October 23, 2003
Bernard Levin on the power of Wagner: "We may fear the great emotions …"

I've started to read a book by Bernard Levin called Conducted Tour, about his travels around Europe's music festivals during 1980.

In the introduction Levin writes of his particular musical tastes and early musical experiences. He has this to say about Wagner audiences:

It was only many years later, when I began to notice that there were more clergymen in the Royal Opera House on Wagner nights than at performances of any other composer's works, and that most of them were alone, that I also began to wonder what it was in Wagner that appealed to me so much, and what it was that I had in common with the clergymen and Shaw, and for that matter Hitler. We may fear the great emotions, but we need them, and if we cannot allow them into our lives directly, we are under the necessity of bringing them in vicariously, and therefore, we like to think, safely. Whence the clergymen, Hitler, and me. And whence, at last now, the weakening hold.

I like that. "We may fear the great emotions, but we need them, and if we cannot allow them into our lives directly, we are under the necessity of bringing them in vicariously, and therefore, we like to think, safely." That, it seems to me, captures a lot about the appeal not just of Wagner in particular, but of classical music, indeed music itself, generally. Music is emotion without any kind of involvement other than emotional involvement. It is involvement without a price, other than the price of being addicted to the music itself, the drug/disease metaphor being one which Levin makes much of, especially to describe Wagner of course.

And nowadays we know all about the relationship between emotional involvement and disease, more than Levin did when he wrote this. Music, you might say, is the safest sex there is. It is sex without sex.

Thinking of music this way also explains, I think, why people like me are so keen on owning music, by owning the physical objects that make it available. By owning a CD of some music, I diminish its power over me, because I can then play it whenever I want. I no longer depend on some dealer to give me my fix.

A thought process I notice in myself goes a stage further, in the form of precautionary CD purchasing. I buy a CD before I've ever heard the music, just in case I become addicted to it, and hence would find myself hopeless deranged by having heard it once, on the radio or at a concert, but not then being able to hear it again and again. Classical music – I need its power to stir in me the great emotions, yet I fear it.

Sub-hypothesis: hurling yourself head-first into contemporary pop music is an entirely different – indeed emotionally opposite – thing to becoming enthralled by classical music. Classical music supplies another world, and hence an emotional distance. Loving classical music doesn't involve having messy love affairs with people who wear powdered wigs and have servants and who travel about in bumpy and inconvenient horse-drawn carriages. (As various other genres of twentieth century popular music sink into the history books, the same applies to being a fan of them.) Time lends emotional distance. The actual people who did it are all dead – or old, which amounts to the same thing for these purposes.

Hurling yourself head first into the pop music of your own time, and in particular of your own adolescence, on the other hand, means getting all messed up by it and involved in it, and involved with all the other people who love it, and having messy love affairs and sexual flings with them. A pop music concert is a true community. A classical audience, by contrast, is a mere assemblage of the separate.

(Thought: The Proms defy this general categorisation, which might be why Proms and the Prommers inspire such love, and such loathing. Prommers treat classical music as if it was contemporary pop music.)

I realise that I am confirming a widespread popular stereotype here, of the classical music nerd who fears real life, in the form of real emotional entanglements. But I can't help that, because I believe that this stereotype, like so many stereotypes, is rooted in the truth.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:16 PM
Category: Classical music