CLASSICAL: On The Air

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The Independent Culture
OVER THE past two years Radio 3 has broadcast a series of 20 documentaries telling the story, albeit in a highly idiosyncratic way, of this century's music. The final programme early on Sunday evening opened with the imposing sound of Luigi Nono's cantata, Il canto sospeso, whose subject is the Holocaust. It cued in Stephen Johnson's observation that the two World Wars would be seen as the major determining factors in our century's music, prompting the dramatic swings of the pendulum which have characterised its erratic course. At least, I think that's what he meant. This was never subjected to examination, since it's not the fashion these days for radio programmes to follow up an argument. Ironically enough, this failing paralleled someone else's comment later in the programme that modern musical culture is concerned with rapid connections and responding to multiple stimuli rather than to the pursuit of slow organic wholeness.

The First World War only had a marginal effect on music, and even the theory that it necessitated the cultivation of small formats can be challenged, since they were, in economic terms, wasteful and inefficient. Large-[scale operations were either not affected at all, or, as in the case of Diaghilev's company, were resumed swiftly. The matter of the Zeitgeist is something else, and it could have been argued the artistic climate in Paris in the 1920s was a reaction of liberating frivolity after the Great War. But it wasn't.

The Second World War, arguably, had a considerable effect. But again it was only in one country, Germany, where after the artistic starvation of the Nazi period, the influx of American money facilitated a typically German form of elitism in the avant-garde circles of Darmstadt - which Johnson neatly characterised as a parody of the very totalitarianism on whose grave it danced - and Donaueschingen - though that musical showcase had been created way back in 1921 - and the all-important patronage of West German radio stations.

The connection between music and world events is difficult to establish, and not as direct as some people like to think. In any event, the conditions that have shaped the art have been greater, even, than any war lasting merely a few years. The suppression of experiment in the Soviet Union lasted well over a quarter-century, while the emigration of artists and intellectuals from fascist countries began in the early 1930s.

Nono was married to the daughter of one of the most important of these emigres, Nuria, nee Schoenberg, cementing in personal terms a tradition of uncompromising artistic integrity. It was brave of Johnson to suggest that Schoenberg would be viewed as another Meyerbeer - more influential with composers than important to future listeners but it was clear he was only thinking of Schoenberg's 12-note music, written during the last 25 years of the composer s life, rather than his really revolutionary works, like the Five Orchestral Pieces, or Erwartung, both dating from 1909.

But the programme was also concerned with the state of music now and in the future. Joanna MacGregor disingenuously asserted that audiences - or did she mean potential audiences? - were "way ahead of mainstream thinking". Of course, she has an agenda, part of which is to bypass the established means of distribution, though as a pianist she has one of the most prestigious agents, just as Nono, some 40 years ago, tried taking his music into factories, though his music was recorded by one of the leading record companies.

Good luck to her, but while I respect MacGregor's talent and optimistic spirit, I doubt she will have much power to change things. She is, after all, as much at the mercy of marketing forces as, say, Wayne Marshall, and equally, is lucky enough to project an image which defies popular expectations, of a classical musician.

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