Mark Ryan thinks the fashionable marriage of classical and pop music is bad for the soul
Don't crossover Beethoven
Until recently the relative standing of classical and pop music could be summarised like this: classical stood on the summits with a small but dedicated following, while pop sloshed around with the hordes at the base. Classical was respected and supposedly elitist, pop was rebellious and plebian.
The distinction no longer seems so clear cut. While many classical musicians now appear unsure of their place at the top and are ready to come down and do business with the masses, pop at the same time has its eye on the summit. Somehow classical doesn't quite fit into Cool Britannia, at least not without a good deal of rebranding.
It sometimes seems not so much that pop and classical are switching places on the mountain, but that the mountain itself is being flattened, leaving representatives of both genres to wander aimlessly in the crater. One of the biggest recent growth areas in record sales lies in what is known as crossover, or 'popsical', described by Newsweek in rather apocalyptic terms as 'the only future classical has'. Crossover has dissolved the rigid division which once existed between classical and pop. With few exceptions the results are dismal - for the simple reason that popsical is not a development in music.
Popsical is primarily a development in accountancy. Record companies, faced with stagnant or falling classical record sales, are desperate to catapult their artists into a higher earning orbit. What started some years ago as an attempt to sex up certain soloists with salacious publicity shots has ended with the sexing up of the music itself. The violinist Vanessa Mae and cellist Ofra Harnoy, for example, are now making straight pop albums.
Another reason for the growth of popsical lies in the psychological difficulties facing washed-up pop stars. At some point in the autumn of their years a craving for gravitas seems to get the better of many of them. Either, like Paul McCartney and Billy Joel, they actually try to write classical music, or, like Sting and Elton John, they appear on stage with the likes of Pavarotti, as if to convince themselves that they too are great singers. Michael Bolton seems to have contracted this condition prematurely, with the revelation of his secret passion for opera. I only wish he had kept it a secret.
However, the most important influence is the general spirit of relativism which pervades our times. For 200 years, since it first became accessible to the general public, what is loosely described as classical music has been acknowledged as being in some way superior to every other form. This acceptance was often expressed in the belief that classical music was serious or difficult, and therefore required a degree of concentration and intellectual effort which other genres did not. Today, however, few people have either the stomach or the belief to affirm the superiority of anything, especially if that superiority is associated in some way with elitist tastes. So classical is undergoing regrading. It is not better, it is just different; just as jazz is different to soul is different to funk etc, etc. In this featureless landscape of musical difference classical has no right to a privileged position; it must be made relevant, and above all it must immerse itself in the free-flow of difference. Popsical is the result.
In reality, only the most hardened relativists really believe that classical is no better than pop. More likely, people who have a vague desire to 'get into' a bit of classical, but don't know where to start, think that Michael Bolton's intense look or Vanessa Mae's pout will give them a leg up. Unfortunately it will probably have the opposite effect. The appeal of popsical indicates a hope that an appreciation of great music can be reached without too much effort or intellectual exertion. Relativism acts as little more than a cover for this type of laziness. The inner voice which stands ready to charge us with philistinism and wilful stupidity can now be brushed off with the smug reassurance that there is no such thing as great music anyway.
Perhaps one of the reasons that relatively few people feel sufficiently inspired to overcome their musical weakness is because of the aura of the monumental which has been built up around classical music. The very misnomer 'classical' conjures up an image of something unchanging and monumental, like a great building in one's native city which we drive around and navigate by but never stop to look at and study properly. Classical CDs have this monumental function in most people's collections. You know from their position in the collection that the owner rarely listens to them, yet their presence is fundamental to the integrity of the collection and its owner.
The idea of the monument to which we occasionally pay homage only reinforces the superficial prejudice that classical music is something unchanging and static, while pop music (and I use 'pop' in the broadest sense of 'popular') is dynamic and inventive. Actually the opposite is the case: it is classical which is dynamic while pop is static.
The essence of pop music, what makes it popular, is its immediacy, its ability to respond to the passing moods of the moment. But because these moods are so fickle and transitory pop can never go beyond the circumstances in which it was born. Pop music is nearly always locked into its own time. Even when it appears to last, it rarely does so without help from some sentiment external to the music itself. Today it seems as if the main sentiment keeping much of pop afloat is nostalgia.
While location in time is intrinsic to pop, time generally acts only as a way of helping us categorise in classical. To the extent that we do find ready associations in time in classical music, it indicates that such music is no longer challenging to us and has almost become like pop. Much eighteenth- century music is like that, which is why you hear a lot of it in pretentious shops. The greater and more challenging music becomes, the more it will acquire a purity and abstraction which seems to place it outside time altogether.
Unlike pop, classical music is not something which can be grasped by immediate sensation, but takes an effort of the mind before its meaning enters the soul. While at times of great passion and energy a new musical idea may capture that spirit, more often than not it takes a long period of time before a wider musical public recognises the significance of the new development. JS Bach, for example, was overshadowed by his lesser contemporaries for most of the eighteenth century. It was not until the romantic movement in the early nineteenth century that his genius was more widely recognised. Some of his most difficult work, such as the Goldberg Variations, did not enter the repertoire until after the war, nearly 200 years after they were composed. For Beethoven's contemporaries, some of his greatest and most revolutionary work sounded a discordant mess, prompting the widespread belief that his deafness had driven him insane. Many of the greatest figures of twentieth-century music have provoked fierce hostility from the musical public.
The reason 'the time is out of joint' in classical music is that the new musical idea is the expression of a mood which may be imperceptible to most people at the time, but whose existence springs from the deeper spiritual needs of humanity. Hence the ability of the greatest music to express the spirit of the most diverse times, aspirations and causes. Beethoven's symphonies are particularly known for this quality. The strangeness of great music is that more than any of the other arts, it often seems not to be of the world in which it was created, but turns out to be of one that comes much later. It is only as human sensibility as a whole develops that it comes to fill out the garment already created for it by the musical creation of the past.
It is an extraordinary reflection on the nature of human sensibility that a piece of music which would have caused immense difficulty to the most cultivated musical ear of 1800 should be instantly recognised * as music (though of course not appreciated) by the average child of today. This is because our sense of music has expanded with the development of music itself. The Austrian emperor's famous quibble with Mozart over his new opera in the movie Amadeus, 'too many notes' (this was actually a common criticism at the time), most of us would today apply to many nineteenth and most twentieth-century composers. There is simply too much going on, too many themes working together or against each other, for the average ear to cope with. But assuming that our musical faculties continue to develop and expand, there is no reason why people in 100 or 200 years time should not listen to Schoenberg or even Stockhausen with the same ready appreciation with which we today listen to Mozart or middle Beethoven. It is also possible, of course, that our sense of music could regress and that we lose those higher faculties which have taken so long to develop.
Most of the classical repertoire is not readily appreciated and requires a struggle of the mind before it is assimilated into the senses. In these days of soundbites and reputedly short attention spans, the classical concert is an almost unique experience in the stillness and concentration it imposes on the listener for two or three hours, while a five-hour performance of Parsifal can test the powers of concentration of even the most committed Wagnerian. Superficial emotions place no demands on the intellect; in fact they are often antagonistic towards it. It is always the expression of the deepest human passions which engages and tests the intellect to the greatest extent.
By mixing up classical with pop music, or by trying to make classical more relevant, we are avoiding the demands which great music imposes on us. Freshness and superficiality is part of the charm of pop, which is why it should remain the music of the young and immature. The danger in confusing the great currents of the deep with the froth on the surface is that we end up sweeping the whole lot together into one swirling torrent of garbage.
Reproduced from LM issue 112, July/August 1998