Wednesday, 3 February 2010

Classical music & political fashion

The springboard for this piece by Richard Morrison in today's Times is the V&A's decision to remove its musical instrument collection from display. Naturally he makes unarguable points about how classically-affiliated music (and its instruments) is of little use to government or business as it doesn't reach out to the majority. Of course, both government and business claim to be supportive of classical music as it confers the impression of refinement, sobriety and intellect, the institutional counterbalance to the hard sell of attracting votes/customers.

I was struck by a comment in a comment - if you like - made by a reader of the article. Simon Funnell is the Managing Director of the London Mozart Players and took some teenagers to a concert given in Croydon. One, a sixteen year-old called Lee, said:
I really wish classical music and instruments were a part of mainstream education. We have all heard classical music is supposed to make you more intelligent, so it would make sense.
This is a view worth listening to, but it is a red herring. The line that gets me is the second. The lad thinks that having access to musical instruments is much the same as having access to computers. Computers are useful tools in a classroom as they are interactive, i.e. it takes little practical understanding of how they function to get begin to learn about and use them. Musical instruments require two non-negotiable extras to function in such a manner - a teacher and patience in the face of rewards-stymied effort on the part of the student.

This is probably why I find the whole Popstar To Operastar business fairly infuriating. At a stroke "opera" is reduced to songs and the Faking It nature of the programme suggests that one can make passable representation of such a song on the basis of a couple of weeks cramming. Lee from Croydon may or may not have seen this show but his (positive!) attitude is part of a cultural continuum of ignorance about the background to such acoustic art forms as opera (and by extension, classical music). ITV have bet-hedging arrangements for dealing with this argument - Rolando Villazon's involvement in the show, the persistent on-message disclaimer, solemnly intoned by everyone involved, that hard work over a long period is the true path to achievement in the form...

... but what the form is it's hard to say since it's not explained or even alluded to during the show; and what constitutes achievement is impossible to say given a) the lack of context b) the sealed-off, non acoustic bubble from which it is propagated across the country and c) the fact that despite this culturally discontiguous isolation an audience both in and outside the studio respond to it fanatically.

I don't blame ITV too heavily though, and for the reason that comes back to Morrison's point. It's far too great an expectation for ITV to incorporate a four-century appraisal of opera and its cultural ramifications into episodes of what is unequivocally lite-ent telly. I mean, the casual re-enforcement of worn stereotypes are not designed to shut people out but to encourage the fence-sitting audience that ITV's on their side. The fence-sitting audience exist because they have no institutional backup on which to predicate a dip into the unknown - it's not just an element of (in this example) opera that's alien, it's absolutely everything.

It may be that Lee from Coydon will be able to get his hands on a violin and, perhaps this cycnical pragamatist (read re-training secondary classroom music teacher!) will be vindicated when Lee returns it after a month. But the greater (Morrison's) point is that the lad would then have an experiential dais upon which to look out over cultural possibilities in front of him with confidence rather than cowed by his benightedness, passively-endorsed by the adult institutions that claim the opposite.

1 comment:

  1. Framescourer - I don't think that Lee was necessarily saying that he needed to learn an instrument to understand classical music. He was just saying that he ought to be taught about it to help him find a way in.

    It is I who said that he ought to be given an instrument to help him learn - but it isn't just about instruments; singing would be just as good a way in. My mum went to a very 'bog standard' school in Hackney - where the school put on a performance every year of Handel's Messiah. Can you imagine that? A whole school performing a great work of the classical Hackney. You'd be lucky if that happened in Richmond upon Thames, let alone Hackney.

    But it was that experience that got her to feel that classical music was "for her".

    I suppose the fundamental comes down to this. Is school just about passing exams and getting results, or is it about something wider - about opening children's minds to the world around them and the wonders it contains. My view is the latter - although obviously some sort of assessment is required, it seems to me that schooling has become about getting results (and league tables), not about giving our children a broad education.

    When I studied my music GCSE we had to study, alongside works of the great classical repertoire, the greatest hits of Queen. Now good old Freddie was a massive opera fan and you can hear quotes from opera in his music, but much though I admire his songwriting and performing, he had nothing on Beethoven or Bach. And yet we analysed his 3 minute songs as if they were an aria from the St Matthew Passion. It was absurd. 3 minute pop songs don't need that analysis - and kids don't need to do that to 'get them' either.

    I'm just as likely to have Radio 2's Great British Songbook on Simon Mayo's show as I am Radio 3 or 4, and my tastes are diverse. But surely kids don't need help analysing the songs of Queen, or Corrine Bailey Rae, or whoever's hip at the moment. But if they are to become voracious absorbers of 'high' culture, then surely we have to give it to them and help open their eyes to it. And I can't help thinking that in doing so, we would create a much more civilised culture for ourselves at the same time.

    Sorry to rant on, but this is my hobby horse and I really care about it. The most depressing day of my life was when Tony Blair announced on his 50th birthday that "now he was 50, he thought it was about time he got into classical music"; as if that was something just for people who were old. And it's that sort of pathetic attempt at being 'populist' that has lead us to being in danger of becoming a cultural desert.

    Orchestral music is - or should be - for everyone. It's on almost every film and can raise our spirits and transform our day. It's like a free drug, that I wish everyone was hooked on. And I don't think it's fair that others don't get to try it. We're doing our bit at the London Mozart Players under incredibly difficult circumstances (not least the loss of our Arts Council grant 2 years ago).

    But let's get people through the door - especially young people - and celebrate this most incredible artform before it's gone for ever.

    Simon Funnell
    MD, London Mozart Players