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Provocative thoughts from Patric Standford


It is usually the case that music of the heart, creating as it does an almost impossible challenge to musical analysts, confounds academics who are the ones frequently assuming the position of directing us toward what we should acknowledge as great. Composers like Tchaikovsky, Debussy and Delius have in the past -- and maybe still in some quarters -- become sidelined by intellectual pundits who would be unlikely even to read the names of Eric Coates, Gershwin, Rudolf Friml or Robert Farnon (to name but four among many) without first laughing and then insisting on a return to discussing really serious composers. Others like Adams and Gorecki, Tavener and Pärt gain an academic position rather as do some university chancellors now, by fashionable celebrity rather than an intellectual rigour, once a hallmark of academia, which they do not possess.

Intriguing academically that Schoenberg had a high opinion of Donizetti, Delius praised the music of Alban Berg warmly and Britten venerated Tchaikovsky. But many academics used to delight in this self-imposed velvet lined incarceration, like British judges who ask, from within their cocoons, to be enlightened about popular television programmes of which they have never heard. The fact that some works of art become a delight to analysts is not usually the fault or purpose of the composer.

It is certainly the case that there are some composers (those whom the late Hans Keller would no doubt have called 'phoney') who write to be analyzed rather than heard, who see their inventions without listening to them. Just as most composers would hope to be played by a leading performer, these hope to be featured by a prominent academic in learned publications. Though it is a natural expectation of teachers that they talk about music, the greatest music cannot really be talked about at all. It can be described, though the reading of programme notes back over the century to those lampooned by George Bernard Shaw (his 'analysis' of Hamlet's soliloquy in the style of Professor Tovey is a little gem) is sufficient evidence that even descriptions are usually quite inane.

Whilst analysis may assist as a guide through graphic obscurity and description may help the partially deaf to survive the benign tedium of a concert performance, neither process is necessary, nor is it possible with music for instance like Tallis's Spem in alium or Ravel's Daphnis et Chloë, for in that music there is nothing either to understand or to require an explanation. The ravishing sound that fills the passing time and the atmosphere created is no more or less than a narcotic experience, valued for just that effect. A clinical analysis of the drug will in no way affect the sensation.

Copyright © 27 July 2006 Patric Standford, West Yorkshire, UK


From: Roy Buckle, UK

I will not quarrel with Patric's comments, with which I am largely in agreement.

'Analysis' of musical form is the delight of music critics. Strangely, I have yet to come across an example of learned commentary where the pitch of a composition has been regarded as at fault. No doubt there are some works of modern times in which the pitch of a note, though clearly specified in the score, is not quite apparent as a significant part of it.

Another property of a composition not often commented on is the title. Whether or not it was intended to be apt or otherwise meaningful it can nevertheless prove memorable, especially following the 'World Premier' of the work at, say, a BBC Promenade Concert marking its first appearance and, one hopes and suspects, its prompt disappearance.

'Analysis' also seems to have been used as a vehicle for the justification of certain attitudes among the community of academic experts, and their respectful followers, towards the widespread idea that the sound of music should be a pleasurable, tuneful experience. Phrasing is an essential property of any musical composition. Whether or not the listener should be expected to enjoy the laborious working out of some erudite message in mathematical code, the absence of attractive melodic phrases, or stimulating dynamics and tempo is likely at the very least to render the performance a disappointment if not a complete waste of time.




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