Musical microcosm of modernity

Call it confirmation bias if you must, but last night’s recital of the Takács Quartet at Wigmore Hall vindicated many of my cherished beliefs.

I commiserated the other day with the plight of our state-funded orchestras that are obligated to hire black musicians on pain of losing their state funding. I suggested that classical isn’t the first harbour for which talented black musicians sail, nor even second or third. Hence that mandated recruitment drive is in for a let-down.

Scanning the 500-strong audience before the first note was played, I espied just one black face. Yet upon closer examination even that turned out to belong to an usher.

Now, extremely talented musicians are like extremely tall trees. They typically grow not in a desert but in a large forest of smaller trees.

By the same token, talented professional musicians emerge out of a much larger group of less talented ones. It wasn’t by accident that, from Haydn and Mozart to Beethoven, Schubert and Brahms, Vienna could boast so much musical genius within a relatively short period. This would have been impossible without the profusion of Picchinis, Salieris, Hummels, Clementis, Eyblers, Süsmayrs and Stamitzes lying thick on Vienna’s ground at the same time.

In their turn, the less gifted professional musicians stand out among amateurs. And amateurs come out of a vast pool of music lovers, those who don’t mind spending their time and money on string quartet recitals at Wigmore Hall.

If we walk up the same path in the opposite direction, the score of 500-0 against blacks in the audience emphasised the sheer impossibility of filling racial quotas at orchestras without sacrificing the quality of what orchestras are supposed to do.

Then there was another telling demographic. Without asking my fellow concert-goers for their ID, I estimated their average age at about 70. There were some young people in attendance, but they were outnumbered by Zimmer frames, walking sticks and hearing aids. The hair of the audience featured 50 shades of grey.

I didn’t need to consult actuarial tables to wonder who’ll be attending string quartet recitals at Wigmore Hall 20 years from now, indeed whether there will remain any such events to attend. Concert-going is, inter alia, a habit cultivated over a lifetime. Those in the audience had obviously cultivated it, but they hadn’t passed the urge on to the next generation.  

Then there was the performance itself. The Takács Quartet is one of the best ones around, and they didn’t disappoint. With their playing, that is.

Yet it took a feat of concentration for Penelope and me to start listening to the music – so irate we were about what had preceded it. As is becoming increasingly widespread, first violin Edward Dusinberre opened the recital by rapping with the audience.

At first he plugged his book, a signed copy of which we were encouraged to buy in the foyer. Then he primed us by saying a few vulgar and condescending words about the music to be played.

None of those words had anything to do with the actual pieces, how they were put together, what unusual harmonies, dynamic shifts or tempi made them interesting. Such recondite stuff must have been deemed to be beyond our ability to grasp.

Instead Mr Dusinberre explained that one composer wrote his quartet because he was happy to return home after a long stay abroad, another was inspired by the sadness of having to leave home and go abroad, and yet another put pen to scoresheet because he loved his Mum and felt guilty about neglecting her.

No one genuinely believing that such are the sources of artistic inspiration will be capable of playing to a high standard. Since Mr Dusinberre manifestly has that ability, he had to know that what he was saying was vulgar bilge pitched down to the presumed level of his audience.

If his presumption was correct, then the future of live classical performance is indeed bleak. One thing I can say for sure is that Penelope and I both whispered “Just play the music” in unison, except that I modified the noun with an adjective of a desemanticised sexual origin.

All told, that one evening summed up some of the core problems of modernity. But since I have no space to tell all, I’ll concentrate on a single theme with but a few variations.

The theme is democracy that has expanded out of its natural political domain into spheres that ought to have been outside its reach. That was predictable.

Democracy is a political statement of equality, one of the founding desiderata of modernity. It stands to reason that, if it’s a self-evident truth that all men are created equal (to quote one of my least favourite documents), they are all equally capable of choosing their governments.

I consider this counterintuitive assumption to be rather divorced from observable reality, and in fact no commercial concern I’ve ever seen determines its policy by a show of hands. But hey, whatever works.

If democracy works better than other techniques of choosing political leaders, fine. What matters isn’t method of government but the kind of society it brings forth.

We all know the key attributes of government we desire: justice, wisdom, courage and prudence are my requirements. If we are satisfied (which I am not) that unrestrained democracy meets our requirements, then we are all happy. If we aren’t, perhaps we ought to consider possible changes – it’s all, or rather should be, sheer pragmatism.

Except it’s not, is it? Democracy isn’t seen as simply a method of government, one of many possibilities. Two-odd centuries of unremitting propaganda has imbued it with a high moral, borderline religious, content.

When the Holy Trinity was declared invalid and nonexistent, another trinity took its place, in which égalité was the central element. Hence democracy, its political expression, couldn’t stay within the narrow confines of its remit. It had to expand into all sorts of other areas, and if they were at first reluctant to accommodate democracy, then they had to be forced.

Democracy of politics thus also became democracy of taste, democracy of thought, democracy of creeds – all this without completely shedding its political skin. That way everything of value became politicised, with a show of hands deciding the choice between good and bad, virtuous and sinful, clever and stupid.

Some of those hands on show clutch wads of banknotes or, these days, packs of credit cards. Commercial consumerism acts in matters of mind and taste the way voting does in democratic politics.

In the arts, it decides who and what will succeed. In thought, what is intelligent and why. In morality, what is virtuous or sinful. In creeds… well, as far as democracy is concerned, it’s best not to believe in anything other than democracy.

All this is camouflaged with the smock of another mendacious shibboleth of democracy – meritocracy, a sort of aristocracy of achievement that has replaced the aristocracy of birth as the dominant social, commercial and political dynamic.

Yet the notion of meritocracy depends on what is widely believed to be meritorious. When that issue is also decided by a show of hands, nothing truly meritorious emerges. Meretricious is what we get.

For any society committed to equality will associate merit with commercial success, a sort of finish line some reach faster than others even though they all start from the same blocks. In effect, meritocracy will become plutocracy, with power measurable in money and vice versa. That stands to reason.

As has been known since the time of Heraclitus, things don’t stand still. Thus democratic majority in large countries is but an icon, not the real wielder of power and authority. The malleable mass of humanity inevitably becomes putty in the hands of expert manipulators, assorted éminences grises spinning the potter’s wheel.

In the West, where the rule of law hasn’t quite become a moot point yet, they’ve had to proceed slowly, watching their step along the way. But they’ve gradually succeeded in putting democracy to work as their instrument of power.

‘Democracy’ itself is a sledgehammer they can bring down on a recalcitrant head, but it’s not the only one. ‘Racism’, ‘homophobia’, ‘misogyny’ and so on all pack a mean punch. And, in arts, education and thought, those greyish eminencies whip out the mallet of ‘elitism’.

Swing that mallet, and – skipping a few incremental steps – genuine artists, such as the Takács Quartet, gradually fade away into extinction. And even before they do, they have to patronise their audience by talking rubbish about the great works they are about to perform.

Ugliness, stupidity and vulgarity are democratic. Beauty, sagacity and subtlety are elitist. And when democratic clashes with elitist, you know who’s going to win in our Panglossian world.

Take my advice, chaps: don’t go to concerts. You’ll end up with a head full of subversive thoughts that can land you in trouble if you aren’t careful.

6 thoughts on “Musical microcosm of modernity”

  1. Ah me! Mr Boot I do so envy you the ability to go to quartet recitals at the Wigmore Hall; it is now many years since I have lived in the town of my birth and education and that has been possible.

    The thoughts that you bring to us from that recital are such as to cast me into darkness, relieved only by remembering that at 89 years old, I will not see the coming Dark Age that they predict and by the (probably vain) hope that the sanity whose loss you (we) sadly forsee might be staved off by unforseeable events.

  2. The Tallis Scholars performed recently here in Brisbane, and my youngest daughter (in her mid-20’s) looked around and was so pleased to see MANY her age attending! So, youth can still appreciate Allegri Miserere, there is hope Alexander!

  3. Consider other activities once popular now disappearing:

    1. Model railroading.

    2. Control line model airplanes.

    3. Amateur radio.

    With regard to # 3 who would want to do amateur radio when even relatively poor people now have a smart phone that can connect to almost any part of the world far better than ham amateur radio.

    Practitioners of all three activities now last of a dying breed.

    1. BertE’s message really says that all human activities are transient on some scale of time and that cannot be denied. But I still think that there are differences of (cultural?) value between the trivia he lists (and other, similar ones) and music of the kind that Mr Boot and I were referring to. Am I wrong about that?

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