find myself on the horns of a dilemma over this not least because, not understanding the intricacies of Indian music, I am in no position to comment on its educational value.  However, I can never accept that one kind of music is more “real” than another, and while I might fervently believe that there are huge benefits in studying the considerable intellectual substance and emotional depth of Western Classical music, I am the first to accept that the spiritual plains sought by Indian Classical music, the extrovert exhibitionism of a Bollywood song, or even the instant gratification of a Western Pop number are not generally to be experienced in Western Classical music.  The idea that one should “brainwash” people away from one music in order to understand another seems utterly wrong to me; but I am looking at it from the point of view of one whose own native culture has long ago been destroyed, so cannot begin to know whether people with a powerful inherited culture are capable of willingly setting it aside in order to appreciate another. 

The root of the problem is, however, blindingly obvious; it is that word “Music”.  Is any other art form saddled with a name so loose and all-embracing as to be utterly meaningless, yet which so firmly means something to those who freely use it?  “I love music” is such a common phrase that most people believe it can be true; indeed many people believe it in themselves.  A good few years ago, a group of us Associated Board examiners found ourselves battling in a restaurant against the insidious background din of piped music.  Finally, exasperated at not being able to hear ourselves think, one of our more distinguished number (a leading orchestral conductor) asked the waiter if it could be turned off; “You do not like music?”, asked the waiter incredulously.  “No, I do not like music” was my colleague’s response.  In that context, he was speaking the truth, and saw no irony in what he had said.

Music is a virtually indefinable word (all my students are faced with the task of coming up with a definition of music which can encompass all known musics but which can define nothing else; and none has really done so yet, despite one or two clever attempts) because it is an indefinable thing.  Music is Rachmaninov on a piano or Cage on a prepared piano, a Gibbons Motet, a Tablā playing a ghazal, a painted woman singing Peking opera, the Sex Pistols performing “God Save the Queen”, Mr Suzuki belting out “My Way” at the local karaoke, sitting watching a DVD of Michael Jackson doing his Moonwalk – there are people who regard any one of those as the epitome of music; although if anyone genuinely likes all eight in equal measure, I would be hugely surprised.  We have had correspondence in this blog about noise and about how, for some people, music they do not like is noise; but that cannot be so if music is something which can be defined as a distinct entity.  Music, if it exists, is music.  We can have nice music or horrible music, but it is still music; from that list above, I would go a long way not to be exposed to six of them, but would never for a moment dismiss those six as not being music by some people’s definition.  Yet too many people hear music they do not like and say “That is not music”, believing that music only exists in their personal definition of it.  So when I tell someone I am a musician, the immediate response is usually either “What instrument do you play”, or “What is your favourite band?”; both responses showing a fundamental disconnect between their definition of music and mine. 

I detest the phrase Western Classical Music, as it implies a cultural specificity which it actually does not have (except in the minds of those - Indians and others - who need a justification in not liking it), yet it is the only generally accepted phrase which distinguishes that kind of music from another.  In the West they use the term “Classical” music to distinguish it from “Pop” music, but that is meaningless in India, where “Classical” music is something else entirely.  And there again, “Pop” music in the West is such a loose term (only Wikipedia offers an online “definition” which is, almost inevitably, utterly wrong) that it would seem to lump together performers as disparate as Frank Sinatra, Bob Dylan, the Sex Pistols, Abba and Lady Gaga as a single, distinct and cohesive art form.

My former students need first of all to realise that this is not a cultural issue.  While Indian Classical music may be defined by the culture from which it originates, Western Classical music has no societal or geographic cultural exclusivity; no single aspect of the art derives wholly from Europe (or “the West”) and while its dissemination through musical notation was the result of the Roman church’s global spread (hence the use of the word “Western”), elements of musical notation can be traced back to ancient Chinese, African and Arabic – even Polynesian Aboriginal and North American indigenous – cultures.  Thus, it is not a question of one culture replacing anther (I have had heated discussions with Chinese students who suggest that the growth of Western Classical music in their culture amounts to “Cultural Colonialisation”) but rather of misunderstanding that two totally different concepts which can (and should) happily coexist, unfortunately share the same name; Music. 

If we were to refer to Indian Classical Music as “Chalk” and Western Classical Music as “Cheese”, my former students’ problem might be solved.

16 January 2015

Bach's BMW


It’s a phenomenon I first noticed a few years back when sitting in on some student recitals where the students themselves had written out the programme details.  Suddenly the catalogue numbers for Bach works started being listed as BMW.  The practice has now become frighteningly widespread, with several regional variations; the other day I came across a recital programme written by a Filipino student (presumably a devout Catholic) which described a Bach piece as being BVM. (I wonder what the Lutheran Bach would have made of being associated with the Blessed Virgin Mary?)

It started, certainly in my experience, with Chinese students in Hong Kong and Malaysia.  They are a group of youngsters who tend to see the acquisition of a German-made high-spec automobile as the ultimate symbol of success. (More fool them.  From my 43 years of driving around the world in cars, buses and commercial vehicles, I have seen so many BMWs involved in horrendous accidents, burnt up on the side of a road or sitting forlornly waiting for the rescue truck, that I would never get into one out of choice.  It may be that the cars are inherently dangerous or that the drivers who prefer them lack the imagination to drive safely – or most likely, a combination of both – and a good friend of mine in Singapore who foolishly possesses one tells me that, while it is horrendously expensive to maintain, the real hurt to the pocket comes from the fines he incurs whenever he drives up to Kuala Lumpur.  A Singaporean-registered BMW is, of course, an open invitation for Malaysian police to stop and demand cash payments from its driver, but since my friend proudly sets his cruise control to 150 kph as soon as he has passed the toll barrier at the start of the North-South Highway and refuses even to turn it off when he passes through the restricted speed area around Melaka, he brings many of these fines on himself.  I admit my choice of cars is hardly inspiring – either Volvo (boring) or Jeep (unreliable), but at least I feel safe in them and never incur the unwarranted green-eyed wrath of other motorists.)  But I digress.

Probably subconsciously, those Chinese students seem to associate the fact the musical world now reveres Bach as an almost God-like figure striding colossus-like across the panoply of musical history with the kind of material greed which is the hallmark of those in today’s rather shallower society who have earned popular acclaim.  I suspect that they imagine that, had such things as BMWs been around in his day (and I’m not sure many of they don’t actually think they were) Bach would certainly have driven one; a “Bach’s Musician Wheels” to paraphrase the usual mnemonic for BMW which, political correctness has now rendered us unable to utter in western society (even if it still seems the preferred motorised wheels for drug dealers of African and Caribbean descent in the slums of major cities).

When I first started taking music seriously, I wrote to Lucian Nethsingha, then organist of St Michael’s College Tenbury Wells (of sad memory – the establishment long having been closed down in the early days of the demise of Anglican choral foundations) to ask him about a voluntary he had played after a broadcast of choral evensong.  He replied in a delightful postcard, his writing looking as if it had been written above a ruler, suggesting that he was delighted that I had enjoyed it and it was Bach’s “Fantasia in G, S.572”.  The “S” fascinated me and when I discovered it was short for Wolfgang Schmeider, the man who had drawn up the original Bach Werke-Verzeichnis in 1950, I understood what it was all about.  For several years after that I continued to describe Bach works with the catalogue suffix “S” until I realised nobody else did.  Perhaps had we carried on with this, Chinese students might now see Bach as an altogether different (and for my money, better) German limousine.

Of course this is all nonsense, because even if he had been alive today Bach would never have had a BMW.  For all his proud German-ness, he would not have been a man to squander money on pointless exhibitionist displays of lavish automobile possession.  A humble Trabant or, more likely bearing in mind his large family, a more spacious Wartburg would have been his thing.  (Remember the Wartburg?  A school friend had one and when he came to sell it through the columns of the local paper he highlighted its principal selling point as a “built-in smoke screen”!) Bach was not a traveller and needed no car other than one to get him around Leipzig when he had to juggle the various duties at the university and at the various churches to which he was attached.  If a man would happily walk the 250 miles from Arnstadt to Lübeck just to hear Buxtehude play the organ and then walk all the way back again when staying would have involved marrying Buxtehude’s ugly daughter, he certainly was made of more potent stuff than the wimps and self-regarding salesmen who aspire to the ranks of BMW owners today.  A Wartburg would have managed that journey well enough, provided, of course, there were no steep hills along the way. (My school friend often had to turn his round and go up one the once notorious hill between Basingstoke and Farnham in reverse, gleefully smiling at the truck drivers who sailed past him in their 32-ton artics without a care in the world.)

But if you think all this ridiculous talk of Bach and cars is just so much silliness directed at a long-dead composer with a reputation for arch-seriousness and deep religious intensity, it might be good to remember two things about Bach.  Firstly, he spent time in prison for an ill-fated prank on an employer, and secondly, shortly after his arrival in Leipzig he penned two of the most ridiculous and downright silly Cantatas known to man (or at least until Joseph Horovitz came up with his amazing, but sadly long-forgotten, Horrortorio).  I have just reviewed the recordings of the “Academic Cantatas” made as part of Bis’s Bach cantata cycle directed by Masaaki Suzuki and have to say this is a side of Bach I had not realised existed.  Up to now I thought his idea of a belly laugh was referring to his pupil Johann Ludwig Krebs as “The best crayfish [krebs] in the stream [bach]”, but when I hear the stunning Roderick Williams (has ever a singer received so much exposure on disc yet never failed to exceed all expectations?) do his impersonation of the appallingly pompous King Aeolus keeping all the winds locked up for the summer, and the wind players of the Bach Collegium Japan having a ball straining at the leash to be let out into the open, I realise that here is a composer not just with a huge sense of humour but with a sense of the ridiculous and silly as strong as any.  I would heartily recommend this new disc to anyone who still believes Bach to be stuffy and serious.

And I would certainly recommend it to those misguided students who might like to take note of the BIS editorial team’s rather more conscientious approach to accuracy.  These two works are properly catalogued as BWV 205 and BWV 207.