May 06, 2004
"Demanding"

Two interesting letters from the latest issue of BBC Music magazine. The first is from Crispin Harden of Bath:

I seize my pen in response to the BBC's latest adulatory Mozart season. Mozart is not the 'Shakespeare of Music'. He's merely the pundits' current favourite, wearing the yellow jersey like many before him. Only a fool would deny Mozart his place in the front rank, but it's a long front rank and different composers stand there for different reasons. The sad truth is that Mozart is the least demanding of the great composers, which makes him the natural choice for a shallow, passive, ignorant age.

Personally I don't find any of the great composers "demanding", except in the sense that they demand my attention and get it, and I love to listen to their music for hour after hour after hour. I don't find listening to any of them in the slightest bit of a struggle, in the sense that I have to force myself to concentrate, or have to work to enjoy it. Sometimes I don't pay attention, but that's different. And sometimes the music (as with Beethoven, say) communicates struggle and demandingness, and that is also different. I find it no strain to listen to the Egmont overture, merely because Egmont himself struggled (to liberate the low countries from Spain, wasn't it?) and Beethoven communicates this struggle. I find it just as easy to listen and just as hard to ignore Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Bruckner, Mahler, Sibelius, Nielsen or Shostakovitch as I find it easy to listen to and hard to ignore Mozart. I think I detect a whiff of the "no pain no gain" theory of artistic response. This can sometimes be true, but isn't always and that's putting it mildly.

Opera on CD (as opposed to on DVD and with subtitles), I do find demanding, in what I take to he the sense Harden means. When I do endure the pain of attending to the libretto, I generally gain. But on the whole I decide that life is too short to be forcing myself to do something no one is paying me to do. Learn the words and the story with DVD and then wallow in the CDs is my usual strategy now.

Nevertheless, it makes a change to see someone swimming against the Mozart tide, of which I am a tiny ripple. And I think I know what he is getting at. Mozart is relentlessly sweet, as well as constantly more than that.

But that sweetness can be the very thing that others find "demanding", in the sense that they have to force themselves not to be put off by it, as if forcing themselves to drink coffee with three times too much sugar in it. We don't live in a shallow age, or no shallower than previous ones. What we do live in is an age where there is so much stuff worth attending to that we generally, and quite rationally, want what we do attend to to speak to us at all levels, rather than merely at some deep level that has to be preceded by lots of uncomfortable pot-holing.

And the other interesting letter that caught my eye is from Michael Bordeaux (I think – they spell him Michael Bourdeaux), who I seem to recall (if it is indeed Bordeaux) as an energetic fighter against the ills of the sort his letter complains about, at the time when they were first happening. Bordeaux recalls how Galina Vishnevskaya was forbidden by the rulers of the USSR to take part in the premier of Britten's War Requiem in 1962, because they suddenly reaslised that it was an event about religion as well as "peace". There should have been a Russian, a German and an English singer. As it was, Britten (and Britain) had to make do with a German and two Brits: Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau , Peter Pears, and Heather Harper. (Personally I always preferred Harper to Vishnevskaya, but that is not the point.) Bastards.

Unlike Bordeaux, I'm an atheist. But I do love the War Requiem, and especially the Dies Irae, which is a Dies Irae in the Verdi Requiem class, I think. That's another piece all about struggle and demandingness, but which I have no trouble paying attention to.

Galina Vishnevskaya did sing in the classic Britten recording of the work. Harper only got around to recording her part in this mighty work with Richard Hickox thirty years later, which for her was somewhat later than would have been ideal.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 07:49 PM
Category: Classical music