This week

The Herald - Arts - - Arts -

When Richard Strauss pre­miered his opera Salome in 1906, in the Aus­trian city of Graz, the place was tur­bu­lent with an­tic­i­pa­tion, ex­cite­ment, and fear. One fel­low com­poser said the whole city was wracked with “fever­ish im­pa­tience and bound­less ex­cite­ment”. Be­fore it had even been shown, the Court Opera in Vi­enna, alarmed by its sub­ject mat­ter (Salome was the lady who danced for King Herod in re­turn for the sev­ered head of John the Bap­tist) and its in­spi­ra­tion (a scan­dalous play by the equally scan­dalous Os­car Wilde) had banned it. By the hour of the per­for­mance, a news­pa­per critic wrote of the adrenalin cours­ing through the whole of Graz: “It was a state of great ex­cite­ment ... par­ties formed and split ... pub philoso­phers buzzed ...” Crowds gath­ered out­side the hall, in the streets, tav­erns and ho­tels.

This ac­count comes from an ex­cel­lent book I read over Easter – The Rest is Noise by Alex Ross. Ross, the mu­sic critic of the New Yorker, has writ­ten both a his­tory and a cri­tique of classical mu­sic in the 20th cen­tury. And it re­ally gets you think­ing. Through its pages we see the tu­mult caused by Salome, the re­pres­sions and lib­er­a­tions of com­posers in Stalin’s Rus­sia and Hitler’s Ger­many, the cul­tural det­o­na­tions of Stravin­sky and Schoen­berg, the in­spir­ing mu­si­cal ide­al­ism of Co­p­land, the mad tran­scen­dent lyri­cism of Mes­si­aen. It’s a crack­ing book, and also a dis­turb­ing one. Dis­turb­ing be­cause, hav­ing fin­ished it, I thought: when did mu­sic cease to re­ally mat­ter? Or, more ac­cu­rately, when did mu­sic – in all its forms – cease to be part of the dis­course of ev­ery day life, to be a pow­er­ful voice within pub­lic life?

Yes we all lis­ten to mu­sic, and love it. Punk’s brief shiver of so­cial un­rest still has oc­ca­sional mild af­ter­shocks. But as Ian Macdon­ald said in his fore­word to Revo­lu­tion in the Head, the Humpty Dumpty of a com­mon cul­ture has fallen since the war and smashed to pieces. Pop­u­lar mu­sic, and mod­ern classical mu­sic too, have splin­tered into zil­lions of dif­fer­ing gen­res, sub-gen­res, pass­ing fan­cies and ephemeral scenes. It is merely pro­duced and con­sumed. There is, of course, “fever­ish im­pa­tience and bound­less ex­cite­ment” con­nected to all of th­ese gen­res. But when was the last time a whole city was gripped with fer­vour over the pro­duc­tion of a new opera, fes­ti­val or gig? When did one of our great liv­ing com­posers make a state­ment on a na­tional, or in­ter­na­tional scale, that ad­dressed and con­fronted the zeit­geist?

Right now our cul­ture, as a whole, seems to be sleep­walk­ing. This na­tion is in­volved in two de­struc­tive wars, faces a daily ter­ror­ism threat, and is part of a world where the cli­mate ap­pears ready to col­lapse around us. But, apart from the honourable ex­cep­tion of the movies (In the Val­ley of Elah, Redacted, to name two) and one play whose name you can guess by the Na­tional Theatre of Scot­land, if you scanned the ra­dio, at­tended con­certs, or read books, you would never know that we lived in such tu­mul­tuous times. Read­ing The Rest is Noise is to be re­minded how Brit­ten’s War Re­quiem elec­tri­fied a good part of the na­tion. But who is writ­ing the re­quiem for the dead of Iraq and Afghanistan? Or even 7/7? Macdon­ald went on to say that the only things that would put Humpty Dumpty back to­gether were fas­cism or the Sec­ond Com­ing – the first idea is re­pel­lent, the sec­ond highly un­likely. Maybe, just maybe, some­one with tal­ent – maybe even some­one in the pro­gramme of this year’s Ed­in­burgh In­ter­na­tional Fes­ti­val, an­nounced this week – will come for­ward, and briefly unite our cul­ture with one work of art that will spark again that na­tional, rel­e­vant, “bound­less ex­cite­ment”. Here’s hop­ing.

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