Let's make music for the masses once again

From a lecture given by Piers Hellawell, the Professor of Music at Gresham College, as part of a series examining social attitudes to music
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The Independent Online

The bond between composer and audience has been constantly redefining itself over the whole course of Western music: the listener has been a monk, or a master-craftsman, a princeling, or a bourgeois merchant, a salon groupie or a Viennese banker. Furthermore, these listeners have demanded very different things of the music they supported: to draw attention to their nobility, to assist worship, to oil the works of social interchange at a party or to arouse Romantic sensibilities.

The bond between composer and audience has been constantly redefining itself over the whole course of Western music: the listener has been a monk, or a master-craftsman, a princeling, or a bourgeois merchant, a salon groupie or a Viennese banker. Furthermore, these listeners have demanded very different things of the music they supported: to draw attention to their nobility, to assist worship, to oil the works of social interchange at a party or to arouse Romantic sensibilities.

It is hard to assert that support for new music has "vanished". Perhaps it is fairer to say that it has evolved for the needs of each and every age. The problem may be that we have less idea than any previous age of what we need from art music composers.

This situation, of course, can be turned by composers to our advantage: an audience without a clear idea of social context can be steered and educated in a way that patrons would have resisted in the days when composers were artisans using the tradesmen's entrance. For this reason, there are grounds to hope that a better contract may evolve, or be already evolving. Nevertheless, the rupture of the mid 20th-century contract between composer and audience can only be seen as a highly negative and sterile situation, one that all of us should strive to leave behind.

The 18th-century public's familiarity with the musical mainstream was equivalent to the one that exists around pop music today. The idea of initiating a listener into a work, as if its mysteries were a code to be unscrambled, is absurd in the context of 18th-century Classicism. The dedications made by Emmanuel Bach and Mozart to "connoisseurs and amateurs alike" on their works make it plain that the intricacies of their art were seen as subtleties within a comprehensible framework - icing on the cake rather than cake itself, as it were. If they could be appreciated, so much the better.

The notion of "initiation" remains absurd when applied to music as recent as that of Brahms. No Romantic master commands such a high degree of analytical respect as Brahms, yet it is hard to conceive of him lecturing the good people of Hamburg about the fruits of this toil, such as his long-term harmonic projection or his asymmetrical melodies. He would convey his ideas only through the medium of the music itself.

Thus the notion of "musical explanation" itself is thus really a modern concept, born of a modernist construct of music as a coded ritual from which the audience may well feel excluded through insufficient knowledge. Having heard an orchestral work by X last week offers no guaranteed context for what you will hear by Y next week, as it might have for quartets by Haydn and Mozart.

This loss of framework, and the consequent acceptance that every "classical" work is a clean and potentially inscrutable slate, is the legacy of modernism. It assumes that we have to be, and can be, "educated into" music. The work of art has become a restricted area, whose entry is controlled by its own PIN number.

For 100 years we have grown up isolated from the art music of our day. Any serious initiative must invest at least one generation ahead. It follows that I see the most exciting development in the field as the pioneering of new music activity for children. This involves various age-groups in reception, performance and creativity itself, around a professional event such as a concert. Without an overall re-evaluation of state-school music - and that is sadly unlikely - this is the only approach that offers long-term hope.

I see the greatest benefit of these projects as being the introduction of youngsters to musical materials themselves, and to their manipulation. Such introductory processes are a substitute in a society uneducated in hearing new music, but that does not make them worthless - they are all we have in the world as it is.

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