Will Serious Music Become Extinct? – Sir Peter Maxwell Davies’s Royal Philharmonic Society Lecture 2005

Written by: Sir Peter Maxwell Davies

Lecture delivered in the Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, on Sunday 24 April 2005.

The following extracts are published with permission from the Royal Philharmonic Society. Please contact the RPS for the full text (see link below).

“The other evening, after my usual full day of writing music, I turned on, as so often, 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 which 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 is 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.

“I can even record that broadcast performance, to enjoy again; or I can buy a commercially available recording of the St. Matthew Passion. This is the first time the music of the past, and, be it said, that of the present, has been potentially available to all, even those well out of range of live performance. I mentioned the majority out there which has no interest in, or is unaware of Bach, but we must not forget that, through performances, broadcasts and recordings world-wide, he reaches an audience huge beyond his imagining, part of a phenomenon unprecedented in music’s history. But for whom do so-called serious or Classical composers write now?

“The collapse in the early 20th century of the tonal system of related key-centres in art music, the fall-out from which effects all of us, willy-nilly, was regarded positively by many, often even as historically inevitable. Established hierarchies were undermined by ever more frequent changes of key, and by the use of chords where a pivotal note, with which the ear could quasi-instinctively relate all the notes of a chord, became increasingly obscure. The fragmentation of rhythm meant that the ear could not cope with sequences of note-lengths unrelatable to heartbeat or to any regular metric impulse. Moreover, after World War II, musical form itself, so dependent upon acts of memory to make connections and comparisons, underwent metamorphosis far beyond that envisaged by Schoenberg in Erwartung, or in his other early works where recognisable repetition of material was carefully avoided.

“In musical form-building in the 18th and 19th centuries, such tools, the equivalent of those used in the architecture of cathedrals and palaces from medieval times on, were taken for granted, and enabled composers to build their huge formal structures in sonatas, quartets, concertos and symphonies. When the usefulness of such tools is questioned, and their application undermined or dropped, or even ignored through ignorance, the consequences can be shattering, as the baby disappears down the drain with the bath-water.

“In Britain, by the 1960s and ’70s, there was indeed plenty happening out there, with a healthy amateur choral tradition throughout the country, and decent music education in schools, ensuring that many young people could read at least a line of music competently, and with many having choral and instrumental experience; there were also brass band traditions, a flourishing church music scene, particularly in the cathedrals, a culture of youth orchestras, and increasingly wide interest in folk music. However, the younger generation of serious classical composers by and large hardly engaged with all of that, and there was precious little cross-fertilisation between the so-called avant-garde and what for most people counted as “real” music. This was to everybody’s, and to music’s loss. Those who frequented contemporary classical concerts did so with commendable enthusiasm, and sometimes in most encouraging numbers; I remember splendid encounters with Stockhausen, Cage, Boulez and others when the BBC Promenade Concerts were under William Glock’s direction, where one could believe, perhaps, that they demonstrated convincingly the way new music would turn in the future.

“The language was vivid, exciting, and stimulating in many new ways, but ultimately blunter, and in particular less suitable for the construction of large-scale architecture: the equivalent of cathedrals in sound.

“Since then, many composers have tried to “rectify” this situation, both engaging with large forms, and writing music for school or amateur use, reintroducing elements into their work which are part of an ongoing musical lingua franca. One must also not forget that there were and are many composers who never subscribed to the revolution outlined in the first place, or who were but little involved in or influenced by it.

“The audiences at the BBC Promenade Concerts in London continue, by and large, to welcome new works, so that one wonders where these people have gone when a Royal Festival Hall or Barbican concert with new music is half empty or worse. This is in sorry contrast to other art forms: when a new play, novel or exhibition is announced, enough of the general public responds to make the enterprise successful.

“Successive governments have cut back on music education in state schools to the extent that music specialists have become a rarity. It is not uncommon for very large schools to have nobody on the staff who can enthuse students, at both primary and secondary level. This is very much a question of teacher training: not only can so few teachers read or write musical notation, so useful in a musical culture where literacy is such an asset, but the music teachers themselves are entirely unfamiliar with or unaware of 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?

“Let me make it clear that 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.

“In my limited time spent as a school-teacher from 1959-62 at Cirencester, in a mixed non-specialist state grammar school, it became clear to me that, unless they are blocked by bad teaching, or have special problems, nearly all children can improvise and compose music competently, in groups and individually, given the minimum of opportunity.

“All this would have been impossible had I not been supported by the county education authority in Gloucester, which provided, free, the instruments for the orchestra, and tuition for the children by peripatetic teachers. It goes without saying that, with so many instrumentalists, 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 to 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 (I underline this “together” in red!) but, perhaps just as significant, helped the children’s social skills.

“It is not only the cut-backs in state music education in schools which are partly, at least, responsible for the lack of interest in classical music among young people, leading to concerts where the heads of listeners are often mainly grey and white. It is also due to the lack of success of people, like myself, who could have done more agit-prop work, and to the lack of constructive innovation on the part of concert-giving bodies. Neither must we forget the relentless peer pressure put upon young people to conform: to like the latest pop group unreservedly and exclusively, as part of a culture where sporting the latest “in” clothes, haircut, TV lore, street language etc is not only de rigueur, but defines one’s quality as a clan member, and as a human being, where any outside interests or knowledge are derided vigorously.

“This demands some further consideration of the aims of our education system, in relation to society as a whole, and to the place of music within this framework. What happens at school or college is only a part of the story: the main influence on most people’s lives is now 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, so that the best efforts of channels with the remnants of “public service” ethics – informing, educating, and entertaining – are well-nigh swamped in a sea of dross and advertising. “Freedom” in broadcasting has come to signify simply the freedom to scrap any quality and maximise takings by providing programmes for people who “know what they like”. You only really know what you like when you can make an informed choice, and our education system hardly provides for that.

“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. Whether the government realises and capitalises upon this or not, this is convenient for those in positions of power, insofar as the majority of the population remains indifferent to, or has not the vocabulary to evaluate constructively politicians’ stated policies, even though these are now stated in oversimplified terms, determined by popular press vocabulary and the attention span of a television commercial sound bite, so that it seems that this section of the press sets the political agenda, and the method of the TV commercial becomes its modus operandi.

“Perhaps not only our children, but all of us are being educated to become good, docile consumers, in order to boost “economic growth”, which appears largely to be synonymous with all of us putting ever more money into the pockets of the few super-rich. And so we become incapable, or perhaps just unwilling, through pressures, to question the status quo. The drug to perpetuate this is television, which is now the opium of the people, helped and underwritten by an education system which fails to challenge all its implied commercial values, with real thinking and informed criticism by the majority prevented from the outset. Of course I am playing devil’s advocate, but I overstate the position so baldly in order to highlight what is more dangerous than a mere trend.

“There is a history in both 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 before 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 texts are even more right wing than our more extreme politicians, inciting racial or sexual violence. To some of us living in a world where the arts are part of the fabric, it can come as a shock to realise that the majority, particularly of young people, is unaware that music can be “abstract”, that is, without a “vocal”, and that a musical work can last more than the length of a pop single track. 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, or 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, nor quote a few lines. Ironically, they couldn’t name our political parties nor their leaders, but then, this apathy possibly quietly fits the agenda. Does all this matter?

“Until recently, anybody interested in music could have borrowed scores from a public library. If you are lucky now, you can pick up bargains as these libraries sell off their musical collections for pennies, in order to fill the vacated shelves with more “relevant” material, to be borrowed more often, which “pays its way”. At this rate, there could come a time when libraries will stock textbooks, self-help DIY texts, and Mills and Boon, exclusively. Studying a musical score online is a very poor substitute for handling a printed one, and the computer sings a subliminal note, against which it is very hard to read and imagine music in one’s head. Buying new scores is for the majority prohibitively expensive. Browsing the music shelves in Swinton and Pendlebury public libraries as a boy was a formative experience for me, and I bet I was the only one, ever, to borrow some of that music, which determined my career. Was it worth it? Obviously not, by today’s values.

“I shall make two, quite trivial observations which provide, without further comment, a little gloss on these remarks. One: it is indicative that in so many television programmes – some seemingly high-minded documentaries suffer irredeemably from this characteristic – if we are left with a space between words, the rhythm machine is switched on, pumping out a few seconds’ worth of mindless, brittle muzak, demonstrating the programme makers’ lack of faith in our powers of concentration, and trivialising any visuals. Two: it is depressing how many guests on Desert Island Discs, whose work in their own field one admires, choose no classical music whatsoever, while displaying familiarity and even erudition in other cultural fields: a huge lack of awareness, for which I can’t help but feel just a little responsible.

“I am aware that many, even in the most respected bastions of musical education, regard the very knowledge of music notation as “elitist”, and consider that classical music itself is elitist. In the sense that a little prior study and knowledge help towards listening and participation, of course it is just that, along with any other field one could mention, from science, to literature, to football. It is only in music that these inverted snobs take this line.

“One can hardly blame the schoolteachers; in my time there have been at least four complete overhauls of the school curriculum, with so many directives for change from on high. With insufficient discussion with the teachers who have to implement these directives, it is surprising not only that there any teachers left at all, but that by and large, even if often bewildered and a little confused, they remain cheerful, positive and upbeat. Moreover, with teacher training time now so often inadequate to prepare teachers for what they must face in the classroom, it is hardly astonishing that music has fared badly. It is a tragic waste of human resources that some are more concerned with keeping a semblance of order among their mutinous and resentful charges than with opening doors to any kind of life-enhancing cultural opportunities.

“Last year the government produced “The Music Manifesto: more music for more people”. This is a splendid, very political document, full of promise, but without mention of dates for implementation of proposals, or mention of practical resources.

“In some schools there is a great satisfaction because computers are available, upon which the pupils can compose music. The computer notates and records, with no effort on your part, what you play on a little keyboard. Harmony, of a kind, can be added automatically, as well as rhythmic backing tracks.

“Music is, or was, a social activity. You composed it for, and rehearsed and performed it with friends and colleagues. Here, in a world where already so much of life is spent in computer isolation, music becomes yet another solitary occupation.

“I am sent, unsolicited, much new music to consider for conducting with orchestras, or, solicited, by the Society for the Promotion of New Music, for possible inclusion in its concerts. It is often dreadfully clear that the music is computer-generated, with automatic processes and little guidance from any “inner ear,” and with little awareness of syntactical and grammatical procedure. Parents and teachers complain bitterly when a prospective college composition student is rejected because a computer-generated and -recorded work is submitted; to the unfamiliar or initiated such compositions can sound convincing enough, but the substitutions for creative thinking are manifest. I am not saying that the computer cannot be used creatively, with imagination and flair, in the composition and notation of music, but it cannot substitute for thought processes. Technology can be a wondrous aid, but it cannot take over and direct.

“It is interesting to compare what happened to Scottish Opera with what happened to Norwegian Opera, in much the same kind of financial crisis, remembering that the population of Norway is slightly less than that of Scotland. In Scotland the opera’s money has been whittled away to pennies, and the permanent chorus sacked. In Oslo the government responded by increasing the opera company’s money mightily, and building it a new opera house. So much for the new Scottish parliament’s faith in Scotland’s cultural future.

“Here we had, in the first Elizabethan age, as well as before, 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 and that whole pantheon, 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 and distinguished composers. However, when I conduct orchestras in Europe, there are always ex-pat Brits there because there was no job for them in Britain, or because conditions and salaries in our neighbours’ countries are so much better than here. We have five opera houses, Germany has over ninety, and comparison in the orchestral field is similar. In Germany the artistic community is complaining bitterly about government cuts, but in comparison with Britain, they are still in clover.

“The roots of a thriving classical music scene need three nutrients, of which the first is music education, and the second, resources: however this is perhaps a poor proposition for a government wishing to be perceived as prudent with tax payers’ money, and where the private sector, though taking a real interest, has no tax incentive to contribute. The third nutrient is 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. The composer-in-residence schemes of some orchestras are splendid and I warmly welcome the announcement of the Royal Philharmonic Society’s Composer in the House scheme which kicks off this September with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra.
The present and past British governments’ attitudes to our cultural heritage have been bizarre enough, and I do not wish to make unfair comparisons, but I would like to quote, as a warning of how bad things could get, Moshe Levin on the post-Soviet attitude to these things in the new Russia: “Not content with looting and squandering the nation’s wealth, the ‘reformers’ mounted a frontal assault on the past, directed at its culture, identity and vitality. This was no critical approach to the past, it was sheer ignorance.” I think we should at least be warned of the possibility.

“Classical music is such an integral part of European culture that it should be regarded as a thing available to all by right. No longer does it alone occupy central attention in our musical world; many other kinds of music are, quite rightly, up there with it. I pointed out that the masterpieces of classical music are the sound equivalents of the great cathedrals, and I trust nobody is thinking of leaving them to rot.

Aemulamini autem charismata meliora (But be ye zealous for the better gifts); when our very existence is threatened by climate change, we can only strive and hope that civilised institutions can continue. 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. Sub specie aeternatatis, 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 text is the copyright of Sir Peter Maxwell Davies and the Royal Philharmonic Society and is reproduced here with permission from the RPS. Please contact the RPS directly regarding the use of this Lecture and for the complete text
  • RPS Max Page

1 thought on “Will Serious Music Become Extinct? – Sir Peter Maxwell Davies’s Royal Philharmonic Society Lecture 2005”

  1. Pingback: » The Dumbing Down of Culture

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Skip to content