Put your back into it

I’ve been having tremendous fun this term teaching a course on the history of music criticism at City Lit. We’ve only had four sessions so far, but we’ve already covered some pretty major points for discussion including what should/shouldn’t fall within a reviewer’s domain; whether ad hominem arguments are allowed (that is, of the person rather than the piece/performance – what do you do if you’ve been asked to review someone’s performance and then it turns out they’ve had multiple allegations of sexual misconduct made against them); where the acceptable line is between criticising someone and being downright unnecessarily unpleasant. The class is wonderfully open to discussion, and is also taking some time each week to produce a review themselves of a nominated piece of music.

So for this week’s session, I gave them Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge Op.133. Some of them already knew it, some owned recordings, but for many it was a new listening experience. They came back into the classroom with thoughtful, eloquent critiques – and all of them had found it intriguing at least, with many really growing to love it. One comment, however, was almost universal: you’ve got to work at it. You’ve got to listen to it several times over to really get it. Engage brain. Pay attention. This is most categorically not a case of sit back and let it wash over you.

This was very handy student feedback, since part of the point of the class was to highlight these very same sentiments being uttered by reviewers of the 1820s when confronted with Beethoven’s late quartets. One writer recommended withholding judgement for the first three to six hearings, and then buying the piano duet score so you could work carefully through one movement per week, like a sort of Beethovenian prescription for understanding. The balance was shifting: the responsibility was now the audience’s, to get to grips with the Works of Genius that composers were producing.

Whilst I’m certainly not denying that a piece like the Grosse Fuge does get easier to understand with repeat listening, and whilst I happen to think that it’s an extraordinary piece of music, I also think that leaving it at the end of the B flat string quartet Op.130 (which is where it started) would have definitely finished his audience off – and that it is not a work I would choose to listen to on a regular basis. It’s big, brilliant and difficult. It’s chewy. And there’s nothing to make it easier, really. A single movement, four players, no words… hold tight, and off you go.

Students clustered around a book, working something out

Sometimes, there are things to make difficult works easier. Like intervals. Or not performing entire multi-movement works (yes, I know, gasp!!! – but most of the nineteenth-century composers and audiences you might be dealing with would either expect bleeding chunks, or would just wander our halfway through to get some wine if the whole thing was too much for them. Wagner operas were also cut when they were performed in Vienna, on a regular basis, until Mahler insisted on sticking all the missing bits back in). Also one might consider performing vocal music in the language the audience actually speaks, so that we’re not either craning at surtitles or squinting at programme books in the semi-darkness, and invariably laughing at pretty much any point in the line except when the gag is actually delivered. If you think this is a new idea, just take a peek at The Spectator from 1711, when Joseph Addison and Richard Steele write exasperatedly that in 300 years’ time, everyone is going to assume that the population of London must have spoken fluent Italian because the opera singers insisted on performing in that language (mostly because the majority of them were Italian) and the audience had to sit there with a bilingual wordbook to try to figure out what was actually happening.

Classical music has a reputation for being exclusive. Exclusivity here, I think it would be safe to assume, means ‘involves knowing a series of things – bits of information and also particular behaviours, that are unfamiliar and intimidating to outsiders’. I feel much the same about football matches. Part of me would quite love to try going to one, but I know precious little about football, don’t know how you’re supposed to behave in a football stadium, am intimidated by the behaviour of fans as a I pass a club ground, and feel as if, should I go in and then behave ‘wrongly’, I’d be laughed at and feel terrible. There are certainly things in classical music (and probably football as well – or snooker, or rugby, or bird-watching, or yoga classes, or drystone walling, or any of the many other things I haven’t tried) that take a bit of time to figure out, and some pieces are chewier than others when it comes to working out what’s going on. However, I would suggest three things that might help.

  1. If something can be made easier, it is.
  2. We try not to make a privilege of something being ‘difficult’.
  3. We don’t immediately condemn as ignoramuses anyone who either says ‘I don’t get it’ or ‘I think I do get it, but I don’t actually like it and I never want to have to listen to it again.’

And if this post has not already outraged you enough, I would like to suggest one more thing. That these basic rules of thumb should apply to most performances. Not just the education branded events. Most of all events. If the classical music industry is serious about broadening its audience base, then it needs to find something between the odd concert where toddlers can dance around, a single school trip-type show you might get at thirteen, and then sitting through Das Lied von der Erde (which I happen to love – but the first time I heard it I did not get it at all. As a professional musician. In my late twenties. I’m not saying that made me the gold standard for getting stuff, but let’s be reasonable here…). There need to be in-betweens, and we need to stop treating dead composers like infallible saints.

I was told a great story the other day about a colleague arriving at university to begin her degree. For their first session, the students were asked to read a play by a famous writer, and come along ready to discuss it. The colleague read the play, agonised over how to address it in class, was determined that she had missed something because she couldn’t determine its brilliance. She got to class. The tutor asked them all what they thought of the play. There was silence. After a minute, the tutor said, ‘It’s shit, isn’t it? Well, let that be a lesson to you. Just because he’s famous, it doesn’t mean he can write plays.’

And if I played you all a terrible piece by Bach right now, how many of you would be prepared to admit it was terrible… and how many would assume that it’s just ‘difficult’ and a manifestation of his greatness as a complex musician? Now imagine you’d never heard any Bach before, only people talking about how great Bach was, and you were surrounded by people nodding and saying what a difficult work this was, how it took further grappling to understand, clearly. See the problem?

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