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Bach in town

We need more classical music in public spaces

Artillery Row

Like most communities, our village had a party for the Jubilee. You can picture the scene. If you squint a little, it could still be 1922: long trestle tables in front of the cricket pavilion, Union Jack bunting, long flowery dresses, linen jackets, panama hats. Except, of course, for the giant amplifiers blasting out rock and pop songs all afternoon. 

My children are five and seven, so you can imagine how delighted I was to have them introduced to the Vengaboys’ sensitive and moving chanson d’amour, “Boom Boom Boom Boom”. With a delicacy of sentiment that brings a tear to the eye, the chivalrous Boys revive the great tradition of courtly love by offering a token of affection to their beloved: “I wanna go boom, boom / Let’s spend the night together / Together in my room”.

Classical music is not allowed its own space on the BBC

The event lasted several hours, with music playing non-stop. It was organised and attended largely by middle-aged to elderly folks, residents of a small and affluent rural community, and yet I don’t recall hearing a single piece of classical music. Naturally we had “Sweet Caroline”, a ho-hum ballad released in a different country half a century ago which inexplicably became associated with the Jubilee despite its total irrelevance to the occasion and the lack of any reason to believe that Her Majesty actually liked it. But there were none of the patriotic standards that you would expect for a great national festival in the heart of Deep England: no “Jerusalem” or “Rule Britannia”, no “I Vow To Thee, My Country” or “Pomp And Circumstance”. Military marches were absent, as were pieces from the glorious if near-extinct tradition of English pastoral — think Vaughan Williams and George Butterworth. 

This seems to me remarkable, and part of a trend that is increasingly unavoidable: the disappearance of classical music from the kind of cultural settings where it used to be commoncommunity events, adverts, sports coverage. It’s hard, for example, to imagine that the BBC will ever again use an operatic aria as the theme for their World Cup coverage, as they did with “Nessun Dorma” for Italia ’90. Opera is officially elitist, notwithstanding the fact that you can generally get a decent seat at ENO for rather less than you’d pay for a decent seat at one of London’s Premiership football grounds, or for an Adele concert — the cheapest tickets for her last London performance were £90

Similarly it’s hard to imagine an airline advertising itself with a lengthy extract of Delibes’ “Flower Duet”, as British Airways did in the eighties and nineties, or any company using the jazz-inflected version of Bach’s “Air On A G String” used by Benson & Hedges to advertise their Hamlet brand for thirty years up until 1997. Consider, too, the case of the Proms. Once a little enclave of high culture, they are now having to make room for breakdancing and popera. Apparently classical music — uniquely — is not to be allowed its own space on the BBC. 

It is highly unusual to find a mall or shop or pub or coffee house playing anything other than highly generic pop music — although there are holdouts, as a friend noted on Twitter when I grumbled about this. Many Caffe Nero branches still play orchestral music.

Humans experience beauty as making demands on us

Partly, I suppose, it’s a generational thing. Those individuals making decisions about what music to play at fetes, in adverts, cafes and at the Proms, aren’t who they used to be. Thirty years ago, when I was about the age my son is now, there were still lots of people with their hands on various kinds of cultural levers — both formal and informal — who had come to maturity in what you might call the ancien regime of entertainment. If you were, say, 60 in 1992, you had probably barely watched television until well into adulthood. There was a good chance that you were already married with children by the time rock and roll appeared on the British scene in the mid-to-late-fifties, giving you a certain immunity to its adolescent allure. You were almost middle-aged when Radio 1 began. Rock and pop music was likely not an inescapable part of your mental furniture in a way that it is today, even for those of us who rarely listen to it by choice. 

In 2022, a 60 year old is a very different beast. Born in the year of the Beatles’ first singles, you have only ever known the world as it is after the cultural revolution: the Britain of inescapable piped music, of school discos where adults enthusiastically play songs about sex to girls young enough to play with dollies, of Bono and Elton John as the unacknowledged legislators of the world. You may be getting old, but you are ageing in a very different way to those who came before. 

I wonder if there is also something else behind the flight from the great musical achievements of European culture. A clue to this other aspect is to be found in the few public places where orchestral and choral music is routinely played: Tube stations in areas where there is a problem with anti-social behaviour and petty crime. Balham, Stockwell and Oval on the Northern Line all used to employ this deterrent when I was a regular commuter in south London. 

Apparently it works. The hooligans cannot stand to be around Beethoven and Bach and Wagner. Why should this be? What is it about this particular music that so agitates and disturbs them? The most obvious answer is that it is beautiful, and that in some sense we humans experience beauty as making demands on us, because beauty represents a realm of value and meaning above our normal everyday life. I’m not suggesting that this is necessarily a conscious thought process. Rather, it is a kind of inchoate intuition that people have. 

As a result, in an age where we are constantly encouraged to resent judgments of our actions — to flee from serious accountability to one another — beauty becomes something to be treated with extreme caution and suspicion. This helps to explain why the magnificent inheritance of the European classical tradition is so often kept at arm’s length. We have lost the habit of appreciation; we are quite sure we are the most enlightened people ever to have lived. We are therefore highly discomfited by the encounter with what appears to be transcendent music, hinting in its mysteriously insistent way that all those strange and laughable things our ancestors believed might not be so strange and laughable after all. 

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