The Proms should be called the Promos

Carrying musical ‘culture’ to the masses sounds like a good idea. But it isn’t.

Those in favour claim that classical performances will lift a cultural innocent up to their level. In real life, rare exceptions aside, he drags them down to his.

Real music can’t be financed by the workings of the mass market. If it is, it stops being real music. There are, and always have been, very few people in His creation who can grasp the subtleties of, say, a Bach prelude – and fewer still who can appreciate the quality of its performance. It was for those small groups that Bach, Mozart and Beethoven played their music, and it was those highly cultivated groups who paid for it.

Apart from liturgical music, only the light, operatic end ever reached broader audiences, and the lighter it was, the broader its reach. Serious music was performed only for the typically refined ears of aristocratic patrons, not for anyone willing to play the price of admission.

When the situation changed, so did the performers – and performances. Just as unchecked democracy in politics eventually brings to the fore photogenic spivs rather than statesmen, so does the parallel development in music produce herds of stars who have as little to do with musicianship as Dave Cameron has with statesmanship. The public always gets what it pays (or votes) for.

Of course this observation, though true, can only be perceived as heretical these days. Democracy is based on the supposition that common people are capable of uncommon refinement, and egalitarian democratic orthodoxy has long since spread way beyond politics.

It was Aristotle who warned that democracy fosters a mindset wherein those who are equal in one respect are deemed to be equal in every respect. Now we can see how amply he has been vindicated.

The Promenade Concerts have been a feature of the London musical scene for over a century now, and their history has unfolded in parallel with what Ortega y Gasset called the ‘revolt of the masses’. That process has an accelerator built in, a bit like a snowball rolling downhill, getting bigger and bigger until it goes over the edge and disintegrates.

The idea behind the Proms had facile appeal: using low ticket prices to attract to the concert hall those who were normally happier in a music hall. Not to make the transition too abrupt, the public was encouraged to act in an uninhibited manner: go walkabout during the performance, talk to their friends, stamp their feet on the floor while applauding.

This precluded right from the start anyone acquiring higher sensibilities: real music requires almost as much concentration from the listener as from the performer. Thus even in theory the Proms have always had a rich potential for turning perhaps the most sublime achievement of our civilisation into mindless entertainment.

Those attending the Proms this year will see how successfully, how devastatingly this potential has been realised. For real music, even though these days it’s hardly ever performed by real musicians (Nigel Kennedy, this year’s highlight, is a case in point), will find itself side by side with such cultural delights as punk and rap, not to mention jazz.

Real music was born in churches, whence it moved into palaces. Jazz was born in brothels, whence it moved into nightclubs. Punk and rap were born within the confines of the drug industry, so it’s hardly surprising that they aren’t so much decadent as degenerate, not to mention devoid of any musical content.

That sort of barbaric stuff and real music simply don’t belong in the same world, never mind the same hall. It’s like trying to fit rap lyrics into a Shakespeare sonnet: ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day and then carve thee up, thou bitch.’ Doesn’t quite work, I don’t think.

One can understand the commercial appeal of such omnivorous gluttony. What better way to promote the Proms than to give the paying public what it really craves? I don’t know, perhaps public hangings of the organisers might have even a stronger pulling power.

Next time I’m in Holborn I’m going to drop into St Sepulchre-without-Newgate, the Musicians’ Church. Sir Henry Wood, the founder of the Proms, is buried there and I’d like to know if he’s spinning in his grave.

If he is, I’ll do my best to put his soul to rest. Even though in a way he has brought this onto himself.










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