The death of classical music? In search of vital signs (1)

We’ve been here before, haven’t we. The prophets of doom have been clearing their throats again to announce the impending death of classical music. The source of the latest jeremiad is English novelist and journalist Philip Hensher, writing in the British Independent newspaper on May 18, who begins his lament by noting that the London Underground has taken to playing the opening of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony over public address tannoys – but not in order to lift the spirits of weary commuters. Instead, Henscher notes, it seems that researchers in the field of sociopathology have come to the conclusion that the general public is so averse to classical music that anyone tempted to loiter with malicious intent will be sent running in the opposite direction. Beethoven as crime deterrent – a depressing sign of the times:

‘Even 20 or 30 years ago, the great history of art music was something of general interest and respect. Now, it has turned into, at best, a specialist interest, and at worst something to move people along rapidly in a public place. Are we seeing the end of art music? Is our generation the last that will see it as anything but a remote and specialised interest in this country?’

As a symptom of this malaise, Hensher points to the way in which serious music competitions such as BBC Young Musician of the Year (which I can remember following with great interest as a teenager, and which first brought several friends of mine to public attention) have lately been completely upstaged in the media by celebrity ‘talent’ shows whose message is that years of painstaking study, discipline and noble aspirations are a nothing but a waste of time in our karaoke era:

‘There is space on television for people who can’t conduct and can’t sing – Maestro and Popstar to Operastar – but not for people who can. Soon, we will be asked to admire a pretty girl playing a first-month piano exercise with elaborate orchestration behind her. The art acquired over a lifetime will be sought out for admiration by a diminishing few.’

Such words may sound elitist and a little cruel, but it has to be admitted that there is something distinctly strange in reading about a TV programme such as ‘Maestro at the Opera’ in which celebs – not professional musicians – battle it out for the right to conduct an act of Puccini’s La Bohème at London’s Royal Opera House. You can make up your own mind as to whether you find the rationale offered by the ROH itself convincing or not, but it is worth remembering (a fact of which the general public is not necessarily aware) that the opera houses of the world function thanks to largely invisible music staff, many of them endowed with encyclopedic knowledge of the operatic art and remarkable talent in several disciplines – including the extremely difficult job of singer psychotherapy – who will never be given such opportunities.

Hensher pinpoints what he sees as the collapse of ‘cultural confidence’, the notion that ‘everyone can and might enjoy art music, if they’re exposed to it’, as having occurred over a period spanning the last decade of the twentieth century and the first of the new millenium. For the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, cue BBB: Bernstein and the Berlin Phil. playing Beethoven 9. For the twentieth anniversary of the event in 2009, bring on rock band Tokio Hotel: readers can draw their own conclusions from Hensher’s comparison …

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There is much with which I can sympathize in this article – Hensher’s point is surely well-taken that one of the spiritual ailments of Britain (and by extension the affluent West in general) is the mass media’s reduction of anything and everything to the level of superficial entertainment. That the deeper significance of art-music seems to be a closed book to much of Western society is indisputable. Indeed, there is a certain irony in the fact that it is not in the countries that birthed it but in once-colonized nations such as Venezuela or the Democratic Republic of Congo (which might have been thought likely to react against Western classical music as an alien cultural expression imposed by imperialist aggression) that its transformative social potential has been grasped most spectacularly through participatory grass-roots initiatives such as El Sistema and the life-affirming work of the astonishing Kinshasa Symphony Orchestra.

And yet I cannot find myself agreeing with his wrist-slitting prognosis for the future of classical music:

‘I will miss it. Probably some readers will miss it, too. But in a hundred years, no one will. It will be incomprehensible, dead, and gone, and very few people will care.’

It may well be that the elite cultural institutions mentioned by Henscher (national public broadcasters, the great European orchestras and the hallowed canon of the Austro-German symphonic corpus that constitutes their core repertoire) are indeed in decline. But it strikes me that to say that in a century’s time classical music will be as obsolete and indecipherable as cuneiform is masochistic in the extreme. What if Philip Hensher is simply not looking in the right places, particularly in the nooks and crannies away from the limelight where in my experience some of the most interesting things are often to be found?

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I will not attempt a systematic refutation of the article’s conclusion, but merely point to a few signs of life that I myself observed on a recent whistle-stop visit to Britain. On May 13 I was at Westminster Cathedral in London, where SDG’s latest Psalm commision Love Endureth by Roxanna Panufnik had its first airing with the Cathedral choir under Martin Baker during Vespers. It is difficult to convey in writing the impact of this highly unusual sung liturgy (performed almost exclusively in Latin), projected by the choir from the East End out into the vast space of this truly cavernous building. Words such as ‘timeless’ and ‘numinous’ come readily to mind but cannot replace the sensory and spiritual experience of the moment. Westminster Cathedral is definitely what the early Celtic Christians used to call a ‘thin place’, where the veil separating the realm of worldly appearances from a greater reality of ‘things in themselves’ (to use Immanuel Kant’s categories) somehow seems less opaque than elsewhere. This is all the more notable given the Cathedral’s location in the hubbub of London’s commercial West End, a backdrop against which it stands as an important witness – in a manner not dissimilar to the church of St Gervais-St Protais in Paris, home to the Fraternité monastique de Jérusalem, or the Kaiser-Wilhelmgedächtniskirche in the heart of West Berlin – to alternative, counter-cultural values whose importance an increasing number of people inside and outside of organized Christianity are beginning to realize.

Westminster Catholic Cathedral

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Westminster Catholic Cathedral

Listening to Roxanna Panufnik’s haunting setting of Psalm 135/136, whose Sephardic Jewish melodic inflections seemed to merge seamlessly with the Cathedral’s neo-Byzantine architecture, it was as if the Biblical narrative of the liberation of Israel from Egyptian oppression (the prototypical anti-imperialistic narrative of the Judeo-Christian tradition) referred to in the text was tantalizingly made present for a few brief minutes. After the opening invocation, ‘Praise the Lord, for he is good: for His steadfast love endureth for ever’, a hauntingly poetic first section praises God’s work in creation, characterized by the gentle undulation of slow chordal streams in bitonal motion, with a mellifluous soprano solo floating above them. Love Endureth then builds to a compelling climax in its second part, in which the Hebrew text Ki L’olam chasdo (‘For forever His mercy’) is treated as an ostinato over which the choir recalls the Exodus in a powerful declamation:

‘Who brought Israel from among them: With a mighty hand and a stretched out arm: Who divided the Red Sea into parts: And brought out Israel through the midst thereof: And overthrew Pharaoh and his host in the Red Sea.’

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Westminster Cathedral Choir School

As the choir reached Love Endureth‘s culmination in the moments prior to the return of the opening refrain, the music seemed to flare up in such a way as to evoke the fiery epiphanic language of the Old Testament ‘prophetic imagination’, to use the title of a memorable study by theologian Walter Brueggemann. Were it not for the awareness that I would probably have been promptly been escorted out of the building by Cathedral security for creating a Public Disturbance, I might well have exclaimed the words of the prophet Elisha in 2 Kings 2:20 on seeing his mentor Elijah taken up to heaven in a whirlwind aboard a chariot of flame: ‘My father! My father! The chariots and horsemen of Israel!’

In attempting to describe this visionary moment it is important to emphasize the role of the Cathedral acoustic as what I can only term an ‘active presence’; prior to the service Roxanna and I had both attended the final rehearsal of the piece at the Westminster Cathedral Choir School (a constant hive of musical activity where Cathedral musicians Martin Baker and Peter Stephens march the choir through the huge daily quantity of liturgical music with remarkable efficiency and consummate professionalism), and although the sonic effect of Love Endureth in the modest rehearsal space was already impressive, the aural result in the Cathedral itself was on another plane altogether.

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Talking with people at a small reception afterwards, it was clear that I was not the only one to have found hearing Love Endureth intensely moving, and to come away from the Cathedral changed in some small way, sensing that something had happened during the liturgy. Which surely has to be one of the hallmarks of authentic worship. Sitting next to me in the nave was someone whose normal weekly encounter with the Psalms takes the less exotic form of responsive speaking in a predominantly African Methodist Church (and who was on his way to a Sunday evening service in a South London soccer stadium); as he remarked, the Westminster Cathedral Vesper service may be an acquired taste as far as its ancient language and form are concerned, but it would be a great shame were it not to exist.

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Roxanna Panufnik with the score of ‘Love Endureth’

Did someone notice any of this apart from the Cathedral congregation and maybe a few stray tourists stumbling into the building from the piazza outside? Maybe not. This particular first performance almost certainly went unobserved by the official media channels and London music critics. But so what? With the advent of social networking via the internet my hunch is that an ever greater role in the dissemination of New Music will be played not by print journals but by the infectious enthusiasm of individual bloggers eager to share their personal experience of live events with friends and other internauts. And the number of such freelance commentators is potentially far greater than we might at first think, especially when you consider that the première of Love Endureth was part of the larger London-wide Festival of Contemporary Church Music held from May 12 to 20 in venues across the city.

The programme of this festival makes for instructive reading, as it seems to indicate that, contrary to all the talk of the demise both of ‘classical’ music and of Western Christianity, there is actually a quiet explosion in artistic creation for the Church happening right now: the Festival listing contains no fewer than 18 world premières, including contributions by highly-respected names in the British contemporary music scene (Julian Anderson, David Matthews, Judith Bingham) and the active participation of top publishers Faber & Faber. If the London Festival of Contemporary Church Music’s visibility is not as great as might be expected given the sheer amount of activity represented, it is only because of the geographical spread of festival events which seem to have assembled themselves in a ‘bottom-up’ fashion rather than being concentrated in one place as a result of vertical, ‘top-down’ central planning. This kind of ’emergent structure’, to use a fashionable technical term, may fly somewhat in the face of our traditional concept of ‘event management’, but my intuition is that it represents the shape of the future: it passes relatively undetected to the untrained eye because its overall shape can only be seen from a certain altitude (what looks diffuse at ground level looks highly concentrated from a bird’s eye view, as you can test by zooming in and out of a landscape on Google Earth with the ‘places of interest’ activated).

The transition from top-down to bottom-up thinking characterizes many cultural trends in the age of Wikipedia, the OpenStreetMap project or ‘crowdfunding’. The basic principle embodied in all three is that involving as many collaborators as possible within an open source structure with a bare minimum of overall steering allows something to be generated that  is more than the sum of its parts. From Philip Hensher’s article it is not clear that he has really grasped the potential for the future of classical music represented by this innovative approach to stimulating artistic creativity (although it should be remarked in passing that the Church is probably not the first place he would look, given that he is not exactly a friend of organized religion, even if he can on occasion bring himself to say a kind word for the Martin Niemollers of this world).

A further intriguing example of what I mean is an ongoing initiative of which I also became aware during my visit to Westminster Cathedral, this time in the field of organ music. The intrepid British organist William Whitehead (who was present at the May 13 Vespers service) has embarked on a huge project to fill in the missing pages in J.S. Bach’s Orgelbüchlein that JSB left blank save for the titles of chorales encompassing the whole Church Year. The 118(!!) projected pieces to be based on these chorale melody will be written by a wide variety of composers (contributions are being actively solicited over at http://www.orgelbuechlein.co.uk/rules/ ) from students to established professionals, and will range from works for beginners to settings intended for certified 8th Dan black-belt organ virtuosi.

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It is perhaps interesting to note a conceptual convergence between William Whitehead’s scheme and the recent launch of Schott Music’s  ‘Petrushka Project’, a large-scale endeavour to generate 70 new pieces of piano music which will subsequently be available via Schott’s digital platform notafina and on a YouTube ‘Petrushka Channel’. 21 of these compositions will be aired at the Juilliard School’s Paul Hall on June 19 by pianists Michael Brown and Christopher McKiggan, including pieces by composers such as Peteris Vasks, Robert Beaser, Bernard Rands and Viktor Suslin, with further performances in the pipeline in London, Mainz and Beijing.

Another name appearing on the Petrushka Project roster which immediately drew my attention is Gavin Bryars, who will be one of the heroes of part two of my search for vital signs demonstrating that reports of classical music’s impending doom are premature. We’ll be keeping a close watch on our musical ECG and EEG monitors, so stay tuned.

Further details concerning Roxanna Panufnik’s Love Endureth, and her upcoming Warner Classics CD on which it will be included, can be found at http://www.loveabide.com/cd-tracks/

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