Howard's speech to the Music Manifesto Signatories' conference, 18th May 2005
Over the last year, as Fergal mentioned, I have been doing an enormous amount of research into the state of music education in Britain for a South Bank Show Special that was broadcast last December. I followed that up with a shorter piece for the BBC’s Choir of the Year broadcast about Wider Opportunities and singing in Greater Manchester. On top of that I am making another film at the moment for the Music Manifesto, a compilation of young musicians’ vox pops from all over the country – their likes and dislikes, the instruments they play and why, what they would do if they were in charge of music policy, their favourite music – that kind of thing. It has been a grand voyage of discovery for me. Obviously I haven’t been able to get around to every school in the country, but I have been able to gather my observations together into some kind of overview. The process for me has been absolutely fascinating, not least because there seems to me to have developed a mismatch between public perception of the state of music education and the reality of it.
One of the reasons I wanted to do a South Bank Show on this subject in the first place was because I suspected that a lot of the public discussion in this area is either absurdly exaggerated, based on dinner-party gossip and hearsay, informed by antiquated prejudices, or plain wrong. Moreover, I felt there was a deficit in all our discussions in terms of what young people themselves think, because, after all, they are the reason for what we are all trying to achieve. Hence this latest film of their voices on music which will be revealed at a Music Manifesto event on the 30th July at the Royal Geographical Society, connected with the BBC Proms.
Travelling round hearing teenagers talk about their music has been extremely instructive and challenging for me, indeed I think for some of their teachers it has been too – many of them have said at the end of the filming sessions, “I never knew my students thought these things”. Sometimes a stranger with a camera can elicit more candid responses from youngsters than even their own teachers or parents. I would like to share with you in a moment some of what I have learnt from this process.
I should say, first, that when we put the South Bank Show out – Musical Nation – generally speaking my tone was positive, since I discovered there were lots of very good things going on all over the place and that there is the potential out there for our music in schools to be outstanding. I realise that by saying so I was being unfashionably positive about music education. Those of you who know about TV-land will know that generally speaking the people who write or phone in to the broadcaster after the programme, or who send you emails or go on internet message boards are the people who are either extremely angry or extremely happy with what you’ve done, there’s not much between the two. Plus the nutters, of course. But the other truism about viewer reaction is that the people who actually bother to write in are a minute percentage of the whole audience. It is well known that you will always have many more negative comments about a programme that is even slightly topical, or political, or controversial, than you will positive.
After the transmission of our South Bank Show I received about 100 letters or emails, of which three were negative. Perhaps my positivity, then, is not so far out of line with the actual teachers, parents and students involved in music-making in the country at large, after all. What was most moving to me was that I received letters and emails from teachers who said “I can’t believe I have just seen a TV programme that was positive about teachers”, or, “yes, we have fantastic music in our school – why didn’t you come to film us?”, or, “I had no idea that standards as high as I saw on your programme were possible in ordinary schools”.
Many viewers were shocked that the normal media presentation of the situation seemed so at odds with what was actually going on in at least some schools. I do not pretend the situation, by the way, is ideal or perfect by any means, but negativity and criticism is infectious, and you have to be very careful, since if you say one critical thing, it will be that that gets reported, not the hundred positive things you may say. So I am on a mission to reinstate some positivity into this area. Apart from anything else, we as adults need to set a tone of enthusiasm around the idea of music for the sake of our children. Imagine the scene in the school playground, a boy goes up to another boy, “do you want to join our band – it’s crap”? If we go round saying music in schools is a disaster area, that’s what the next generation will believe is the truth. It’s not just dangerous because it is an inaccurate portrayal of the scene, but because it doesn’t help a single child, it doesn’t put a single new teacher in place or launch a single new band or orchestra or choir in any school, anywhere.
All of us involved in bringing music to young people believe, don’t we, that music is good for the whole person, that it boosts your self confidence, your self-esteem, that it makes you happy and focussed and centred. Why is it then, that so often the public face of music in the press is one of famous professional musicians complaining, whinging, warning of disaster and catastrophe, Jeremiahs gnashing their teeth at the lack of support, lack of money, lack of respect? What is a young person to make of this image? They’d conclude, surely, that music hadn’t done much for that musician’s self-esteem and confidence, hadn’t made them happy, or whole, or full of joy. If a career in music makes you a serial whinger, makes you angry at the world and full of bitterness and resentment, then don’t ask me to get involved with it, they might reasonably argue.
So I am unapologetic about stressing the good things that are going on. I am now going to talk about some of the things that I have learnt from talking to young people about their experience of music.
The first thing to say is that diversity is not something that politically-correct adults like us, politicians, pedagogues or consultants are imposing upon young people. Diversity is the normal state for young people inBritaintoday, it is their cultural and social norm and their everyday musical state as well. They don’t really get this idea that there was once a time when you only played one sort of music. If you ask them who their favourite composers are, they will give you – without hesitation or qualification – lists of names that are picked from every corner of the musical firmament. I wrote down a few from the other day from some 16-year old girls, they said Bach, Tchaikovsky, Coldplay. Frank Sinatra, Purcell, Blue. Or one marvellous response was ‘Eliza Fitzgerald, Mozart and Eddie Mercury’.
When asked what piece of music might be set for analysis at GCSE, one student suggested Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody and The 1812 Overture.
By the same token, the business buzzword ‘cross-over’ is the natural musical habitat of young musicians, so much so, that they find a question about it baffling – as if being asked what crossover music is is like being asked what music is. This is, subconsciously, incredibly perceptive since music has always been a ‘crossover’ phenomenon. What is Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring if it isn’t a fusion of Western Classical Late Romanticism (and Impressionism), Modernist atonality, African polyrhythm and primitive Russian folk music?
The other day I took part in a 45 minute session with young composers studying AS Music Technology at the Purcell School. Now Purcell School students are highly trained classical musicians, they have been classical musicians since they were tiny and they have been given fast-track, specialised tuition with immense expertise, so you could say these were the next generation of classical music’s high-fliers. They showed me their work, one by one, and we discussed it in a mini-masterclass way. The works in question were short films which they had made collaboratively and set to music individually. The point is that not one of the pieces of music that these classically-trained musicians composed would be described by a member of the general public as ‘western classical music’. What they were writing was a hybrid contemporary style, an eclectic mix of urban, world, electronic music. It was highly sophisticated, imaginative and interesting, but it was a million miles away from the music that Birtwistle, Adès, Maxwell Davies or Macmillan would write. This was a wake-up call for me. These youngsters were choosing to write in what you’d have to call ‘non-classical’ styles. They were redefining the term ‘contemporary music’ as they composed. They have abandoned the musical frontiers that once seemed a fact of life for many musicians.
When classical critics, composers, conductors and virtuosi make public statements about the ‘decline and fall’ of classical music as a distinct form, enveloped on all sides by the oceans of popular culture, they seem to be directing their ire and anxiety at forces outside the classical world – television, the internet, government, commerce, as if collectively they are destroying the precious, fragile jewel of the western art music tradition. What my sessions with the young composers of the Purcell School and elsewhere have taught me is that classical music’s transformation, modernisation, acceleration towards the popular mainstream – what you will – is being enacted from within, by its most talented and skilled practitioners. We can either embrace the tendency towards fusion and crossover amongst the young and go with it, or we can resist it, King Canute-like, hoping that somehow we can divert the tide of the next generation’s taste by intervention of some kind.
The fact is we can’t halt this change, even if we wanted to. Music’s ability to develop with society is an unstoppable force and young people are already to some extent driving that movement forward. One final point about diversity is this. There are some people over 40, many over 50 and even more over 60, who grew up with a musical diet of mainly western classical music, for whom popular music of previous eras was merely a pleasant, leisure-time add-on to their lives. No-one under 40 has grown up with this perspective. Imagine how odd it must be for a young Briton who has grown up in a multi-cultural community, at ease with a musical landscape of overwhelmingly popular styles of music, who listens to a piece of classical music by, say, Harrison Birtwistle. The so-called ‘modern’ music of European composers like Sir Harry seems to emanate from a world that has all but completely passed by – musically speaking – 100 years of the influence of black music. It takes up where white European masters of the early 20th century left off. To most young people the weirdness of this stylistic niche is not simply a question of musical literacy – it is a cultural chasm.
It struck me powerfully during my discussions with young musicians that for them, music is an emotional, not a cerebral activity. Almost without exception, when they talk about music they talk about its sensual and spiritual power, its ‘wow factor’, its ability to move one to tears or make one want to get up and dance. Boys, especially, refer to the sheer muscular power and physical energy of pieces like Orff’s Carmina Burana. They describe it as having an almost tangible effect on one’s body. Whilst they might be amused, tickled or intrigued by the challenges and the concepts of the experimental music of the mid-20th century, something – incidentally – all GCSE students are familiar with these days, they don’t actually hear it as music. For them, what John Cage or Pierre Boulez does is of tangential, non-musical interest – like a science experiment. It does not engage with their senses or their emotions at all.
To some extent this explains their passionate distaste – one might even say loathing – for avant-garde modernism. Make no mistake about this. Theirs is not – as is sometimes alleged – an antipathy born of ignorance or even of a squeamishness about dissonance (towards which they are entirely neutral), it is a mistrust of things that seem to be ‘clever-clever’, music for a PhD’s sake, you might say. Music without emotion for them is non-music. I have read comments by music experts saying that young people’s antipathy to modernist classical music is all about lack of education and familiarity, that it is all the fault of teachers, parents, the media, that this music is not more appreciated. It’s funny, isn’t it, how it is never apparently the fault of the music, or the composer, or the performers? It’s always someone else’s responsibility. No-one who writes film scores or popular songs or musicals or Indian dance music or ceilidh jigs or brass band pieces ever expects someone else to make it popular or accessible or enjoyable for them. It is a given in all forms of music – except western classical – that it is the responsibility of the creators themselves to win their audience’s emotional engagement. It makes classical music seem, if I may use a therapists’ term, needy. No emotionally switched-on young person is going to find that an attractive or beguiling image.
When asked what they got out of participating in music-making themselves the immediate response was always that music was a great social activity. Being in an orchestra, a choir, a band is always linked with friendship and a lot of fun. This may seem like a trivial detail but to young people it is of tremendous importance, especially as these days, thank goodness, they are pretty well all doing it because they want and choose to, in their free time. In terms of recruitment and involvement, an emphasis on the social rewards of playing music may be the most powerful lure that any teacher or group leader may have at their disposal.
It was certainly one of the solutions sixth-formers gave to the problem of making music more palatable an activity for younger children. Another was that music should seem to be a ‘normal’ activity, not a freakish or ‘special’ one. Many children who are drawn easily to music do so because they come from homes where music is valued and where there is lots of it around. The priority given in the Wider Opportunities programme to group instrumental teaching within the normal school timetable would seem to bear out what the older teenagers are saying: instead of a child being pulled out of a class to go to a specialised one-on-one lesson, thereby underlining the unusualness of the tuition, he or she learns it with everyone else. Indeed, the research materials from the Wider Opportunities pilots shows that not only is group experience of music more desirable for the above reasons, it is also more effective in terms of the swift progress the KS2 children make on their instruments.
Young people are surprisingly open-minded about which style or genre of music they will concentrate on, at least initially. What is quite clear in schools is that where the teacher’s passion is jazz, that’s what the majority of the students get into, where it’s brass band, they all join the band, where their teacher’s mad about singing, they have loads of excellent choirs, and so on. This is of course mainly to do with the fact that a wonderful teacher could get you interested in practically anything and that the youngsters identify with the person well before they identify with the subject. This may seem so obvious to be almost a cliché, but there are urgent lessons to be learnt from it nonetheless.
It is often complained that young people are not getting enough exposure to classical music from lack of leadership and advocacy at school level. Well, anyone who’d like to see more classical music in school is first of all going to have to persuade the leading conservatoires, university music departments and colleges to encourage more classically-trained graduates to go into school teaching. It’s as simple as that. With some honourable exceptions, like the Birmingham Conservatoire or Trinity College at Greenwich, the thinking at further education level in music is dangerously out of date. There are plenty of brilliant young musicians coming out of these institutions, but at the moment a snobbery persists within them that teaching is what you do if you’ve failed to become the next Evgeny Kissin or Joshua Bell.
This attitude, still fairly prevalent I’m sad to say, is potentially disastrous for classical music’s place in young people’s lives, because jazz, folk, rock, gospel and brass band teachers have no such chips on their shoulder about teaching. Every enthusiastic new teacher who arrives at a school with their own burning passion for Broadway or Blues or Bhangra will recruit hundreds more exponents of those styles. Nor will they be carrying around with them the baggage of failure and disappointment because they didn’t end up on the stage of the Festival Hall getting rave reviews from Norman Lebrecht.
Geordie genius songwriter Sting once wrote, ‘people go crazy in congregations, they only get better one by one’. This is demonstrably true when it comes to music and the young. If you want them to share your love of music you are going to have to roll your sleeves up and go and share it with them yourself, person to person. There are no shortcuts and absolutely no exceptions: no music is so grand, so meaningful or so precious that it can afford to have its best players shut away from the world, unable or unwilling to show a child why it is all those things.
Showing by doing isn’t just a trendy educational mantra, it is more or less the only way to win the respect of today’s youngsters. They want their musical experience to be active, not passive.
Now, there will be people here who wonder whether a generation of young people whose entertainment is to watch TV programmes made by someone else on TVs manufactured by someone else, listening to music created and recorded by someone else on iPods designed by someone else, or sending messages on internet chat forums with the merest flick of the wrist could really be described as lovers of active rather than passive pastimes. But I challenge this cynical perspective of our young people.
For a start, their relationship to technology generally is far more hands-on, fearless and experimental than that of their parents’ generation. They want technology to interract with them, not simply to present itself to them. I saw this demonstrated with devastating clarity on a visit to Vienna two weeks ago. There’s a terrific new museum recently opened there called the House of Music which, like the Cité de la Musique in Paris and the magnificent Hornimans in South London, is an attempt to make the experience of musical history as interractive as possible for young and old. There are many fine exhibits on three floors. Children and adults wander about looking with varying degrees of interest at the different displays on offer but the one room where absolutely everyone stops to have a go is one where by brandishing a baton with an infrared sensor you can conduct a ‘virtual’ Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra on a DVD-style screen. If you speed up, they do. If you slow down, they do. If you go so manically fast they can’t play it, they come crashing to a halt and one of the wind players gets up and complains at you. I’m not sure what would happen if you rehearsed them for more than two hours without a union-regulation coffee break, but my guess is that there’d even be a virtual walk-out, led by the brass section. Anyway, not a single person passing through the House of Music does so without trying this interractive sport.
So it is with live musical experiences. I mentioned the research that came out of the Wider Opportunities pilot scheme earlier. Another unequivocal message that came out of that data was that the classes which really worked most effectively were the ones where the children were involved in playing the instruments themselves relatively soon after the session has begun. In cases where the musicians – usually classical – spent a long time talking, then playing themselves, before handing over to the children in the last few minutes of the session, the experience was much less successful all round.
When you go to schools and ask the students who their favourite classical composers are, they invariably list the ones whose music they themselves have played. There may once have been a time when you could sit a class of young people down and tell them how good a piece of music was, without any active participation from the youngsters themselves, but I suspect those days are well and truly over now. Young people today who love, say, the music of Shostakovich, or Purcell, have almost always played it or sung in it.
In 1999 I was involved in a seminar sponsored by Sainsbury’s Arts Panel called Older, Younger which was trying to address the issue of why it was that young people between the ages of 10 and 15 didn’t have a very positive response to live theatre, what it was about it that put them off, why it was they preferred the cinema, and so on. The best bit of the conference was a presentation made by a woman who had been commissioned to do some fairly extensive market research amongst children of this age range to find out what they thought about theatre. Much of it came as a shock to the theatre practitioners, directors, writers and administrators in the room. One of the children said something that struck a chord with me at the time and which I feel has as much relevance to our field of music as it did then to theatre. An 11-year old girl from Birmingham described the play she’d just been to as unsatisfactory for the reason that “the actors on stage seemed to be having more fun than we were”. This says it all, doesn’t it? Any teacher will identify with the situation whereby it’s much easier to get pupils to audition to be in a musical or play than to sit and be told about it, sat in a classroom. The message from that young woman was the same. Active participation yes, sitting around watching others have a great time, no.
There were, incidentally, some other revealing results of that survey into what children thought about theatre. Boys in particular were very bothered by the fact that on the stage it wasn’t really very realistic. They’d say things like “he was supposed to be dead but then he came back on”, or, “You can’t really kill someone on stage”. And by far the largest number of critical comments were directed at the lamentably poor choice of confectionery in the foyer: they were disgusted by the total absence in theatres of Pick and Mix, that they only had the big bags of Minstrels not the small, that they didn’t sell popcorn, and – horror of horrors – the sweets kiosk was shut when they left the building!
One of the other observations that emerged from this theatre seminar which I believe impacts upon us in music, is to do with the different ages of young people and the fact that we as adults often lump them all together as children, when in fact an 11-year old’s taste and interests may be radically different from that of a 6-year old or a 15-year old’s. The young teenagers complained bitterly that the theatre they were taken to see was either very babyish and silly or it was basically mature adult theatre that they were supposed to sit through. They pointed out – quite correctly – that there was almost no theatre writing targeted specifically at their age group.
This gaping hole in the market is doubly puzzling since so much literature has developed over the past 10 to 15 years that is specifically written for young teenagers, from Philip Pullman and Michael Malpurgo to Jacqueline Wilson and J.K. Rowling. Concert music has not responded well to the throwing down of this gauntlet either. Why are there so few musical equivalents of Eoin Colfer and Anne Fine, Garth Nix and Anthony Horowitz? Where are the well-known composers writing major concert works specifically for young people?
I feel ashamed I have to say, I don’t really understand why every composer inBritainhasn’t signed this Music Manifesto, it’s a disgrace that they are not even engaged in this dialogue about music’s future with young people. Is this down to the same snobbery that causes conservatoire students to regard teaching children as a second class kind of career? If composers aren’t going to write music for teenagers with the same verve and imagination as the novelists I have mentioned, then those young people will have every right to dismiss concert music as something that isn’t ‘for them’, like toddlers’ theatre or a bunch of grown-ups banging on about their mortgages and affairs in an Aykbourn comedy. And when you see ‘family or children’s concerts’ advertised, it’s always Peter and the sodding Wolf, isn’t it? It may be charming music but Peter and the Wolf is a rubbish story and children know full well it’s a rubbish, infantile story.
While we are on this subject, I’d like to tackle the complaint from some quarters that there’s no point in teaching children the popular music they already know and like, since the aim of teaching is supposed to be to tell you something you don’t already know. This argument is rather haughty. Imagine it being applied to other subjects in the school timetable. ‘For our first lesson in woodwork, class, instead of making an attractive bookend, we are going to study the structure and design of 18th century Austrian furniture. In Maths, instead of adding, subtracting, division and multiplication we are going to look at the seminal mathematical theories of Descartes. In French, instead of conversation practice for the school trip to Boulogne, Marie, elle va à la piscine; Claude il va au disco, we are going to analyse instead the philosophies of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’. It may sound absurd, but this is more or less what some people loftily suggest we should be doing with music. Beginning a young person’s journey with a culture and style wildly at odds from their own experience seems to me to be extremely counter-productive.
My 14 year old step daughter reads an enormous amount, she has always read an enormous amount, I mean thousands and thousands of books, and is a bright, perceptive person to talk to about the authors and stories she has read over the years. This year, as part of her GCSE coursework in English, she is finally encountering through the syllabus some of the ‘classic’ authors of yesteryear and since her literature training, as it were, was on modern writers for teenagers like those I listed earlier I was fascinated to hear, for example, her response to Jane Austen. What comes across is that wonderful though Austen is, she is writing about an English society that may be only 200 years ago but to a modern teenager it’s more like it’s 2000 years ago. The sexual politics, the claustrophobia and petty provincialism of Austen’s world are as strange to a young Briton in the early 21st century as a story set on Mars. When Pride and Prejudice was famously dramatised on TV ten or so years ago, the casting of modern actors, the subtle toning of the dialogue and the deft playing of the roles made it seem much more like our society than in fact it was. Whilst the costumes and sets were purposefully antiquated, there was a modernity to the atmosphere of the story which Jane Austen would no doubt have found peculiar. When my stepdaughter’s class watched Colin Firth on video the story came alive for them. This, in a nutshell, is why the teaching of music needs to be open-minded with respect to its own Jane Austens.
Since there is an awful amount of music that children do already like, why not start with that and gradually move on as they mature into more distant musical cultures – by distant I mean both geographical and chronological? Are there other aspects of the classical repertoire that can pose a difficulty to young people other than the fact of its age?
I believe another stumbling block to its easy acceptance can be that it appears to be too prepared, too finished, too meticulously polished. Children live in the present. They are not antagonistic towards the past, they simply do not revere it as older people do. Music-making for them needs to feel spontaneous, even if in reality it has been meticulously prepared in advance. One reason that community musicians have been so successful in winning over young people to an enjoyment of music is they are able to make music immediately, in the here and now, with whatever or whoever is in the room.
The sense that music is being made for the first time, now, is instantly compelling to youngsters (as it is to everyone). They are often slightly bemused by the lengthy, rather ponderous preparation and hushed moodiness to the music-making of professionals who come from a tradition where everything has to be done exactly as it is on the page, or else. If you sit in on the ensemble playing of talented young musicians it is clear that they are increasingly attracted to the idea of communicating without notation, of improvisation and interplay that is more intuitive and spontaneous than the stricter regime of reading from parts that is the staple of the classical tradition. Here, their instincts are closer to the traditions of jazz and folk music, both western and eastern.
I went to a comprehensive school three days ago, in South London, with an outstanding music department. Since there may be journalists in this room who are about to go away and write an article about how crap music is in British schools, I will repeat that last sentence. ‘I went to a comprehensive school in South Londonwith an outstanding music department’. By outstanding I mean they have got 400 students in their senior choir: four hundred. They have three award-winning, foreign-touring choirs, they have 200 children learning musical instruments and 25 students taking A and AS music. Their facilities are good, but they’re about to become much better thanks to their imminent transition to music college status and the package of extra funding that comes with it. One of the things that happened at this school was that one of the girls, aged 15, said that her favourite composers were Debussy, Bach and Mozart, adding apologetically that “I don’t really like pop music which shows just how much of a loser I am”. This made me pause to reflect on why she felt she should say this rather sad statement.
Some would say it is because of the relentless power of the commercial popular music machine, aided and abetted by TV, ramming cheap, lowest common denominator music product down young people’s throats so they feel they have no real choice to make. Pop, they say, is cool and everything else is uncool. It is a view of the world that sees everything from Nike to Coldplay as a potential threat to civilised values. I am uneasy about it as an argument for a number of reasons.
First, it absolves us all in music from any responsibility for the state we’re in, it piles the guilt onto other shoulders and turns us into powerless victims, into ‘losers’. Second, it assumes that young people are dumb recipients of advertising and hype and have neither the intelligence nor discrimination to make their own mind up about anything: what if they like Coldplay and eminem because they’re really good and worthy of admiration? Third, worst of all, it once again paints the non-pop sector of music as an angry rump, happier with a cosy past than a noisy present, uncomfortable with the reality of modern urban life, implausibly expecting the rest of society to change rather than accept change themselves.
Surely this caricature of the musical ancien regime is part and parcel of the image problem for classical music that the girl in the music class reluctantly identified? Even she, who loves classical music, sees that it is a world that comes across as ‘sad’. The culture of grumpy complaint, of awkwardness with many aspects of contemporary life that characterises much discourse in the classical world does not help this girl in her school community one iota.
I feel strongly that one of the things this Music Manifesto can usefully do with its large coalition of organisations and partners is to allow music as a whole to speak with one voice, as far as the outside world is concerned. To say collectively that we have had enough carping from the touchline, now is the moment for some positive, collaborative thinking. If we are going to have differences of opinion in the musical community let us do so with more discretion and sensitivity to others’ positions than we have had hitherto.
It was very sad to me that it was, predictably, two classical celebrities who chose to speak out critically at the launch of the Music Manifesto a year ago, in the press. Classical music’s best hope of general social acceptance, of not being seen as terminally uncool, is to find common purpose with the rest of the musical community. It needs to join this Manifesto wholeheartedly, not see itself as the self-appointed guardian of something the pop industry is trying to destroy. I would much rather those people who were critical of the Music Manifesto when it was launched had come in and joined in with us and worked out common solutions to their complaints, rather than say from the sidelines, “we’re better than this”. Young people will have been failed if this impressive new alliance of interested parties does not gather into its ranks all corners of our musical community.
And a good start would be the revision of some of the terminology being bandied about in the debate, if we are to show young people that we are on their side, not dismissive or bad-tempered about their lifestyles. I would like to take issue with the word ‘serious’. The Master of the Queen’s Music, Sir Peter Maxwell Davis, made a speech recently to the Royal Philharmonic Society whose title was, ‘is serious music becoming extinct?’. How patronising. As if – unilaterally – he has decided that only Western Classical music is worthy of the adjective ‘serious’. I could introduce him to hundreds if not thousands of young musicians who are very serious about what they do. They play their music – their jazz, their folk, their electronica, their blues – seriously. It is composed seriously, their rock, their bhangra, their music theatre. It is every bit as serious to them as Max’s Strathclyde concertos are to him. But, no, it could not be described as classical music and the idea that there is a superior form of music and an inferior form of music is to me utterly offensive and I am 47. Heaven knows how this comes across to someone who is 17.
At least there is a kind of arrogance and swagger to the assumption that his music is more serious than someone else’s. It is almost preferable to the paranoia that plagues the classical establishment and which is the other legacy of the European musical heritage. It is more than useless to the musical future of our country to think we can replicate the glorious period of symphonic composition and operatic development of 19th century Europe simply by spending millions on kids learning violins or taking them to hear Berlioz. Are we really happier as a nation, I wonder, when we’re dissing ourselves than when we are sticking up for our achievements?
We are good at lots of things in Britain and music education happens to be one of them. There is not enough of it, nowhere near enough yet, too few children are involved in it so far, but what there is is world class and it is – after the setbacks of the 80s and 90s – growing in competence and breadth with every month. The majority of county and borough music services are doing a terrific job. Youth Music has made a big impact in its first five years and builds in expertise and confidence. Most music teachers are excellent and doing a heroic job with relatively modest resources. Schools are getting their biggest overhaul of new facilities, including for the arts and music, in British history. So the idea that we are reduced to comparing ourselves unfavourably withGermany, as is frequently the case in the classical community, is tedious, unhelpful and negative. It breeds an insecurity that, frankly, isn’t even merited.
In 2002 when Sir Simon Rattle took over the job of musical director of the Berlin Philharmonic, he said publicly in a newspaper article that Germany was the only country that took high culture seriously. Michael Berkeley just a few months ago, said on the front page of The Times that Simon Rattle had had to escape toBerlinbecauseGermanywas the only country that took high culture seriously. It was the only place he could go to stop worrying about money. Well I mean what an extraordinary thing to say. The City of Berlin is bankrupt. They have closed an Opera House and the financial stability of the Berlin Philharmonic is by no means safe. When he was inBirmingham, Simon Rattle had an entire concert hall built for him and his superb orchestra’s funding was well supported by the City of Birmingham and Arts Council England. He went to Berlin to conduct a great, world-famous orchestra. The idea that he went to avoid worrying about funding seems to me to be incomprehensible.
But this chip on the shoulder that on the continent they are better at culture than us is quite a long-standing complaint and it has to be disposed of once and for all. I am going to start with the 19th century.
In 1855 Richard Wagner conducted the Philharmonic orchestra inLondonand said they “played like machines” and that “all British music was stifled by the ethos of the tradesman”. Oscar Schmitz, in 1904, wrote a very famous article, later known as ‘das Land ohne Musik’, saying that “Britain was the only civilised nation without its own music”. One year later, in 1905, Edward Elgar – by the way, not a German – Edward Elgar said, that the British music scene was “vulgar, mediocre, chaotic and insipid”. These are harsh words, so I would just like to say a few things about 19th century Britain.
It is true Germany had Wagner and Bayreuth, Italyhad Verdi and La Scala, and Francehad Berlioz and Meyerbeer. We in Britainhad Gilbert and Sullivan, the butt of much snobbery I may say. Clever, sophisticated, witty, likeable music, but not – it’s true – Tristan und Isolde. They had 14 premieres in the West End between 1875 and 1896. I make that 5005 performances, which works out as roughly 5 million people who saw their works in their first runs alone. In The Mikado’s first year of production there were a 150 other productions going on around the world. 150. This, from ‘a land without music’.
It is widely believed thatGermanyinvented the concept of music conservatoires, however our own Royal Academy of Music pre-dates Berlin by 7 years and Leipzig by 20 – in ‘a land without music’, apparently.
Similarly, it is widely believed that Germans, Poles and Austrians had a monopoly on the piano in the 19th century. In 1850 there were over 200 piano builders and distributors in London alone – in ‘a land without music’.
Samuel Coleridge Taylor, the highly successful Croydon-born composer of Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast, was admitted to the Royal College of Music aged 15, later became professor of composition at Trinity College in 1883 and at the Guildhall in 1910. He went on three American conducting tours to tremendous acclaim, though being a black man he couldn’t stay in the same hotel or eat at the same restaurant tables as the orchestra musicians he was conducting whilst in the States. In England, on the other hand, he was celebrated and respected.
In 1872 the legendary Jubilee Singers from Fisk University in Tennessee visited Britain. The Jubilees were freed slaves who formed a small choir singing negro spirituals to raise money for a college in Nashville to educate newly emancipated African Americans. They are of immense cultural significance in African American history, though perhaps not well known in this country these days. Routine humiliation and discrimination of black people at that time meant that they couldn’t even find an American liner company who was prepared to find them cabin space for their Atlantic crossing. In the end a British ferry company agreed to provide them with passage. They performed for Queen Victoria, were entertained by Prime Minister Gladstone and gave performances to packed halls, churches and even high streets to vast audiences across the UK in a trip that lasted a year. They raised the unbelievable sum of £10,000 – perhaps the equivalent of a million pounds by today’s standards. When you read their story of the trip it is humbling and deeply moving that they could not believe they had arrived in a country where they could stay in any hotel, travel on any bus, walk along any street, attend any public event, eat at any table they pleased, and where they were spoken to with respect and consideration by all who encountered them. They became celebrities and returned a few years later to a second, equally tumultuous reception. All this, in ‘a land without music’. Whose music?
If you were writing the history of western music of the 19th century you might think that Bruckner’s Mass in F minor is a more important landmark from 1872 than the Jubilee Singers’ tour of the UK, or that Brahms’ Third Symphony of 1883 is more significant than Coleridge Taylor’s appointment at the Trinity College of Music. But I believe you’d be wrong to highlight one and ignore the other. You might compare these events to what was going on in Germanyor Austriaat the time. Wagner was, admittedly, composing titanic operatic masterworks, but, the year that Coleridge Taylor became professor of composition at Trinity, Wagner’s two best-selling publications were his book Jewishness in Music and his article Know Yourself, in which he memorably coined the term ‘degenerate’ to describe Jewish culture and proposed the purging of German blood of its Semitic poison. That’s high culture for you.
Coleridge Taylor is a huge figure in our musical history and what’s more, if we were keen as a musical community to engage more young black Britons in classical music, he’d be a perfect starting point as a role model. It wouldn’t do any harm for music students to know who the Jubilee Singers were either, and what they represented to their people.
In the mid-19th century, two Britons, John Curwen and Sarah Glover, invented ‘tonic sol-fa’, which introduced millions of people to singing without having to read conventional notation. The impact of this was such that when the composer Zoltán Kodály visited Britain in the 1920s he was so impressed by the widespread application of sol-fa that he was inspired to set up his own method for use in his nativeHungary. Now, in a history of 19th century music, it’s possible that you might not rate the invention of tonic sol-fa as highly as, say, Liszt’s B minor Sonata for piano, but in terms of its ability to encourage the participation of millions of ordinary people in music-making, sol-fa might actually have had rather more impact than the Liszt. Weekly performances at the Crystal Palace in the Victorian era were attended by audiences of up to 80,000 people, with sometimes a further 5,000 performers on stage. This was a time of unprecedented involvement in choral societies, brass bands, male voice choirs, amateur orchestras and church singing. Thousands of them. In a land, supposedly, ‘without music’.
Now there is a pattern developing here. What seems to be the case is that Britainhas always valued mass participation in music-making, almost above anything else. We’re not the only ones. I mentioned Kodály’s efforts to widen access to music for ordinary Hungarians, a movement that became official government policy in 1945 when the Communists seized power, making Kodály-method singing for children compulsory in all schools. Carl Orff also worked tirelessly on music education for all, his Schulwerk programme being given added impetus by its adoption by the Third Reich, from whom he enjoyed favoured status, in the 30s and 40s. The fact that he also wrote incidental music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 1939 to replace that of the unacceptably Jewish Mendelssohn somewhat takes the shine off his other achievements, however laudable.
The British way is to be as inclusive as possible and at the same time to make musical involvement primarily about enjoyment, even if it does open us up to accusations of ‘dumbing-down’ or frivolity, from the many jibes aimed at Gilbert & Sullivan in the 19th century to Oasis in the National Curriculum, in the 21st.
The fact is, Britain never was a ‘land without music’: that snide accusation was as hollow and ignorant in 1904 as it would be now. We have a mass participation movement of our own being rolled out in primary and junior schools everywhere, as we speak. Wider Opportunities is the boldest, most ambitious programme of universal music induction being attempted anywhere in the world at the moment. It is being monitored with some fascination, hopeful expectation and admiration by our colleagues abroad, although because it’s good news, about an already highly successful scheme, supported by an enlightened government policy, you won’t read about it in our own newspapers.
At the launch of the Music Manifesto a year ago at Abbey Road Studios the fact that Jamelia performed alongside choristers from Salisbury Cathedral, that members of the South Asian Music Youth Orchestra performed alongside students from theYehudiMenuhinSchoolmade it a very typically British event. Welcoming, open-hearted and culturally diverse. Bravo. Much the same happened at the Big Gig which celebrated the 5th birthday of Youth Music at Birmingham’s Symphony Hall – one moment we had a Latin American carnival group, the next the Sinfonietta of the National Youth Orchestra, we had a Taiko ensemble from Exeter followed by a Jazz group from Scotland. The Schools’ Proms and National Festival for Youth Music every year showcase extraordinary diversity and excellence of musical achievement throughout our country. If you take someone to a Schools’ Prom who’s never been before – a parent, a teacher, a youngster – they are always gob-smacked by what they see: the amazing talent, energy and dedication of our young musicians and the joyful, egalitarian juxtapositioning of one style after another on the same stage. This is our way of doing things, and it is what we have always done and that is why the Music Manifesto, this drawing-together of every possible musical voice, is a very British enterprise.
Every morning this week I have cycled or driven past three different, giant-sized billboards proclaiming the Lloyds-TSB ‘Note for Note’ initiative in partnership with the Music Manifesto. My heart leapt with pride that at last our passion – music for young people – is opening out into the broader community, into the public arena, thanks to this bank’s commitment. They join a wonderfully varied group of companies, organisations, associations, educational establishments, project leaders and individuals in this daring and admirable collective endeavour – the Music Manifesto.
I heartily applaud Marc and everyone in this room involved with it, since it is already living out its mission of inclusion, accessibility, popularity, and an end to the risible, outdated notion of one music’s superiority to another. If this is our national contribution to the musical future then we have much to be proud of and much to celebrate here today