I am grateful – I think! – to Will Robin (his excellent blog may be found by clicking here) for having drawn to my attention the following programme description. Though I can make no comment whatsoever on the programme itself, given that it has yet to be broadcast, BBC Radio 4 should be thoroughly ashamed of itself for having published these words:
The Composer Gabriel Prokofiev (grandson of Sergei Prokofiev) looks at the increasing disconnection between classical music and its audience. How did composers such as Schoenberg kill off 20th century classical music for all but a small elite audience?
Until the early 20th century, each composer of classical music developed his own style built on the traditions of previous composers. Then Arnold Schoenberg changed all this, by devising 'Serialism' where melodies were no longer allowed.
In the 1950s, composers such as Pierre Boulez created 'Total Serialism'. Every aspect of a piece of music - rhythms and loudness as well as notes - was rigidly controlled by a fixed formula.
And the sense of composers being remote from their audience was exacerbated by the elevation of musical performance to a kind of ritual.
But even at a time when Serialism gripped major parts of the classical music establishment, music that was overtly emotional was still being written by composers such as Shostakovich and Prokofiev in Russia. Ironically, in these countries, the State continued to support classical music, whereas in more liberal regimes in Europe it retreated to the intellectual margins.
Now the Serialist experiment has been largely abandoned and a whole new generation of composers - including Gabriel himself - is embracing popular culture, just as composers used to in the past when folk music or dance music were a major source of inspiration.
So has the death of classical music been exaggerated? Will it find new homes and new means of expression to attract the audiences of the future?
With contributions from Arnold Whittall, Stephen Johnson, Alexander Goehr, David Matthews, Ivan Hewett and Tansy Davies.
I have neither the time nor the inclination to take on all of these absurd claims, which may well bear little relation to the programme itself, but here are just a few comments:
‘How did composers such as Schoenberg kill off 20th century classical music for all but a small elite audience?’ When did this happen. The last time I looked – not so very long ago – 20th-century music was attracting large and hungry audiences. Consider, for instance, the Southbank Centre’s Rest is Noise festival. I certainly know many people – and, loyal to my friends though I might be, I do not necessarily call them ‘elite’, whatever that might mean – who go out of their way to seek out opportunities to hear Schoenberg’s music. I might even be one of those ‘small elite’ people myself, I suppose.
‘Until the early 20th century, each composer of classical music developed his own style built on the traditions of previous composers.’ Unlike, presumably, our bogeyman, Arnold Schoenberg, perhaps a composer more weighed down by tradition than any composer other than Brahms?
‘Then Arnold Schoenberg changed all this, by devising 'Serialism' where melodies were no longer allowed.’ WHAT?????!!!!! How did Schoenberg ‘change’ this, and under what authority? Why would anyone have listened, even if he had announced such a bizarre prohibition? In what sense did he ‘devise’ something called ‘Serialism’? And where do its founding principles claim that ‘melodies … [are] no longer allowed'? As anyone holding the slightest acquaintance with Schoenberg’s music would know, its alleged ‘difficulty’ lies far more in a well-nigh Mozartian, intense profusion of melody than in its absence, let alone its mysterious prohibition. As for Lulu, that legendary, melody-less opera… Or Il prigioniero, or Pli selon pli, or indeed just about anything… This may well be the most idiotic sentence I have ever read; I can scarcely imagine my reaction, had an undergraduate written it in an essay I had set.
I really cannot be bothered with the rest of this nonsense, though should probably direct a fatwa at the originator of the claim that ‘music that was overtly emotional was still being written by composers such as Shostakovich and Prokofiev’, as though Schoenberg’s were not; again, it may even be its hyper-Romanticism that offers a problem to some listeners. The claim that the state did not support music in the West is too preposterous for words; for instance, where on earth did all of those German studios come from? Dance music not an inspiration in music pervaded by the waltz, the Ländler, the rebirth of the Baroque suite, etc.? Enough!
It is difficult to believe that many, if any, of those contributing to this programme would agree with a single word contained in this trailer. In which case, should not alarm bells have rung? As a Twitter friend remarked, should not BBC Radio 4 have contacted colleagues on Radio 3 for some factual input?