BBC Music Magazine
It’s OK to be average
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.