Boris Johnson and Piers Morgan can agree on one thing, apparently: Leith Penny has done something dreadful. Mr Penny, I should explain, is the Westminster Council director of management under whose remit the amplifiers were switched off at 10.30pm last Saturday while Bruce Springsteen and Sir Paul McCartney were still belting it out to 80,000 fans in Hyde Park.
Just like that: the plugs were pulled on the sound systems and for a time the rockers and their bands continued to pound away –but, without their massive electronic amplification, inaudible to the infuriated multitude. The world of showbiz, with characteristic lack of perspective, joined in the attack on Mr Penny, via Twitter: he was "the police state" "a joyless, bitter, killjoy", "disgusting" and (P Morgan) "an idiot jobsworth". In vain did Mr Penny protest that the concert had been ended at precisely the time agreed between the organisers and the council, and that such "licences are granted at certain times to protect residents in the area from noise late at night."
Noise! That's the mot juste. Sheer, penetrating, insufferable noise. In fact, when Radio 5 Live ran an instant phone-in about the allegedly premature ending of the Hyde Park event, they received not the anticipated barrage of outrage, but many supportive calls from people in various parts of the country who had suffered from proximity to such events. Their most frequent complaint was that all they could hear was the constant pounding bass characteristic of rock music, which made their very houses vibrate and their heads along with it.
Some described it as "like a form of torture". And it is: why else would it have been employed to wring confessions out of Guantanamo Bay inmates by American specialists in so-called "psychological operations"? Al-Qa'ida suspects were subject to such aural bombardment for days at a time. Sgt Mark Hadsell of the 361st Psychological Operations Company was not shy of explaining the method: "These people can't take heavy metal. If you play it for 24 hours, your brain and body start to slide...your will is broken. That's when we come in and talk to them."
It would certainly have broken me, and in much less than 24 hours; but if they had played Mozart, Schubert and Beethoven I would have just smiled beatifically. This, of course, is why the US psy-ops teams would not dream of employing composers of the Viennese school as part of their interrogation process: their aim was not to soothe their captives' souls with beauty, quite the reverse.
Yet our own civil authorities increasingly insist on imposing ultra-amplified rock music upon us – and call it a celebration. The organisers of the London Olympics are following the barbaric example of so many commercial sports by using deafening music to "enhance" the action. They have declared their intention to "Rock the Games" with a continual beat of recorded tracks. There will be what is termed "a giant playlist" based on five themes: "energy", "primetime", "extreme", "heritage" and "world stage". Ugh, ugh, ugh, ugh and ugh. Apparently even Lord's Cricket Ground, which is to host the Olympics Archery events, will be thus infested.
I suppose one could always go along and wear ear plugs, as the Queen did when attending the Buckingham Palace rock concert held to celebrate her 60 years as monarch. Her decision to block the deafening sounds of unutterable banality, while smiling sweetly all the while, was a marvellous combination of discernment and diplomacy. She knew she had to appease the increasingly crass tastes of her subjects (or rather their cultural overlords) but was determined not to be polluted herself.
It was in the same spirit, we learnt last week (if the latest book about the Rolling Stones is accurate) that she scheduled a minor operation on her knee for the day that Mick Jagger was to be knighted: a courtier is quoted as saying "The Queen looked at Mick Jagger's name on the list, and there was absolutely no way in the world that she was going to take part in that." God Save The Queen!
There was a time, not so very long ago, when those in authority in this country were high-minded in cultural matters, when politicians did not fear accusations of "elitism" if they were seen at concerts of classical music – or music, as we aficionados call it. I am thinking especially of the concerts held in the National Gallery throughout the Second World War, organised by the pianist Myra Hess (my great-great aunt, as it happens).
In 1939 the paintings had been taken down, for safe storage in case the Gallery were to be destroyed by the Luftwaffe; Myra Hess went to the director, Kenneth Clark, and told him that if visual beauty was thus to be denied to Londoners they should be able to enjoy musical beauty in that shrine to art, instead. In his diaries he recorded her plea that the arts played a powerful spiritual role in the health of the nation at the best of times – and were thus even more needed during wartime. How sad it is that such sentiments now sound almost archaic.
We do, it is true, still host the world's greatest music festival – known simply as the Proms. Tonight's concert – for which I am lucky enough to have a ticket – includes Richard Strauss's Four Last Songs. It is very hard to put the power of great music into words, but Philip Roth's description of listening to Strauss's final work will do: "For the purity of the sentiment about death and loss....for the repose and the composure and gracefulness and the intense beauty....you dissolve". The last of those four final songs does indeed dissolve, with almost infinite gradualness, into silence.
It is as far removed from the constant, unremitting, amplified din of rock as any musical experience could be; and while I do not assert that all classical musicians are people of high virtue and all rock stars are depraved, or their followers similarly divided, it's worth recalling the words of Aristotle over 2,300 years ago: "Music directly imitates the passions or states of the soul...when one listens to music that imitates a certain passion, he becomes imbued with the same passion; and if over a long time he habitually listens to music that rouses ignoble passions, his whole character will be shaped to an ignoble form." So can we please turn off the infernal racket?Reuse content