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Provocative thoughts from Patric Standford



It was the end of the twelfth day of concerts, conferences and presentations in Venezuela's first Latin American Contemporary Music Festival in Maracaibo, a town on a lake to the west of the capital. We left the concert hall, bruised with sound, and wound our way slowly in the oppressive heat through the spaceous dark lanes, hearing the piping of the tree frogs and occasional snoring of sleepers in hammocks outside the front doors of their low houses. The dense darkness had fallen within a few minutes. Xenakis and Penderecki had gone on ahead. Our colleague Sergio, one of the East Coast entourage, composer and tired college teacher from the Bronx, broke the lull in conversation.

'Boy,' he sighed, 'could I use some Schubert!'

Perhaps this is the outcome of the predicament into which so much of the the music produced over the last few decades plunges us. We cannot relate to it with real affection. Admiration occasionally, but not affection. And so we journey back through times when composers seemed to enjoy pleasing us with their craft rather than indulging themselves with their explorations.

Not that this is a recent circumstance. The haphazard experiments of those 17th century Florentine dilettantes brought tears of frustration to the eyes of disciplined and learned professional musicians whose work was pushed into the background by the fashionable appeal of this modernism. They need not have worried too much, for it turned out to be a musical cul-de-sac which, like many fashions, soon became insipid and was lost. There was a need for the older, established ways, and an interest in the more gentle development of tradition -- a future made out of the past with exciting imagination.

Pop music today is much the same. It's the old performers and songs we want to hear. Grey, stooping and rheumatic stars emerge from the shadows to do again what they did twenty years ago, and we all love it. You can't beat the old stuff. These young ones -- no discipline, no training, no ideas, music thrown together because anything goes, or perhaps because a lack of training renders them ignorant of what could go if they only knew it! But we who do know something about it -- we can use some Schubert!


Copyright © 9 May 2002 Patric Standford, West Yorkshire, UK


From: Bob Schneider, USA

I too have a passion for 'old music'. But, I also have a passion for new music. For details regarding this second statement, visit my daughter and son in law's sites -- Violin and Guitar Of Duo46 and The Noné Trio (with viola).

From: David Arditti, UK

'We cannot relate to it with real affection', and old pop music: 'Grey, stooping and rheumatic stars emerge from the shadows to do again what they did twenty years ago, and we all love it', in conjunction with the current celebrations of Queen Elizabeth II's Golden Jubilee, prompt this thought from me: the music of official celebrations is now pop, not classical, as it used to be, and this is a major change in the relationship between our art and society, which has slipped in almost unnoticed.

Just considering the British scene of the past, think of the great pieces written by Purcell, Handel, Elgar and Walton for official occasions. What has happened to this tradition?

OK, there was a new work by John Tavener which gained wide recognition when performed at the funeral of Princess Diana, but it looks as if that may have been the last of its kind. What most people will remember about the music at that service was the contribution of Elton John, who had been favourite of the Princess. She did not appear to be a fan of classical music, despite her patronage of the Royal Academy of Music. It would appear that her influence has now caused a decisive shift in the type of music with which the British establishment thinks fit to mark national occasions.

For the funeral of the Queen Mother, no new work was given prominence, despite her patronage of new serious music (notably Britten's) during her lifetime. During the current Jubilee celebrations, there have been two widely-publicised concerts at Buckingham Palace: a classical and a pop one. It was clear that the pop one was regarded as the climax of the celebrations, and the classical one only consisted of old music performed by established stars: the classical equivalent of the 'rheumatics emerging from the shadows to do what they did 20 years ago'. No new work, so far as I know, was commissioned from a serious composer to celebrate the Jubilee, and, if it was, it was not given much prominence in the celebrations. The official 'anthem' of the celebrations appears to have been the Beatles' All you need is Love.

The word 'anthem' has changed its genre-meaning: from Byrd or Boyce to 'rock anthem', while maintaining its social function, and 'classic' or 'classical' has come to mean The Shadows or The Stones, not Vaughan Williams or Tippett. This change has been evident for some time now, even within the world of orchestral concertising. Particularly in the US, but also in the UK, the light theatre music of the first half of the 20th century -- Gershwin, Rodgers, etc -- has tended to become re-defined through concert programs as the 'classical' music representative of its time, displacing Barber and Berg. Clearly, the unpalatability to mass audiences of most 'serious' orchestral music of the whole of the 20th century, referred to by Patric, has been a cause of this trend, along with commercial pressures.

So, old pop is the new classical, and old classical is the new category of 'ancient music', which covers everything from plainchant to Brahms, and will probably be extended as far as Stravinsky shortly. Cage, Stockhausen, Messiaen and Boulez never entered into the popular consciousness, except via gimmicks, such as 4'33", which more people seem to have heard of than, say, the Quartet for the End of Time. Of course, musicologists will continue to study these composers, as they study much else that is never performed.

This is the de-facto New Order in the art of music, and, of course, the political establishment, including royalty, have always had to embrace the de-facto artistic order in order to remain popular and hang on to their positions. I do not believe either the Queen or the future King like pop music, they have been educated otherwise, but Tony Blair's penchent for pop-art and cool Britannia can now clearly be seen to have had its effect on the Music of the State.



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