The Triumph of Music, By Tim Blanning

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The Independent Culture

Tim Blanning dedicates his book to the musicological experts who have steered him clear of gaffes, but he stresses that it's not a piece of musicology. Nor will he seek to emulate Alex Ross's inspirational survey The Rest Is Noise: this will be "an exercise in social, cultural, and political history". But with music from 1700 to the present spanning everything from Thomas Arne to Atomic Kitten, and with "triumph" defined by global reach and record sales, it must above all be an exercise in eclecticism.

Blanning opens with the 2002 Jubilee "Party at the Palace", where Brian May headed an army of pop's finest to deliver "God Save the Queen" from the royal roof. Who remembers it now? For Blanning, however, it represents the culmination of three centuries of musical development – and that is the triumph he wants to talk about.

Once-over-lightly is the keynote as he segues from singing-god Orpheus and musical law-giver Plato to the irresistible rise of the composer, with Haydn, Handel, Mozart, Beethoven and Rossini. The story bowls agreeably on with Paganini and Liszt – master showmen, sex symbols, virtuosi. Then comes Wagner, hailed by his patron, mad king Ludwig, as a "god-man", after which we hit the buffers: "such a combination of genius and personality has never recurred."

Blanning briskly transfers his "triumph" to singers and conductors, as proved by knight – and damehood statistics: Janet Baker, Vera Lynn, Cliff Richard, Mick Jagger, Simon Rattle, Bob Geldof, Willard White. "In the United Kingdom, the fast track to formal honour is through music." You could say the same of sporting celebrity, but that would spoil the neatness of his argument. Blanning rams his point home with snaps of Harold Wilson with Ringo Starr, and Tony Blair with Noel Gallagher. What began as a coherent narrative dissolves into PR vacuity.

Blanning has chosen to tell the same story in several ways, focusing on aspects of his purported triumph: purpose, places and spaces, technology and liberation. So back we go to Handel and Haydn, via Louis XIV's Versailles, in which music was the continuation of war by other means. The second chapter's theme is that music has moved from expressing the power of the patron to the feelings of the musician; the pivotal moment was around 1800, when a paying public replaced bishops and princes.

Along the way, Blanning provides us with some nice illustrations, notably when he contrasts the fate of Bach's St Matthew Passion (performed only four times during his life, and then sinking without trace) with that of Handel's Messiah, a runaway success from the start. This reflected the difference between writing, as Bach did, for a congregation of worshippers, and a paying audience.

Blanning is good, too, on the sacralisation of music, which developed as a reaction to the secularisation of society. This proceeded via Beethoven (a secular saint) to its climax in Bayreuth, with Wagner's Parsifal. Meanwhile, "classical music" – a fixed canon of works – was being invented. But then, rather than following it into the choppy waters of Modernism, Blanning again changes horses in mid-stream, and we find ourselves being lectured on John Coltrane's religious conversion, Eric Clapton's "quasi-divine status", and the beatification of John Lennon.

If this pleasantly readable book fails to convince, it's because its author is far too ready to accept market reality as ultimate truth. Blanning betrays no awareness of the internal dynamic which powered European music's unique development. And he chooses to ignore the canker now infecting all Western culture: celebrity. For it is that, not music, which has triumphed.

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