The Death of Music    
    Dr Donald Stevens spotlights the cultural drought in "Cool Britannia" 2000    

THERE WAS a concert in the church on Sunday evening, a concert by an English choir. There were two to three hundred people in the church, for the people of that country love music, and there was the additional attraction of a foreign choir. I sat next to my friend, who is a well known English organist. [1]

As the concert proceeded, my friend grew more and more restless. Between two items, he turned to me and whispered: "Is there something wrong with my ears?"

"No," I whispered back. "It's supposed to be a four-part choir, and there are only three parts."

For the accompanied pieces, the conductor played adequately. For the unaccompanied pieces, he played the notes for the opening chord on a keyboard. Once he played the wrong notes, and had to go back and play the right ones. The choir found this funny; I found it embarrassing.

The choir wasn't bad - except for the fact that it had no tenors; but it was certainly not worth going to any trouble to hear. In an average small parish church, it would be an asset - nowadays; not a hundred years ago, when musical standards were higher. In a foreign country especially a very musical country - it was a disgrace.

But why go to the trouble and expense of transporting some thirty people abroad to give a sub-standard performance?

We make allowances in this country for amateur orchestras, although we ought not. Why should incompetent players inflict painful discords and harsh tones on our ears? And sometimes we are even asked to pay for it!

One such concert I attended included a symphony by Mozart. I went with expectations, and found it an abomination. Not one of the players could play in tune - few could play in time. At least the conductor had the grace to look embarrassed. Again, one asks why such a concert? I discovered the reason a year later, when the conductor obtained a post with the county youth orchestra.

Our county youth orchestras are, on the whole, good. Some are better than professional orchestras. But how could that conductor obtain such a post?

Of course, in modern Britain it is increasingly the case of not what you know but who you know. On the other hand, most local and national bureaucrats, who appoint such conductors, know little about music. At the interview the applicant is asked what experience he has had. He then produces the programmes he has conducted (and nowadays such programmes can be easily produced, with a professional appearance, on a computer). Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, Tschaikovsky: the names and the works are impressive. What is never asked is the quality of the performances.

So, I expect the conductor of that disgraceful choral concert will produce the excellently printed programme, and others like it, at an interview and obtain a prestigious choir to conduct (a choir that some unthanked, underpaid musician has trained to professional standard) for an enormous salary paid by the taxpayer and allocated by the wasteful and ignorant Arts Council. After all, he is one up on all the other applicants - he has conducted abroad!

Such a conductor may turn out to be a good professional conductor - or he may not. Probably the latter, judging by my own experiences.

There is an old musical anecdote that eventually percolated to the BBC (that organisation is invariably ten or twenty years behind the rest of the country in the matter of jokes). Two violinists are conversing:-

‘And how did the concert in Birmingham go?’

‘Oh, very well.’

‘And who was the conductor?’

‘I didn't notice.’

It was just as well he didn't notice the conductor. Professional players get on better when they don't!

I have seen at the Barbican a well-known American conductor [2] perform what I can only call a "pas seul", which would have been warmly welcomed by any fourth-rate ballet school, while the orchestra got on with the Brahms.

Conductor out of touch

I have attended a rehearsal where a highly paid British conductor waved his stick about in the general direction of the ceiling [3] while the orchestra played Delius. The orchestra came to the end of the first section and rightly stopped playing, while the conductor went on conducting, obviously having no idea of the music. Ironically, the public had been invited to the rehearsal in order to whet its appetite for the concert that evening. I understand that concert was poorly attended. I am not surprised, with such blatant incompetence on the rostrum. Yet that conductor is still employed - and paid out of tax-payers' money!

No wonder that properly trained foreign conductors come to this country, and command colossal salaries - that we pay. There are good British conductors, but as they honestly refuse to inflict sub-standard performances on their audiences, they cannot produce a sheaf of programmes of concerts they have conducted at home and abroad. So, they are rarely chosen to conduct our professional choirs and orchestras.

Foreign conductors naturally choose foreign works to conduct. If they perform new works, these will be by composers of the conductor's nationality, not by British composers. [4]

A couple of years ago, I encountered a good (but not excellent) amateur orchestra from London. In one of the lower string sections was a player of a certain ethnic minority much favoured by the regime, and rarely to be seen in the context of classical music - either performing or listening. This player had to be consulted - and deferred to - on all matters of interpretation. [5] The orchestra had been invited to perform under a good, but not fully professional conductor, for an important concert. He used it for that performance, and never again.

We have some of the best professional orchestras in the world, which have to play under conditions that appall players from other countries, including our incompetent conductors. They often have to play rubbish [6] because that is what the regime wants; and the regime controls the money. Any choir or orchestra that receives a grant from the Arts Council must perform the type of music that the Arts Council demands. The Arts Council is appointed by the government; so, ultimately it is the government that controls what is performed.

More ominously, a tenor at Glyndebourne Opera refused to sing a part in a new opera because the words were obscene. I have never heard of that tenor since.

Even in minor musical circles, the rot has set in, the rot that is causing the total decay of music in this country. A new, glossy (and expensive) hymn-book has been produced. I was given a copy to inspect, and have written a critical evaluation of it, of both words and the music. Here, I shall quote only some of my comments on the music.

"The music jerks along like a drug-filled zombie." "The music is of such poor quality that a fourth-rate pub pianist would reject it." "A dull but otherwise unobjectionable tune..., but why did it take three people to write it?" "The music is dull and trite (and) sounds like a pop-pianist, well past his best, improvising in a sleazy night-club. Of two "hymns" which use the Scottish folk-tunes "Ye banks and braes and Blow the wind southerly," I ask "Where are today's Christian composers?" It is a rhetorical question. A good composer would never be asked to contribute a good singable hymn for this book. [7]

American pop

Our pop-music is American or, worse still, imitation American, with imitation American accents for the words. To one who lived for some years in North America, the result is either funny or excruciating.

People have asked me: Where are our good composers? The answer is that there are good British composers today, some very good indeed. They can write and have written good music of any sort you might want to hear, and you would enjoy it if you heard it; but you will rarely, if ever, hear it. [8]

In common with other businesses, small music publishers have been taken over by the big boys. Whereas in former days you could find a little publishing company that would resist the unmusical trends of the age and publish decent music for a low profit, these companies have now virtually all disappeared. I was just establshing a profitable and friendly relationship with Hinrichsen when that firm was taken over by Peters.

After I presented some of my music to the latter, it was returned with a cold comment that the company would be concentrating on avant-garde music. I was one of half a dozen composers who now had no outlet. This also meant that we would not benefit from performing rights. The rule is that no-one will perform music unless it is published; and, with the big companies taking over, the other rule applies: that no-one will publish music unless it has been performed - a neat and vicious circle.

Nevertheless, the big companies are in danger with the advent of the Internet. Now, anyone can sell anything - including music - on the Web, and there are some enterprising firms that are bypassing the publishing giants in this way.

For the time being, however, the big companies rule. Naturally they want to make a big profit. Therefore they go to the people with the biggest money: the Government, of whatever sort it is; and they publish what the government wants them to publish, just as orchestras and choirs must perform what the Arts Council decrees, in order to get their slice of tax-payers' money.

The regime had decreed that there must be two ingredients in moderm music: ear-shattering discord and political correctness. Between them, these two factors will bring about the death of music, not only in this country but eventually everywhere.

The only thing that can save music is a complete change in the governing body of this land, the raising up, not necessarily of men and women who understand music and appreciate it, but men and women who want beauty and excellence, and (above all) possess common sense and the desire for the best in all areas of life. [9]


1. I have suppressed his name for obvious reasons. He restored faith in British musicians by later giving an excellent organ recital in the same church.

2. Some people who still speak English in this country have protested about the change of "Britons never never never shall be slaves" to "Britons never never never will be slaves" at the Last Night of the Proms. The change was made when this American conductor was invited to conduct that concert.

3. Only a minimum of common sense is needed to realise an orchestra is lower than a conductor on any kind of podium, and that to raise either baton or hands to eye-level is to make them invisible to most of the players who have to read the music as well as watch the conductor. The exception is when conducting a choir that is seated higher than the conductor. And I have seen many conductors of choral works accompanied by an orchestra, whose whole attention (and beat) is focused on the choir and the orchestra has to guess when to play. Naturally, when the orchestra comes in at the wrong time, it is the orchestra's fault, and never, never the conductor's. A musicologist from New York related to me that American orchestras under a certain conductor always knew that they had to start playing when the baton passed the third button of the conductor's waistcoat. The last good professional conductor I saw in this country was Charles Groves; when conducting orchestral music, his hands never rose above his capacious middle, except to signal to the brass or percussion. The other ridiculous tendency that is well-nigh universal in this country is to conduct on the up-beat. This was introduced by conductors who thought that all they needed to do was fling their hands about in the air and music would result.

4. There are British composers whose works are performed. These are friends of the establishment or they have trendy life-styles and are very politically correct, and churn out the equivalent in music of the Turner Prize in art. Even Jewish composers must toe the line. Schmidt, a good conservative Austrian composer, was told by William Glock of the BBC that his music was unacceptable. Here I should mention that recently I saw one of the best young British conductors I have ever seen: he conducted Brahms' Third Symphony excellently, from memory without a score, in Vienna. I have never heard of him in this country.

5. For the uninitiated, a good conductor will consult with his players, especially the leader of the first violins, on matters of bowing or fingering. He will occasionally consult with leaders of other sections, but never with a rank and file player. The only exception to this that I know of is an orchestra under communist regime, where the commissar, usually a person devoid of musical knowledge, controlled what was performed and how it was performed. Perhaps that ethnic-minority player was the commissar.

6. Some years ago, such a work was performed at the end of the concert. The principal cellist stood up and smashed his cello in disgust at what he had had to play. Naturally, he had purchased a cheap cello on which to play for that concert, and it was the cheap instrument that was smashed. The two results that impressed me were: one, the audience wasn't sure whether this was part of the performance or not, and was hesitant in its applause. Secondly, the conductor had not noticed or queried the inferior tone of the cellist's instrument. Like art; the trend of music which is not music has been with us for nearly a century. Over forty years ago, there was a performance at a university of a "modern" piece for clarinet and other instruments. The composer was present, and praised the performance as being just what he intended. After the performance, the clarinettist discovered that he had played his part on a Bb clarinet, and not on an A clarinet as the composer had indicated. This meant that his part throughout was a semi-tone out of tune. The composer hadn't noticed. Neither had anyone else.

7. I omit reference to good standard tunes that have been mangled by the introduction of "modern" discords. The contents are a blend of traditional and known hymns and modern "pop" tunes and "pop" words, many of which don't make sense. The "pop" tunes are usually very badly written; some are impossible to sing, and others impossible to play. The treatment of the words of the traditional hymns, which have been "modernised" is an act of vandalism. Such hymn-books have been enthusiastically received by a clergy that has become more and more ignorant of music and literature - and of everything else, including theology.

8. Despite my strictures, there are good modern British composers: Arthur Butterworth, Robert Groves, Eric Thiman, John Rutter. However, it should be noted that the first three are dead and the last is old. I heard Derek Bourgeois' first symphony when he was at Cambridge, and it was very promising indeed. However, he has now succumbed to the establishment and writes works of modern cacophony.

9. Definitely not Phoney Blair, who uses tax-payers money to finance tenth-rate pop-groups.

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