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Beethoven would have understood him: Stravinsky, painted by Delauney

There is so much hostility to attempts by artists to add to our cultural capital that I use this column to draw attention to aspects of it that I feel should be celebrated. Not this month, however.

I listen to a lot of modern classical music. I never want to hear most of it again. I have heard so much crap lately that I am starting to wonder how much longer the cultural establishment can pretend that, as we say in Essex, it is not having the piss royally taken out of it; and that much contemporary music stretches the definition of "music" absurdly. It is mostly self-indulgent, cacophonous, subsidised garbage that, having managed a first performance, begins an interminable wait for a second. I wonder what on earth we do about this.

The "musical establishment" in this country is in hock to the crap merchants. Artistic directors, some impresarios and other programmers often studied with or under some soi-disant composers, and are part of a circle to which admission is secured by worshipping those whose utter lack of musical talent is disguised by this aggrandisement. And as one apologist for these people put it to me a few years ago, "I work in the arts, so of course I vote Labour."

I wonder whether it is a coincidence that when when composers relied on private patronage they wrote music that was, and remains, wonderful, but now all sorts of orchestras and public bodies channel money to them from the pockets of taxpayers, they write music that is, and will remain, crap? I think not. If it hardly matters to a composer whether people come to hear his work, or buy downloads of it in the event it is recorded, because the state-funded cheque turns up whatever, he can indulge himself to the point of exhaustion in writing what Kathleen Ferrier once memorably termed "three farts and a raspberry, orchestrated". These nonentities pose as being of the people, yet write music that only the smallest handful, and those having been in receipt of one of the most elitist educations imaginable, can even pretend to understand. And even many of them would never go as far as saying they "like" it, because much of it is profoundly unlikeable.

An excuse apologists throw out is that throughout time those who have broken the mould have been attacked for doing so, and yet their music has come to be valued. That is because it has an aesthetic, for heaven's sake. Often cited as an example is Stravinsky's "Le Sacre du Printemps", execrated when first performed in 1913 but now regarded, rightly, as a wonder. Yet this work has a form and a structure, and tunes, that allow it to grip the imagination and senses in a way that the inchoate and random noises that constitute too many modern works do not. It did, a century ago, offend tastes used to the romantic mainstream to hear works that went off-piste in this way, but that was down to a lack of understanding of how the bounds of music were too restrictive and needed to expand. The point was that they could expand still while still remaining within what was definitively musical. Now they have pushed the definition further than it can bear.

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March 11th, 2015
12:03 AM
Or cross the Atlantic to the US and revel in the profound communicative gifts of composers like Jennifer Higdon (try Blue Cathedral, Pale Yellow, or Trumpet Songs for starters) or Jake Heggie. I find that many more of the leading US composers have left mid-20th-C dissonant avant-gardism far behind and are writing music of which it can be said "From the heart, may it go to the heart."

Stefan EAnonymous
November 20th, 2014
9:11 PM
Clearly total chromaticism minus tonality was not the answer. Neither is each composer working in a private language of his or her own devising that does not refer to the tradition.A general audience cannot be expected to work out musical meanings that are unintelligible to them at the outset. But then why is Schoenberg's 2nd Chamber Symphony such a bore even though it is clearly tonal?Is the problem musical elitism by musical academics?

November 20th, 2014
4:11 PM
Mr. Heffer might want to put away the orchestral music for a while, and listen to the choral output of Part, Mealor, Whitacre, Gjeilo, Praulins,..., oh, so many more.

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