Peter Maxwell Davies explains why 'serious music' is struggling for survival
From the Guardian - Monday April 25, 2005
The other evening, after my usual full day of writing music, I turned on BBC Radio 3 and was immediately immersed in Bach's St Matthew Passion. I felt privileged to be put so easily in touch with one of the greatest creative minds in our history, or, to be more specific, put into contact with a mind that had so singularly drawn together into one glowing, unified whole such diverse cultural threads - religious, historical and literary, alongside musical traditions of composition and performance.
I reflected that, through education, I have access to all this, even to the extent of feeling myself in a happy and complete union with the work, while at the same time regretting that the vast majority of people are unaware of this richest of possible listening experiences: not only unaware, but often actively antagonistic towards it, deeming it elitist, the exclusive domain of the elderly, or even of the semi-moribund, irrelevant to contemporary life, the product of a long-dead European white male.
Yes, I know the Bible upon which the work is based; I understand the German text; I know something of the rather peculiar Christian Protestant theology permeating Bach's work, particularly in the cantatas. And the polyphonic and baroque traditions behind the musical composition and its performance are familiar enough to enable me to appreciate efforts to create the original sound-world of the music. Most importantly, I can read music.
Successive governments have cut back on music education in state schools to the extent that music specialists have become a rarity. Not only can few teachers read or write musical notation, but the music teachers themselves are unfamiliar with the world of classical music. Can we imagine the teaching of English in circumstances where the teacher not only does not know any poems, novels or plays, but cannot read?
I do not advocate force-feeding children with a culture of classical music. One has only to think of all the people put off Shakespeare or Mozart for life after bad teaching at school. But there can be no real understanding of music without creating it. In my limited time as a schoolteacher - 1959-62, at Cirencester, in a mixed state grammar school - it became clear to me that nearly all children can improvise and compose music competently, given the minimum of opportunity. I had a school orchestra and a junior orchestra, all started very much from scratch, plus a choir of about 40, which could perform standard repertory, or be expanded to over 200 for a work like the Monteverdi Vespers.
All this would have been impossible had I not been supported by the county education authority in Gloucester, who provided the instruments, and tuition for the children by peripatetic teachers for free. It goes without saying that a more "popular" musical culture flourished in the school, too - it is both musically and spiritually demanding to improvise jazz, play pop music by ear and invent pop-style songs about the traumas of adolescence. The standard of work in other subjects was thought to be helped by all this music-making, which not only encouraged the mental and physical skills of playing and singing together but, perhaps just as significantly, helped the children's social skills.
But what happens at school or college is only a part of the story: the main influence on most people's lives now is television. With a huge choice of commercial channels, aiming to make as much money as possible out of as many people as possible in the shortest possible time, the lowest common denominator prevails. One can look at circulation figures for the "popular" papers in comparison with their so-called "highbrow" stable-mates and realise that most people leave school with a restricted active vocabulary of just a few hundred words, and that the very act of thought is thereby severely restricted. Perhaps not only our children but all of us are being educated to become good, docile consumers, so that we become incapable, or perhaps just unwilling, to question the status quo.
There is a history in folk music, and in some fairly recent pop music, of social and political criticism, but the only music most people know - pop music - has become a big business beyond anything ever imagined in the musical world, playing its part in drugging constructive, creative thinking. In rare circumstances where this music does give rise to controversy, the lyrics are even more rightwing than our more extreme politicians, inciting racial or sexual violence. It can come as a shock to realise that the majority, particularly of young people, are unaware that music can be "abstract" - that is, without "vocals" - and that a musical work can last longer than a pop single. Most could not name one living "serious" composer, nor name Britain's most celebrated composer, Purcell. And certainly they would have no conception of his time, nor his place in it, nor be able to quote a melody of his. But then, neither would these same people be able to summarise the plots of a couple of Shakespeare's plays. Ironically, they couldn't name our political parties and their leaders either - but this apathy possibly fits the agenda. Does all this matter?
I shall make two quite trivial observations that provide a little gloss on these remarks. Firstly, if there is a space between words on even seemingly high-minded documentaries, a few seconds of mindless, brittle muzak is immediately pumped out, demonstrating the programme-makers' lack of faith in our powers of concentration. Secondly, it is depressing how many guests on Desert Island Discs, whose work in their own field one admires, choose no classical music, while displaying familiarity and even erudition in other cultural fields.
I am aware that many, even in the most respected bastions of musical education, regard the very knowledge of music notation as "elitist": that classical music itself is elitist. If elitist means that a little prior study and knowledge helps towards listening and participation, then it is just that - along with any other field one could mention, from science to literature to football.
But it is only in music that these inverted snobs take this line. Such people would deny the likes of me, a working-class boy from Salford, access to some of the most wonderful, thought-defining work of our very civilisation, along with the possibility of contributing to that civilisation with any gifts with which nature might have endowed me. I will always fight for access to the best in our culture to be available to all. However, what with inverted snobs of the sort mentioned, and with successive governments demonstrating a lack of concern for cultural standards, particularly in education, it is hardly surprising that orchestras, museums and theatres should be forever struggling, strapped for cash.
Britain in the first Elizabethan age could boast a musical culture second to none in Europe. In the 17th century, Purcell was as brilliant a star as any in the firmament. At the time of Bach, we had a German import, Handel, who was first-rate, but through the times of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and into the 19th century, the musical scene here was of less interest. With the late 19th-century renaissance of British music, above all with Elgar, and into the 20th century, with Holst, Vaughan Williams, Britten etc, we can hold our heads high. And I would insist that today we are producing not only performing musicians as good as any in the world, but some of the most accomplished composers. However, when I conduct orchestras in Europe, there are always expat Brits, there because there was no job for them in Britain, or because conditions and salaries are so much better abroad. We have five opera houses; Germany has over 90, and comparison in the orchestral field is similar.
The roots of a thriving classical music scene need three nutrients: education, resources and new music. Classical music cannot become a museum culture, however tempting for some such a proposition may be. All performers, to be really alive, must be in a mutually constructive and beneficial relationship with contemporary thought and culture, and this means with real, live composers.
To my astonishment, last year I was offered the position of Master of the Queen's Music. The brief was to raise the profile of "serious" music, and providing music for royal occasions was entirely optional.
On June 6 I shall conduct a new work to mark the 60th anniversary of the end of the second world war, as part of a royal concert in Westminster Central Hall. This is my own initiative, and must be done without compromise. I have been happy to learn from works like Britten's War Requiem and works by Prokofiev and Shostakovich to help me pitch it right. There is no guarantee I shall succeed, but at my age, increasingly, I feel there is nothing to lose by making an honest effort.
Classical music is such an integral part of European culture that it should be regarded as something available to all by right. I would dearly love to be more people than just one: to spend more time performing, to dedicate more attention to music education at all levels, and even to what I think of as agit-prop for classical music. But the daemon that drives me is musical composition, and unless I spend most of my time involved in exactly that, I feel I am not fulfilling my real role as a creative human being. This is a very small matter, but, thinking again of the St Matthew Passion, perhaps it wasn't always so small, and could even be not such a small matter again.
I believe that classical music has a future - assuming we, as a civilised society, have any prospects at all. However, one must never forget that, not far into the 17th century when, with Shakespeare and Marlowe, we had the best theatre in the world, this was all destroyed by an unsympathetic government, under the influence of what we would today call the religious right.
This is an edited extract of last night's Royal Philharmonic Society Annual Lecture given by Sir Peter Maxwell Davies at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, London. A full text of the lecture, entitled Will Serious Music Become Extinct?, is available from www.royalphilharmonicsociety.org.uk.