The marketing men may only think in unit sales, but the music rises above it.
Two hundred years ago, it was the decade of Mozart's four greatest operas, Haydn's 12 "London" Symphonies and the debut of that alarming young composer-virtuoso Beethoven; 300, it was the final flourishing of Purcell; 400, the rise of Monteverdi ... Yet there has perhaps never been, or ever will be in the uniquely dynamic history of Western music, a decade so richly diverse as 1886-96.

True, Wagner had died three years before, but Verdi delivered his two culminating masterpieces while the young Puccini scored his first operatic triumphs. In the concert hall, Tchaikovsky, Bruckner and Brahms were fulfilling their glorious final phases, Faure, Grieg and Dvorak were in full flood, while the young Richard Strauss was launching his first tone-poems and Mahler his first two symphonies, Sibelius his Lemminkainen Legends and Debussy his Prelude a l'apres-midi d'un faune. Even in the "land without music", things were looking up, with spirited scores from Stanford and Parry (not to mention Sullivan) - though Elgar was still eating his heart out in the provinces.

Meanwhile, in Vienna and at Yale, the teenage Schoenberg and Ives were fiercely cultivating their ambitions, while around Europe, youngsters with names such as Bartok, Stravinsky, Varese, Berg and Webern were doubtless already unsettling their music teachers with naughty dissonances. Nor was interpretative talent any less luxuriant, with Patti and Melba, Busoni and Paderewski, Joachim and Sarasate, Richter, Nikisch and Toscanini all in orbit and the young Rachmaninov, Chaliapin and Casals about to make their marks. At the same time, Hanslick in Vienna and George Bernard Shaw in London wrote copiously all about them; Emile Berliner converted the gramophone from a toy into a machine capable of capturing performances with verisimilitude, while Marconi worked on the technology that would eventually enable such recordings to be broadcast simultaneously to every corner of the globe.

Whereas over the past 10 years . . ? It would be easy enough to work up a Jeremiad around the way the music industry seems to have bled the word "classical" itself of all significance save "upmarket". But actually things have proved more mixed. Whether or not posterity will rate them remotely with Tchaikovsky, Bruckner or Brahms, there have been some distinguished creative (or, in the case of John Cage, anti-creative) deaths. After all, Aaron Copland, Olivier Messiaen, Witold Lutoslawski, Leonard Bernstein and Toru Takemitsu all had significant followings, not least in this country, and the extraordinary contrasts of sound, style and content between their outputs continues to confute those who would dismiss modern "classical" music as a grim grey monolith. Much the same could be said of the music of Dr Robert Simpson and Sir Michael Tippett - sadly, though, illness and old age have blocked the creativity of the one and brought the retirement of the other - and of the awesome Sir Harrison Birtwistle who, in that deeply mystic English way of things, seems to have emerged as Grand Old Man Apparent (at least, as far as the arts establishment is concerned - if not the young fogies of the Hecklers). Meanwhile, a larger musical public has evidently taken to the sacred simplicities of the born-yet- again John Tavener and the sound and fury of that omni-committed Scot, James MacMillan - if more, perhaps, for their message than their musical mastery.

Among performers, the deaths of Horowitz and Bernstein were genuinely lamented, but not everyone seemed so sorry to see the last of Karajan. As for the press, the departures of Peter Heyworth, Desmond Shawe-Taylor and Peter Stadlen - critics regularly to be seen deep in full scores at rehearsals - only emphasises the progressive cutting back of serious criticism even in some of the heavies to make way for more ad-friendly previews and puffery. Yet the loss of musical discussion with The Listener was at least partly offset by the founding of the more populist but genuinely informative BBC Music Magazine. And there were other ways over the decade in which the expected worst did not quite happen. Despite government cuts and recession, no major orchestra or opera company actually went out of business; indeed, glamorous new venues for them to perform in arose at Glyndebourne and in Birmingham and Manchester. Nor was the BBC yet privatised, and although the long-standing desire among easy-listeners for a "Radio Vivaldi" did at last issue in Classic FM, the effect on Radio 3 seemed more a matter of presentation than of programme content and listening figures. And while CD virtually saw off LP, the repertoire on disc by the mid-1990s was infinitely more vast and more diverse than ever before.

So were the Three Tenors simply the latest instance of the century-long gramophone infatuation with the tenor voice that once gave us Caruso and McCormack? Was the fad for the "faith minimalism" of Tavener, Gorecki and Part just another bout of the public's periodic sentimentality for the religiose? Was, indeed, the calculated ineptitude of The Piano Concerto by Michael Nyman a play to catch ordinary listeners with something they could feel they might almost compose better themselves? Not quite. There were signs enough over the decade, from the major record companies, artists' agencies and multimedia corporations, of a determined, perhaps ultimate attempt to convert the very function of music from a means of human expression into a commodity - an attempt to which the derivative nostalgias of post- modernism and the emptiness of minimalism have proved all too apropos. But unfortunately - or perhaps not - endless revolvings of even the most perfectly edited disc, or tunings-in to the most rigorously market-researched radio services of Your Hundred Best Classics, are sooner or later liable among a significant proportion of listeners to foster a fierce desire for something different. And difference in the composition or performance of music can only come about through a contradiction of expectations - witness precisely the history of Western music over the past 1,000 years! Meanwhile, out in the real world of amateur choirs, youth orchestras and small professional groups surviving on little subsidy and a lot of love, those who compose, learn and perform music because they want to get on with it regardless.

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