The recent death of the conductor Sir Colin Davies, a venerable 85-year old one-time tyrant of the rostrum and the longest serving principal conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra, deprives us of a formidable champion, not only of much British music – but also of music itself. He was a particularly sensitive interpreter of Mozart and Sibelius, and was devoted to Berlioz. His repertoire demonstrated a special affection for the lively contortions of the music of Stravinsky, and a championship of the often mysterious and eclectic operas and symphonies of Sir Michael Tippett.
But it was a pronouncement he made some years ago that now brings me to thinking again about an issue that has a significant, if conveniently neglected role in our European concert music debates. He said he would far rather people left the concert hall thinking about the music rather than the people playing or directing it.
We have suffered from celebrities for a long time. In the current climate of incessant, unrelenting, almost desperate entertaining by television and radio, a few moments of silence can set alarms ringing and raise blood pressures with fear and high anxiety. The absence of celebrity features can lower dramatically the sales of magazines and newspapers; the culture of ‘celebrity’ has become a religion. Not that it wasn’t something of a significant matter in the past, too. Even in the days when Handel was fighting to draw audiences to his London opera seasons, employing a vastly over-paid prima donna or unique castrato mattered; but it was as nothing to today’s contagion.
It only takes a few decades for the stars to fade, and the exceptions are an emphasis to the rule. Connoisseurs remember the stars of the 19th century concert hall – dazzling singers like, Adelina Patti, Dame Nellie Melba, and Jenny Lind and celebrity performers like Liszt and Paganini. When conductors were invented around the 1840s, they too joined the ranks of celebrities to draw audiences, and for growing audiences it often mattered very little what music they were performing. Even now, an interview with a group of concert bound ladies on a Manchester bus proved their visits to the Hallé was to see the conductor and soloists, the programme being immaterial.
We continue to generate awards for young performers, series recitals, broadcasting routes and recording contracts for newly discovered talented singers and instrumentalists who may, perhaps, soon evaporate to languish among almost anonymous music clubs or join orchestras or choirs. Our major music colleges train young artists to the highest standards (conservatoire coaches have exacting standards) and annually turn out a small army of hopefuls into the international music market place. There is no shortage of philanthropic individuals and institutions that will offer support and exposure to the best or most persistent of this youthful throng. Venues for young recitalists are kept alive by private funding, and affluent private houses still reflect a Victorian interest in presenting young musicians to their allies.
And yet, what of the music they play? Even the professors training these young people are unsure to what extent their students actually comprehend the 18th and 19th century repertoire they perform. They imitate the sounds, as if learning phrases in a language phonetically without understanding the meaning, running the risk of danger when those who do understand recognize their shortcomings. Long past are the days when composers were performers, and performers composed. A cadenza in the performance of a concerto would once be a spontaneous improvisation. Elaborate ornamentation around written music would be the result of a creativity that no longer exists with young performers – or if it does, is a highly exceptional talent that rarely receives any critical acclaim.
There is a huge distance extant now between performers and composers. Those who play have little or no concept of the composition process, and are therefore unable to comprehend its purpose. They learn a repertoire of music centuries old from recordings and imitation without insight, and regurgitate it mercilessly to audiences numbed by repetition and celebrity.
This way music will die, for the excitement of discovery that enriches the visual arts and literature, that demands new film and fresh approaches to theatre and television, seems altogether lost on the mass of musical mimics that graduate annually to seek an unnecessary place among the re-creators of what we have all heard too often already.