Wednesday, November 28, 2007

What's difficult?

So, we played Sibelius and Schubert last night, and they came off very well (they seemed to like it at Classical Scourge), although it was an exhausting programme, both emotionally (Sibelius) and physically (Schubert).

What I found particularly interesting, though, was the response of the audience (or at least those who came because I badgered them). These people (in the main not musically educated) all said they preferred the Sibelius. Now, the Fourth Symphony is a powerful work, one of the greatest symphonies of the twentieth, or any century, but it's also the part of the programme that would be considered a "difficult" piece - essentially because it' s relatively dissonant, emotionally dark and introverted, ending in grey resignation rather than any kind of triumphant peroration (or indeed the opposite, breast-beating despair). And it occurs to me that this is obviously how it should be, not because the Schubert's not a wonderful and great piece (it is, of course it is) but because Sibelius lived in a time closer to our own, and we need to do less work to understand the context he worked in. But the conventional approach to concert programming is entirely based on the premise that anything modern or contemporary is inevitably harder to understand for the non-cognoscenti, and should be approached with caution, buttered up with Beethoven or Brahms.

Is there any other art form where this sort of thinking is considered normal? Can you imagine anyone suggest that you shouldn't even attempt to watch a modern play before you've got to grips with Shakespeare? Or that you should avert your eyes from Picasso or Damien Hirst until you've got the hang of Holbein?

What rot. All my experience tells me that this idea that "uneducated" people need to be coddled in the face of new music is just rubbish. They may not like it, but give them the opportunity to listen and they'll appreciate it - in fact, I suspect the untrained ear may be more open to new sounds than that conditioned and brow-beaten by years of propaganda dripped into it by the education system. We live in an age, after all, where the charts contain music far more abrasive than anything Schoenberg ever wrote, and where the influence of that giant of the post-war musical bogeymen, Stockhausen, can be heard in ways beyond anything you, or he, might have imagined. Isn't it time the classical music establishment woke up to itself and admitted it's got everything the wrong way round, and that this misguidedly timid approach is helping to destroy the art form it's supposed to be enriching?

When a newspaper such as the Observer can print such a closed-minded viewpoint as this review of the Huddersfield Festival by Anthony Holden, there is something deeply rotten at the heart of our relationship with music, an awful combination of intolerance and conservatism that seems to betray an active hatred of music. The point about something like Huddersfield is that it's experimental, it's not going to conform to preconceived ideas, and yes, it will inevitably attract a small audience, and not everything you hear there will work (because it's experimental, remember?) but that's OK, because it's not meant to be mainstream, any more than Stockhausen's works were before they influenced the likes of Warp records' roster. For a major broadsheet paper's music critic to fail to grasp this is an extraordinary failure of the critical process.

It's time we started treating audiences as grown-ups who can listen without prejudice, not as children who need to be protected from the nasty frightening modern composers.

Image (a cartoon from Vanity Fair in 1929) swiped from here.


Cheerful One said...

I really enjoyed both pieces, but I found the Sibelius more moving. I'm not sure if that means that I preferred it.

petemaskreplica said...

which just goes to show the whole business is much more complicated than anybody admits :)

There's a whole load of questions to be asked about the whole idea of whether having a certain affect makes a piece more or less worthwhile, and how useful the idea of "enjoying" something is as a measure of its success, but that's probably opening up a whole new rant ;)