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  The Recognition of the Composer Today (Part I of X)  Bevillia at 17:55 on 21 November 2009


The pianist and composer Stephen Beville discusses some of the problems facing the composer working within the classical tradition in the UK and the world at large. (If this covers some familiar ground, he apologises to his readers in advance, but feels compelled to first establish a suitable context from which to begin).

''Education! Education! Education!''
Tony Blair, 1997 Election Campaign


The classical music must open its eyes in attempt to understand how it is perceived from the outside; that is by the majority of the public. It is a minority interest, admittedly - certainly not comparable to the other arts with regard to its impact on society. However, classical music is an art, and in the final analysis, is not art directed toward such an impact?

There is no composer today comparable to Beethoven; whose reputation during his lifetime (that is his public recognition) as one of the most famous men in Europe, was fully commensurable with his music greatness. The same could be said even further back in history with regard to the public recognition enjoyed by Lassus or Monteverdi. According to the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, Lassus was 'in his own time the best known and most widely admired musician in Europe'. What has happened to the status of the composer? Why is this kind of fame not attributed to an Elliott Carter or a Luciano Berio in our own time?

There are people today, otherwise inteligent people of all professions (in Media and Education) who do not understand contemporary 'classical' music or have the slightest liking of it. There are an even greater number of people who do not know that it actually exists! Contemporary composers, happy in the knoweledge that their music is appreciated by an intellectual elite must wake up to the fact that the survival of their music may no longer depend upon that elite. At present, names have been ommited from widely circulated general encyclopaedias and have been replaced by those of a 'new' tradition; modern pop music. If anyone values contemporary music or even the composers of the past, they must awaken themselves to the enormity of the problem; that classical music is being (or has been?) usurped by modern pop music.

The declining space given to classical music reviews in national and local newspapers, the dissappearence of classical music literature (books and magazines) from general bookshops and newsagent stores is ample testimony to this fact. My home town of Reading - despite its regular series of classcial subscription concerts at the Concert Hall- is a prime example. About a decade or so ago, when the first Waterstones bookshop opened on Broad Street, there was a whole cabinet section for classical music. Today, at best, you will find a mere handful of books on the subject. The problem is not the lack of literature, but its immediate unavailability; in other words its invisability through lack of demand. In addition, orchestral (miniature) scores are no longer commercially available in Reading (since Modern Music retailers were overtaken by Dawsons music shop). All this, I believe is due to poor commercialisation and above all, because the general standard of musical education in the region is so impoverished. Perhaps this is partly due to the ramifications of the Reading Rock festival?

Even in a relatively 'cultured' city as Manchester, where I was a former student, the signs are equally discouraging; at the main Waterstones bookshop, the classical music section has been reduced by half since 2005, whereas the section on pop music has doubled in size. At this rate, my prediciton is that by 2010, there might be only half-a-dozen or so readily available books on the Great composers, all other classical musicology being confined to public libraries at best. By contrast, both in Reading and Manchester, there are shelves upon shelves of classics to be found in the English and World literature sections, and I do not believe for one moment this is due to popular demand. Clearly the general consensus (as supported by our National Curriculum) is that literature serves some kind of educational purpose. Why could not the same be done for literature of and about classical music, so people begin to think about it in a fertile environment, and contemplate its social significance in relation to the other arts, to philosophy and the history of the world?

One of the legacies of the Industrial Revolution is, while it has made mass-communication and wide dissemination of goods possible, it has given capital commercialism an unlimited power. With advancements in technology in our own age, pop-music began to assume an ever-increasing powerful and influential role - with its emphasis on image, sexual seduction and sensation. (Its is no co-incidence that the pop music explosion occured during the television age). So much, I think, as to subordinate potential musical awareness amongst the general public, and the understanding of music as an independant art-form with a tradition no less valid than literature or the visual arts. Indeed, the great Western tradition has been marginalised as just 'classical music', and all this despite centuries of musical innovation and development. The indifference of the general public to a thousand years of musical development, revolution and renewal (since most modern pop-music pays so little head to it) is to my mind, somewhat akin to a fascist destruction of a particular literature - a history they will not acknowledge.