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.