LSM-ONLINE-LOGO2JPG.jpg (4855 bytes)

Back Issues
LSM Issues
LSV Issues
Throat Doctor
Concert Reviews
CD Critics
Books Reviews
PDF Files

About LSM
LSM News
Guest Book
Contact Us
Site Search
Web Search

The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

Throw away the Christmas rapping

By Norman Lebrecht / December 19, 2001

THE saddest letter I have received all year comes from a teacher in Texas, responding to some remarks of mine on National Public Radio. "Please do not use my name," he implores. "These opinions have already landed me in hot water where I teach."

His high school, he relates, has banned classical music in the interests of social harmony. The termly orchestral concert has been dumbed down to a Madonna and J.Lo medley, backed by a local rock group. The teacher in charge said her students found classical music "dull" and, tired of forcing fugues on them, she decided "to go with the flow".

My informant put on a Mozart tape in his classroom while students were working. Two kids loudly declared that they were sick of "that damn elevator music" and demanded rap or rock. When the teacher refused, he was summoned to the principal's office and ordered not to play classical music again in class, "because the students find it obnoxious".

Trapped between cowed authority and a pulp-headed student body, this former Texas Teacher of the Year is now thinking of changing careers. "I see the minds of American young people and their parents quickly closing to culture," he sombrely recounts.

His experience is not isolated. For all the political homilies we hear about raising educational standards, the role of culture in education is under attack from a murderous anti-elitist virus and a secondary infection of multi-cultural confusions. Anything that cannot instantly be grasped by the innocent ear is banned as exclusive. Music in school is modelled on McDonald's: it is cheap, mass-produced and sensorily unchallenging.

The conductor Mark Stephenson, launching a charity called MUSE to involve children in all forms of musical activity, found one North London school where the annual music budget for 600 children was only £978. The retired maestro Vilem Tausky is struggling to rally support for the award-winning Youth Music Trust in Bromley, Kent, which provides extra-curricular instrumental teaching for 6,000 young people every year.

The trust receives half its income from Bromley Council, which has voted a 20 per cent cut. This retraction, coming on top of earlier cuts, will force the centre to shut in 15 months, throwing hundreds of eager kids back on to the Saturday streets. Next time there is an outbreak of hooliganism in Kent, the police should arrest a dozen Bromley councillors for fostering ignorance and boredom.

For each such attack of dumbness, there are many testimonies to the contrary - of progressive schools, both public and private, that promote cultural awareness in varied and exciting ways. The pop-music historian Donald Clarke tells me that, in his corner of Texas, the Austin Symphony Orchestra goes around high schools and performs in the gym. Austin also has an outstanding jazz workshop that visits every elementary school in the region with concerts of Gershwin, Cole Porter and Thelonious Monk.

In London, St Paul's School, where Gustav Holst was once music master, is putting on a masterclass with Maxim Vengerov, today's busiest fiddler. That St Paul's can produce a panel of pupils worthy of virtuosic tuition speaks volumes for the maintenance of exalted musical standards against all ambient odds.

But the general trend points relentlessly downwards and it serves no worthwhile purpose to berate principals, teachers or politicians for depriving our children of musical values. The problem begins at home, where families, functional or fragmented, have long ceased to eat together, let alone gather around the piano and make music. Listening to music has become a private, selfish occupation, indulged in private bedrooms with headphones on. Making it socially risks squirms and smirks.

The only time of year when it is permissible to share music with the ones you love is right now. Carol singers at the door, songs of praise on telly, jingle bells in department stores, old Bing dreaming of sleighbells in the snow. One way or other, we are all exposed, willingly and subliminally, to a lyrical heritage of universal goodwill.

There is nothing sectarian to this indulgence. I know Jews who, in Christmas week, sing their Sabbath hymns to carol tunes. I imagine there are Muslims who adore Cliff Richard and Hindus who watch Carols from King's. It's a warming thing, nationally unifying, like mouthing Abide with Me over filthy chants at the Cup Final. Christmas is the moment we let music back into our living rooms, before the dread dawn of Boxing Day, when all that lies ahead is winter sales and an eternity of televised sport.

There is a lesson to be learned from the festival of carols: only one kind of music can bring peace to our hearts. Rock, with its jagged rhythms, excites and divides. Rap incites violence. The way to achieve social harmony is around our home key, the heritage of plainsong that we received from primal ancestors. So sing out at home this Christmas, and help to make the New Year a better one for all.

Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]



(c) La Scena Musicale 2001