What is it about classical music that makes us lose words? What is it about it that we find so hard to articulate or to explain? What is it about it that reduces even Stephen Fry - Stephen Fry, the reason the word 'polymath' is still in the dictionary - to an incoherent, pretentious train wreck?
I was no closer to an answer to these questions after 'A Classical Affair' at the Barbican last week, a discussion featuring the quartet of Fry, Classic FM creative director Tim Lihoreau, businessman and newspaper columnist Sir David Tang, and pianist James Rhodes. These weren't really the questions tackled: the discussion was meant more as an opportunity to reflect on the place of classical music in society today, how to address its popular perception of being 'antiquated' and 'irrelevant', that sort of thing. They did this by talking exclusively about antiquated and irrelevant classical music. Go figure.
Fry kicked us off by ruminating - ruminating as only he can - on whether there might be a better word for 'classical' music than 'classical'. He even gave us a hashtag for this question (#newnameforclassical). 'Orchestral' was quickly and comically dismissed on empirical grounds, and Fry was unsurprisingly unconvinced by some of the replies he'd received on Twitter suggesting 'dead' or 'shit' or things like that. That was more or less how the rumination ended. What was really intriguing about this, though, was that nobody needed to clarify what body of music they were actually talking about. Everyone apparently knew precisely what pieces and styles 'classical' constituted.
In fact, I think I had less idea how to define 'classical' after the discussion than I did before. What the term means to Fry and co. can more or less be summarised as old, great, traditional, proper, relaxing, nice. And this definition appears to concern 'the great composers' exclusively, by which they meant various famous dead people like Mozart. I hadn't realised that 'classical' just meant really old stuff, and I certainly hadn't realised that all those modern fellows, those Weberns and Ligetis and Schoenbergs, had completely missed the point of classical music and could be dismissed out of hand. Tang helpfully commented that the music of Webern 'sounds horrible'. Arnold Schoenberg is referred to throughout Fry and Lihoreau's Incomplete and Utter History of Classical Music as 'S------g'. And even James Rhodes, tonight's hip young pianist, with his jeans and trainers and the words 'I'm not an elitist' implicitly tattooed on his forehead, got in on the act. He declared that he had 'a real problem' with contemporary composers, and that he 'would to God [that] a contemporary composer actually wrote a fucking TUNE'. He was, of course, preaching to the choir, and this comment of his was greeted with cheers and applause.
Seriously though, come on. Who would cheer and applaud if someone said 'I would to God that Alan Hollinghurst actually wrote a fucking FANTASY NOVEL', or 'I would to God that Lars von Trier actually directed a fucking CHICK FLICK', or 'I would to God that Seamus Heaney actually wrote some fucking LIMERICKS'? If tunes are not in many contemporary composers' repertoire, then that is because there are plenty of tunes to choose from in popular music, and so 'classical' composers today quite sensibly busy themselves with other tasks. It is beyond shameful to hear a pianist like James Rhodes, who clearly goes out of his way to attract a new audience to the concert hall, denigrate contemporary composition so forcefully and stupidly. And it is beyond hypocritical for a group of influential people like all those on stage to bang on about the power of classical music to enrich people's lives, without making any effort whatsoever to extend or challenge their knowledge or understanding of it.
Let me clarify: if there is a problem with classical music today, it is that people think it has finished. And if people think that classical music is 'dead', then this is because the classical music that they hear on the radio and watch Stephen Fry gush about is by dead people. To be fair, it's pretty hard to fault the logic. Fortunately enough, as it happens, classical music (for want of a better term) isn't dead, but this isn't because the spirit of Mozart lives on; it's because people are still composing it, many of them very well. Give Pierre Boulez's music the time it deserves. Listen to some Gerald Barry. Google 'Tansy Davies'. To appreciate any music is to explore it, to be drawn into it. Give contemporary classical music a chance of that, and then reject it. You too, Stephen.
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