Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Cathedrals of Sound - a Jack Pepper guest post

Our Youth Correspondent, Jack Pepper - who now presents his own show, Musical Minds, on Resonance FM - has a new article to get our grey matter working overtime on a Tuesday morning. Enjoy! JD

Cathedrals of Sound

Yes, music is majestic. But there is danger in the deification of the great composers. Putting writers on a pedestal serves only to detract from the music and alienate potential audiences, argues Jack Pepper

Music has an immense potency, striking the very core of our being. There is nothing like the thrill of music. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves; we know that Bach’s structures are finely crafted, and that Beethoven’s innovations dragged music through a new age. But proficiency, innovation and craftmanship do not negate the fundamental factor that links all of the great composers: their humanity.

Mendelssohn: Bach's prophet? Berlioz thought so...
Bruckner’s music has been described as forming “cathedrals of sound”.  Robert Browning argued that “the grandeur of Beethoven’s thirty-second piano sonata represents the opening of the gates of heaven.” Berlioz believed that “there is only one god – Bach – and Mendelssohn is his prophet.” Whether these statements merely sought to emphasise the importance of such composers in the history of music, or instead arose out of a genuine conviction that these composers were linked with a higher power, the common allusion to God raises an interesting question.

It is curious that we still apply such religious analogies to past composers today, given the noticeable decline in religious belief in comparison to the 19th century, in which these quotes occurred. 
Although these quotations come from a notably different context to our own, we tend to perpetuate these viewpoints. The times have changed, and yet our inability to express admiration for a composer without recourse to quasi-religious language remains. It is (paradoxically) reductive for us to compare a composer with a higher power; it is their humanity that makes them special, the fact that a human could create such awe-inspiring works. When confronted with a masterpiece, we seem unable to accept that its creator was a human being.

Let us explore the opposite instance for a moment. When confronted with acts of evil, perhaps what shocks us most is that the perpetrators were human beings. Hitler’s favourite Wagner opera was Lohengrin. Hitler, whether we like the fact or not, was a human being; that is what makes his crimes so shocking. Yet, like so many significant figures in history, he has become a symbol, an academic discussion, a book title. It seems that the inevitable accumulation of books, essays and broadcasts have transported historical figures into the realm of the mythical.

Perhaps this is a natural consequence of history. When a significant figure dies, studies, books, lectures and documentaries are inevitable, and yet we run the risk of over-analysis; reading about a composer, talking about a piece of music, perhaps we forget that – one day in the past – this was a real, breathing human being, whether we like it or not.

I raise this question because the deification of composers – the placing of great music and musicians on a pedestal – could be a significant barrier to new listeners. As a young composer, I’m determined to share my love of classical music to a wider audience, and yet – as someone who already loves and actively explores the repertoire – it is all too easy to forget that classical music is intimidating to a new listener. With centuries of music - where even a single year contained so much musical variety, indeed where even a single composer evolved through many different styles - it is easy for classical musicians to forget that the ‘canon’ can be a little daunting. By emphasising the other-worldly qualities of a master composer, we overlook their humanity – forgetting that they were just like us – and this may create a sense of detachment. This detachment surely promotes the false assumption that classical music is ‘old’ music, rather than a living and breathing art.

Stravinsky: People should be taught to love music
Photo from Wikipedia
Presenting ‘Musical Minds’ on Resonance FM, I have been eager to explore the anecdotal lives of great composers, emphasising the humanity and reality that binds all musicians together. In the same way I may struggle to be inspired for a piece of music one morning, so too past composers – far more accomplished than I will ever be – encountered similar difficulties when writing. Deifying past writers makes us forget that they encountered the same challenges, emotions and thoughts that we do today. It makes us forget that their music is a response to many of the issues and emotions that we face too. It makes music seem irrelevant when it is anything but.

This means deification of the great composers won’t help classical music engage new audiences. Linking composers to a higher power can’t help but create an image of classical music as somehow lofty, distant and entirely cerebral. Whilst classical music is undoubtedly an ‘intellectual’ art form as well as a form of entertainment – works require repeated listening for a better understanding of their material – we should be wary of shaping the genre into some form of relic veneration, a cult or clique that worships at the altar of those who achieved what we can only marvel at. By likening composers to gods, and by neglecting the fact that even the greats could write bad music, we neglect the very thing that makes this music so impressive, so beautiful, so striking: the fact that it was written by humans.

We live in a world that frequently (and perhaps rightly) dwells on the negative. The news shows conflict, poverty and injustice. However, the world is also full of good. The world is full of musicians who visit care homes, of orchestras who run workshops with the local community, of instrumentalists who visit schools and inspire a love of music in others. The great composers were no less human than any of these modern-day musical heroes. In both past and present, composers have been trying to express important truths, be they personal, emotional, political or global. But high intentions and impressive masterpieces should not distract us from their humanity, the fact that these composers were all human beings like us. Musical masterpieces are a product of humanity; this is something we should be proud of. It is a medal for humankind. Equally, by emphasising the humanity of past composers, we remind new audiences that classical music is merely another form of expression, much the same in intention and origin as great artworks, pop songs and architecture. It is not intimidating. It is a real, human, living, breathing form of expression. An expression of humanity.

Marvel at the “cathedrals of sound” – analyse them, relax to them, read about them, talk about them - but do not forget that a human was behind it. The fact that humans are the creators of music is what makes it so special, so expressive. The human experience behind such music is surely what makes it speak to us? Deifying past masters only serves to reduce this power of their music by distancing the creators from our own lives, making them increasingly irrelevant and archaic at a time when we need their life-giving music more than ever.

Stravinsky would likely agree. He said that “the trouble with music appreciation in general is that people are taught to have too much respect for music; they should be taught to love it instead.” Music is emotional, as well as cerebral, and so we should not reduce composers to mere objects of intellectual worship. Music is mind and body.