The Subtle Subversive

Unlike rock's phoney rebelliousness, classical music still has the power to challenge entrenched ideas

We are living in an age that has seen the canon, in all the arts, disputed and undermined; in which the notions of aesthetic judgment and excellence have been contested; and in which the very notion of taste, crucial to the relationship between an artist and his or her public, has been mocked and corrupted to within an inch of its life.

The work of the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu (who died in 2002), modishly impenetrable but essentially simple in its central assertion about cultural formation, has been extraordinarily influential here. Taste, he held, “functions as a sort of social orientation, a ‘sense of one’s place’, guiding the occupants of a given .?.?. social space .?.?. towards the practices or goods which befit the occupants of that position”. His theory is based in empirical observation, and we know very well that the taste for cultural goods is socially stratified and inculcated in early childhood.

This shouldn’t really make any difference to the status of the arts as sources of wisdom or enlightenment. They can be judged for what they have to offer, regardless of the origins of those who create or consume them, as natural science can. But the notion that the “high” arts can be used as a buttress for social authority has radically undermined the legitimacy of judgments of cultural value in a democratic age. It makes us uncomfortable.

Here in Britain and America, we see the effects of this most clearly in music. One can argue very strongly that classical music is not in decline, that more people are listening to classical music than ever before, that the phenomenon of the ageing audience is a mirage (classical concerts have always been grey-­headed affairs). It is undeniable, though, that classical music has lost the authority, the social authority that it had in its golden age. To put it at its most cynical, people no longer have to pretend to like it, or make an effort to like it in order to qualify as “people of quality”.

Classical music reeks of class while at the same time classic rock rears its populist head. Politicians construct their cultural image around popular music – rubbing shoulders with Bono and filling their imaginary desert islands with the noises, sounds and sweet airs of gangsta rap and heavy metal.

The ironies are extraordinary, and not at all sweet. We are living in an age transfixed by the dystopian vision of a broken society, whose anxious leaders, to the Left and the Right, immerse themselves (or pretend to – and which is worse?) in a pop culture, much of which cele­brates violence and drug-taking, and which is historically and aesthetically grounded in the tastes and predilections of the teenager. What is more, the whiff of rebellion on offer is a synthetic one, manufactured by gargantuan media companies for which this art (some of which undoubtedly deserves this label) is a commodity.

Rock and roll is the art form of late capitalism. It is not a utopian alternative to it or a protest against it. An early indication of this was the failure of the Beatles’ utopian schemes for their Apple Corps in the late 1960s. “A beautifuplace where you can buy beautiful things .?.?. a controlled weirdness .?.?. a kind of western communism”, as Paul McCartney called it. “We’re in the happy position of not needing any more money. So for the first time, the bosses aren’t in it for profit. We’ve already bought all our dreams. We want to share that possibility with others.”

The corporation was most recently in the news settling a long-­running trademark dispute with Apple Computer. Bob Dylan’s enlistment in a campaign for Victoria’s Secret underwear was only the latest manoeuvre in this retreat from idealism.

For me, as a classical musician performing mostly repertoire that – unlike, say, Italian opera – has always been strictly segregated from and is difficult to assimilate to the pop tradition, the cultural sidelining of classical music is more than a little unsettling. So often there seems to be a need to explain or even apologise. Classical musicians seem ever eager to convince that the music they perform is interesting, relevant .?.?. groovy ? It doesn’t really convince anyone.

Pop music is pop music, creatively dominated by the model of the three- to four-minute song, even when it seeks to break out of those confines. It can be harmonically, rhythmically intriguing, and enthusiasts are forever pointing to this song in 5/4 time, or to that weird modulation, rhapsodising about the final rising cacophonic crescendo at the end of Sgt ­Pepper culminating in a throbbing E major chord. But the best of the Beatles was pop simplicity – Yesterday, Norwegian Wood, Drive My Car – rather than pop art tricksiness.

Classical music, by the same token, is classical music. Ever influenced by popular styles and popular melody – Schubert and the Viennese waltz, Brahms and the alla zingarese style of Hungarian refugees in Hamburg, Thomas Adès and the club scene of the early 21st century – classical music yet remains essentially discursive, long-­breathed, temperamentally serious, historically avant-garde. There may be all sorts of exceptions, but we do violence to the aesthetic and historical facts if we pretend otherwise.

Just the other day I read an article in the London Review of Books by Nicholas Spice which bound together the recent case of Elisabeth Fritzl, the Austrian woman imprisoned for 24 years in a basement by her own father; the sadistic imaginings of Elfriede Jelinek, the one-time piano prodigy and Nobel Prize-winning Austrian novelist, and the privileged role of classical music in Austrian culture. I spend much of my professional life in Austria, a country where the classical musician can feel a little more at home. Here – for all sorts of reasons, historical, economic and cultural, some of them worthy, some less so – classical music is indeed culturally central, whether in the day-by-day bourgeois life of Vienna or in the hyper-­reality of the Salzburg Festival.

It may not be good for one’s moral health, this feeling of inflated significance, but it doesn’t half soothe the bruised ego of the soi-­disant serious musician. Yet Spice wants us to believe that Jelinek’s experience, as a teenage pianist who had to escape the overbearing demands of the classical vocation pressed on her by her mother, tells us something sinister about classical music. “Classical music,” he writes, “is always acceptable to authority, because it cannot overtly challenge power with subversive ideas or disturbing ­representations.”

The historical validity of this is immediately questionable: classical music has often challenged, disturbed and subverted. But I would argue that even today, in a subtle way, in the face of commodified popular music that sells itself as rebellion, the inner-­directed seriousness of the classical tradition, compromised though it can be by hype and glitz, still presents a challenge to the way we live now.

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