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The Hills are Alive – Scottish Review of Books
by Brian Morton

The Hills are Alive

November 9, 2009 | by Brian Morton

It’s generally understood that elitism is A Bad Thing, but that elites may serve a more positive – even if only practical – function in cultural studies. Anyone who has ever tried to write with any seriousness about music will have found himself at some time or another accused of a category error, most often of an egregious exclusivity. When you speak of ‘music’, the complaint usually runs, you are speaking only of the work of Dead White European Males or of Western Art Music. What of the vernacular tradition(s)? And what of those countless musicians who have not been admitted to the canon? Why is serious music so mortgaged to the past, with all the weight of the dead hand?

There are answers to this and there are fatalistic shrugs. It is at once very difficult and very easy (some would say never easier) to hold a stance that as it were takes account of both WAM and Wham! Even so, it’s bad history to suggest that the current fruitful association between ‘serious’ music and ‘popular’ traditions is anything new. There was arguably more fruitful congress between Haydn and the popular music of his day (which effectively means dance music) or between Bartok and Hungarian folk song than there is now in the case of a ‘serious’ composer who uses pop or jazz forms in his writing. Even high modernists like Schoenberg or Webern made use of cabaret music or the field songs of the Tyrol, and not at all in an ironic ‘postmodernist’ way.

The reason we fixate on that familiar list of DWEMs is that most of them were very good indeed. The reason we neglect many of the others is that, well, they weren’t. The dead hand isn’t the problem. The problem is that serious music is too heavily mortgaged to the seriousness not of its composers and performers, but of its critics.

There have been standard reactions to the complaints paraphrased above. The most common and the most pernicious is simply to widen the canon. Why ‘Western’ art music, when there are strong ‘classical’ traditions in other cultures: raga, the music of gamelan orchestras, the African pianism of an Akin Euba, the vast participatory field events of the Filipino Jose Maceda. This is actually not a rhetorical question, but the answer needs to wait a moment or two. It does, however, very quickly lead into fallacious thinking, as with all those revisionist historians who insist that jazz – arguably the first absolutely new musical form of the Twentieth century and one of its pervasive flavours – is actually ‘the classical music of African-Americans’. It is no such thing. The fact that Miles Davis and Charles Mingus both rejected the term ‘jazz’ and that the latter tried to present his composition as ‘classical’ in form is neither here nor there; it’s generally forgotten that Mingus also presented his music as ‘folk’. If you want to seek a ‘black’ classical music, you have to look to someone like William Grant Still, who grew up in the jazz age, arranged for W.C. Handy, played in the Shuffle Along orchestra and occasionally borrowed spirituals and blues in his thematic writing, but mostly worked up his own materials and took his deepest inspiration from Edgard Varese. Put Still’s Afro-American Symphony alongside Mingus’s The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady (which was admittedly released on a ‘folk’ imprint) and the difference should be plain. Mingus’s music isn’t inferior – indeed, I’d say effortlessly superior – but certainly different in kind.

‘Himself’ is another deliberate giveaway. What of all those historically silenced women, Mother Hildegard and her daughters? Why is the canon so resolutely male? The response, mounting to a crescendo in the Eighties, was a rash of all-female concert programmes, wild revisionist attempts to prove Clara Schumann superior to Robert, dictionaries of women composers. Even closer to home, does it change the basic picture of Twentieth century British music to set aside the basic model of Elgar, Delius and Holst, Britten and Tippett, Birtwhistle and Maxwell Davies, in order to make room for Ethel Smyth, Elizabeth Maconchy, Elisabeth Lutyens and Maconchy’s daughter Nicola LeFanu?

We talk about the canon because the basic foundations of all Western art music – the early 20th century was an admitted and special exception – lie in the Church, and our sense of a Great Tradition in Western music, roughly Bach to Shostakovich, has been selected in exactly the same way as early Church Fathers selected appropriate Gospels. Some religious traditions proscribe polyphony but at least now we have some cultural polyphony and some redress. Even if Lutyens is still a minority taste, perhaps more often if unknowingly heard by fans of classic Hammer horror than by concert-goers, Hildegard of Bingen is a dubious superstar.

Writers of musical history have a thankless task, steering a course between obviousness, which inevitably opens them to all the charges above, and revisionism, which can only deliver a weirdly warped narrative. The answer lies not in simply widening the canon, opening the frontiers and letting out the prisoners, like in Fidelio. The answer lies in a different attitude to music itself.

James Naughtie is an ideal music historian because, first of all, he is not a music historian but a passionate listener. It might seem redundant to say that he does best what he does best, but that is the key to The Making Of Music, his capacious new study of eight centuries of Western music. As a broadcaster, Naughtie is used to setting scenes and providing contexts and that is what he does here. Music is different to the other art forms (except arguably drama, though it mostly exists under a tyranny of words) in that it is absolutely real-time and absolutely contingent on performance. It is easy enough to argue that there are as many Madame Bovarys as there are readers, as many Guernicas as there are viewers; in both cases there is still an iconic object, which persists over and above different printings, readings and reproductions. Naughtie wisely regards music as an “offer”, an open-ended equation that leads to a series of absolute singularities. He shows less interest in the great ‘texts’ of Western music, and though he writes about them and their authors with great insight (more so, I feel, up to a point in the story where the ‘tyranny of the score’ becomes overwhelming), he is most at ease when writing about the great interpreters, Legge, Klemperer, Mackerras, Schiff, who accept that offer and instead of reifying it, as the hostile sceptics of WAM insist, objectify it in the moment. There is, at bottom, no absolute difference between a perceptive and feeling performance of a classical score and a ‘free’ improvisation; both are in the proper sense spontaneous and both are deeply grounded in past knowledge.

Naughtie seems to intuit all this, and while there are elements of his account which drift towards correctness – popular forms, jazz, women composers, other traditions – he never allows his perspective or his attention to detail to be warped by ideology. Nothing detunes music or music history faster. Even so, Naughtie has to offer some account of how music dealt with or expressed certain specific ideologies. In the most obvious cases – Shostakovich and Stalin, say – he is admirably clear-headed, but some of his best writing is reserved for the ‘nationalist’ period, which roughly embraces the period of Smetana (born 1824), Bartok, Dvorak, and Sibelius (died 1957, but by then silent for three decades). His account of how music, which has no absolute semantics, expresses ideas of national spirit and identity without violating its essential nature as music, is very hard to fault and ought to be required reading.

It of course immediately bears on what John Purser wrote about in his epochal Scotland’s Music, now published in a new edition. The notion of ‘national identity’ in music is a complex and treacherous one. William Grant Still may have used Negro spirituals, but so did Delius (born in Bradford to German parents) and so did Michael Tippett. The presence of folk materials or instruments is a very inaccurate way of determining ‘national style’. The late Toru Takemitsu was routinely described (I have two obituaries which use the same phrase) as having introduced a “distinctively Japanese” idiom to classical music, when in fact Takemitsu’s background was almost entirely in German and American music and his mature style derived almost entirely from the arch-modernism of the Darmstadt school, tempered only a little by his father’s interest in vernacular forms and a brief attempt as a student to synthesise Eastern and Western forms.

Purser’s first edition was an epoch in Scottish music not because it provided a vivid back-story for a present generation who, like Takemitsu, had previously looked elsewhere for tokens of musical authority, but because like Naughtie’s book it was primarily concerned with music as an art of performance in quite specific social contexts and as a pleasure-giving activity rather than an exercise in technical abstraction. Much has changed in Scottish music since he first wrote and much of it in line with what he wrote. The book, and perhaps even more important, the broadcast series from which it was derived laid to rest any sense that Scotland was merely the extreme northern end of das Land ohne Musik, as Britain was once sourly dubbed. In performing that function, though, it made no attempt to suggest that Scottish music was in any sense either a voluntary or conscripted expression of ‘national identity’, but something that partook in a culture that was in sync with contemporary commerce and trade, which is to say – even if the term is strictly meaningless before about 1815 – international.

This is a perception that runs across and between these two books. Naughtie’s very personal introduction – Thursday night piano study with Ronald Center, himself one of those quietly passionate composers who have been consigned to music’s preterite; later, concert-going – is very much directed to the idea that while music evokes mystery, it is not mystical; a matter of work rather than rarefied ‘works’. Its spread is impressive, from the Thirteenth century jottings of Anonymous IV in Paris to a present where, he insists, ‘new music’ is no deader than the once prematurely buried novel, and its detail a nice mixture of analysis and anecdote. If the ‘nationalists’ are its fulcrum, that may have something to do with personal loyalties and taste, because otherwise Naughtie seems committed to a definition of music in which ‘style’, let alone national style, is a secondary rather than primary characteristic and in which music is a lingua franca cast in various accents rather than either a hodgepodge of competing identities or a mystical Esperanto. His conclusions on the present scene – ironically flattened by celebrity and perhaps all too self-consciously ‘world’ in purview – are implicit in his early chapters on Anonymous IV (who was, after all, an English monk) and John Dunstable, who despite his English provincial name anticipated the ‘Burgundian style’. Like John Purser, he is always aware not just how music expresses history, but how it rises out of specific historical encounters.

It is a cliché to say of critical books that they send you back to the basic texts, whether literary or musical. Often, that supposedly positive process is little more than a matter of checking your own perceptions against the author’s or guiltily going back for something you missed yourself. Both Naughtie and Purser, in their different ways, do something more profound. They make you listen to music in a different way as a social act and a socially mediated act that has the power to take you out of the here-and-now (Naughtie’s litmus test for great music) but also locate you more precisely in it. They also hold out the courage to listen to the best because there is never going to be enough time for the rest. Elitism may be a bad thing, but to use Naughtie’s interestingly chosen example, a football fan isn’t considered elitist for saying that Arsenal (Mozart?) plays better football than Accrington Stanley (Salieri?). “Excellence is what matters, and nothing else . . .”

James Naughtie
John Murray, £20
pp400 ISBN 0719562546

John Purser
Mainstream, £25
pp360 ISBN 1845961609

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