There's more to music than pure emotion

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The Independent Online

The conductor Benjamin Zander, in town for a performance of Mahler's first symphony, is taking the opportunity to promote his recording of the same composer's third. Mr Zander is known for giving audience talks before his performances, and this recording includes an extra disc of analysis and explanation, to guide the listener through the complex argument of the symphony.

I haven't heard Mr Zander's explanatory disc, but, discussing it, he said a few things which make one suspect that it might not be exactly one's sort of thing. Referring to the audience, he said, "Mahler is speaking to them, and if I can unlock some of that language for them, they can have access to some of the most glorious art in the world." He also claimed that "I speak to their soul" in conducting Mahler.

Tempting as Mr Zander's offers sound, I suspect that he might be trying to do something which doesn't need attempting, and neglecting a possibility which might actually be useful. The analytical lecture used to be an interesting and a useful adjunct to the performance of music, but it was not aimed at unlocking the soul, or leading out the emotional response, or whatever. It was usefully directed towards the explanation of music as an intellectual argument, clarifying its structures and giving listeners a sense of its formal shape. The rapturous response could look after itself.

To an unusual degree, music in the last few years has passed into the realm of the expert. That sounds an unlikely proposition at first. In one way, music has never been so popular. Classic FM has acquired a huge audience with its inoffensive mix of symphonic movements and operatic highlights, all calculated to soothe rather than challenge, but nevertheless relying on a solid diet of great music. The range of serious music which can be acquired on CD is greater than ever before; anyone with a taste for Norwegian symphonists, tsarist Russian opera or minor Italian madrigals can indulge it extensively, and often in excellently-performed versions. Orchestras and opera houses feel much more confident about their ability to pull in an audience than they used to; even contemporary music, which once existed in a complete ghetto, seems to be finding a wider audience.

What this actually means, however, in terms of active appreciation and understanding, is far from clear. In previous times, audiences were much better informed than they are now. Victorian or Edwardian audiences might not have been able to listen to their favourite pieces at leisure, as we do, but their involvement was much greater. A new symphony by Brahms, say, would incite popular lecturers to explain in terms much more analytical than rhapsodic how the piece actually worked, and these lectures were often very popular with all classes of listeners.

Programme notes were far more detailed than anything one sees today; Donald Tovey's excellent programme notes, reprinted as Essays in Musical Analysis, seem forbiddingly technical nowadays, with their lavish musical examples and confident use of technical terms. But they were written to accompany popular concerts, and were not considered to demand any especial expertise. Most tellingly, that Brahms symphony would have been swiftly followed by the publication of a reduction for piano duet, which the listener could hack through and follow individual moments of interest in an informed way which now seems almost incredible. A new orchestral work by Harrison Birtwistle could never be published in piano-duet reduction, and if it could, hardly anyone would buy it. These days, you can buy the CD.

Inevitably, the culture of music these days is much less informed, and I find it hard to imagine what many listeners get out of a symphony by Beethoven or Mahler if, like most listeners, they don't understand the patterns of symphonic form. Without an understanding of sonata form, the first movement of the Eroica Symphony must seem like a rapturous torrent, no more than that; the rigorous and powerfully logical argument which would have been so clear to a previous generation of ordinary listeners must seem quite obscure.

Indeed, a demonstration of this came with Nick Dear's recent film for the BBC about the premiere of the Eroica. Good as it was, the film failed in one conspicuous way. It aimed to show viewers how outrageous the symphony seemed to its first listeners, but had no real means of demonstrating this in musical terms. We had a great deal of biographical guff about Beethoven, and a lot of images of listeners responding as listeners do now, with amazement at the general noise of the piece. These days, we have very little way of conveying to a general audience the intellectual power of the piece. Only the most extreme of the musical gestures, the false entry of the horn at the beginning of the recapitulation, could be commented on at all. It proved quite impossible to show the symphony as thought, and it was reduced, as ever, to sensory overload.

Mr Zander is on to a good thing in trying to explain music in this way, but his intentions are mistaken. We don't want to learn how to become more rhapsodic over Mahler, or for our already much-exercised emotions to be given any encouragement. What most listeners need, and would surely appreciate, is a guide who would explain that the last movement of the ninth symphony is a set of double variations, not just long lovely burbling, and what exactly that technical term might mean. Music is not just emotion in sound, but thought and argument, too.