Mythblasting

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My colleagues at The Independent on Sunday had some fun the other day putting together a list of 50 myths about modern Britain that required debunking, under the heading The Emperor’s New Clothes. Good fun, but with a serious point: “Just because we’re told something countless times doesn’t make it true.” Not to be outdone, I thought we should add a few with regard to the music world, so here are my top 13, in no particular order…

1. Baroque and classical violinists should never use vibrato and there is evidence for this in the writings of Leopold Mozart.

Leopold Mozart never says any such thing. He advocates the judicious use of what was then called ‘tremolato’ as a technical and decorative device. What he objects to is its indiscriminate blanket application on every single note that is played – which we may thus infer was in fact a widespread practice at the time, ie around the 1750s, before his son was born. He provides exercises for practising ‘tremolato’ that can be recognised by any beginner violinist, and holds up the imitating of the human singing voice as the ideal of good fiddle playing. By the way, his treatise is a manual for teachers of beginners, not a Bible for grown-up orchestral or solo performance.

2. A piano is just a piano and all pianists inevitably sound the same.

The minutiae of how a pianist touches the keyboard affects the instrument’s sound in the most intimate way. The weight of the arm, the smoothness of connections between the fingers, the amount of pressure used versus weight, the involvement of the back muscles and so forth, all of these make a difference to the velocity and weight with which hammer strikes string, and it is therefore not only possible for a great pianist to develop an individual sound but almost inevitable that he/she will. Try listening to Andras Schiff, Vladimir Horowitz and Alfred Brendel back to back. Same instrument, different worlds.

3.  Tonal compositions in the 20th century were not a valid form of music-making.

There’s a whole history to be written about the alternative 20th century: the composers who were ignored or intimidated beyond creativity by the rise of atonality. Not to diss atonality per se, of course – it had to happen after Wagner and Schoenberg – but just to point out that without those proscriptive attitudes Sibelius might have kept on composing (oh yes). One has to note, furthermore, that however much individuals object to tonality in the 20th century, Shostakovich and Britten are always exempt, while Poulenc is quietly forgotten…

4.  Anything written before c1760 that has lain undetected in a library ever since must be a masterpiece worth resuscitating.

Not necessarily. Quite apart from the endless recyclings of Vivaldi and (gulp) Handel, music in the 18th century was sometimes composed especially to provide background music for dinners, garden parties etc. Composers could and did churn out music for specific occasions and it wasn’t meant to be great. If it was, that was a bonus. The idea that we should hang reverentially on every note of a composition entitled ‘Tafelmusik’ (=Table Music) is a bit like making us listen to Muzak at the Proms. If you like it, fine, but it’s not as significant as all that.

5.  A conductor doesn’t make any difference to the orchestra’s playing – they are only charlatans who wave their arms around.

A conductor makes an immense difference the moment he/she walks into the room. The waving arms aren’t the clue to this: it is in the eyes. A bad one will command no respect and the concert will be sloppy and boring. A great one has the power to electrify. That’s what it’s about: persuading 100 people to play with the same breath. Someone without access to true charisma will not be able to do that. That doesn’t mean, though, that all conductors are good at their jobs.

6. To be a good conductor you have to be very, very nasty to the musicians.

No, you don’t, and indeed the days of the Meany Maestro are coming to an end. I have witnessed some horrible rehearsals taken by one particular conductor, no longer in the first flush of youth, who bullied his singers, told the orchestra their playing smelled and snarled at a mildly creative soloist on the morning of the concert that he would never work with him again. This, thank God, is the exception rather than the rule: today’s gifted younger conductors show a collegial respect to their players and expect to receive it in return. Commensurately, orchestral players don’t engage in conductor-baiting as much as they used to.

7.  Child prodigies are all doomed to horrible lives and therefore should not be allowed to follow their passion because they won’t be normal.

A large proportion of the world’s greatest performers started out as child prodigies and lived to tell the tale. Jascha Heifetz, Mischa Elman, Mieczyslaw Horszowski, Shura Cherkassky – the list could go on. It is an unnatural existence, it puts the family under intense pressure, they’re not necessarily happy campers, and some of them go off the rails. But some of them don’t. Back in the early 90s I was asked to write prodigy-danger articles focusing on Evgeny Kissin; it was as if the whole music world was simply waiting for him to conk out. But Kissin is now in his late thirties and has weathered the blast most satisfactorily; his playing in Verbier this summer was out of this world, and backstage he was charm itself. Recently the prodigy-article buzz has been around teenage Anglo-Russian composer/conductor Alex Prior. Look, folks, most lads his age do not write symphonies. They just don’t. And what he does in ten or 20 years’ time will be the real test. Condemning someone for being too successful too young often says more about us than it says about them. Anyway, ‘normality’ is no guarantee of happiness; the rest of us should know that…

8. Speaking of prodigies…Lang Lang is awful…

Well, I’ve heard him do performances of sheer genius at the Wigmore Hall and the RFH. Admittedly these were a while ago, but his latest recording of the Chopin concertos contains many of the qualities that have made him so successful when he chooses to apply them – lightness of touch, joy in musicality, a terrific gift for communicating enthusiasm. He can do it when he wants to. And if you object to sparkly clothing – well, Jean-Yves Thibaudet sometimes splashes out in diamante belts, silver shoes and the occasional Vivienne Westwood number, but I’ve not heard anyone protest: one whirl of his ‘Poissons d’or’ is all you need to know how little these things matter.

9. …and Anne-Sophie Mutter is one of the greatest living violinists.

Technically she can do anything – I don’t dispute my violinist husband’s view that she has the best violin technique on earth. The problem is what she chooses to do with that technique – or has chosen to in the past six or seven years (her early work was top-notch). She declares herself ‘an artist of extremes’. And being ‘an artist of extremes’ is not the most convincing statement when it comes to the faithful interpretation of a composer’s intentions. Last time I heard her play the Beethoven concerto in London she pulled it around with such utter tastelessness that I vowed never to go to another of her concerts. Her Beethoven sonatas, too, don’t seem to have an unaffected note within them. If you are on diet and want to lose your appetite, just try her Tchaikovsky concerto recording. Given her former quality in the old days, this artistic derailing seems all the more tragic.

10. Music is pure and has nothing to do with any other art form or the psychology of its composer.

Nnnno…some music is. But a great deal isn’t, and its quality doesn’t suffer for it. Schumann was constantly inspired by literary works. Schubert’s music is suffused with his personal syphilitic tragedy. Beethoven wouldn’t have written Fidelio or the Ninth Symphony without his political and emotional ideals, nor Mozart Don Giovanni or The Magic Flute. Brahms’s ‘pure’ music is full of codes and ciphers, often targeted towards Clara Schumann. Even recent composers with experimental ideas aren’t always ‘pure’ – John Cage’s aleatoric music was as much aleatoric as it was music, perhaps existing more strongly in philosophy than in sound. Every note ever composed, apart from Cage and maybe his disciples, was somebody’s personal choice, therefore imbued at some level with all the psychological factors that affect any choice. And even Cage chose not to choose…

11. If a composer could write music for a purpose, such as films, the rest of his/her music is probably rubbish.

Composers who wrote superb music for films and concert hall alike include Vaughan Williams, William Walton, Miklos Rozsa, Shostakovich, Malcolm Arnold, Georges Auric and of course Erich Wolfgang Korngold (his Die tote Stadt, in the Willy Decker production, is going down like hot cakes in Paris at present) who has now been rehabilitated as a misunderstood great almost everywhere except the UK. Dario Marianelli, Oscar-winning composer of Atonement, has just written a piece for the LPO, due for premiere shortly; I look forward to hearing it. Bernard Herrmann, one of the greatest film composers ever, is still waiting for a full ex-cinema rediscovery. Did you know that he wrote an opera on Wuthering Heights? Neither did I. If anyone has access to a recording or a score, please send it my way…

12. The recording industry is dead.

Nope, it’s not. It’s true that the ‘majors’ lost their way very, very badly a good few years ago and are still floundering about, but alternative rivulets are springing up where the estuary has been dammed. The news that Simon Trpceski, one of the most gifted young pianists on earth, is no longer with EMI but is to record for Avie is a sure sign that all is not as it should be with the big labels. Simon told me in an interview in Verbier that with Avie and its linked-in deal with the Royal Liverpool Phil, he is recording all the Rachmaninov concertos; but a concerto recording prospect with EMI had seemed extremely remote, despite the success of his other recordings for them. Meanwhile Stephen Kovacevich has also decamped – after decades – from that label to Onyx, which released his stunning CD of the Diabelli Variations last year. Onyx and Avie are ‘artist led’ labels, but the small independents are also going from strength to strength – Chandos is undergoing a particular resuscitation, Hyperion’s place has never faltered, and the Harmonia Mundi release list is the one I usually look forward to the most.

13. Classical music is elitist.

Classical music is a collection of sounds. As such it can’t ‘be’ elitist or anything else. Besides, that term that didn’t exist when most of it was written. It is its presentation and the discourse surrounding it that can seem elitist. 

13 1/2. Oh, and Katherine Jenkins and Andrea Bocelli are not opera singers, but you are reading this column so you probably know that.