As bad as I remembered it: Britten on Brahms

Britten is often quoted as saying he would periodically take Brahms scores from the shelves and play through some of Brahms’ music, in order to make sure the music was as bad as he remembered it.

Every time I read about Britten doing this, I can’t help feeling a little glow of warmth inside. Not just because it’s akin to revelling in how much one dislikes a particular composer – my feelings on Wagner are well-known amongst my acquaintances – but also, because it shows that it is alright not to like a famed and revered composer.

When I mention my dislike of Wagner – and Brahms, Beethoven, Mahler and Verdi – I am often greeted with a sharp intake of breath and looks of profound, patronising skepticism. It’s as though I’ve politely requested to eat their child, or made an improper suggestion involving cash in exchange for Services Rendered.

There’s a snobbery inherent in classical music circles, that makes the expression of dislike for Worthy Composers almost socially unacceptable. This makes me want to cry ”But it’s OK not to like some music – at least I have an opinion!” The blithe acceptance that composers from the classical tradition Must Be Liked allows radio stations like Classic FM to farm out the usual fodder from the classical tradition, concert series to recycle the Old Favourites, and musical snobs to sneer at me.

The argument that popular classical favourites sell tickets and puts bums on seats for concerts is true: but it also allows for lazy concert-planning, pandering to the usual suspects – the reactionary, ‘I know what I like’ type audiences – and doesn’t accommodate listeners who like contemporary music; nor does it widen the horizons of those who simply stick to what they know – how on earth will they experience other works if concert-planners don’t endeavour to broaden the scope of their listening ? There’s a part of me that wants, not to educate, but at least give audiences the opportunity to hear something new, something different, in concerts that I put together. At the very least, if someone in the audience hears something new that they don’t like, they can safely say they don’t like it in the future, supported by having had the experience of listening to it in performance.

I won’t have it. It’s perfectly alright not to like some music: as long as you have considered reasons for doing so. There’s much classical music that I love – some of even by those composers that I don’t like (shock and alarm!) – but the endless reverence amongst people for traditional works that sets them on pedestals and won’t allow people to take pot-shots at them (even well-reasoned, soundly-argued pot-shots) is just snobbery, masquerading as Good Breeding.


Can’t dance, won’t dance: how music lost its dancing-feet

There are several reasons why the music of Beethoven evokes a profound sense of boredom in me, but the principle reason is that, as Beethoven expanded the architecture of music, he caused it to lose it rhythmic impetus.

Ballet de la nuit (1653)

Ever since medieval folk lifted their feet to dance the estampie and the ductia, and those of the Baroque danced the chacone, gavotte, menuet, gigue and other types, music had often been driven by a powerful rhythmic impetus. Bass-lines in Bach are often as melodic as the topmost melody line, but they are also as light-footed. The Baroque period saw music dance its way through a variety of dance-forms in instrumental concerti, in concerti grossi, even in the epic B Minor Mass.

Beethoven, it’s true, employed dance-forms – Wagner himself famously called the symphony no.7  ‘the apotheosis of the dance’ – but he sacrificed the rhythmic drive in music for larger-scale structures, in order to support his ever-expanding compositional arguments. Bass-lines ceased to be as melodic as they had been for Bach, and were consigned to underpinning the harmonic and tonal motion: tonics and dominants abound, depriving the bass part of its chance to participate in contrapuntal texture and keep the momentum.

Romanticism continued to explore expanding compostion; Impressionism examined light and colour in music. It wasn’t until Michael Tippett’s sprung-rhythm technique (see, for instance, the wonderfully light-footed first movement of the Concerto for Double String Orchestra) emerged in the twentieth century that rhythm was again elevated to being a principle concern in music.

I won’t deny that Beethoven has his fleeter moments – Symphony no.8, for instance – but that’s not enough to combat the ever-lumpen nature of some of the other orchestral works.

Beethoven: giving music its leaden tread.

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