It’s OK to be av­er­age

BBC Music Magazine - - The Full Score -

The ma­jor­ity of our mu­si­cal cul­ture is as medi­ocre to­day as it’s al­ways been

Medi­ocrity is a valu­able at­tribute, says Tom Ser­vice. It lies at the heart of pop­u­lar mu­sic through­out the ages, and helps us iden­tify the truly great works of art.

It’s one of the most mem­o­rable mo­ments in Peter Sha er’s Amadeus, when An­to­nio Salieri de­fines him­self ‘the pa­tron saint of medi­ocrity’. We know he’s right: Salieri has just enough tal­ent to know how un­tal­ented he is next to the tow­er­ing yet in­fan­tile ge­nius of Wolfie Mozart.

The irony is that in his life­time Salieri was more suc­cess­ful than Mozart, in terms of how o en his op­eras were per­formed and in the po­si­tion he held at the Aus­trian court. Not that you’d know it from or­ches­tras’ and opera houses’ pro­gram­ming around the world to­day. Salieri has been roundly de­feated by Wolfie. And so too have all of those pa­tron saints of the medi­ocre through­out his­tor­i­cal epochs, so that we hear Beethoven in­stead of Spohr, Mahler not Rei­necke and The Bea­tles rather than Bay City Rollers.

That’s be­cause our taste has been de­vel­oped over his­tor­i­cal time. We know that medi­ocrity has been weeded out so that we can now swim in a mu­si­cal sea of the eter­nally ex­cep­tional, clas­si­cal and ex­cel­lent. O lucky we!

Ex­cept, that’s not the case, and it’s an un­de­sir­able sit­u­a­tion, were it to be true. In fact, the ma­jor­ity of our mu­si­cal cul­ture is as medi­ocre to­day as it’s al­ways been, and we should be thank­ful.

The de­mands of the medi­ocre – which are di er­ent, by the way, from the ‘bad’, which sug­gests an ex­cep­tional qual­ity ly­ing out­side the mid­dle of the road of medi­ocrity – are pre­cise and ex­act­ing. Medi­ocre mu­sic must be generic, con­ven­tional, mun­dane and or­di­nary, de­signed for in­stant grat­i­fi­ca­tion and im­me­di­ate con­sump­tion in a way that the ex­cep­tional and the epi­curean can never be. That’s why Salieri’s mu­sic – or Sam­mar­tini’s or Stamitz’s – was more pop­u­lar and suc­cess­ful than Mozart’s, be­cause Mozart’s sym­phonies and op­eras were re­garded as too com­plex for their time. It’s why Beethoven’s tubthump­ing hack-work in Welling­ton’s Vic­tory was more pop­u­lar in his life­time than his quar­tets or sym­phonies (lead­ing to Beethoven’s im­mor­tal re­sponse to his crit­ics: ‘What I s**t is bet­ter than any­thing you could ever think up!’).

And the medi­ocre is all around us right now, in the mu­sic that’s most pop­u­lar in our charts and on our screens and, if we’re brave enough to ad­mit it, in our con­cert halls. That’s just as well: if there were no fun­da­men­tal cur­rent of medi­ocrity in our lives, we wouldn’t know what it was to be ex­cep­tional, di er­ent, as­ton­ish­ing. Medi­ocrity storms the pop­u­lar and clas­si­cal charts be­cause we want to hear our or­di­nar­i­ness re­flected back to us.

It’s an­other irony of his­tory that to hear Salieri or Carl Dit­ters von Dit­ters­dorf per­formed to­day is as rare as see­ing an Austin Mae­stro or Al­le­gro on our roads, so that yes­ter­day’s medi­ocrity can be rare and ex­cep­tional. The great tide of medi­ocrity goes on, al­ways chang­ing, but al­ways the same. And thank good­ness for that.

IL­LUS­TRA­TION: MARIA CORTE MAIDAGAN

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