08
Nov
10

The Future of Classical Music?

Three very different things that cropped up recently have caused me to ponder over the future of music. The first came from the Hong Kong Philharmonic who wanted notes to support a concert they were doing for students highlighting the different periods of musical history. I’ve been growing increasingly sceptical of the value of dividing music up into historical periods. True, it makes sense to find stylistic similarities between composers who lived roughly at the same time, but it can prove a damaging distraction. I’ve lost count of the students who, lumping Domenico Scarlatti, J S Bach and Purcell together as “Baroque” composers, think they are stylistically the same. In fact, Bach is probably closer to Brahms than he is to either Purcell or Scarlatti, but slavish adherence to the clear division of historical periods prevents them from recognising this.

That said, there are certain very loose connections which link music written at certain periods, and we can define those periods quite easily. Baroque, for example, began when Monteverdi started writing his operas around 1600 and finished when Bach died in 1750. Classical, too, ran its course until Weber started getting all Romantic in the early 1820s. But then we run into difficulties. Music theory books, still the common currency amongst those who follow the English musical education system, all seem to date from the 1930s when the Second Viennese School was all the rage, and so they conveniently end the Romantic era in 1900 and call everything that has come after “Twentieth Century”. That doesn’t hold water any more, and only those who never listen to music would still accept there is a definable period we can call “Twentieth Century”. Does anyone really feel there is any validity in linking Debussy, Elgar, Rachmaninov and Richard Strauss with Birtwistle, Boulez, Messiaen and Cage? For the HKPO, which was representing the “Modern era” with a Shostakovich symphony, I wrote of the First World War having shattered both society and music into thousands of fragments from which society has only recently recovered and music is still in the process of recovering. This makes it possible to define the Romantic era as ending and the Modern era as starting with the end of the First World War (1918); which is also, conveniently, the date of Debussy’s death – who I would argue was an unequivocally Romantic composer – and the end of Rachmaninov’s real career as a composer (what he wrote in America after 1918 is really only a nostalgia for a long-lost age). It also helps explain why music written since 1918 does not possess those common stylistic traits which so handily link the music of previous eras. 1918 appears a particularly specific date, but it does seem the most logical, and allows for the later works of the Second Viennese School as well as the music of both Messiaen and Shostakovich to sit amongst more appropriate company.

I fervently believe that it was the First World War which changed music possibly more dramatically than anything else in the history of the art (my old tutor, Arnold Whittall acknowledged this in his splendid book of Music Since the First World War), so it would be good if music text books might begin to shake off that horrific appellation “Twentieth-Century” and recognise that for the first 18 years of the century, we were still firmly entrenched in the Romantic era.

Not long after having dispatched the HKPO notes, I found myself in Penang chatting over tea to Raymond Tan. He writes songs and music aimed particularly at young children and learners, and he asked me about my views on tonality; was it dead? I have to say I reacted with a certain horror. The idea that tonality was dead was a mantra repeated monotonously (that’s a lovely piece of irony) by composition students whilst I was at university in the 1970s, it was a phrase much in vogue amongst “radicals” during the 50s and 60s, and is a statement that actually goes back to the very early years of the last century. I had thought that the idea had been firmly laid to rest when Boulez effectively discovered that music couldn’t exist without tonality, albeit not in the traditional sense, and that the new generation of composers since the Second World War – Adams, Reich, Glass, Pärt, Tavener, the lot of them – had actually rediscovered tonality and were busily reinvigorating music through it. But then my mind passed to the gruesome Contemporary Chamber Music concerts Kevin Field directed for the MPO some years ago and, more particularly, to his promotion of music by Malaysian composers.

The MPO Forum for Malaysian Composers has long been held up as a great contribution to Malaysian cultural life, but I have always fundamentally disagreed with its purpose. Malaysia is simply not ready to breed composers of value; experimenters, adventurers, yes, but composers with a real message to pass on to the music-loving public, no, not a bit of it. And the reason is clear. If we look at two very different countries, Australia and China, we see composers only now beginning to emerge. Forgetting for the moment Percy Grainger, very much a one-off in anybody’s books, it’s only been since the 1950s that serious composers have really emerged from Australia, yet classical music has been around there for the best part of a century, the first professional orchestra in Australia (the Melbourne Symphony) founded in 1906. In China, symphonic music has only existed since the 1930s and while the last decade has seen the appearance of Chinese-born composers on the world stage, the vast majority of those have been trained, and most still live, in the west. This tells us that it takes decades of musical activity in a country before genuine composing talent emerges. Yet Malaysia has been in existence only since 1963, and professional music has been a part of its culture only since 1998. There’s a long way to go before the country can hope to breed a worthwhile composer. The MPO would do better to devote its energies and resources into creating and nurturing new conducting talent; there’s none around at the moment which can fill the void left by the departure of Datuk Ooi Chean See.

But I digress. The Malaysian composers promoted so enthusiastically by the MPO all seem to seek their inspiration from the worn out and discredited systems of 50 years ago, and get very angry when audiences don’t seem to respond with the statutory; “Oooh. You are clever writing music which sounds so horrible it must be intellectually way above our level!” They revel in abandoning tonality – Boulez went there, did that, even bought the Tee shirt before giving it all up as a bad job – and in attempting to shock by use of what they regard as anti-traditional elements but which, by their very nature, are firmly inspired by the very traditions they purport to eschew. It worked when music was looking for somewhere to go after the Second Viennese School petered out, but has no relevance whatsoever today, now that music does seem to be heading in the direction of new tonality. Love them or loathe them (I’m firmly in the former group), the minimalists and their later manifestations have found a musical genre which is accessible to the casual listener but intellectually stimulating to those who delve deeper. It does what it should – immediately attract but continue to absorb after repeated listening – and for those idiots who utter the silly platitudes that “Mozart shocked in his day”; no he didn’t. He was writing music which was designed to attract his audience, while at the same time expand their horizons. That surely is the purpose of all new music, and we are only beginning to get back to that situation.

Then, just I felt that the future of music was beginning to shape itself up nicely, along came a third piece of the puzzle which has set me thinking all over again. International Record Review has sent me in my monthly batch of discs to review, one of John Scott Whiteley playing his own organ music. Now I have great admiration for John Scott Whiteley. He’s held a single job for years while I’ve been flitting around doing odds and ends, and he’s done wonders working steadily and solidly with the music at York Minster. He’s also a jolly fine organist and, for good measure, a very nice fellow (or, at least, he was when I last met him in the early 1980s when we were training as ABRSM examiners together, and I doubt whether he’s changed radically since then). But I’d never realised he was a composer. That’s something I didn’t know. But I know it now. In fact, I know so much about his thoughts, aspirations, background, intentions, influences and output, that I can almost regard myself as an authority. The only thing is, I’ve still not heard a note of it (and you’ll have to buy the magazine to see what I think of his music once I’ve got round to listening to the disc – follow the link to order your copy!). My immense knowledge of the complete works of JSW comes from the booklet which accompanies the disc. It has to be the most appalling piece of conceit, self-aggrandisement or verbal soul-baring – call it what you will – that I’ve ever read. There is more information here than you get with whole tomes of learned treatises on JSB. We know when and where he wrote each note, who was in his mind when he wrote it, what influenced him; the only thing we don’t know is what he had for breakfast each day he was composing, but I am pretty sure I know the answer. JSW seems to have lived off a diet of café au lait and croissant, with the occasional piece of fromage and baguette thrown in for good measure. When it comes to Francophilia, he’s up there way ahead of the pack. And the astonishing this is, when his tutors (Bryan Kelly and William Lloyd Webber) accused him of being too influenced by the French style, he bristled with indignation and suggest he would far rather be described as an “internationalist”. What’s his game? Page after page of this self-indulgent drivel draws attention to his unfettered admiration for French music, his determination to follow Pierre Cochereau (a man as French as they come) in his organ writing, and lists influences which are, almost without exception, French. What is about organists that makes them think there were only ever two periods of musical history – North German Baroque and French Romantic – and that if they are to write music, it must copy one or other of those, preferably the latter, because it promotes the dazzling virtuoso toccata which always pulls in the punters?

As I say, I have no idea what JSW’s music is like. But if his voluminous navel-gazing is anything to go by, he writes pastiche French stuff for organ and choir and is proud of it. I don’t see the future of music as being this, even if it does entertain and attract the listeners. Going over tired and tested methods from previous times can work (look at Brahms, look at Stravinsky, look, for goodness’ sake, at Flor Peeters – a dire composer, but at least one with a very distinctive voice) but it needs to be spiced up by adding something new and original. If torn between the desertion of tonality or the propagation of it through mere re-living former glory days, then I think I’ll give up music altogether and return to my old job as a bus driver. It will give me a lot more excitement.

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3 Responses to “The Future of Classical Music?”


  1. November 19, 2010 at 12:42 pm

    Dear Dr. Marc,
    I couldn’t imagine myself how music will be like if tonality were dead. However, as you said it, Malaysian composers today seem to be proud of abandoning tonality altogether. They do seem to think that a piece with no tonality is the way to go in this era.

    But while it is true that it takes decades before genuine composing talent can emerge, there must be a starting point for Malaysian composers. Perhaps the problem about Malaysian composers is to define their identity as Malaysian composers, hence all the experimenting with the lack of tonality. After all, what sort of music is “Malaysian music”? Malay? Chinese? Indian? Iban? Kadazan? The thick jungles of Malaysia? It may take many, many years before the Malaysian likes of John Williams, Joe Hisaishi, etc. (I don’t know what you think of them, doc) can be produced locally, but there has to be a start, don’t you think?

    The development of the classical music industry here in Malaysia could be sluggish, especially considering the fact that society here does not look upon seriously on the prospects of classical music. Many, like me, may have talents and aspiration to be like you, Datuk Ooi Chean See or Ms. Adeline Wong, but we receive little or no support at all to venture further into music. Yet, there isn’t much promotion or publication locally on the prospects of this field. Many, like me, are also upset that we will remain an amateur pianist/violinist/cellist/flautist, an amateur composer and never a conductor, simply because we receive no family support whatsoever. And the Malaysian society frowns heavily upon the idea of not listening to your parents’ “advice”, which can be taken easily as rebellion.

    • 2 drmarcrochester
      November 20, 2010 at 7:44 am

      Hi Henry

      What a thought-provoking and sensible comment. I think you have hit the nail squarely on the head; Malaysia is socially not ready to take music seriously enough to encourage its own to succeed. So, of course, Malaysian composers have to root around in the dark to find their voice. I wholly agree that the current wave of composers (and it’s astonishing how many there are) are doing a fantastic job in getting their voices heard in a culture that doesn’t want to hear them. My only argument – and it seems to be yours too – is that they cannot yet sit on their laurels and say that Malaysia has a vaild voice on the world stage – there’s a long way to go before that happens.

      I DO wish someone would encorouge Malaysian conducting talent, though, as I see this as the first step to turning native Malaysian musicians from consumers to suppliers.

      I wish you all the best and I hope you will post here any news you have on your endeavours.

  2. November 20, 2010 at 12:34 pm

    Yes, Dr. Marc. I do believe that someone should encourage Malaysian conducting talent, which could encourage a paradigm shift for Malaysians aspiring to be full-fledged musicians. Besides the lack of social support, there is also a matter of incentive. Like it or not, Dr. Marc, we are a society that speaks on the basis of benefits – if it does not benefit you to do one thing, why bother doing it? Sadly, Malaysian society does not see “passion” as one of the most important reasons for the younger generation to pursue their dreams.

    We are pounded by words like, “There is no future being a musician”, “Music is not a profession”, “Being a medical doctor/engineer/lawyer/(insert whatever other professions there are in this world) is far more noble and respected”, etc. etc. On top of that, the government, and sadly, not even the musical society itself, promote the field of music to the younger generation and parents alike actively, explaining on the incentives that one can enjoy as a musician (be it a performer, a composer or a conductor). Perhaps the government should play a role by providing incentives and encouraging more Malaysians to participate in the field of performing arts, but the following question is in dire need of an answer: Is it ready to do so?

    It may astonish you that there are many young musicians out there sitting for their Grade 8 examinations, and quite a number would attempt the ATCL/LTCL/DipABRSM/LRSM/AMusA/LMusA. Even in Ipoh alone where I live, there are quite a number of students taking music examinations. While some are pushed by their parents to be examined, I believe that those who go up till Associate or Licentiate do so at their own interest and passion for music. But where do they end up eventually?

    I am genuinely passionate about music, yet after obtaining the Associate diploma, I found myself in an engineering school. I am nearing the end of my engineering studies, but distancing myself from music proves to be so difficult. I yearned the day when I would be in the DFP not to just watch but to be on stage and show the people what talents that the country can actually produce. That time came when I had the opportunity to perform in the DFP during the Tapestry of Colours concert in August this year; I was with the Chinese orchestra. For some of us, it was indeed a dream come true; it was a prestige and an honour – what’s more, it satisfies the yearning of the soul to learn that you have performed well and that the audience appreciates your show! For the rest, it would remain as an eternal dream.

    There are quite a few people who are in my situation: we have the passion for music, and we aspire to be professional musicians, yet we are doing something else. We are looking for ways to improve ourselves and to get us inducted into the professional circle, yet we do not know of ways to go about doing it. I am even thinking of going abroad to do postgraduate studies in engineering and to find ways to pursue musical studies even further. I cannot see how I could pursue musical studies here openly without being reprimanded.

    Dr. Marc, I am sure you realise that we do have local public universities offering Bachelor’s degree in music. But you would be horrified to learn of their technical capabilities despite holding a BMus. Our universities are just not able to churn out any worthy talents to bring up the local musical scene as a whole, not just the classical music field alone.


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