We were talking — well, I was, anyhow — about Mahler’s Third Symphony and the strange but illuminating manner in which I discovered it, all the way back in July 1979. I’d intimated that the experience was formative intellectually as well as musically; but I hadn’t explained what I meant by that. Well, here goes…
For a start, I can’t ignore the fact that all I needed for my discovery of Mahler’s music was to bump into one of his symphonies at a time when some part of me was ready for some part of it: a strange artistic ‘magnetism’ — which included a quite uncanny element of recognition — did the rest. No-one led me to this music by word or example; no-one turned it into a chore by making it part of an exam syllabus; and no-one told me I ‘needed’ to listen to it for the sake of my musical development or cultural credibility. If anyone had done any of those things, I shudder to think of the additional resistances my teenage mind would have brought to the experience — in fact, it’s not at all impossible that Mahler and I would have missed each other entirely, as he wasn’t all that easy to come across in my world, back then.
Also worth noting is that I found him on BBC Two — not ‘BBC Four‘, if you get my meaning: since there were only three TV channels to choose from, everywhere you could put ‘classical music’ was a place where everyone with a TV went as a matter of course. And, in fact, classical music, professionalised art music, was broadcast on every channel anyway: yes, from time to time you even saw it — and programmes about it — on commercial, advertiser-funded ITV. The significance of our classical repertoire’s long-vanished ‘right to roam’ is regularly overlooked nowadays, so let me spell it out: the relatively un-selfconscious presentation of ‘classical’ performance on all existing TV channels was a potent declaration to our entire society that this repertoire — along with sit-coms, sci-fi, sport, and everything else that was shown — should be seen as an ordinary part of a normal life. When this music came on the telly — which it might do several times a week — you were either interested in it or you weren’t; if you were, that was no big, abnormal or problematic deal — and if you weren’t, you simply turned over.
Just take a moment to ponder what that kind of ‘presence’ meant for our repertoire’s public profile, pre-‘ghettoization’. Let’s take a date — such as 1 December 1965 (which I’ve chosen simply because that was the day my ex-girfriend was born, and the fact that I’ve ignored her birthday this year is weighing guiltily on my mind). It turns out that, on that day, BBC One — yes: BBC One! — broadcast a Beethoven cello sonata played by Rostropovich and Richter (as part of a complete cycle, too); BBC Two carried a Paul Tortelier masterclass on a Fauré piano quartet (part of a series), and ITV showed a programme made up of songs from the musical Hello, Dolly! (in anticipation of its first Drury Lane production). Yes, our three TV channels showed three professional concert performances in a single evening — and the sky didn’t fall in. If you’d bought the Daily Express that day, this is how this non-ghettoized viewing would have looked to you [click on the image to see the scan enlarged]:
(And before anyone objects that Hello, Dolly! — only a year old in 1965! — doesn’t qualify as actual ‘classical music’ because it’s really a sub-artistic piece of brain-rotting kitsch, remember that it isn’t me who needs convincing: the objection should be directed to everyone who considered one of the show’s most pitiably under-developed numbers to be such a classical masterpiece that it deserved to feature in the 2011 Proms).
Now, compare the ‘feel’ of this 1965 schedule with the contemporary situation — in which the ‘cultural cleansing’ of our airwaves has resulted in what remains of our televised classical music mostly being shunted into a special ‘arts and culture channel’. Had it been necessary for me to make my way to a ‘BBC Four’ in order to bump into a Mahler Three, it’s entirely possible that a bit of extra defensiveness — additional caution, increased self-consciousness — would have presented an insuperable obstacle: either I wouldn’t have switched to the channel in the first place (I’ve watched people zap right past it) — or I’d have gone there with such a degree of pre-emptive suspicion that I might easily have dismissed those eight gleaming horns on sight as representing something that I didn’t want to be seen taking an interest in. And if that seems far-fetched, just consider the situation in those millions of British households that are less luxuriantly ‘cultured’, less sheerly open-minded than yours, dear reader: what young lad wants to risk having his sister — or his brother, or his father — call him ‘a poofter’ for looking at ‘the artsy-fartsy channel’?
From all of which I am driven to the following conclusions (among others — but I’m keeping all these postings below 1300 words, and you probably have things to do anyway…).
First, kids — some kids, maybe most kids — will find their way to important and sophisticated things without being led or shown the way: all that’s necessary is for the stuff to be freely circulating around them in such a manner that they can grab it when the moment is right — and then go and follow it up with as much privacy as they feel they need (I don’t know about you, but I don’t like to be watched when I’m learning). By all means tell kids what you like; put things on the school syllabus; recommend things, and so on — but remember that some of the most valuable discoveries will be theirs alone: the unexpected, unpredictable and triumphantly unsought results of random exposure.
Secondly, some kids — maybe even most kids — are sensitive to where stuff is coming from. We all know that young people (adolescents especially) have really screwy notions about authority and rebellion: in their immature minds a mass-marketed avalanche of cynically exploitative pop-music product can qualify as ‘rebellious’ simply because dad doesn’t like it — while the authentic commitment and passion within struggling orchestras and penniless opera companies gets dismissed without a pubertal thought because ‘high culture’ is felt to act in loco parentis. And, given this state of affairs, it is vastly more sensible to let classical music circulate across all the networks in a low-key, ‘no-big-deal’ way than it is to corral it in some arts ghetto — whatever the ‘high status’ airs and graces that ghetto allows itself. The more you separate the classical repertoire from every other repertoire, the more clearly do you make it seem the concern of some ‘special’ class of person only; the more ruthlessly you confine it to some marginal, minority-viewing channel, the more do you create the impression that it is something from which the general viewer actually needs to be protected.
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