06 May 2016

Music and Savagery


Frequently misquoted and almost as frequently mis-attributed, William Congreve’s lines “Musick has Charms to sooth a savage Breast, To soften Rocks, or bend a knotted Oak” from his play The Mourning Bride of 1697, is probably the most famous example of attributing powers to music for which there is scant (if any) evidence.  Ever since Congreve (and, indeed, for centuries before) writers have been happy to claim all sorts of special benefits from hearing or from playing music.  Some are true, some understate the case and others, like Congreve, have a grain of truth but in reality go far beyond what is credible.  We see this sort of thing today in those unthinking commentators who suggest that “classical music” and “beauty” are synonymous, and that listening to it is a way of stifling aggression.

There is no doubt in my mind that some music does have the power to soothe a savage breast, and that it can induce a sense of calm and well-being (much as a drop of alcohol on a flight can do).  But, just as with alcohol, too much – or the wrong type - can have entirely the opposite effect.  Does anyone feel calm and unaggressive after Prokofiev’s Scythian Suite?  One orchestral percussion player told me how he and his colleagues used to get so annoyed by the pre-recorded pre-concert injunction in the hall in which they performed to “sit back, relax and enjoy the music” that, when the performance included The Rite of Spring they felt induced to do their bit with excessive savagery.

Music has, undoubtedly, powers over the emotions to those receptive to it (and some tests seem to show that it can also trigger behavioural differences among those who attempt to resist it), and its effects can be observed for a period after the music has ceased to play.  But, at heart, music is a transitory experience for all, and no matter how frequently we revisit it, I remain unconvinced that any emotional or behavioural consequence of exposure to music can be anything other than temporary.

Which is not to say that we should not use music as a tool of peace and good-will; it is unusually well-equipped to have an effect in those areas.  That certainly was the thinking behind last night’s concert in Palmyra, the Syrian city scene of such appalling barbarism and unbelievable inhumanity in recent months when it came under the control of that pagan and sub-human organisation calling itself The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.  According to Russia Today, “A Russian symphony orchestra led by Valery Gergiev has given a unique performance in ancient Palmyra, recently liberated from Islamic State militants. The concert was devoted to the victims of extremists, and intends to instil hope that peace can triumph over war and terrorism”.  It went on to quote the Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs; “The concert in Palmyra is a highly spiritual response to those who wanted to destroy Syria, split the country along national and religious lines, and deprive it of Christian of principles.”  

That struck me as a lovely idea; to counter the bestiality and brutality of ISIL with the brilliance and beauty of classical music.  And while the animal brutes of ISIL have breasts of such savagery that only total oblivion could ever cure them, the power of music to heal, albeit temporarily, the deep psychological wounds of those directly affected should not be understated.  According to the BBC’s John Simpson, the performance was given by members of the Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra to an audience mainly comprising Russian and Iraqi soldiers, while Russia Today observed that the music performed was by Bach, Prokofiev and Schchedrin.   

But we live in a world where even the most generous and brave acts are tainted by political scepticism and national posturing. The New York Times interwove its report of the concert with gruesome details of carnage elsewhere in Syria, implying that the concert was inappropriate while war still raged, and even as John Simpson eloquently recounted the event, he also reported a reaction from some European governments and observers that the concert was, far from being a genuine attempt to use music to negate some of the extremes of physical and mental violence experienced in Palmyra, a bid by President Putin of Russia to highlight Russia's military supremacy.   Steve Rosenberg, the BBC’s Moscow correspondent put it in a nutshell: “Moscow will be hoping that images of its classical musicians in Syria will reinforce the message that Russia is a force for good.  But Western officials remain suspicious of Russia's intentions. Moscow has faced accusations that it has not done enough to rein in Syrian government forces. The Russians deny that and accuse America of not using its influence with the Syrian opposition to halt the fighting”.

The BBC website added this suggestive caption to this image;
"Cellist Sergei Roldugin is a close friend of Vladimir Putin"

So what, then, was this concert?  Was it a genuine expression of peace and hope using music as a symbolic representation of the triumph of civilization over barbarism, or a cynical political statement using Russian musicians as symbolic representatives of a military super-power in an aggressive piece of international posturing?


Frankly, whatever the West may think of the Russian government of President Putin, I have nothing but praise for anyone who, like William Congreve over 300 years ago, believes that music can “sooth a savage breast” despite all the evidence to the contrary.

03 May 2016

A French Woman Eclipsed

There is an understandable tendency to view the past through the attitudes and morals of the present.  So it is that, from our standpoint in the 21st century where there is something of a fixation on equality, we look askance when it seems that previous generations were less concerned with gender, ethnicity and sexual orientation than we are.  We feel the need to redress the balance by retrospectively imposing the principles of total equality on people for whom the struggle for individual existence often denied them the luxury of even thinking about other matters.

I first came across this in a musical context when, as part of a team deciding who (and in what level of detail) should be included in a new dictionary of composers.  I argued passionately for Samuel Coleridge Taylor (1875-1912) on the basis that his choral trilogy Song of Hiawatha had been, in the years between the two world wars, such a mainstay of the English choral repertory that he warranted at least a half column.  At that stage I had every reason to suspect that the Song of Hiawatha would come back into fashion; its glorious text, its wonderfully compulsive rhythms redolent of native African/American drumming and its brilliant writing for amateur voices seemed to be tailor made for what I anticipated would be a revival of interest in choral singing.  I was wrong; but still find it incredible that so few people ever perform this music today.  However the editor’s rejection of my pro-Coleridge Taylor stance was not based on musical or populist grounds; as he told me, “It is not our place to promote a composer above his worth purely because he was black”.

Samuel Coleridge Taylor and Family


That came as a shock.  I had no idea he was black – the colour of his skin simply had not crossed my mind – all that interested me was that he had been a composer who wrote catchy and eminently singable music for amateur choirs.  Of course I then went and did my research and discovered, far too late in the day, that his life story itself was so intensely fascinating that he deserved not so much a dictionary as an entire book written about him.  (An interesting post-script is that his daughter, Avril Coleridge Taylor (1903-1998) became a composer, but any modern-day sympathies we may have for her as being both black and female – something she disguised by composing under the pseudonym Peter Riley - were effectively destroyed by a report which appeared in a London newspaper in 1952 which not only described her as “porcelain white” but claimed she supported the apartheid regime in South Africa.)


Today’s perception of equality also, of course, extends to individual sexuality.  Once considered an entirely personal and private matter, we now probe into long-dead composers’ lives pruriently seeking out hints to their sexual preferences.  Any composer who failed to get married often becomes labelled as homosexual even when there is absolutely no evidence to support this (think Ravel).  Indeed, a student once asked me “Was Handel Gay?”.  Coming after a lecture in which The Beggar’s Opera had been mentioned as forcing Handel to move away from opera and into oratorio, I naturally assumed the student was putting forward the fascinating hypothesis that, in a clever piece of marketing, Handel had himself written The Beggar’s Opera using the pseudonym John Gay.  I was appalled when the student pointed out that: “Handel never married, so he was probably gay”.  The assumption that unmarried people are necessarily homosexual was so wildly false that I was at a loss for an answer, but I did splutter that I could not begin to see how the private sexual inclination of a composer could have any bearing on his posthumous reception.

In fact the desire to redress the perceived sins of the past has done nobody any favours.  I can’t help wondering if we hold up different standards when considering the music of Tchaikovsky, Fanny Mendelssohn and Samuel Coleridge Taylor because they would today belong to a generally recognised group who are, in some quarters, segregated against.  Does it really serve their reputations any better to know that they were gay, female and black, and does it fall on us in the 21st century to redress that balance by promoting them beyond the reputation they would have attained had they been married, male and white? 

The question arises because of a wonderful gift I received from my oldest and best friend, Peter Almond.  Some weeks back he phoned up in a lather of excitement, asking me to listen as he placed his phone against a loudspeaker and I heard coming down the line a waft of highly attractive music and the question “I bet you cannot guess what that is?”.  True, I could not.  It was totally unidentifiable.  Peter, whose generosity knows no bounds, duly posted off for me two CDs of the composer’s works and I duly played them.  There were three symphonies and a couple of overtures showing the fluency and mastery of Felix Mendelssohn but, beyond that, giving away no clues other than the fact that here was a very fine composer indeed whose gifts lay particularly in orchestration and in crisp, tuneful and immediately attractive dance movements (notably the wonderfully bustling Scherzo of the 3rd Symphony and the disarmingly elegant Andante of the 2nd Symphony).  The question was, why was this composer so completely unknown to me.

Possibly it is because the composer was a woman.  Louise Farrenc (1804-1875) came from a long line of distinguished artists - “including several women painters”, in the words of Groves Dictionary.  It would be quite wrong to promote Farrenc’s music because she was a woman; the fact is, she was a very good composer indeed and worthy of recognition in her own right.  However, she has not had it, and while it would be easy to blame this on what we retrospectively identify as anti-feminine bias in 19th century society, it is much more complex than that. 

Perhaps the real reason lies more in the fact that Farrenc was French.  So indoctrinated are we by the Germanic dominance of early 19th century music that we tend to assume that between the death of Lully in 1687 and the mature works of Berlioz, nothing of note ever came from the pen of a French composer.  Farrenc was not just a contemporary of Berlioz, but as Professor of Piano at the Paris Conservatory from 1842 to 1873 was part of the Parisian musical establishment which he so roundly and memorably discredited. And if a woman is Professor of Piano at such a firmly establishment institution as the Paris Conservatory, perhaps there was not so much anti-feminine bias then as we would like to think. 

On top of that, she was totally eclipsed by her contemporaries; composers who have, in their own way, exhibited a level of individuality and originality which transcends mere fluency of invention.  Berlioz is hailed by historians as a pioneer in orchestration, while the piano writing of Chopin, Schumann and Liszt, have clearly cast a complete shadow over Farrenc’s output for the instrument (the bulk of her compositional legacy).  The burgeoning operatic genius of Verdi, Wagner and her compatriot Bizet have gone down in a history which must inevitably exclude Farrenc since she wrote no operas.  The symphony was going through the doldrums – indeed in a curiously fallacious statement the musicologist Richard Taruskin declared “No symphonies written between 1850 and 1870 survive in the repertoire” – and her chamber music, which Grove claims to have “established her reputation among critics and cognoscenti”, suffered from being composed at an age when the lure of the piano and the opera house diverted attention away from a genre which had once been a dominant musical force.

So has history ignored Louise Farrenc because she was a woman?  I fear not.  It has ignored her because she was in the wrong place at the wrong time.  Possibly, had she been a man, even the few pieces of hers that have appeared on CD this century would never have seen the light of day.  




02 May 2016

Who Needs Good Music When You Can Have Bad?

Over the weekend I went to a concert.  Nothing unusual about that, of course, nor, sadly, about the fact that the concert was embarrassingly poor with bad arrangements of second-rate music in monumentally mediocre performances.  And, almost inevitably, it got a rapturous response from the capacity audience.  I have to say that, cringing in my seat with acute embarrassment as the performance teetered on the brink of a total collapse I did ask myself why I had given up a satisfying career as a bus driver – where a single act of carelessness can kill dozens - to devote my life to something where multiple acts of carelessness normally receive praise and admiration.

The audience in the concert hall clearly loved every moment of it and applauded with unbridled enthusiasm.  Are my standards too high and my expectations unrealistic, or does the public accept really bad music and music making because they neither expect nor want anything better?

The casual reader should immediately pounce on my assessment of the concert as “bad arrangements of second-rate music in monumentally mediocre performances” and castigate me for assuming my standards are right and other people’s wrong; for implying my taste is good and everyone else’s bad.  Yet while the casual reader should do this, those who think and ponder about such matters must, surely, reach much the same conclusion as mine. 
1.      Bad arrangements.  When the original work is arranged in such a way that it is distorted, that its original character and mood is lost and that the instrumentation causes an aural imbalance and obscures the principal themes and harmonies of the original, then I am absolutely convinced that the arrangement is bad.  The finest players in the world could not produce good results from such bad arrangements.
2.      Second-rate music. The finest music is original, distinctive, compelling, emotionally and/or intellectually stimulating and prompts a desire to hear it again.  Very little music really falls into this category, and while much music can fulfil one or two of these elements, only the first-rate can fulfil three or more.  The music played in this concert was certainly attractive, possibly well worth hearing again, but was neither original nor stimulating and certainly did not offer anything sufficiently compelling for the bulk of the audience to put down their phones and concentrate on what was being played to them.
3.      Monumental mediocrity. When the ensemble went through the motions of tuning, it was obvious that they remained steadfastly out of tune.  Playing a note several times over does not tune an instrument; this is such a basic skill that, to get it wrong, signifies a basic musical mediocrity.  On top of that, frequent places where the ensemble broke down, the players made mistakes and the conductor did nothing to shape, express or mould the music into some coherent whole implies not just individual mediocrity in the players but a level of mediocrity which encompassed the entire performing body.

A free concert on a Sunday afternoon should, possibly, not prompt the same level of expectation as, say, a pricey one on a Friday evening.  Yet the very professional marketing, under the umbrella of a highly-reputable professional musical organisation, had certainly drawn me to the concert on the assumption that it would be, if nothing more, an entertaining hour or so of undemanding but acceptable music making.  On top of that, the programme booklet gave long and lavish biographies of the artists which did everything to promote them as high-ranking professionals.  The conductor, attired curiously for an afternoon free concert in white tie and tails, was keen to promote his academic and musical credentials by pointing to the doctorate he had obtained from an institution in the USA (why are so many American doctorates based on the flimsiest of academic and musical skills?) and had even written brief programme notes which were so incomprehensible (and full of basic factual errors) that one expected he had found an institution offering Doctorates in Musical Obfuscation.  His performances showed no evidence of musical understanding nor interpretative thought, and the fact that he announced the encore as “something beautiful”, when, in fact, it was something utterly dreary and insignificant, indicated a failure to understand the words he used.

While I can justify my statements about the dreadfulness of the concert, I have to accept that, on all the evidence, I was in a minority of almost one. (True, the lady beside me complained after the second inconsequential piece that she was hoping for something more substantial – but when a longer piece did turn up, she promptly fell asleep; although I confess to having kept my own eyes firmly shut for fear of giving visible manifestation for the inner horror I was feeling at such a musical travesty.) 

Should I accept that my expectations and standards are out of line with the mass of the music-going public?  Yes, I should and I do.  But I must fight to preserve the few remaining shreds of musical credibility in the face of such widespread apathy towards excellence, and the general satisfaction with the second and third rate in an art form which, virtually by definition, should elevate us way beyond the first-rate.

There was a time when music was unknown and inaccessible to the vast mass of the population.  If you were exposed to music at all, it was because you were a member of an elite for whom music was an enriching adjunct to daily life.  You demanded the very best in your life, and music was part of it.  Then along came the gramophone and suddenly music was available to all.  With the mobile device music has not just become available to all, but considered as basic a human activity as breathing, eating and going to the toilet. 

And just as we have ruined our atmosphere, our dietary intake and our physical environment through treating air, food and waste products carelessly, so we are ruining music by taking it for granted.  By accepting the mediocre and the mundane when we should be striving to care for the excellent and exceptional, I see music going the same way as the environment.  While people care about airborne pollution, deforestation, chemicals in agriculture and landfill sites, how many people really care about music?