While the Music Lasts
Taylor, Spaulding, Contemporary Review
CLASSICAL music is dying in Britain; the patient is being wheeled into casualty; the respirator is pulsing in erratic gasps. A handful of devoted experts are huddled anxiously over it; but the gates are empty of journalists, and bulletins ('critical but stable') are being posted to only a couple of incurious passers-by. Classical music is dying, and no one cares.
An alarmist view, surely. Look at the hordes trooping into operatic extravaganzas from Wembley to the Birmingham National Exhibition Centre -- but this appears to have a minimal rub-off effect on the main opera houses, and only applies to opera anyway. Londoners may protests, pointing towards their record number of professional symphony orchestras -- but the orchestras are desperate, locked into a circle of performing more and more pot-bioler repertoire to get audiences, which nonetheless become smaller and smaller, sensing the stench of decay. There are, of course, exceptions, but even the best orchestras, playing the most stimulating programmes, are attracting less and less interest from the general public. The BBC is currently reviewing the future of all of its orchestras. The major newspapers, following what seems to be the trend, review fewer and fewer classical concerts; rock and jazz have taken over the arts pages in our journals, and why not? This is what interests most readers.
It isn't only classical music, of course. Classical theatre is currently in the doldrums, having largely given way to musicals both timeless nad transitory. Shakespeare is reckoned too 'difficult' for today's pupils to cope with. (Why? Are they stupider than previous generations?) Trendy arts programmes like The Late Show concentrate on the esoteric, the outlandish, the new -- anything new, however lacklustre or derivative -- at the expense of artistic groups dedicated to interpreting the masterpieces of Europe's past. Recently, public arguments have raged about the virtues and vices of daring to judge artistic output, whether in literature, music or visual art. Yet relativism misses the most basic point, which is why no one outside the cosy coteries is listening. The artistic establishment has lost touch with it roots. The elite has betrayed its own kind; it has gone where the music-lover cannot follow it. In the end, by sheer power of abstentions, the arts will collapse -- more, they are collapsing, the collapse has started. No amount of brave talk will immediately re-establish the pillars of our shared culture.
If this sounds alarmist, consider the facts. The splintering of our musical culture is already well advanced. The elite, dominated by the upper-classes, which set the artistic standard in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, has lost their way. The upper-classes may indeed attend Glyndebourne as well as Ascot, but they cannot be counted on to attend Checkov -- and their tastes are no longer seen as guide to the middle classes anyway. The aspiration middle-classes, in many ways more cultured than the artistocracy, may still choose to have their daughters taught the piano--through a surprising number of daughters still quit upon marrying -- but are dashed if they are going to attend a piano recital at the Wigmore hall. They might buy a compact disc of Tchaikovsky's symphonies, but the notion of hearing them live does not enthrall them. Never having been taught to love opera, they consider a whole opera intimidating; but their innate yearning for good music causes them to tune into the three tenors concert, or even the puerile 'Young Musician of the Year' on the BBC.
As for the rest of society, their pretensions to middle-class comforts seem to begin and end with home improvements and an up-graded car. High culture is viewed with suspicion, if not downright hostility. …