Last night, BBC Four aired the first episode in a new three-part series on modern classical music, entitled The Sound and The Fury. For me, as a great fan of the screechy, discordant, hell-raising music of the 20th Century, it was a programme I was greatly looking forward to. But I have to confess I found it a little disappointing. Obviously, modern classical being the niche interest that it is, the show was aimed more at expanding the audience than in engaging the current one. Fair enough, but in trying to explain and justify such ‘difficult’ music to a presumed audience of unbelievers, it made a cardinal mistake: it ended up apologising instead.
Schoenberg, we were told, was responsible “for the great rot that happened in classical music”. The popular American composer John Adams pitched in to tell us that he liked Webern, “but I also find it extraordinarily emotionally stingy.” His was music “that gave particular kinds of anal retentives a frisson of pleasure.”
Of course, there were a number of other talking heads, such as George Benjamin, Tom Service or the Southbank Centre’s Gillian Moore, who were genuinely enthusiastic about the music. But I suspect the average viewer at home would have been scratching their head during the justifications of the bizarre and unsettling music on screen, and instead found themselves nodding along vigorously with the dissenting views of Adams and co. After all, everyone enjoys hearing their own prejudices confirmed. “I find most of [Schoenberg’s] music amazingly aurally ugly,” said Adams. I imagine many agreed. “I’ve never ever been able to find a way into loving it. I find it sensually very punishing to my ear.” Hardly inspires you to dig deeper into Schoenberg’s fascinating and enormously inventive oeuvre, does it?
Make no mistake: this was television as apologia. The BBC seemed to be saying, “Look, we know this music is horrendous to listen to. We’re sorry. We hate it too. But it’s culture, so, you know.”
To me, this constant desire to make excuses for classical music is part of a wider problem, which is that it is almost impossible to read or hear about classical music in Britain as something that should simply be celebrated. Instead, it is presented as something difficult that must be explained, or something unpleasant that must be made more palatable, or something broken that must be fixed.
This last charge is especially virulent. The COO of Universal Music, Max Hole, recently gave a speech to the Association of British Orchestras in which he enumerated the many problems facing classical music today. Orchestral musicians dress too formally. Concert halls are overly forbidding to outsiders. Audiences are constrained by a plethora of unspoken rules. The words “elitism”, “etiquette” and “tradition” were deployed in a pejorative manner.
I believe such proclamations are counter-productive. In fact, I would go so far as to argue that the only serious problem facing classical music today is that people keep saying there is a problem with classical music. There just isn’t. It’s a myth. This is music that has survived for hundreds of years, through countless upheavals in popular taste, and which has found its audience – a niche audience, to be fair – for generation after generation after generation. Its audience is not young, nor trendy, nor especially interested in the “shared experience” of a rock concert. In short, it is an audience that loves classical music for what it is, not for what it’s not.
And this is where I think we can all make a difference, even in a small way. Let us stop being shy about our love for classical music. Let’s stop flagellating ourselves for the fact that it is inaccessible to the masses. Let’s stop worrying about whether it is as popular as Jay-Z, because it really doesn’t matter. All that matters is that it is great, great music – and worthy of our unapologetic enthusiasm.
So, celebrate it. Enthuse to your non-classical-loving friends about your taste in music. Tell them why you love it. Explain to them why Beethoven stirs your senses like no other, or why Webern is so very far from “emotionally stingy”. Share your passion. Above all, sit your friends down and play them the music you love. Play it loud. Let them hear it with their ears wide open, rather than through a soggy blanket of apology.
And if they tell you that they don’t like it, enthuse some more. Enthusiasm is infectious – even more so than dissent.