I've always found most classical music reviews difficult, not to mention dull. Whether, say, the strings are slightly overpowering the woodwind or the tempo is too quick on the third movement seems to miss the wider point. These reviews often descend into the pedantic navel gazing of a wine critique - blinded by nuance and subtlety. What annoys me is the focus on the detail. I prefer to see music in great sweeps, as cultural signposts for an age. For me the wider setting is vital.
What a pleasure, then, to see the year long festival, 'The Rest is Noise', attempting to place the complexities of twentieth century music into some sort of context. The festival, which is taking place at the Southbank Centre, involves an interplay of music, film, poetry and lectures. On one level this works brilliantly. The 'Death of Nostalgia' concert on Sunday was a particularly striking example of the interplay between poetry and music. Gustav Holst's yearning for an idyllic English past is played alongside the poetry of Hardy and Hausman. We were encouraged to consider the shattering of a rural English fantasy with the onset of the First World War.
On another level I couldn't help wondering 'who's context?'
You'd be forgiven for seeing the 'hanging face, like a devil's suck of sin' described in 'Dulce et Decorum Est' in the Vaughan William's Third Symphony when the two are placed side by side, for example. And you might be right. Yet Vaughan Williams was famously opaque about where his inspiration came from, and rejected easy links between context and art. There's also the problem of 'popular' and 'elite' contexts. There was a gulf between what composers of the age were thinking and the popular mood in Britain. For the majority of Britons, the rural pre-war fantasy made as little sense after the war as it did before.