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Churchill's dream of a Britain in which

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April 25, 2005

Classical music faces extinction, says composer

By Dalya Alberge, Arts Correspondent


SERIOUS music could become "extinct" in Britain,

the Master of the Queen's Music believes.


Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, 70, who took up the 380-year-old post last year, attacked government cutbacks in music education and lamented an assumption by the vast majority of people that classical music was elitist.

Delivering the Royal Philharmonic Society Annual Lecture at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London, his first major public speech since his appointment, Sir Peter said yesterday that masterpieces such as Bach's St Matthew Passion were now seen as "the exclusive domain of the elderly".There was an inverted snobbery about cultural standards, he said.

Pop music had played its part in "drugging" constructive, creative thinking, sometimes offering texts that were "even more right-wing than our more extreme politicians".

Sir Peter, who lives in the Orkney Islands and describes himself as a "working-class boy from Salford", has written hundreds of works, including operas, ballets and symphonies.

He recalled that by the 1960s and 1970s Britain had a healthy amateur choral tradition and "decent" music education in schools, ensuring that

many young people could read a line of music competently. Today, most could not name Britain's most celebrated composer, Purcell, he said. He blamed successive governments for cutting back on music education to the extent that "few teachers read or write musical notation" .

"Can we imagine the teaching of English in circumstances where the teacher not only does not know any poems, novels or plays, but cannot read?"




By David Hellewell

Cultural Notes No. 35

ISSN 0267-677X & ISBN 1 85637 309 6

An occasional publication of the Libertarian Alliance,

25 Chapter Chambers, Esterbrooke Street, London SW1P 4NN, England.


(c) 1995: Libertarian Alliance; David Hellewell.


David Hellewell first made his name internationally as a composer, conductor and performer of avant garde classical music in the 1970s. At the same time he was composing music for classical musicians combining classical, jazz, rock, Latin American, baroque, romantic and popular music. His work has now developed into what he terms

"Multi Dimensional" music. His Chinese inspired garden at his home in the southern English town of Bournemouth was featured in Homes and Gardens magazine.

The views expressed in this publication are those of its author, and not necessarily those of the Libertarian Alliance, its Committee,

Advisory Council or subscribers.

LA Director: Chris R. Tame

Editorial Director: Brian Micklethwait


The musical avant garde is now some eighty years old, and for the last forty years or so these composers have been well-funded and promoted, excellently performed, extolled, analysed and proselytised by a global avant garde music establishment of a small, but controlling, cadre of elitist mandarins within the arts establishment: the Arts Council, publishers, critics, universities and colleges, education authorities, opera and orchestral managers, and the BBC. Yet this movement has still not produced anything of worth for the public, or for musicians, who avoid it like the plague that it is; and they are right!

Contrary to what their apologists say, there is nothing you need to know in order to understand a piece of music: WYSIWYG; only in this case What You Get Is What You Hear. If a piece sounds like a dissonant cacophony - that's what it is, just as a pile of bricks (even at the Tate) is nothing more than a pile of bricks.


But although the avant garde isn't new anymore, it is still as damaging. It gobbles up limited funding and precious performance space, so that `alternative' composers are prevented from competing. It actually professes a total disdain for the public (as Sir Harrison Birtwistle only recently stated on Desert Island Discs); and which are the "masterpieces" produced by a Birtwistle. A recent Times leader (2/4/95) called Birtwistle "the finest modern British composer - some would say of all time" but this not the public's, or the vast majority of musicians', view. If Birtwistle is so brilliant, why are his little clarinet pieces Linoi, for example, not in every clarinetist's repertoire, or the Five Little Pieces for piano by Sir Peter Maxwell Davies (a studied composer in the music education curriculum) not on every serious pianist's music stand?

Never before has such `anti-people' music been produced. What has come out of Pierre Boulez' multi-million pound, state-of-the-art electro-acoustic IRCAM in Paris, or from the many other heavily-funded studios in universities around the world? If these were actual real scientific R&D establishments they would have been closed down years ago, as failures.


In the seventies, when I was actively involved with the avant garde, as a composer, conductor, performer and promoter, I corresponded with, and subsequently met, Sir Karl Popper, to discuss, even then, my serious criticism of the avant garde's tenets in relation to my, and his own, philosophy. He told me that in 1919/20 he became a member of Schoenberg's circle, and a pupil of Erwin Stein, the result of which was that he left, after three years, a convinced reactionary.

Significantly, an opponent of Popper's, Theodor Adorno, was an advocate of Schoenberg's methods. Popper's "Open Society" is the antithesis of the totalitarian `Closed Society'. The avant garde is such a closed system: state-funded, yet exclusive and elitist. It excludes in its language just about everything that music lovers value. Indeed, it could crudely but accurately be stated, as a working tenet, that a work must, to be `avant garde', be an affront to normal artistic/ audience sensibilities; and especially, that it must not be `popular' or liked by the public! The avant garde equate standing out' with `outstanding'. (They have a great problem with past masterpieces, which are both profound and popular.) Hence, the seeming diversity of styles within the avant garde are merely different facets of the same ideology: what total-seriel Stockhausen and aleatoric Cage (and their mutations that have since been spawned) have in common, is this audience effrontery - a spit in the eye - and the avant garde's colluding critics call this "challenging" or "controversial", terms which were never considered to be aesthetic-judgemental criteria before the twentieth century. We have certainly moved a long way from `Art imitating Life'; it is now `Art intimidating Life'! Today, they can incorporate even popular art forms such as jazz into their idioms, provided that the material is deconstructed and processed (used to be called `composition') so that it deeply offends normal jazz lovers. They can now do this with anything: fox trots, mediaeval motets, the classics, nothing is safe; clever, aren't they?



It takes courage, and probably a great deal of almost heroic anger, to dare to speak out, as Frederick Stocken and his colleague Keith Burstein have done, against these long-standing iniquities. These two composers will be, indeed already have been, vilified by the powerful avant garde establishment for their temerity. As virtually all serious composers these days are behoven to the musical establishment for their living (not usually as composers, but as teachers), they are thereby effectively stifled from speaking out in public, for fear of losing their jobs and opportunities - but they do vent their anger in private.

That little advert for "Hecklers" placed in the Spectator by Frederick Stocken (and then acted upon!) may well become, through up-front debate (the affair has already generated an enormous amount of media interest - even globally), a symbol, signifying an end to the hegemony of this destructive avant garde, thereby allowing the new more-humanised art to surface, evolve and be created in the future.


The avant garde has also failed to fulfil the rightful and legitimate expectations of the many first class professional performers who have performed the music. Their outstanding musicianship, nigh-on-perfect performances (of some of the most complex music ever created), and genuine dedication, should have resulted in commensurate rewards and status for their trust. I have been privileged to have worked with some these musicians, who are of absolutely first rank, but who are now, in middle age, still virtually unknown and struggling to make a living. If musicians have mastered a repertoire of the suppose `master works' of the avant garde canon, and received critical acclaim and awards for their performances, they should be able to reap the benefits. This has not happened. If a pianist, for example, presented a concert of these `master works' by Stockhausen, Boulez, Maxwell Davies, Birtwistle et al, would there be an audience, a paying public? No. And yet acknowledged masterpieces are the very bread and butter of concert promoters' and musicians' livelihood, because paying audiences want to hear them - again and again. Young pianists - such as Ian Pace, a vociferous opponent of The Hecklers - should stop to ponder seriously on how will they feel in, say, twenty years time, when the avant garde works they are now enthusiastically proselytising (and justifying by the same sort arguments that were also used twenty years ago) are not new anymore, and still not earning them rewards?

The London Sinfonietta has commissioned and premiered numerous works over the past decades (heavily subsidised, of course), most of which received critical acclaim at their premiere; where are these works now? In the repertoire? We are not talking about poor, under-rehearsed performances (Schoenberg's complaint) in obscure venues, but outstanding performances at auspicious venues with all the sophisticated promotional techniques of the modern PR industry.


Sir William Glock, father figure and patron (with public funds) of the British avant garde, is also an excellent pianist. What does he play for his own pleasure and in public: Haydn and other classics! Why haven't his friends - Maxwell Davies, Birtwistle or Boulez - written works specially for him for his intimate, personal pleasure? No Goldberg Variations here to ease the troubled mind - this is equivalent to a modern architect living in a Georgian house! Can you imagine Beethoven's patron, the Archduke Rudolph, playing nothing but the `Old Masters' like Handel for his pleasure? Now that patronage is corporate, the sponsors don't have put their own personal funds (and trust, and prestige) where their mouths are. In fact the idea of actually playing avant garde music for pleasure is laughable.

The avant garde movement likes to describe itself as being on a par with Space Exploration ("Boldly going ..."), but all it has actually produced, in some eighty years, is the equivalent, in real compositional terms, of the non-stick frying pan. It has primarily been a technical and ideological movement; but it is arguable that even these (admittedly tremendous) technical developments of advance composition and performance techniques would have been been developed anyway through the burgeoning advances in the `other' modern musical culture: film and popular music. (Commercial studios, computer and recording technology has now outstripped that of the experimental avant garde).


In avant garde jazz, the story is the same. By the sixties the `chords had run out'. Then into atonality, free form, anarchy ... it's dead easy to improvise when you don't have to worry about harmony, melody or form: a whirl of notes, and manic performance expression (always a dominant feature of jazz and popular music) will get you a long way!

Even pop music is going down the same road - from exuberant naivete, through a more refined and expansive maturity, to a brutal confrontational nihilism based on easily- acquired, computer-based technology, shear brute wattage and hyper- (not to say hyped) expressionism. (See the recent American publication by Martha Bayles, Hole in Our Soul: The Loss of Meaning and Beauty in American Popular

Music, Free Press, New York 1994.)


All in all, the avant garde has been a negative, destructive movement in the twentieth century. When the time-tested basic elements of Western music - the harmonic (vertical) and melodic (horizontal) dialectic of pitched (Pythagorean) notes are jettisoned, you are left only with the expressionism of colour, orchestration, dynamics, instrumentation, etc. which, although ever present, and an integral part of Western music, never has, nor ever can be, a substitute for music's unique language: the `dialectic of notes'.



Frederick Stocken writes:-

The arts establishments in the west are the last great nationalised industries, monopolistic institutions that, cushioned from the consumers, tend to disregard them. A figure such as Boulez is a creation of the Arts Council, Radio 3 and the French taxpayer.

Sales of his CDs are spectacularly bad (usually evidence of a failure to engage with real audiences), but it does not stop him being proclaimed as one of our great living composers.

We are now belatedly reaching an era of perestroika in the music establishment.

The modern Radio 3 (under Roger Wright) is no longer pursuing the classic modernist policy, and is trying to see a way forward.

Despite giving Boulez his festival, Radio 3 has shown, by its programming of other new music (for example, by John Tavener and John Adams) that it has achieved some distance from Boulez's agenda.

Nevertheless, Radio 3, the Arts Council and, apparently, the critics are still some way from confronting the full implication of the largely fictional history of modern music that they have so slavishly followed in the past.

The determinist view of musical history has been intellectually discredited, but is still in the bones of the institutions. Composers who reintroduce tonal materials are expected to use them obscurely, ironically, maniacally, grotesquely or minimalistically with no key changes. By doing this, the creators flatter the still fashionable view that modernism has changed music for ever, but also signal that they would like to think that contemporary classical music is beginning to engage with an audience.

It has not been a successful juggling act, as CD sales prove, and Boulez has condemned this quasi-tonal movement even while his intellectual legacy pervades it.

Thanks largely to the legacy of Boulez, the worst sin a composer can commit in the contemporary music establishment is imaginatively and naturally to speak the vernacular of high art developed over four centuries of classical music. Before modernism, individuality was in the weft of musical language,the equivalent of the almost indefinable quality that makes the individuality of a person's smile.

The history of music categorically does not point to the inevitability of atonality, which scowls upon the diversity of four hundred years of composition.

Atonality was a failure of the imagination..






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