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While the music lasts.

CLASSICAL music is dying in Britain; the patient is being wheeled into casualty; the respirator is pulsing in erratic gasps. A handful of devoted experts are huddled anxiously over it; but the gates are empty of journalists, and bulletins ('critical but stable') are being posted to only a couple of incurious passers-by. Classical music is dying, and no one cares.

An alarmist view, surely. Look at the hordes trooping into operatic extravaganzas from Wembley to the Birmingham National Exhibition Centre -- but this appears to have a minimal rub-off effect on the main opera houses, and only applies to opera anyway. Londoners may protests, pointing towards their record number of professional symphony orchestras -- but the orchestras are desperate, locked into a circle of performing more and more pot-bioler repertoire to get audiences, which nonetheless become smaller and smaller, sensing the stench of decay. There are, of course, exceptions, but even the best orchestras, playing the most stimulating programmes, are attracting less and less interest from the general public. The BBC is currently reviewing the future of all of its orchestras. The major newspapers, following what seems to be the trend, review fewer and fewer classical concerts; rock and jazz have taken over the arts pages in our journals, and why not? This is what interests most readers.

It isn't only classical music, of course. Classical theatre is currently in the doldrums, having largely given way to musicals both timeless nad transitory. Shakespeare is reckoned too 'difficult' for today's pupils to cope with. (Why? Are they stupider than previous generations?) Trendy arts programmes like The Late Show concentrate on the esoteric, the outlandish, the new -- anything new, however lacklustre or derivative -- at the expense of artistic groups dedicated to interpreting the masterpieces of Europe's past. Recently, public arguments have raged about the virtues and vices of daring to judge artistic output, whether in literature, music or visual art. Yet relativism misses the most basic point, which is why no one outside the cosy coteries is listening. The artistic establishment has lost touch with it roots. The elite has betrayed its own kind; it has gone where the music-lover cannot follow it. In the end, by sheer power of abstentions, the arts will collapse -- more, they are collapsing, the collapse has started. No amount of brave talk will immediately re-establish the pillars of our shared culture.

If this sounds alarmist, consider the facts. The splintering of our musical culture is already well advanced. The elite, dominated by the upper-classes, which set the artistic standard in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, has lost their way. The upper-classes may indeed attend Glyndebourne as well as Ascot, but they cannot be counted on to attend Checkov -- and their tastes are no longer seen as guide to the middle classes anyway. The aspiration middle-classes, in many ways more cultured than the artistocracy, may still choose to have their daughters taught the piano--through a surprising number of daughters still quit upon marrying -- but are dashed if they are going to attend a piano recital at the Wigmore hall. They might buy a compact disc of Tchaikovsky's symphonies, but the notion of hearing them live does not enthrall them. Never having been taught to love opera, they consider a whole opera intimidating; but their innate yearning for good music causes them to tune into the three tenors concert, or even the puerile 'Young Musician of the Year' on the BBC.

As for the rest of society, their pretensions to middle-class comforts seem to begin and end with home improvements and an up-graded car. High culture is viewed with suspicion, if not downright hostility. A taxi driver once said to me wistfully, 'I used to like listening to Radio Three, but the ruddy speakers put me off the music'. We have erected barriers where we needed ladders, and ladders where barriers are necessary. We have trained a generation of musicians, artists and actors for a world where they are not needed, and may never be needed. We have reduced great orchestras to touring, cruises and playing film music (when they can get it) in order to survive -- massive dinosaurs choking beneath the weight of meteor dust. Music-makers have cut themselves off at both ends -- from the intelligentsia, who despise the 'Classical Spectaculars' at the Royal Albert Hall, and from the masses, who may come, only to feel vaguely unchallenged and unfulfilled.

The musical elite has split in every direction -- from those still espousing the impotent rites of mimimalism, to those leaping onto the anaesthetising political correctness of 'world music', to those clinging to the arcane traditionalism of authentic performance, to those composers groping back towards tonality in a desparate search for what we once called 'meaning'. In a world where few are willing to stand up and admit that Bach takes precedence over 'reggae' in content, form and spiritual depth, there are a thousand other paths to get lost in other than these. The economic recession has only more cruelly exposed the bones of our cultural depression. The heart has gone out of our cultural life, leaving the institutions -- the Proms, the Royal Shapespeare Company, the Royal Academy -- looking lost and wounded, last defiant bastions of a richer age when art itself was perceived as being meaningful, even necessary.

Don't let the pages of concert advertisements in the Sunday papers deceive you -- classical music, in Britain, perhaps in the world, is in the last stages of illness. And yet there may still be hope. I know of amateur orchestras where the love of playing survives, where second violinists brign the scores to the rehearsal. I know composers carving out their own voices in the context of historical experience. I know young people who do not regard Beethoven as being alien to their experience, and students awakening to the pleasures of opera. As long as people seek truth and depth in their existence, music and the arts will matter, must matter, beyond the latest craze, beyond the bonalities which will never outlast their decade. We have been let down by most of our composers, by our arts administrators, by our programme makers, by our artistic pundits, as well as by the economic forces which make puppets of us all. But nothing is irreversible; nothing is certain. If we can recognise and hold onto the timeless excellences we have achieved, if we can reject the false gods of novelty and emptiness, if we can educate (and not just the young, either) then the foundation is there to rebuild on, and the arts may yet recover. The patient, remember, still breathes, still dreams, perhaps of the timeless music of T.S. Eliot:

Music heard so deeply That it is not heard at all, but you are the music while the music lasts.

POEM

SOMETIMES A WORD

Into the mirror of a pool, Static in autumn, deep and black, A stone falls, cracks the glass and sinks To a forgotten resting-place: The mirror forms again, the ripples die.

And music often, like a flower in space, Fading into an empty room, Leaves unseen shadows everywhere Before the deaf walls crush the bloom, Assert their permanence, absorb the sound.

Sometimes a word, a look, a sign, Falling upon the guarded mind, Echoes like music or a stone, Ruffling the troubled consciousness And twisting the frail tendrils of the heart.
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No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1993 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:interest in classical music and arts decreasing in UK
Author:Taylor, Spaulding
Publication:Contemporary Review
Date:Oct 1, 1993
Words:1224
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