Classic TV: André Previn

A discordant song

Classical music may be the worst casualty of identitarian politics

This article is taken from the April 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Barely a week goes by without further bad news in the world of classical music. Swingeing cuts to orchestras, choirs, ensembles and concert series leave many struggling for survival. Broadcast music is reconfigured to be more “accessible” and “inclusive”, by removing great art in favour of Disney evenings, film music or a tribute to a faded pop star.

Those running the professional associations pronounce on the necessity of such changes, usually adding some shtick about the need to better represent the diversity of modern Britain.

Some of these changes are undoubtedly fuelled by poor economic circumstances, but ideological factors are just as important, with classical music being perhaps the worst casualty of identitarian politics. In earlier decades it was common to see terrestrial broadcasts of full operas and concerts (including many BBC Proms), competitions and sometimes wider musical documentaries.

Coverage of competitions would concentrate primarily on the playing. André Previn became a household name because he was high-mindedly beamed into every home long before the notes weren’t necessarily in the right order.

This happy order changed. Using terms and concepts championed most influentially by Greater London Council apparatchiks such as Nicholas Garnham and Geoff Mulgan in the 1980s, the emphasis shifted from arts to “creative industries”, with an attack on supposedly impossibly highbrow art and on the alleged “power of the tiny, metropolitan elite”.

Artistic traditions and established masterpieces faded from attention in favour of commercially viable pop stars, fashion designers, even video game designers, many of whose work now looks dated. An obsession with the narrow present superseded the creation or preservation of anything more lasting.

Arch “Cultural Studies” consequentials like Garnham and Mulgan articulated a populist — yet also commercialist — opposition to what was smeared as being a patrician disposition, reeking of privilege, and, almost worse, connoisseurship. Yet as too many Tories retreated into philistinism for its own sake, a generation of artistic figures saw all too clearly the benefits of state patronage.

Following the public money is always dismally instructive

The New Labour era brought marked increases in arts subsidies. These have fallen since 2010 — but the Right has been caught between defenders of tradition and achievement, and a wing which sees art as being every bit as much a commodity as Blairites did.

On the Left, one faction supports subsidised art for its own sake, whilst another denounces much of this as promoting dead, white European males, and perpetuating colonialism, racism, misogyny and, crucially, subventions likely going to the curators of the past.

This is opposed to living, risible, “creatives” getting taxpayer bungs from their quango mates. Following the public money is always dismally instructive, both in terms of who’s doling it out and who’s raking it in.

No art form has suffered so badly as a result as classical music. Classic literature continues to be taught in schools, and literary fiction maintains a lively presence in wider culture (fundamentally sustained by vigorous, autonomous private patronage). Visual art, theatre, dance and film hold their heads up, too.

Obviously classical music has to compete with a starkly distinguished popular, commercial equivalent to a greater degree than any other art form. Criticism of contemporary music employs many labels to distinguish micro-genres of recent popular music, mostly from the English-speaking world, but turns 1,000 years of history from multiple continents into a single “style”, namely classical.

However, “art” music has retreated into atomised worlds of its own, even by comparison to Pierre Boulez, who tried to bring challenging music to a wider public; or Karlheinz Stockhausen, whose name for a while resonated more widely than just in avant-garde music circles.

Harrison Birtwistle made some wider impression in his later decades (in part as a result of the controversy around his Panic at the 1997 Proms). Still, no one thought it extraordinary that his death didn’t have British politicians publicly commenting after the fashion of, say, Jacques Chirac’s effusive lamentations when Iannis Xenakis died in 2001.

Attempts to create a music exhibiting some continuities with tradition, blending a degree of accessibility with aesthetic invention, for which equivalents exist in other art forms and help bridge the gap between the popular and the challengingly contemporary, have been mostly rather half-baked and short-lived. Decreasing numbers of younger composers have learned the required traditional skills.

Classical music is widely despised, having lost — which is to say, gone out of its way to deliberately alienate because of snobbish disapproval of who they were — much of its traditional audience.

If you want to see etiolated art, don’t listen to young musicians; just take in their absurd denunciations of their craft. It is shocking to see such talents turn on their own countries’ greatest cultural achievements with such hostility, a state of affairs which otherwise only usually accompanies major social upheaval.

The game may already be up in the United States, Canada

Even in the early Soviet Union, whilst there were very short-lived moves to create a new “proletarian culture” (Proletkult), the pleas by a few rather deranged futurists such as Vladimir Mayakovsky to throw established culture into the sea fell mostly on deaf ears.

Lenin himself adored Beethoven’s Appassionata Sonata, whilst other Marxist ideologues, including Leon Trotsky, were clear that art could not be reduced to ideology. What is happening to classical music now is worse than anything perpetrated by early Soviet revolutionaries, even worse than the Zhdanov decree of 1948.

It stands in contrast not only to a more positive view in much of contemporary continental and especially Eastern Europe, but especially to East Asia, where multiple generations of young musicians have trained to high levels and are a major presence in orchestras, concert halls and conservatoires in many parts of the world.

The East Asians respect and develop Western traditions to a degree not matched in the West, especially the Anglosphere, mired in post-colonial guilt and performative self-flagellation of a type which Germany overcame several decades ago. This is as symbolic of wider decline as any economic depression.

The game may already be up in the United States, Canada, Australia and some other countries, but it should not be in the UK. We should be prepared to defend and celebrate the West’s greatest musical achievements, which have generated sustained audiences in many parts of the world, without always tempering such sentiments with relativising clauses about popular or non-Western cultures (those representing these would not often return the compliment).

We should also be teaching these traditions in schools and universities. Levels of musical literacy (being able to read notation) have declined chronically, and the ability is frequently no longer required in universities. Consequently there are new generations of music teachers themselves unable to teach it.

The “decolonisers” must not be allowed to hijack tertiary musical education with their spurious and hateful arguments and assumed self-superiority to the work they dismiss, creating profoundly hostile environments for classical music, now taught regularly to less than 20 per cent of students.

In some places, you are more likely to learn about obscure faculty composers known only to a few dozen others than about Mozart or Beethoven.

If Beowulf, Dante, Chaucer and Cervantes are worth teaching, then so are Machaut, DuFay, Victoria and Tallis (and not just Spem in Alium). These composers’ works are outstanding monuments to human musical achievement.

There will still be a dedicated listenership in 100 years for Bach’s Matthäus-Passion, Mozart’s Don Giovanni, Beethoven’s Appassionata, Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen, Debussy’s La mer, Stravinsky’s Petrushka, but the education that facilitates serious engagement with these (like that for literature and other art forms) looks increasingly likely to be the preserve of a few, turning claims of “elitism” into self-fulfilling prophecies.

As in so many things, we need a better elite. One with an understanding of its responsibilities and a respect for the role it falls to its members to discharge. Betrayal from above is the song of our times, and it sounds dreadful.

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