So, Who Did Kill Classical Music?

The detective may change, but the suspects (all those dreadful serialists) haven’t. This time, Gabriel Prokofiev is pointing the finger in a short documentary for Radio 4.

When details of this programme did the rounds of Twitter and Facebook last week there was quite a bit of facepalming and disbelief. Who approved clumsy and ahistorical statements such as ‘Until the early 20th century, each composer of classical music developed his own style built on the traditions of previous composers. Then Arnold Schoenberg changed all this, by devising “Serialism” where melodies were no longer allowed’; and ‘Ironically, in these countries [Russia and the Soviet bloc], the State continued to support classical music, whereas in more liberal regimes in Europe it retreated to the intellectual margins’? In the end, it was assumed the copy must have been written by an in-house scribe, not the programme makers themselves. Now, that doesn’t seem the case; both statements appeared in the show’s script.

Why, once again, this obsession with the transition from Schoenberg to total serialism? As though total serialism was something of immense cultural power, and not a niche event that lasted maybe a couple of years and sustained a handful of works. Le marteau was trotted out as the quintessential total serial work; except that the compositional procedures going on there are both more complex and more diffuse than true serialism. And that’s precisely it: the series was never really the point, it was what came after, the doors it unlocked.

Almost no statement was examined. Instead, we got a string of not terribly original arguments for why classical music was failing. (Itself an unexamined assertion.) A couple of examples stood out for me. In one passage the Daily Telegraph‘s Ivan Hewett states that sitting in silence to listen to music is quite a recent ‘cultural invention’, dating back only ‘two and a bit centuries’.

OK, three things. Firstly, if you’re measuring cultural change at a level at which ‘two and a bit centuries ago’ represents the ‘quite recent’, you’re being a little too geological about this.

Secondly, we’re talking about music. A realm entirely made up of ‘cultural inventions’. Why are these bad things?

Thirdly: ‘two and a bit centuries ago’ would also do for the piano; are we about to toss that out too?

At another point, Hewett bemoans certain ‘enormously rarefied’ areas of contemporary music, which:

bolstered by this cult of the silent, reverent concert hall, has encouraged the growth of a certain kind of very elaborate, hyper-refined, hyper-intellectualised form of contemporary music which is inevitably of interest to a really tiny cult, a sort of priesthood in a way.

Asked for his solution to this problem, he replies:

Maybe the path forward that will lead to a renewal of art music is to do with taking music into newly created spaces. And perhaps initiatives like [Nonclassical] and others will only come of age when they start to create their own repertoire that is made for that space.

And here is where a bit of reflection, and perhaps the intervention of a BBC editor, might have been useful. Because what is a concert hall if not a purpose-built space that, by Hewett’s own argument, has encouraged the creation of a certain kind of repertoire? I’m not arguing that new music should be confined to a concert hall ghetto. Far from it. I’ve had extraordinary musical experiences both within and without such spaces. I’m absolutely in favour of intelligent plurality. But to imagine that substituting one set of curated, purpose-built, repertory-bolstered spaces for another is going to lead to any sort of meaningful renewal is just wooly thinking.

The problem is that I don’t think Hewett, or maybe even Prokofiev, see it like that: change, qua change, is good. Because the status quo is bad. Both sides of that equation deserve much more serious analysis in a programme like this. Would the BBC let something on another subject slip through this casually argued?

Towards the end of the programme we arrive at Duke’s Hall at the Royal Academy of Music. The composer Tansy Davies admits that she doesn’t know who most of the portraits on the wall are. Prokofiev describes the room as ‘an impressive, historic, monument to classical music’, in which they are ‘surrounded by these great, historical figures of classical music’. ‘That tradition is a heavy thing, and a wonderful thing’, replies Davies.

Except that, well… It’s quite easy to look up who these portraits are (Google Duke’s Hall Portraits). And they’re not, by generally accepted yardsticks, the ‘great historical figures of classical music’. They are – as is common in the halls of many long-established educational institutions in this country – portraits of former students, teachers and directors. So here’s the pianist and academy director Frederick Bowen Jewson, aged nine; here’s Sir Alexander Campbell Mackenzie, a long-serving principal from 1888–1924; here’s a child portrait of Reverend Canon Professor Sir Frederick Arthur Gore Ouseley, first elected President of the Royal Musical Association. Important figures in their time, but not exactly Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven. Duke’s Hall – and fair enough – isn’t so much a monument to classical music as it as a monument to the RAM.

This is a small slip, but 20 minutes in it sounds symptomatic of a programme that is keen to seek support for its own agenda wherever it can find it. Prokofiev’s interviewing technique is to feed leading questions, and then agree with the answers that come back. What material he did use from his contributors did little to divert that course.

In the wake of Howard Goodall’s Story of Music last year, I’m no longer surprised to see the BBC commissioning music documentaries like this, but I do wonder whether anyone at Radio 3 was listening in.

Who Killed Classical Music is currently on iPlayer, and will be re-broadcast in the UK on Radio 4 on Saturday at 3.30pm.


L-R: Webern, Stockhausen, Berg, Schoenberg, Boulez

14 thoughts on “So, Who Did Kill Classical Music?

  1. Who produced the programme? The most effective way of challenging tired and shameful ‘documentary’ is to actually challenge it: if everyone reading this complains to the BBC directly with a short personal letter then a response will have to be issued. If responses come from a wide range of people so much the better but signatures from those with academic affiliations and the like especially useful.

  2. Good blog post Tim thank you. I had a listen to the programme – it’s not entirely accurate as you say and I agree very much with the idea that we’re a bit obsessed with serialism. I think it is broadly sympathetic to the actual music though, and it is interesting to hear Sandy Goehr’s likening Darmstadt to a political party. I think there are some truths there which are easy to overlook based on the style and accuracy of the script (which I think can be attributed to the BBC’s need to reduce difficult concepts to the lowest common denominator). There is obviously an argument to be had about the relevance, audience and marketing of contemporary classical music. It’s a shame that it is so often presented in such watered down and biased terms,

  3. I get somewhat tired of repeating that “serialism” is not a style of music but a method of composition, and (as Tim says) that “integral serialism” properly describes only a handful of compositions, several of which (Boulez’s Polyphonie X, the first version of Stockhausen’s Punkte) were rapidly withdrawn. Maybe it’s the “-ism” that gives rise to so much misunderstanding. (Personally I always use the term “seriality”.) On the other hand I don’t think I’d describe GP and IH’s take on the situation as “change, qua change, is good. Because the status quo is bad.” Rather, what they want is a new status quo, one in which anomalous disturbances like integral serialism, or “Darmstadt”, or whatever they choose to call them, wouldn’t be allowed to attain the supposed ascendancy that they have. But actually, musical conservatives like Hewett and Prokofiev have always had things mostly their own way. Like the paymasters of Cameron’s Tories, they aren’t satisfied with that and they want the rest as well.

  4. Comparing Darmstadt to a political party is interesting but inaccurate. During the dozen years I worked there in the 80s and 90s as a sound projectionist and designer, the director Herr Hummel made a heroic attempt to make the institution open to as wide a range of musical genres as possible. Even that ultra-dogmatist Brian Ferneyhough did not impose his own criteria on the compositional content — I was present at a lot of the planning sessions. The sometimes chaotic results were a manifestation, not of dictatorial control, but of the inherent chaos of human relationships.

    Perhaps the abominable food that we were inevitably stuck with as a result of the fact that this was a school during its holiday period had something to do with it.

  5. John Whiting, apparently the food was always awful. In the early years, simply because of shortages, then because of it being, well, German institutional cooking. In an interview, Milton Babbitt complained that in the one year he came (in the early sixties), he was put up in a dorm room where he couldn’t sleep and given food he couldn’t eat. Though Ernst Thomas desperately wanted Babbitt to return the next year, he refused. I remember my shock at the smell of the place when I came to Darmstadt in 1990. Fortunately, I had commuted every day from Frankfurt, where, being penurious, I also had to job almost every weekday, so hadn’t paid for meals and could eat at home or somewhere on the way. By 1990, German catering had much improved and there were certainly some decent options, food-wise, in and around the town of Darmstadt, so one has to surmise that the lousy food was, by then, an administrative choice, an act of design if not principle on someone’s part, especially the evil idea of parking the canteen near the front entrance. Abandon all hope and all that, I guess. For myself, at the beginning of a modest career, I think it provided a reasonable example that, if this was supposed to be a peak experience in the new music world, it was useful to lower some material expectations right away. And that’s done some wonders for my mental health ever since. I suppose that there are some musicians who don’t care what food, indeed what atmosphere in general, accompanies their music; I’m not one of them.

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