A Raspberry for Emetic Music

There is so much hostility to attempts by artists to add to our cultural capital that I use this column to draw attention to aspects of it that I feel should be celebrated. Not this month, however.

I listen to a lot of modern classical music. I never want to hear most of it again. I have heard so much crap lately that I am starting to wonder how much longer the cultural establishment can pretend that, as we say in Essex, it is not having the piss royally taken out of it; and that much contemporary music stretches the definition of “music” absurdly. It is mostly self-indulgent, cacophonous, subsidised garbage that, having managed a first performance, begins an interminable wait for a second. I wonder what on earth we do about this.

The “musical establishment” in this country is in hock to the crap merchants. Artistic directors, some impresarios and other programmers often studied with or under some soi-disant composers, and are part of a circle to which admission is secured by worshipping those whose utter lack of musical talent is disguised by this aggrandisement. And as one apologist for these people put it to me a few years ago, “I work in the arts, so of course I vote Labour.”

I wonder whether it is a coincidence that when when composers relied on private patronage they wrote music that was, and remains, wonderful, but now all sorts of orchestras and public bodies channel money to them from the pockets of taxpayers, they write music that is, and will remain, crap? I think not. If it hardly matters to a composer whether people come to hear his work, or buy downloads of it in the event it is recorded, because the state-funded cheque turns up whatever, he can indulge himself to the point of exhaustion in writing what Kathleen Ferrier once memorably termed “three farts and a raspberry, orchestrated”. These nonentities pose as being of the people, yet write music that only the smallest handful, and those having been in receipt of one of the most elitist educations imaginable, can even pretend to understand. And even many of them would never go as far as saying they “like” it, because much of it is profoundly unlikeable.

An excuse apologists throw out is that throughout time those who have broken the mould have been attacked for doing so, and yet their music has come to be valued. That is because it has an aesthetic, for heaven’s sake. Often cited as an example is Stravinsky’s “Le Sacre du Printemps”, execrated when first performed in 1913 but now regarded, rightly, as a wonder. Yet this work has a form and a structure, and tunes, that allow it to grip the imagination and senses in a way that the inchoate and random noises that constitute too many modern works do not. It did, a century ago, offend tastes used to the romantic mainstream to hear works that went off-piste in this way, but that was down to a lack of understanding of how the bounds of music were too restrictive and needed to expand. The point was that they could expand still while still remaining within what was definitively musical. Now they have pushed the definition further than it can bear.

Some of Ravel’s works were considered too avant-garde for comfort at the same time Stravinsky was being attacked: but even his harshest critic would agree there is an inherent musicality to everything in Ravel’s oeuvre that is missing from much music of the last half-century. Elgar was so shocked by what he heard at the first performance of Arthur Bliss’s Colour Symphony in 1922 that he described it as “disconcertingly modern”. Like Stravinsky and Ravel before him, Bliss was not afraid, particularly in the second movement, “Red”, to experiment with instruments, with rhythm, with dynamics and with, to put it bluntly, noise. When we hear it today it does not sound radical at all: and that is precisely because although Beethoven wrote nothing like it, he would have understood the language perfectly.

Music is not just for the gratification of the composer and his friends. It is written, usually, for public performance; and these days, as I have said, the public have often paid more handsomely than they realise for the privilege. I am all for music being written that makes people think more broadly about the art form and challenges their prejudices about it. But I deplore music without the qualities many of us regard as important — notably coherence, but also an emotional appeal — and which is inflicted upon us thanks to the Arts Council or the BBC. Why are so few pieces written in the last half-century in the repertoire? In the 1960s one living composer was a household name, even, I think, in households where music was not that important: Benjamin Britten. Many had also heard of William Walton. More to the point, they knew some of their music — the War Requiem and Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, notably, but also Belshazzar’s Feast and Façade. There are no household names today because most composers have lost the knack of writing music that combines inventiveness and originality with wide popular appeal — an appeal that comes by seizing the imagination of the listener.

There is one contemporary composer I would go far to listen to, and that is James MacMillan, who embodies all the qualities I have mentioned above. Renowned for his devotional works, he also wrote a challenging, radical but intensely memorable piano concerto in 1989, inspired by watching Celtic play a football match, and called The Berserking. Dr MacMillan is a man of genuine, towering talent who understands the relationship a writer of music should have with audience. Others try to follow that maxim and deserve support — notably Oliver Rudland, whose opera Pincher Martin was premiered to acclaim last summer. Even the critics, who long seemed keener to ingratiate themselves with composers than to assist the public, have had enough: a Times critic last month described the “melodies” in a work performed in the Barbican’s contemporary music series as “truly emetic”. The joke’s over, chaps. We’ve had enough of you jotting down dreary, unpleasant noises and passing them off as music. If any of you has any talent, and would care to write something the discerning public might actually want to hear, please feel free to do so.

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