I've been reading an interesting book, which I'm reviewing for BBC Music Magazine. It's Good Music: What It Is and Who Gets to Decide, by the American academic John J Sheinbaum. Among many things it does is to articulate a shake-up in the deep-seated ways we tend to think about the music we listen to. Is the idea of "greatness" all-encompassing in our musical judgments? If so, why? Does it have to be? Do we listen to music because it is empirically "great" in some way - or because we think it is because others have judged it to be? And not to other things because they are...not? It's a chewy, academic read, but deep within the texts and analyses are some intriguing ideas and a good few home truths. It's got me thinking...
WHAT IT IS AND WHO GETS TO DECIDE
JOHN J. SHEINBAUM
Over the past two centuries Western culture has largely valorized a particular kind of “good” music—highly serious, wondrously deep, stylistically authentic, heroically created, and strikingly original—and, at the same time, has marginalized music that does not live up to those ideals.
In Good Music, John J. Sheinbaum explores these traditional models for valuing music. By engaging examples such as Handel oratorios, Beethoven and Mahler symphonies, jazz improvisations, Bruce Springsteen, and prog rock, he argues that metaphors of perfection do justice to neither the perceived strengths nor the assumed weaknesses of the music in question. Instead, he proposes an alternative model of appreciation where abstract notions of virtue need not dictate our understanding. Good music can, with pride, be playful rather than serious, diverse rather than unified, engaging to both body and mind, in dialogue with manifold styles and genres, and collaborative to the core. We can widen the scope of what music we value and reconsider the conventional rituals surrounding it, while retaining the joys of making music, listening closely, and caring passionately.
The same could be said of how we listen to performers. Is hero-worship the only way forward? What about collaboration? Do we have to listen to a performer only because he or she is "the best"? Is the whole idea of "greatness" a hangover from 19th-century thought processes in which the god-given gift was a cause for marvel and we had, post-Liszt, to sit in worshipful attendance?
It's good to question things. It's great. It's essential. We should never simply accept a status quo because it's a status quo - it's only by probing interrogation that we can work out what the heck is going on inside our own heads, as well as in the world around us. Then, maybe, just maybe, we can make some progress.
My starting point today, though, is Beethoven's Seventh Symphony, because it's my personal nomination for Greatest Symphony Ever. I adore its every note. And it's thought, by most and sundry, to be great...
There's a paradox to solve, meanwhile. On the one hand, if greatness is not a criterion for listening to someone or something, how do we decide what to hear? We could eliminate all the artists who indulge in individual behaviour we disapprove of. We might look, for example, for dead composers who lived a blameless life, maintaining in the 18th or 19th centuries all the standards we expect in the 21st - no extra-marital affairs, no lying or cheating, donating half your income to charity, adopting as many stray dogs as you can fit into your home, no holidays (or just non-extravagant camping), being a wonderful mum or dad or wanting to be one, supporting mild, centrishly-progressive politics, standing up heroically to extremism and enduring great torment for the sake of the Truth. Er, you get the idea. We would have very, very quiet concert halls. Though actually, we might hear some Beethoven, who had high principles and massive struggles and if he didn't always get things right, it was not for want of trying. We'd hear a lot of... his Symphony No.7 in particular because it has no political connotations and isn't programmatic and always resists any and all attempts to make it hackneyed, because it's an absolutely great piece.
That method is not much of a solution. We'd be very bored very quickly. What about performers? Here it's already not always "greatness" that determines who is heard the most, or applauded the most. Other matters often decide who gets the concerts (but let's not go there just now). If it's up to us to choose, we might pick others to listen to, for other reasons. Some of my favourite memories of piano recitals involve intimate performances of really interesting repertoire by performers known to a niche public, but little further - an all-Fauré recital by the marvellous Grant Johannesen at St John's Smith Square springs to mind, for example. I'd say that was 'great' playing. So it is about greatness, but not always greatness in the widely assumed forms.
But there's no doubt about it when you do hear a really great performance. I heard one last week - Benjamin Grosvenor playing Chopin's Piano Concerto No.1 in its chamber form, with the Doric Quartet - reviewed in The Arts Desk. And certain orchestral concerts have stayed with me for decades: Solti's Mahler 5, for instance, back in the late 1980s (mind-blowing to my student self), or Rattle conducting Debussy's La mer with the Berlin Philharmonic. And Andris Nelsons in Birmingham conducting...Beethoven's Symphony No.7.
Sir Georg Solti - mind-blowing Mahler
Once you've heard such a performance, it sets the bar high. Most of us want to seek out "great" performances because of how we find ourselves responding to them. They set our blood afire, our pulse racing, our imagination spinning, our emotions atingle, and they leave us glad to be alive and thrilled that we could experience this. And if, having experienced that, you then hear something that doesn't do it, you might leave thinking "why bother?".
Do we have to apply the "why bother" scenario to repertoire too? If we did, it would be...boring. Wouldn't it? Some pieces of music I've heard so often that I literally don't mind if I don't encounter them again for 20 years (Tchaikovsky's Fourth Symphony tops the list, even though I adore Tchaikovsky). The notion that "greatness is everything" seems to have struck out, for far too long, composers of a second or even third rank who wrote music that is interesting, moving, worthwhile, but just not quite as good as ...Beethoven 7. Korngold's Violin Concerto wasn't performed in the UK until about 1984 and it's become a concert favourite not because it's as great as Beethoven 7 (not even I would suggest that), but because it is nevertheless beautiful and fun, violinists love playing it and audiences enjoy listening to it. Plain old enjoyment has a place.
Speaking of enjoyment, just have a look at, and listen to, what Kirill Petrenko can do with...Beethoven 7 at the great Berlin Philharmonic.
Back to Korngold for a moment. We had to be familiar with that concerto before it could catch on, not to mention dealing with the Hollywood stereotyping that worked against it for so many years. Familiarity has a huge place in what we think we know, if that doesn't sound too paradoxical - and sadly, so does prejudice ("film music is second rate", "ballet music is piffling", "Mendelssohn is too glib", etc), though few like to admit this.
Moreover, take our friend Mikolajus Čiurlionis. I went to Birmingham last Saturday to hear Mirga conduct The Sea (I haven't reviewed it because the artist Norman Perryman is a very old friend and I have one of his paintings; indeed, the background image on this blog is his doing). But I can't help noticing that apparently part of the puzzled reactions that have drifted around in that concert's wake was the unfamiliarity of this tone poem. Most people there had never heard it before. OK, so it was the UK premiere.
This Čiurlionis piece is not difficult listening, though. It's much of its time: there's a pantheistic, nature-worship side to it, a hint of Strauss in Alpine Symphony mode, a nod towards Scriabinesque grandiloquence, a whisper of Debussy, whose La mer might easily spring to mind. It's one long movement, about 35 minutes, beautifully coloured with clear, ambery orchestration, and it leaves you stirred, rather than shaken. Yet it wasn't wholly unfamiliar to me by the time I hopped on the train to Symphony Hall, because there are at least three versions of it available to listen to freely on Youtube and I'd availed myself of this. It's not impossible that that was why I didn't feel I had to concentrate on every bar, wondering what was coming next and whether or not it was a "great" piece, but instead I could simply enjoy the organic whole made by the music and painting together. I'm fond of ballet, as you know, and this is not so different. If you can watch dancing while enjoying the music, why not painting? The supposedly different mediums create one whole, a gesamtkunstwerk. So really, the notion that you can't concentrate on two things at once doesn't hold all that much sea-water.
And if it's not "great music", so what? It's a window into another corner of the musical world, a voice that is strong and pleasing. It's enjoyable, different and memorable, it broadens our experience and it makes us think. Is that not something worthwhile? Or does it have to be ...Beethoven 7 every single time? Look, you might not want to marry someone, but you can enjoy a conversation with him or her over a coffee, and even if you decide he's not your ideal date and you leave it there, you might hear something, learn something, have a laugh together. Social life would be pretty dull if you never just went for a cuppa with an occasional pal.
The Virtual Reality exhibit in the foyer, incidentally, took things further still. It was essentially an animation of Čiurlionis's own paintings. It was tucked away in the foyer bar and it took me a while to find it, but then I had a go on it and it was gorgeous. You're absorbed into a magical world, a little bit like Nicholas Roerich's paintings, if more evanescent, even ineffable. Roerich, a mystical philosopher as well as artist, was the designer of the original Rite of Spring for Diaghilev and worked on the scenario with (or possibly for) Stravinsky, and I think he and Čiurlionis had much in common - or would have had if the unfortunate Čiurlionis had lived beyond the age of 35. Coming back to the reality of central Birmingham on a Saturday night (don't even ask) from being surrounded by fields of flowers and a boat ride along a glowing shore is a bit of a jolt. I hope this beautiful creation might be more widely available to view soon.
The natural end point of rejecting a piece of music because it's not 100% perfect is that you end up playing "Mornington Crescent" (the spoof game in the radio show I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue) with Beethoven 7. It goes like this. The Sea is not Strauss's Alpine Symphony. Why do The Sea when you can do the Alpine Symphony? But then, the Alpine Symphonyis not regarded by some as a "great" work, but as an OK one by a composer who arguably did better with other pieces. Why do the Alpine Symphony when you can do Ein Heldenleben...yet again? But why do Strauss, then, when you can do Beethoven, who was greater than Strauss, the greatest of them all? Why do Ein Heldenleben when you can do...Beethoven 7?
The London Underground. Mornington Crescent is on the Northern Line (the black line) just north of the city centre.
Yes, all roads lead to Beethoven 7. And I love Beethoven 7 and I do think it's probably the best symphony ever composed. But I also have soft spots for about 3000 other pieces and would welcome, for instance, the chance to hear contemporary works like John Adams's Harmonielehre more often, let alone an occasional work by César Franck, André Messager or Lowell Liebermann - for any of which, guess where you mostly have to go? The ballet. (This season the Royal Ballet is doing both The Two Pigeons and Frankenstein, so you can hear Messager and Liebermann within a few weeks of each other.)
If you prefer to end every journey at Mornington Crescent, then by all means do - but now and then it really doesn't hurt to get off the train at Kennington instead and explore south of the river. If we only listened to the familiar and the "great", then we'd never hear anything we hadn't heard it before - and without new music, or indeed music that is new to us, the art form would just dry up and die. That Mornington Crescent lark could be fatal.