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  The Recognition of the Composer Today (Part III of X)  Bevillia at 19:44 on 28 November 2009

The Recognition of the Composer Today - Stephen Beville


It seems self-evident that the Western tradition of music has been completely ignored in a way that the Western tradition of the visual arts and literature has not. Whilst the prestige of developing and innovating the classical tradition of music had virtually disappeared from British musical life, the same may not be said for literature and the visual arts. However, those arts have not had to face any challenge remotely resembling the wave of modern pop and rock music that has engulfed the West (despite the comparatively recent advent of pop-art and new vogue fashion catalogues). Yet, it remains a curious irony that the same marginalization has not occured to Western painting and sculpture.

Indeed, it seems odd that the tradition of Western painting generally has not acquired the same false-aristocratic, 'high-brow' stigma as classical music, since such a tradition emanated from the same historical/social structures. Perhaps this is because the visual arts have not been subsumed under the same all-encompassing label of 'classical art'. Indeed, 'classical music' is a problematic and ultimately inadequate categorisation for both the tradition of Western music history and the composer working today, not least because of its dual meaning - referring to a particular epoch in musical history as well as a whole tradition. (That is why I prefer the expression musical literature). As a result, classical music has often been mistakenly perceived has a thing of the past, an outdated 'antiquarian' pursuit with little relevance to modern society.

An interesting comparison may be made with literature. As the German philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer reflects in his magnum opus, Wahrheit und Methode ('Truth and Method'<img src=../images/wink.gif>:

'...the concept of the classical came to be used in modern thought to describe the whole of ''classical antiquity'' when humanism again proclaimed the exemplariness of this antiquity. It was reviving an ancient usage, with some justification, for those ancient authors who were ''discovered'' by humanism, were the same ones who in later antiquity comprised the cannon of the classics'.

And yet, Gadamer too recognises its ambiguity. He goes on;

'the philologist is rightly dissatisfied with simply applying his texts the historical stylistic concept that developed through the ages of the plastic arts. The question whether Homer too is ''classical'' shatters the notion that the classical is merely a historical category of style analogous to categories of style used in the history of art...'

We do not dismiss the creative writings and paintings of the past simply as relics of old feudal, colonial and social inequality. They were the production of individual artists with individual thoughts and feelings about the world. Why, therefore should we dismiss the music of past composers?

It is most telling how in recent television art-series, such as 'This is Civilization' (as broadcast on CH 4 in 2007), Western visual art in the context of 17th, 18th and 19th centuries is discussed and presented against a background of U2 and Jimi Hendrix-style music. I suppose this could be cited as an example of aesthetic mindlessness; in other words, the arguments of its presenter, Matthew Collings, are to some extent undermined by the comparatively non-intellectual substance of the musical background. For what such music has to do with Renaissance, Baroque and Classical painting and sculpture, I do not know, but this approach seems to me, part of a cultural revisionism of musical history that is taking place, therby making art-history commercially appealing to a profoundly musically ignorant new generation.

This approach is smilarly echoed by the BBC's Culture Show, where Western art history features large, but its contemporaneous music history seems strictly taboo. On the one hand you have Andrew Graham-Dixon discussing Michelangelo or Anselm Keifer, but then you have Lauren Laverne singing the praises of pop-star Mika. Is Mika to be considered on a par with Keifer - a musician of similar artistic stature? (I would hope not..., and though ironic, this analogy does however illustrate the art-history that popular music now, perhaps pretentiously, tries to compare itself to). The alarming discrepency of interest seems confirmed by the fact that BBC arts programmes such as The Culture Show or Newsnight Review maintain regular correspondance with art institutions like the Royal Academy of Art (as in features and presentations from their Summer Academy) but hardly ever, say, with its musical equivalent, the Royal Academy of Music. All this despite the latter's participation in mounting festivals of equal national and international stature (not featured on such television programmes), as in the RAM's annual contemporary composer festivals - an idea that has, in fact, been taken up by other music colleges around the UK.

In other words, while European art history is kept alive through the efforts of Grahm-Dixon and others, European musical history is consigned like Orpheus, to the Underworld of no return. The lack of employment by the BBC of anyone who seems to have the remotest idea on this subject is presumably due to the lack of commercial need. In this respect, the producers of The Culture Show are perhaps an avid reflection of our society and its de-musicalisation. Presumably they receive few complaints on the matter, becuase few people realise just how dire - at least from a musical perspective - their programme really has become over the years. As a result, the general public are given scant opportunity to appreciate and develop an interest in classical music.

In fact, the flood of recent pop and rock music (as from America) has had comparatively little affinity to past European cultural history. Indeed, as I have intimated, the extreme capitalistc commercialisation of such music seems to have undermined the recognition of over a thousand years of musical development, revolution and renewal.