Melvyn Bragg’s excellent Radio 4 Series on ‘culture’ has been a thought-provoking companion every morning this week. Various guests on the programme, talking about ‘high art’, have commented that older forms of music have been overtaken and overshadowed by the vast popularity of pop. While some speakers have advised that the treasury of classical music should be celebrated, others have suggested (sometimes sadly) that its day is past, that it is fading from cultural relevance, and will inevitably fade even faster once UK schools drop music as a core subject. One speaker in today’s round table discussion even used the word ‘invalidated’, which drew a soft moan of protest from the studio audience.
As if to underline the point, at the New Year many newspapers, radio and TV programmes produced guides to the music to look out for in 2013. In many cases, this didn’t include classical music at all. Pages and pages were devoted to pop, and some of the showiest features were about performers who have come from nowhere in a very short time, often with very little training. ‘Music’ now usually means just pop, whereas ‘classical music’ is identified as a sub-genre and confined to its own little section at the end. As a classical musician I find it unbelievably spooky and depressing that ‘music’ is now used by a whole raft of editors as a term which excludes classical music. It feels like a form of linguistic manipulation designed to shunt us to the margins. Since when were we not ‘music’?
The situation is much worse with music than with other kinds of art. You never open a newspaper to find that ‘theatre’ now means only ‘plays written last year’ and that there is a mere half-page at the back in which several hundred years of ‘old theatre’ are given a token nod. The visual arts, keen as they are on novelty, never forget older artists whose ideas are still inspiring today.
It’s only in music where there is such media prejudice against ‘old music’. And it’s only in the pop world, a commercial enterprise like no other, that people can rise without trace and be celebrities five minutes later.