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A sequel

A Survivor's Guide to 20th century music

PETER DALE reacts to David Arditti's comments

Peter Dale:

I am grateful for David Arditti's remarks regarding my Survivor's Guide, not least for his perceptive criticism that my list of memorable melodies since 1900 tended heavily towards the first half of the century. I take his point, and he is probably right, though I think it would still be possible to muster (fresher) melodies of equal power (Lutoslawski, Adams, Arnold, Holloway), albeit under the handicap that, in relative terms, these composers' (and others'?) music is less well known so far.

The question of whether music can or should have any sort of improving, uplifting influence or even purpose (I hope I am not parodying Arditti - his words were very much too considered to warrant that) is as important as it is difficult.

Plato's position is still the locus classicus of the problem, isn't it? On the one hand, exposure to the beautiful will mend and mould the mind in favour of virtue (though, perhaps significantly, he does not say that exposure to ugliness necessarily mars). On the other hand, he deeply mistrusts poets in particular and the arts in general for their capacity to disturb and their tendency to dislocate allegiance to the state.

I'm sure he's right on both counts, and suspect that the conundrum is probably insoluble even while we need to (we must) go on worrying the bones of it in the hope of answers.

It's not so much beauty (or ugliness) that bothers me. To refer again to Keats (as Arditti does so usefully - though I do believe that Keats was here espousing a sort of proto Art for Art's sake doctrine, rather than the idea that the arts can/should serve any function whatsoever), it is not so much beauty as truth that ought to be at a premium, I feel. It is the half-truths of sentimentality and trivialty, of slogan rather than reasoned principle, of things taken for granted, even perhaps of tolerance at any cost (I'm not so sure about this, though) that induce rot, I suspect.

I can take (almost) any amount of, for example, Bartok's vision of evil in Bluebeard's Castle just as I can manage quite a lot of Tippett's palpable designs upon the improvement of my soul, my environmental conscience, my social attitudes and my ballot paper in the next general election. But Pap - whether it be in pop music or so-called serious music - is another matter. There is a lot of it about. In some people's lives it is as though snacking had entirely supplanted meals. That could be serious.

Ironically, it must have much to do with the vastly improved and enlarged access we all have to music now, and perhaps with the climate of attitudes we are all under pressure to conform to.

George Steiner remarks (in his recent Errata) that 'excellence bullies'. I think he does so with as much distress as encumbers me when I read it, but there is a sense in which he is absolutely right. Our problem, of course, is to work out where we stand with regard to pugilism, but also, perhaps, with regard to the pusillanumous.

Copyright © Peter Dale, September 17th 1999

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