From great composers to decorative baubels

The great works of the classical canon abide because they have something to say about the here and now. We need to stop devaluing them, writes Michael Quinn.

What is the point and purpose of classical music? Looking at what’s on offer in concert halls across the country during the shelf life of this issue, it seems a pertinent question. No other time of the year prompts programmers, performers and audiences to the same levels of habitually specific music-making and consumption as the weeks leading up to Christmas.

Something seems to happen as soon the clock ticks out of October and into November. As the nights lengthen and darken, concert programmes acquire a discernibly ‘seasonal’ accent: an abundance of classical lollipops by candlelight, a Snowman here, a Messiah there, and, unavoidably, a blizzard of that cuckoo in the classical nest, the one-size-fits-all carol concert.

In an age such as our own, characterised as it is by noise – or, more precisely, by the absence of silence – music, in all its manifold, multi-genre, cross-cultural guises, is ever-present, easily accessible and, as a result, dangerously close to becoming just another diluted element in the incrementally cacophonous soundtrack of our lives. It is no coincidence, perhaps, that this should seem more so at this time of year when music is seen to perform an unambiguously subservient function that it refuses and resists elsewhere in the calendar.

However much we may protest otherwise, classical music has become an adjunct to other experiences; something that merely accompanies something else – a film, a dinner party, a night out, a night in, the car journey, the shopping trip, the on-hold phone call. As never before, classical music is everywhere, yet because we hear it all the time, its vitality and variety, its capacity to stir and move, is being slowly siphoned out of it to the point where it becomes something that is not heard, and seldom actually listened to. In far too many respects classical music has acquired the same quality (or lack thereof) that water did for George Bernard Shaw, who rather ruefully observed that we no longer recognise or appreciate the taste of water because it is always in our mouths.

Increasingly, the general assumption seems to be that if classical music has a function at all, it is to provide a marker for an event – an anniversary, a calamity, a sports tournament, a death – rather than to mean something in and off itself. In such instances, it is reduced to brute utilitarianism: balm and succour in times of distress, gravitas at times of commemoration or danger. Such appropriation begs the question: what classical music will be played at the death of classical music itself?

This dilution wasn’t always so automatic. The programming of particular works at particular times of the year underlines the creeping commoditisation of classical music. The most ubiquitous of all seasonal classical favourites, Handel’s Messiah, has but a coincidental association with Christmas having been written for performances in a public music hall during Lent. Yet it is performed at Christmas because, it seems, erroneously, always to have been performed at Christmas – a ‘tradition’ that over the years has reduced the work to the status of an Advent jingle. And where the prospect of a full performance seems less than palatable, it is traduced still further to a usually bloated and bellowed drunks-at-Midnight Mass account of the ‘Hallelujah’ chorus that becomes nothing less than a cheap – and cheapening – spiritual emetic.

Why should this be the case with Messiah and not with Haydn’s Die Schöpfung, a no less majestic or rousing expression of faith? Or Berlioz’ just as dramatically vivid L’enfance du Christ? Both of those works are equally packed with arias and choruses that lift the roof in performance as they move the spirit. So why Handel’s ‘Hallelujah’ chorus and not Haydn’s ‘Die Himmerl erzählen’ or Berlioz’s ‘L’adieu des bergers’?

It is because Messiah has been robbed of its own credentials and lazily subsumed within a context that is not exclusively its own. Performances of Beethoven’s Eroica aren’t confined to the anniversary of Napoleon’s birth in August each year, and no one would suggest that Shostakovich’s third symphony be confined to May Day, or Schumann’s first symphony only to spring.

In his pointedly titled book Who Needs Classical Music? (OUP, 2002), the composer and academic Julian Johnson argues that classical music now ‘occupies a position similar to that of religion… while its apparent lack of modernity puts many people off, it is occasionally welcomed for the touch of solemnity and historical gravity it brings to big public occasions. It is tolerated so long as it presents itself as a wholly private matter – “a matter of faith”’.

And there, surely, is the rub. If the plastic and self-perpetuating circle of ‘faith’ can’t be squared, then it will need to be broken. The great works of the classical canon abide because they have something to say about the here and now far beyond the recent tendency to timetable them as tacked-on fanfares for other events and occasions.

If it is to have a future, classical music must refuse the reflex associations that are increasingly foisted upon it, be argued for and about and experienced on its own rich, complex, multi-faceted and rewarding terms. To chip relentlessly away at the mighty cornerstones of the repertoire by relegating them to the role of decorative baubles is dubious, de-valuing and dangerous.

‘Music means itself’, the eminent critic Eduard Hanslick declared more than a century ago. The assertion that music – of any culture, period or style – has merit, value and worth in and of itself is surely a sentiment that has informed the transformation of the standing of traditional music in Ireland in recent decades. A generation ago, no-one, surely, would have predicted a form so vital and varied, so in touch with its own heritage and so enthusiastic and confident about itself as is so obviously the case today.

The current explosion in the consumption of digitally-delivered music – a staggering eight billion tracks have been downloaded in the seven years since Apple launched its industry-changing iTunes store – points to an unprecedented appetite for music. And the developing profile of this very magazine – in which all music is contemporary and is allowed to variously inhabit separate but parallel continuua while sharing a wider, and living, history with the invigoratingly pluralist expressions of music-making currently available to us – suggests that there is also an appetite for new ways of thinking about music that readily accommodates fresh ways of consuming and creating it.

It is time, now, to begin to recognise, and to celebrate and challenge, the fabulous riches of several centuries of classical music. And perhaps the best way to do that is to begin to listen to it again precisely for what it can give us: itself.

Published on 1 November 2008

Michael Quinn is a freelance music and theatre journalist based in Co. Down.

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