Home | Reviews | Articles | Festivals | Competitions | Other | Contact Us

Knowledge and ignorance in Classical music:
response to Sir Peter Maxwell Davies

When asked in the 1970s what the main result of the French revolution (1789) had been, Chou En-Lai (the then Prime Minister of China) replied ‘It’s too early to say.’ When I read Sir Peter Maxwell Davies’ spirited defence of classical music (or, indeed, Norman Lebrecht’s latest instalment of musical doom-and-gloomism, his book on the death of the classical recording industry) I feel the same.

In brief, ‘Max’’s argument, in a lecture given to the Incorporated Society of Musicians, runs like this: to understand our Western culture, we have to understand our heritage; classical music is an important part of that heritage; understanding classical music means something deeper than listening to what is easily available; it means acquiring at least some knowledge.

Among those who have good general education, syas ‘Max’, there is a disproportion between the state of their knowledge about music, and about other cultural forms.

In the lecture, and conscious he is speaking to those who will already agree with him, Maxwell Davies goes on to outline some of his own efforts and to expand on the intellectual basis of his argument. Form is not the product of a set of rules or formulae, it is an organic consequence of the motivic and harmonic bases of composition.

Some knowledge of musical language is necessary to understand form, and some knowledge of such form truly to understand the complex civilisation in which we live, ‘Understanding’ a big cathedral would be an analogous example.

I have three responses. The first is a gut feeling of agreement as to the importance of Sir Peter’s position. But that can hardly be otherwise; I had a very traditional education, the values of historical context and cultural sophistication were instilled into me. Second, I feel that this position must be modified by historical context.

Everyone who lived in the 1960s and 1970s saw a period of expansion in the public services, including in the arts and universities. Those who bemoan the endless funding cuts since are those who have grown up (as students or adult professionals or both) believing these halcyon days constituted a natural order.

But it is when I try to take as detached as possible a view, away from my own context, that I come to agree with Chou En-Lai. The argument that ‘things were better in the old days’ is as old as Plato. Had the world been continuously getting worse since then, we would certainly be back in the caves, and I don’t mean Plato’s mythical one.

But of course, comparing anything across generations, let alone ages, is a classic case of apples versus oranges. The world changes; the conditions of life therefore do; what counts as better and what as worse?

There are incomparably more stimuli available to the Western individual than forty years ago. Even go back half that, twenty, to 1987 and you find no practicable personal computers, no real internet, no satellite TV, not even rolling news. Yet, Walter Benjamin’s argument that ‘mechanical reproduction’ is bad for art is now seventy years old. Musil’s description that ‘time was moving at the (rapid) pace of a cavalry camel’ referred to a time one hundred years ago.

Above all, we are living through a period of unprecedented technological change, with the strongest possible effects on everyday life. The cinema and the computer have made the cultural landscape unrecognisable from the time when the baroque and classical styles that we regard as the foundation of Western music; easy travel, again easier even than in 1987 or 1967 multiplies the culture--anthropological possibilities for us. Who is to say all this is a cultural impoverishment? At the least, classical music is competing in a much, much bigger marketplace.

Look at a very mundane example. If you buy your classical CDs from High Street shops, you will have seen a period of terrible decline; if you used mail order, you are likely to find on-line and digital download many times more convenient.

Less mundane – ‘Max’ says that people are less able to read music. Of course, when music is so easily available at the touch of a button, and at such high technical quality, the need to be ale to interpret scores is much less. Are we a less educated society just because many fewer people can sight-read (or score-read) a symphony they cannot hear any other way in a piano duet reduction?

I am also unsure if the many well-educated people I’ve met in my life were any worse at telling the difference between Beethoven and Schubert as they would be at distinguishing Vermeer and de Hooch, Yeats and T S Eliot, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, Tarkovsky and Kurosawa.

Of course, as a composer, Sir Max faces a specialised dilemma. The old-fashioned diatonic idiom sounds like old hat, but our culture has diatonic music so ingrained in us, in popular music more than classical, that writing in a more innovatory style immediately disenfranchises the general audience.

Sir Max’s own music, except where explicitly derived from folk influences, is not noted for being immediately accessible. Apart from a wider commitment to culture, he has a more personal interest in hoping for a high level of musical literacy and therefore openness.

Vietnam – chaos and unimaginable suffering in the (relatively) recent war. Thirty years on, a high standard of living in a generally stable society. Iraq – better now than under Saddam? Worse? And in ten years’ time? Twenty? What about the former Yugoslavia? The film industry? Health care? Classical music? It’s too early to say.

Ying Chang

See Sir Peter's original lecture here (The Guardian) or here (Guardian blogs; fuller text)