Philip Hensher: We're in no mood for an ode to joy

'It was like watching an elderly comic who you knew once used to be funny die of a heart attack in the middle of his act'
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The Independent Online

Some grief is beyond the reach of art and its consolations. Some losses are so great that the soothing powers of the creative imagination cannot touch them; and for a season, we prefer to be left with our own thoughts in silence, and not to submit to the inspiration and goadings of even the most elevated art. Silence, sometimes is best; and reality.

The extraordinary Last Night of the Proms this year was never going to be like any other Last Night. The party atmosphere of the usual celebrations would not have been remotely appropriate, and no sane person would have been in the mood for them. The usual sequence of familiar pieces, including Sir Henry Wood's fantasy on sea shanties, did not seem right in the circumstances.

A bold, intelligent controller of the Proms would, in the place of the empty farrago, have done something quite different. In the end, there would have been nothing better than to have withdrawn anything that resembled a Last Night, and, instead, filled the evening with a solemn ceremony. If the controller of the Proms were a wise person, he would have mounted a performance of a single piece of the highest seriousness, and left it at that. Nothing could respond to the terror and awful sublimity of the events in America but the consecration of a performance of Beethoven's Missa Solemnis. That would have been an appropriate gesture; everything else fell terribly short.

It was an extraordinary evening. I've never been to a Last Night before, but the atmosphere was unlike that of any concert I could imagine. Hardly anyone had dressed up. Behind us, in a box, was Mary Archer, elegant in black, chatting determinedly, but she needn't have tried so hard; her family's little problems seemed as irrelevant as her best frock. And, standing outside, many of the usual accoutrements of the event had already seemed tastelessly irrelevant; the touts, who for once were selling tickets, the flag-sellers, and one ass in a determinedly silly hat. One girl had handed me a flyer. I glanced at it. "For the first verse of tonight's version of Jerusalem, please sing with gusto: And did those feet in ancient time/Walk upon England's mountains green;/But now the cows burn in the pyres,/This is the mul-ti-nation-al's desire./Without the dung from animals/To grow our crops needs more chemical." My God, I thought; someone is still thinking hard enough about cow shit to write a calypso about it.

The hall was filling up, but quietly. The Promenaders chanted something, but somehow one didn't really listen. "God Save America," someone shouted. "God Save Iraqi Children," someone else riposted. Flags were draped from the balconies – the British, English and American flags – but they were not being waved. Nicholas Kenyon, the Proms director, came on to say that he understood that some people disagreed with the changes he had made, but would appreciate it if the evening could be taken in the spirit in which it was intended.

I was puzzled for a moment, not quite seeing what he meant, and then with a flash of embarrassment, understood; I had seen the programme, and was mildly shocked by its triviality. But from the BBC bunker, it appeared, what seemed most worrying was the accusation that it wasn't trivial enough, and the Promenaders were cross about being robbed of their sea shanties.

The concert began, under the BBC Symphony Orchestra's new American conductor, Leonard Slatkin, with the American and British national anthems. For a moment you thought how beautiful, aspiring and unsingable "The Star-Spangled Banner" is, with its yodelling leaps over an octave and a half. And then into the concert proper, and what art, in these circumstances, can do.

To judge by the comments made in the programme, and Leonard Slatkin's speeches in the course of the concert, it can do several things. It can be an elegy, and bring home some sense of loss through fluently expressed grief, wordless or otherwise. Twice, indeed, in the concert, I found myself close to tears. Barber's Adagio for Strings has become a universal expression of funerary mourning, as well as a specifically American one, but, starting to cry, I wondered at the mysterious transformations wrought by circumstances. Normally, I rather dislike the piece and its shamelessly low-rent imitation of the finale of Mahler's Ninth Symphony; on Saturday night, it worked with terrible directness. Verdi's "Va, Pensiero" chorus, too, seemed cripplingly apt; the great arch of the melody as much as the expression of nationalist grief.

That is all one can reasonably ask of art in these awful circumstances; to put a voice to our simple, inarticulate grief. Beyond that, the concert began to wound with its shallow certitudes. A rubbishy little English elegy by Gerald Finzi was just not good enough to say anything much. The pieces stuck in to divert one's thoughts seemed no more than impertinence – even in normal circumstances, Canteloube's horrible Chants d'Auvergne always seem like eating Turkish delight in a brothel, and I longed for them to be over. Better, grander music just seemed wrong; the great overture to La Forza del Destino has never made less of an impression. It just wasn't the moment, you felt, to be listening to any of this.

And then, towards the end, came the finale to Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, and all those niggling doubts surfaced. It was terribly badly played, but the best performance in the world couldn't have stopped the thought which came as soon as the double basses started on the D major theme: this just isn't going to work. Who on earth thought this was a good idea? Who on earth thought anyone, anywhere in the world, was in the mood for an "Ode to Joy"?

When Leonard Bernstein conducted the piece in Berlin, shortly after the fall of the Wall, it seemed to mean something. All men will become brothers; the magic of Joy will reunite what custom forcefully divides. In Berlin, in 1990, perhaps we believed that. Now, as New York lies under dust, as Kabul flees for the hills, the pathetic assertions of the Ode, of the remnants of the Enlightenment seemed cruelly inadequate. Feuertrunken – drunk with fire – one turned from it with distaste. It will not do, and never before have Beethoven's thunderous claims looked so agonising, so painful, so unconvincing. All men become brothers? Not in our time.

We left in a sombre mood, unconsoled, even revolted. There are small questions here; I don't see how the pretence of the usual Last Night can ever be returned to, but Slatkin promised that next year, when, no doubt, American soldiers will be being picked off one by one by Taliban snipers, business as usual will be resumed.

But there is a bigger one as well; the question of the point at which art fails, when nothing will do but a minute's silence for reflection. The experience of this Last Night was exactly like watching an elderly comic who you knew once used to be funny die of a heart attack in the middle of his routine. The clown was not just Nicholas Kenyon and the sea shanties and the flags and whistles. In an important respect, it was the claims of music itself.