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The Lebrecht Weekly


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

The homage we owe to creators

By Norman Lebrecht / December 31, 2008

Physicists, neurologists, psychiatrists and even the occasional literary critic have written about the evolution of music in western society, but it has been so long since the subject has been seriously treated by an academic general historian that I ripped the cover off this book in my eagerness to get at it – only to find that the publishers have decked it in a dinky little half-jacket, so very 21st century.

Tim Blanning is professor of modern European history at Cambridge, it says so on the cover scrap, and the triumphal march of his title recounts the rise of the musician from court serf to Rich List and of music itself from a Sun King luxury to the stuff of everyday lives. It’s a good story and Blanning tells it well, with an occasional telling phrase that pins back the eyelids and gives good pause for thought.

His perception that the line between Bach and Handel is ‘the difference between writing for a congregation and writing for an audience’ is both factually valid and critically astute, and if it begs some questions about either man’s use of the big-bang finale, so much the better to set a reader contemplating the mysterious workings of a hit machine.

The turning point in the status of musicians was, Blanning correctly evaluates, the visit of the German Kaiser Wilhelm 1 to Richard Wagner’s inaugural Bayreuth Festival in 1876, an act of homage commemorated on advertising cards for meat extracts and hand soaps. From that royal obeisance to Hitler’s Wagner cult, to Tony Blair fawning over Oasis and Coldplay at Downing Street, is a natural progression of national leaders seeking to ally themselves to the aura of popularity and spirituality that belongs exclusively to creative musicians.

Blanning skates over much of music history, giving only two glancing references to Mahler, one to Bernstein and none to Boulez, a perplexing set of omissions in a book that purports to describe changes in the public response to music. Mahler established the conductor as a power player; Bernstein created a mass television audience for music education and Boulez led the taste revolution that divided ‘progressive’ music from simple entertainment.

For a historian, Blanning has a journalist’s over-fondness for lists, whether it’s the top political songs during the French Revolution, the leading radio markets in 1980s USA, of or musicians who happened to be gay, Jewish or black. His lists are marred by errors and omissions – Bruch was not a Jew; Kurt Weill was – and his recourse to wikipedia as a trusted source undermines his authority. He applauds ‘success’ without context. A John Eliot Gardiner Bach cantata that sells a few thousand CDs does not belong on the same page as Sergeant Pepper.

The Triumph of Music seems to have been written at speed with regular recourse to Google News and Sunday journalism. It reads well, none the less, and its conclusion that the rise of music has yet to reach its peak in the internet era leads me to wonder what summits – commercial, cultural or political - remain to be conquered. Discuss. In your own time.

Tim Blanning, The Triumph of Music (Allen Lane, £25)

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



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