Magazine article The Spectator

Writing Matters

Magazine article The Spectator

Writing Matters

Article excerpt

All my adult life I have wondered how people write about music, and how their efforts are received by the public. It has always struck me as being an uncertain business, more miss than hit, and more miss than writing about other artistic endeavours. It seems to be more difficult for a writer to find an individual voice, a convincing prose style, when talking about music than when discussing painting or architecture, or even when writing across the arts. By and large the public have responded to this sense of uncertainty by putting music on one side: not by giving up on the concerts themselves, but by not elevating music books to the status of compulsory reading of the standing of, say, Gombrich's The Story of Art or Clark's Civilisation.

Mention of these two general histories of the arts reminds me of something else: music hardly appears in them. Clark did his best with the Viennese classics, but at one point in the television series he referred to William Purcell when he meant Henry, and no one thought it necessary to correct him. Gombrich hardly mentions music at all. The fact is that these two polymaths didn't know enough about music to speak with any authority about it, while making it their business to know as much as could be known about the visual arts. To them and to their intended publics music was not in the same category of knowledge.

Why this division? Is it the old saw, that music of its nature cannot be described in words? Or is it that music does not attract the best writers, even academic ones, because any musician worth his salt will be playing the stuff, not writing about it? Or maybe it really is too difficult to write well about something that needs special training to read. You can print a painting (to everyone's delight) and analyse it; to do the same with music you must print the music itself, and then only a fraction of it; at which point you lose not only many of your readers but something else alongside the interruption: fluency in prose.

The upshot tends to be quite a strict division in writing about music. The specialist journals go for the involved analysis, filling half the available space with music examples and the other half with highly technical talk about recurring motifs, modulations to the sub-mediant, 12-note series and double counterpoint. …

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