culture wars logo archive about us links contact current
about us


  Music: Healing the Rift
Ivan Hewett

Cara Bleiman
posted 13 September 2007

Ivan Hewett’s thought-provoking diagnosis of the state of Western classical music takes as its starting point the emancipation of music from its social function. When musicians began to take chantlines that had traditionally been linked with a specific part of the Mass or Office – and perhaps were only meant to be performed on one feast day each year – and use these melodies with other words (sometimes in the vernacular rather than Latin) – or with newly composed musical lines – music suddenly became transportable and elevated from distinct social context. It was on its way to being considered as art in its own right.

This historical moment is also where many faded textbooks of music history begin, and there it’s portrayed as the catalyst to the whole story of musical modernism. However, for Hewett – who sets out to defend classical music’s ambitions to the universal through the guiding modernist spirit – this moment also represents the forming of a striking rift. With this removal from social context, music and composers became freer to express, but Western art music would forevermore pay the price with a separation from the accessible structures of meaning that the routine of the Church had provided (or so the story goes).

At our end of the tunnel, Hewett takes the Walkman or iPod as examples of the extreme result of this rift between a necessarily social practice and a solitary subjective experience. In Hewett’s opinion, listening to a Walkman is telling the world ‘Don’t bug me’ – a rare flawed assertion. For with iPod, Walkman or laptop, the individual is not seeking solitude but rather hiding from it (and the dangers of reflecting on their own thoughts). It may be a lazier and more comfortable form of society than the soirees of Chopin or Viennese café meetings of Western classical music’s ‘greats’ but the teenage iPod-addict is even more keen to have their ‘solitude’ invaded by the tastes, identites and opnions of others. Although Hewett is not wrong that iPods exemplify a commodification of music, the sort of personal music therapy of the everyday iPod user is not necessarily any less innocent than status-seeking commissions of medieval dukes or the 19th century aristocracy.

The one outstanding difference Hewett points out, which is also central to the rift between classical music and its social function, is the element of participation. Classical music survived in the everyday world throughout the 19th century, despite having being a transcendental artform, because actually performing music (through pianoforte and mass printing of manuscripts) became more accessible to a new bourgeois, concert-going class. As Hewett says, they listened with their hands as well as their ears to the same symphonic repertoire that struggles to find an audience today. The dynamic social element of participation is absolutely necessary for classical forms to continue as living art rather than a passive and nostalgic pastime.

And Hewett certainly does his best to demonstrate that there is no reason for participation to be limited to a select few. For him classical music is one of the most democratic of art forms: there is a vocabulary of conventions of expression that anyone can learn if they are willing to put in a bit of effort. Desire, however is the problem. Like many passionate defenders of classical music, Hewett is in danger of preaching to the converted. When claiming ‘rationality’ as a defining characteristic for classical music and a superior craft for its production over other musics, you really can’t afford to skimp on arguments.

It would be easy at this point to say that there’s no need to be so demanding of classical music: as Hewett points out, ‘world music’ projects get government funding by virtue of their very particularity. But classical music demands of itself and encourages others to think of it as offering a universal appeal. To refuse to give up on the idea that musical utterances can cause change and be universally understood is admirable, but to suggest the realm of truly great music is limited to the classical tradition is to pick at a scab where new skin has already begun to form.

Cara Bleiman is a co-producer of the Battle for Music strand of discussions at the Battle of Ideas festival in London on 27-28 October 2007.


All articles on this site Culture Wars.