Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]
Bong go the classicsBy Norman Lebrecht / May 1, 2003
Never is power more manifest than in its casual utterances. A comment that would excite no attention across a saloon bar acquires national, even epochal, significance when the source is a president or prime minister, and it makes no difference whether the remark was calculated or off the cuff. Tony Blair's recent reflections on music are a striking case in point.
In a pre-50th birthday interview with Saga Magazine - he will qualify next Tuesday for cheap home insurance and off-peak holidays - the Prime Minister digressed briefly on his well-known ambivalence towards cultural heritage. "Every so often," he admitted, "I feel I should graduate to classical music, properly. But the truth is I'm more likely to listen to rock music. I listen to what the kids play."
Barely had this statement seen print than commentators tumbled over each other to dissect it, some admiring Blair's deft avoidance of "elitist" pursuits, while others offered earnest advice to help the poor sap find his way into the refined labyrinth of classical music. What all of these helpful expositors missed was the plain-English meaning of Blair's pathetic confession.
"I feel I should graduate to classical music, properly" is the vox populi of a Land Without Music, the cry of a country that has never taken music fully to its heart. Blair, a graduate of Durham Chorister School and a devout churchgoer, feels that he ought to embrace classical music - not because he likes it or finds it in any way inspiring, but because that is the right thing to do at his time of life. It goes with the new carpet slippers and cardigan.
Blair is not musically ignorant. He can belt out Hubert Parry's Jerusalem with the best of them at Labour Party conferences and he must feel a tweak of something celestial when the choir intones a Lacrymosa at the obsequies of a loved one. But the love of what the Germans call "serious" music (as distinct from entertainment) does not come to him from within. It is a social appendage, an appropriate posture.
Sir Thomas Beecham, remembered nowadays more as an entertainer than as a musical educator, complained: "The English don't like music. They just like the noise it makes." Blair, in his throwaway remark, confirms that the national condition remains unaltered. The British in the 21st century may like a good tune on Classic FM, but they cannot be bothered to sit through the boring bits in between (without which the big tune has no meaning). They see classical music as something "to get into when I'm older", a dull and worthy pastime.
A century after Edward Elgar put a British symphony into the concert repertoire, half a century after Benjamin Britten made the world sit up to a British opera, the appreciation of serious music is not an essential of British culture but an optional extra. It is the first subject to be culled in school cutbacks, the least developed and imaginative course in teacher training colleges.
In Germany, to raise morale on the home front in the 1940s, Josef Goebbels produced such films as Request Concert, in which soldiers are musically united with distant beloveds, and The Degenhardts, in which a typical family is shown playing string quartets in the parlour. Music, in these films, is the glue that bonds German society at times of stress. No such adhesives are to be found in British morale-boosters.
Brief Encounter and Dangerous Moonlight employ soundtracks by and like Rachmaninov, but strictly as background. No Englishman is seen on screen actively making music, for that would be an unmanly act in times of war.
Winston Churchill, embodiment of the bulldog spirit, would brag: "I know only two tunes. One is God Save the King. The other isn't." Tony Blair, beside such crass Philistinism, is musically advanced. He plays the guitar for pleasure and has taken lessons with Paco Pena. He is, in most respects, a civilised man, but, when it comes to serious music, his personality splits.
On the one hand, he assures Simon Rattle that music can do great communal good and deserves public support. On the other, he regards the opera house and concert hall as innately elitist and never willingly attends. He wants the arts to be written into New Labour's "core script", but in the small print, classical music gets left out.
Compare Blair's equivocation with, for example, the forthrightness of the England football manager who, when asked to compile a classical album for the World Cup, filled up no fewer than three discs - one with English anthems, the second with basic Euro-repertoire and the third, and most personal, with Swedish serenades by the likes of Hugo Alfven, Franz Berwald and Lars-Erik Larsson. The Swedes are not the most musical of nations and very little of their music gets heard abroad, yet every Swede leaves school with an appreciation of the national contribution to music, ranging from folksong to flute sonatas to Abba.
Sven-Goran Eriksson had no need to shy away from classics in the way that Blair feels he must. Serious music sits easily within a rounded Swedish personality, as it does not within the British character.
The problem is one of late adolescence. Most of us rebel at puberty against parental values, only to adopt most of them willy-nilly when we raise children. It used to be one of the more copper-bottomed truths of the music industry that kids who bought rock and pop in their teens and twenties switched to classics around their mid-thirties. The Blair generation is the first to buck that trend, clinging to decrepit rock idols like Jagger, Dylan and Eric Clapton, and embarrassing their offspring by listening to the White Stripes instead of making a mature transition to more intricate music.
There are various causes for this retardation, not least the likelihood that exposure to excessive amplification has dulled Blair's hearing to the point where he cannot grasp the subtleties of classical music. Whatever the reason, the mass defection of Blair's generation has accelerated the decline of classical music almost beyond hope of redemption.
When parents and teachers cannot introduce their children to the art, what hope remains for a future renaissance? Collectively, Blair's generation has dropped the baton that relayed Western music from one epoch to the next.
All is not quite lost. Blair turns 50 next week, a chance for spring-cleaning his record collection. Musically, the Prime Minister must decide to grow up.
Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]