If I had my way — and don’t worry: it’s an eventuality that increasingly seems unlikely — I’d make sure that no-one could go to university to study ‘arts’ or ‘humanities’ subjects unless they’d actually studied at least one serious science subject to ‘A-level’ standard.
I have several reasons for saying this — not the least of which is that I myself studied two science subjects at A-level, and if I had to go through it I don’t see why other people shouldn’t. More importantly, there’s the seeming fact that people with a bit of real science in their mental armoury turn out to be a lot less vulnerable to the mephitic fumes of postmodernist fantasy — with which the non-science parts of the modern academy seem to be disgustingly suffused. Most relevant to my present topic, however, is the scale and richness of the conceptual and terminological treasure-house that a scientific education puts at one’s disposal.
Take, for example, the biological concept called ‘functional extinction’. The term is employed in several different contexts; but one of its uses describes the situation of a declining species when, even though a population of breeding individuals still exists, and reproduction is seen to continue, various factors mean that a ‘point of no return’ has already been reached — and that the species is destined for extinction in spite of what may seem like an abundance of individuals still around.
The reason I bring this up here is that I believe — or, at least, I very strongly suspect! — that our classical music tradition has already passed such a ‘point of no return’, and is now in a state that qualifies as a ‘cultural’ form of functional extinction: as far as its existence as a living performance tradition with a spontaneously receptive audience is concerned, it’s been brought to that ‘tipping point’ — even though The Proms are still on every year; The Royal College of Music still turns away young hopefuls by the busload, and Wigmore Hall is still 80% full on a weekend.
I suspect such a thing to be true because I see the evidence every day. Here’s one piece of that relentlessly enlarging jigsaw…
It was 17 years ago that I arrived in the South-East — a fresh-faced Seacombe lad, so full of hope! — and, buoyed-up as I was by an M. Mus. and a ‘Special Commendation’, soon began teaching evening classes on musical subjects. One of the specialities I developed was to examine related but contrasting composers two at a time over ten weekly classes — ‘Vaughan Williams and Holst’; ‘Britten and Shostakovich’; that sort of thing — and the very first course I ever taught down here was, in fact, ‘Debussy and Ravel’.
Inevitably, I remember that course particularly well — and especially the fact that the first session saw 11 people turn up. I was delighted to see so many; but a woman from the prestigious organisation involved took me aside and told me that this figure was one short of the 12 that were needed for a course to run, and that I had to find an additional person for the next session to prevent ‘Debussy and Ravel’ — on whose behalf I’d naturally done a ton of work in advance! — getting a bullet right at the start.
And, of course, there was no problem: I taught a belter of a first session; gave out my final ‘cliffhanger’ handout — and then told everyone that unless one or two of them could think of a friend they could bring along next time, then we wouldn’t be continuing. That did it: next session, practically half the class brought extra people with them, and the course was a goer.
And so it went on: course after course, term after term, year after year. If ever it seemed there might be a possibility of a new course not recruiting properly, I’d ‘leaflet’ a concert audience or two; write a ‘press release’ for the local papers, and/or get myself invited onto a local radio station to talk about what I was going to do: one way or another, the people could always be found.
Fast-forward to late 2014 — and the time when, after a gap of a few years (it’s a lot of work for not very much money — as you’ll know, if you’ve ever done it!), I thought I’d start up again, maybe one night a week. And what better topic to re-begin with than … Debussy and Ravel! Think of it: all that new research to be caught up with; many more recordings — new and old! — now available; the existence of the internet as an educational reality… It was going to be great!
So there I was in the library, hard at work producing the materials I’d need for the course whose first session was only a few days away — and there, suddenly, was an email from the prestigious institution involved this time. The course was off, it said: to make it run, they needed eight people to sign up, and with a week to go, they only had three.
No problem, I replied: I’m a grandmother when it comes to drumming up extra people: you let me do my stuff, I’ll deliver a dozen and more…
No, they said. We’ve cancelled it already. Told the students. We want those three to sign up for other courses right away.
Okay, I said. Let’s re-schedule the course for next term, and I’ll start collecting students now: we’ll have a full class by the New Year…
No, they said. We want that room for something else. We just can’t recruit for music things. That’s the way it is.
So compare the two situations:
In 1997, they needed 12, and got 11 — to whom were then added 4 or 5 more.
In 2014, they needed 8 (talk about lowered expectations!), and got 3 — and then cancelled the class without a second’s hesitation and even half a second’s thought about the ton of work I had already done for it. No recruitment drive; no re-scheduling. Just a bullet.
Does that look like ‘functional extinction’ to you? Like an art-form locked in a cultural death-spiral, with no means of escape? Like a rich and unique heritage heading for the kind of creative irrelevance and societal marginality of, say, classical Latin?
It looks like that to me…
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