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Patric Standford's recent provocations


Patric Standford's latest pensées contain plenty of good common sense (as we have all come to expect from him) -- except to the extent that 'common' sense is nowhere near as common as it sounds (just as an American impresario once claimed that 'good music is not nearly as bad as it sounds').

I am not sure, however, that I can share his beliefs here to the full. The reason for this has to do with the plethora of ideas in circulation that are based upon an assumption that the cerebral and the instinctive -- or the intellectual and the emotional, if you will -- are as though opposing factions incapable of full reconciliation. Delius's raw observations (around 1920) on certain trends in music remain very much to the point; here, his curiously prescient beration of music that is deemed to require all manner of verbal explanatory support is couched in a complaint that, as he saw it 'emotion is [ie has become] out of date and intellect a bore'. Since Delius is hardly the first composer that would come to the minds of most observers when intellectual rigour in music is on the agenda, it is perhaps especially interesting to note the fervency of his desire to frame his contention in terms which make plain that intellectual soundness and emotional weight, far from opposites, are in fact as indissoluble as they are indispensable in any music of real substance.

As to the listener, I am not convinced that 'allow(ing) emotional communication to work its magic', for all that this is so vital, is something that can necessarily be achieved through any kind of 'relaxation'; try that with the Fourth, Sixth and Ninth Symphonies respectively of Shostakovich, Mahler and Pettersson! Mr Standford's next statement that 'to be a success as a serious work of art it should not be necessary to make heavy demands on the intellect' is simply untenable in and of itself; however, I do not suggest that, in making it, he is missing the point here -- rather that he may not be giving it in full. I suggest that what can often happen is that the intellectual reasoning required to get the most out of a piece of music may well occur, at least in part, subconsciously, stimulated through some not yet understood processes by the immediate effects of the music itself (the 'sensations', as Mr Stanford has it), rather than from deliberate prior endeavours to come to terms with the music's intellectual thrust in the hope of preparing for the experience; this underlying subconscious reasoning is, to me, where the true marriage of the intellectual and emotional may be encountered.

We do not have to equip ourselves in advance with a conscious and documentable appreciation of all the inner intellectual workings that went into the creation of Carter's Concerto for Orchestra, Bach's B minor Mass, Mahler's Ninth Symphony or Tallis's Spem in Alium in order to respond intelligently to them in performance, but I am convinced that those intellectual processes are not merely integral parts of those pieces but integral parts of their listening experiences, even if only or mainly on a subconscious level.

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Copyright © 8 January 2005 Alistair Hinton, Bath UK


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