Beethoven, bubble baths, and the myth of ‘commercial’ and ‘serious’

In response to last week’s blog, I had a suggestion from a friend of mine, the creator of the fabulous Dave Conservatoire, to take on one of the big topics of music today: the relationship between ‘commercial’ music and ‘serious’ music. (No pressure there then.) So in true sticking-to-the-point style, I’d like to tell you about an impromptu dinner that I had a few days ago.

This dinner was a lovely surprise, prompted by a text from an old friend with whom I used to do duo work (she’s a very fine violinist) about eight years ago. In 2010, she left London to join the Ulster Orchestra, and we hadn’t seen each other since. But the UO were performing in a Prom on Bank Holiday Monday, and since she was in town, we were able to meet and catch up, enjoy dinner and learn what the other had been up to in the intervening years.

Let me tell you what we didn’t talk about. We didn’t talk about the superiority of Beethoven over lesser Austro-German classical composers. We didn’t discuss the finer details of the breakthrough in Bruckner 4. Nor were bow hold, Neo-Riemannian analysis, or even the difficulties of procuring fine Bordeaux, part of the conversation. Instead, we discussed friends, forthcoming weddings, how we felt about teaching, sexism in the workplace, and how great the pizza was. The next day she went off to do the concert, and I felt extremely happy to have seen her, and to hear at how well she was doing – and very proud indeed that a friend of mine was participating in the Proms season.

It is easy to assume that all purveyors of ‘serious’ music spend their every waking moment in a surreal world of intense and passionate practice, academic debate and extreme connoisseurship. They are supposed to drink the finest wines, eat oysters, be able to identify a faked Rembrandt at fifty paces, and quote Proust – in addition to playing superlatively and sticking firmly to the belief that the only ‘real’ music is the music that they play, i.e. music that is either recent and intellectually complicated, or less recent and written by someone who is almost sure to be white, male and dead. Indeed, there are certain groups who are quite determined that we should think this. They include anyone peddling classical music as a kind of luxury item, like a sort of sonic high-grade caviar (think red velvet curtains, swirly script, phrases like ‘profound majesty’, ‘soaring melodies’, ‘true genius’). These organisations trade in on the cultural caché and moral high-ground that they insist accompanies this kind of sound world. This includes Classic FM, by the way – they might be all about broadening the agenda and promoting crossover artists on the one hand, but arguably the ‘Smooth Classics‘ routine is quite simply setting you up to sink into a nice warm bath of lush strings and familiar opera melodies in just the same way as those thick velvet curtains. The only difference, really, is that Classic FM hand you the soap suds without expecting you to be able to identify the brand. It takes the luxury stamp, and makes it accessible to all of us.

Photo of a bath with candles and rose petals

All right, let’s abandon those Beethovenian bubble baths for a moment and head to what is generally regarded (by those who wish to set up extreme differentiations, at least) as the polar opposite. Let’s talk about the X Factor. In 2013, the winning spot on the UK show was taken by former prison officer Sam Bailey, whose first album, The Power of Love, came out in March of this year. Now for Sam and the X Factor crew, there are no curtains and caviar. Publicity is about the journey of the contestants; the emotional roller coaster of making it to the final; the pride of the contestants’ families and friends; and the feedback, good and bad, from stars (the judges and guest acts) and the public (the weekly votes). The acts have to impress, musically and visually, and we are all made to feel that we have a sense of buy-in, because these are real people with amazing talent and this is their big chance, with our help, to make transform their lives.

Here’s the thing. Whether you’re playing the classical connoisseurs, listening to Margherita Taylor as you sit in the bath, or leaping up and down on the sofa in anticipation of X Factor 2014, you are buying into a musical myth. Which myth you choose is up to you. It might be that you are intellectually and morally superior for loving Bach and Boulez (or, based on this week’s BBC faux pas over excluding a Birtwistle composition from a broadcast, Bach OR Boulez). Or that classical music is for everyone but actually you still treat it like a nice box of chocolates. Or that without any training or direction, someone with no training at all can become a star, unaided, as a result of trial by jury/vote/public opinion. We all love stories and we all find the narratives that best suit us.

Most people, however, don’t fall into those neat little boxes, because people are people and not constructs. They love the X Factor but are cynical about its set-up, and in their spare time they enjoy Renaissance choral music. They spend two nights a week at open mic sessions, and religiously attend Birtwistle and Benjamin events at the Southbank Centre. They adore Brahms and Schubert, but are secretly enormous Disney fans and could sing you every song from every feature film from 1937 to 1999.

So: what’s the relationship between ‘commercial’ music and ‘serious’ music? Whatever we want it to be. I can’t think of a single professional musician who spends all of their time listening to music of one broad genre – and thinking outside the box is what gets you a career, as Julian Lloyd Webber has so eloquently explained. Almost all music is commercial in some sense, and just because it was written in 1880 doesn’t mean it didn’t have to help pay the rent, even if we have subsequently found it interesting enough to warrant multiple repeat performances. By the same token, you don’t need a symphony orchestra or a poem by Goethe to make something serious. Why should you?

At a time when online streaming, radio channels, videos and independent artist sites are ever on the increase, we have unprecedented access to a wide range of music of all kinds – and can skip the marketing rhetoric by going straight to the source. But there are a few words of caution that I’d like to offer by way of conclusion. The stereotypes are not dead yet, and in some cases they can be useful. Donors respond well to being part of a particular kind of story, for instance, and organisations can use that to their advantage. Crossover can be handled well and with interesting results, and forge for powerful new conversations and collaborations… or they can be handled badly, which is often just plain awkward for everyone involved. Still, even failed projects can offer important lessons, and we shouldn’t treat all potential crossover projects as automatically being as daft as earlier, unsuccessful ones. (And if you’re thinking that I’m primarily referring to enthusiastic oh-so-middle-class classical sorts trying to get down with the kids, don’t forget that Morrissey insisted on having his autobiography published as a Penguin Classic. Is a group of rapping choirboys really any more embarrassing than a self-aggrandising musician who will only have his book printed if it’s automatically shelved next to Tolstoy and Jane Austen?)

Myth-making is powerful, fun, potentially extremely rewarding (financially and socially) – and however democratic the system of music distribution becomes, it’s unlikely that it’s going to die out. So if you find yourself torn between David Guetta and Don Giovanni, I’d suggest you listen to both of them. Why not? It’s all there for you, if you want it. As Louis Armstrong so wisely observed, ‘All music is folk music; I ain’t never heard no horse sing a song.’

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