Vicious Circle

By Phillips, Peter | The Spectator, April 8, 2000 | Go to article overview

Vicious Circle


Phillips, Peter, The Spectator


The status of music as an art apart has been well attested, directly and indirectly, by writers of every period. The direct approach has been rarer, the point being rather sublimated in Pater's famous dictum that all the other arts are aspiring to the condition of music - whatever that may be. Indirect reference can amount to dutiful fumbling with music, as something which has to be included in general cultural histories, often leading to moments of awkwardness, as when Kenneth Clark referred to William (instead of Henry) Purcell in Civilisation; or simply in being quietly omitted altogether, the unspoken agenda being that such histories can only be concerned with artefacts that are visible and tangible - whether in writing, on a canvas or in 3D. At every stage it is implied that music must be left to specialists as if it were a branch of mathematics - something too technical for the ordinary follower of culture to read about easily.

This has led to a stand-off between the people who do write about music and the editors of literary reviews, who clearly mistrust them (or is it really that they mistrust themselves when it comes to music and fear that, as editors, they may commit professional solecisms unwittingly, a thing not to be hazarded?). On both sides of the Atlantic I hear the same cry: there is no one who can write about music and music-books; which is simply not true, as I know very well as publisher of the Musical Times. In every issue we publish, and in numerous other journals with `music' in their titles, an army of writers are on display. But they are evidently not what literary editors want. Why?

Off-putting technicality should not be it, nor should the alarming responsibility of having to print musical examples. Music can be lucidly and intelligently discussed without either of these helps, though I don't see why a music writer should not employ words like 'chromatic', 'tonal', 'modulate', which art critics have borrowed from us and made accessible. It is obvious that everybody nowadays knows what counterpoint is, even polyphony can be talked about without alienating people; and if sonata form is less familiar to the general reader than sonnet form, that is just further proof that music has lagged behind in terms of elementary exposure. Sonata form in broad outline is as graspable as sonnet form in broad outline, while the subtleties poured into them by a Beethoven or a Shakespeare are going to pose equivalent problems of description to any commentator. This is where the long exile of music writers from literary columns has had its effect. …

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