Let the parrot lead the Proms

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Twenty-five years ago, when I became so-called literary editor of Punch, I received an invitation to a book launch. I had never been invited to a book launch before. I didn't know what it was. But it was pretty clear what it was meant to be. It was meant to be a party for the publication of a new book, to which we were bidden so that we could raise a glass and celebrate the author and his new book.

It seemed obvious to me that we couldn't really celebrate this new book unless we had read it, so I patiently sat down and read The Business of Music by Ernst Roth.

When I got to the party I took a glass and circulated, saying to complete strangers, "So, what did you think of the book, then?" How naive I was. Some people looked quite horrified at the idea of having read a new book, even if they were getting free drinks off it. Others even looked puzzled and asked me what book I was talking about. One friendly man finally drew me aside and kindly warned me that I should never reveal at a book launch that I had actually read the book, as it was a very un-British form of showing off, like wearing loud waistcoats or correcting other people's quotations.

"Nobody ever reads the book until after the launch, and even if they have read it, they don't admit it or discuss it."

So I never got to meet anyone who had read The Business of Music by Ernst Roth, which was a shame, as Roth had lots of interesting things to say about modern music. He had been one of the top music publishers in Vienna before the Second World War, fled Austria and come to London, where he had worked his way up to the top of Boosey and Hawkes. From this lofty vantage point he had a good view in all directions of the music world, and what he saw, on the whole, horrified him.

He saw serious concert music being driven more and more by its own history up an intellectual and arid cul-de-sac, and he saw popular music being driven up a similar cul-de-sac, but one governed by raw emotion, an outflow of untreated feeling. He thought that, ideally, music should have both an intellectual and an emotional content, but that somewhere along the line things had become divorced from each other. It's hard to deny his analysis. New concert music does not speak to us emotionally. New rock music does little else.

It's sometimes said that rock music is making us inured to high decibel levels, but what is less noticed is that it is making us resistant to high emotional levels as well. If we sit down for a cup of coffee in a cafe or go into a shop to buy a shirt, and both places have a sound system playing songs on which the singers express suicidal unhappiness or even suicidal happiness, or an Eric Clapton clone is playing a clenched-teeth solo, we switch off mentally. We have taught ourselves to ignore the high emotional content of rock music as much as we ignore traffic noise and huge advertising posters.

It is ludicrous that jeans shops should echo night and day to highly charged, hoarsely sung lyrics. It is equally ludicrous that we should not even notice it ...

Ernst Roth was born in 1896, so I think we can assume he is no longer with us, but if he were here, I don't think he would need to revise his ideas much. Things may have got less worse in some ways, but the new music world is still divided between the arid concert world and the stridently soulful pop world. (The only improvement is the recognition of world music, that is to say, the recognition that there are forms of folk music in the world that are more sophisticated than pop music and more attuned to feeling than concert music.)

And people are still getting worked up about the way we listen to music. Interviewed in the Independent a week ago, Sir John Drummond was sounding off to Giles Smith about the awful crowd of people who turn up for the Last Night of the Proms. "There's a man who comes every year with an inflatable parrot on a string," said Drummnd. "He comes up and says, 'I've got my parrot.' And I think, 'Oh yes, of course you've got your bloody parrot.' And all through the thing he's bobbing up and down with his bloody parrot. Me, me, me, me, me! That's what it's all about."

When I read that I thought to myself that there is a man like that at every concert, but he doesn't bob up and down with a parrot. He bobs up and down with a little white baton. Change parrot for baton, and you have a fairly good description of the average orchestral conductor. Me, me, me, me, me ... Very good indeed.

(Tomorrow we venture even deeper into the dangerous jungle of modern music.)