De-composition - the dumbing down of music

October 27, 2006

The quest for instant gratification has taken its toll and we no longer understand what we hear, says Colin Lawson

In a society that increasingly prizes instant gratification and visual stimulus, music can easily seem peripheral and little more than ornamental. Yet from the Middle Ages until the French Revolution, it lay at the very core of a general education.

Then, it was patently a living language that was felt to have the capacity to change its listeners as well as performers. Today, music may surround us, but do we have any real understanding of it? There can be no more appropriate time than the 250th anniversary of Mozart's birth to reflect on such matters.

In Mozart's day, musical education was a substantial affair. One of his closest associates recommended that all music students learn every aspect of theory, performance and composition, including piano, organ, violin and wind instruments, to complement their principal study. They were to learn the art of singing, whatever the quality of their individual voices. Anyone wanting to understand music should know the whole of worldly wisdom and mathematics, poetry, rhetoric, art and many languages. It is worth noting that the author of this ambitious syllabus, clarinettist Anton Stadler, was not from aristocratic stock, but the son of a shoemaker and a midwife.

It has been argued recently that the politicisation of the arts has been a major influence in moving music away from its place as one of life's moving forces. This may seem a quintessentially 21st-century agenda, but there was an important earlier model in the aftermath of the French Revolution. Music post-Revolution was prescribed as a civic act, a moral force in the service of the country as a whole. It demanded a new accessible musical style, with clear lines, strong rhythm, easy melody, simple harmony and brilliant orchestral colour painted with broad strokes. Conductor Nikolaus Harnoncourt has suggested that this period in France marks the beginnings of a trend towards musical sounds that are merely beautiful and can be universally appreciated. In early 19th-century France, traditional musical education was eliminated and the community of musicians and educated listeners all but disappeared.

When music had its own vocabulary and syntax, it had an incredible power over man's body and soul. But gradually we have come to prioritise its aesthetic and emotional aspects. Debates about the value of commercial classical radio stations revolve around the very question of whether music should be understood or merely absorbed.

Today's adoration of Mozart has much to teach us in this anniversary year.

We cling to romantic accounts of his life while remaining seduced by the sheer beauty of his music. His works seem to find a resonance with our own troubled times and can be truly appreciated on many levels, illustrated by their regular appearance within the higher reaches of Classic FM's Hall of Fame. While Mozart tends to disguise the nuts and bolts of his compositional method, his great contemporary Haydn makes a feature of them.

As a result, the latter is nowadays revered by many yet remains stubbornly less popular with the general public in our democratic age. Yet it has often been said of Haydn's London concerts in the 1790s that at no point in history were audience, performers and critics so closely connected in their understanding of musical language. He was a master at fulfilling or denying the expectations of all those in the concert room.

The music of 2006 can only reflect our own spiritual and emotional lives and is therefore bound to disturb and startle us. The two centuries since Mozart's death have brought radical musical divisions into pop and "classical", alongside folk traditions. Many now believe that "classical" music has disengaged with its public, as it has inevitably mirrored the turbulent world of the past century. For both old and new music of the Western art tradition to be understood once again, our students need to progress way beyond a narrow technical focus, an agenda eagerly embraced at the Royal College of Music.

Brahms once said that in order to become a good musician, one should spend just as much time reading books as practising. As inspirational advocates we must engage and thrill listeners with the unfamiliar. We must widen participation and understanding through our own passionate conviction.

Music's constant availability in our lives can paradoxically make it more difficult to listen to actively and creatively. Can we again learn to appreciate the value of sound in its own right?

Current comparisons of minor differences in the interpretation of art music and our obsession with the aesthetically pleasing can only mean that the position of music in our lives is in danger of being reduced to a sadly primitive stage.

Colin Lawson is director of the Royal College of Music. He will debate at the Battle of Ideas festival in London on Saturday, October 28.

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