How to listen to new music


Up to the early 20th century the speed of change in “classical” music was slow enough for audiences to keep up with it for the most part. Yes, some found late Beethoven and Wagner too new and confusing at first, but it grew on them. Even Berlioz was baffled by the score of Tristan und Isolde.

But then two things happened. First, the rate of change speeded up enormously, owing to radical changes in social and political life (communication, travel, displaced people, etc.) and at the same time far fewer people bought and played new music for themselves at home, so they became less familiar with the nuts and bolts of it. I used to know a chap who played Brahms’ symphonies on the piano for his own enjoyment, and he knew the music far better than any mere listener. It should be the same for someone, say, taking a vocal score of Berg’s Lulu and playing that, or even singing it through with their friends.

I have seen lecture audiences transformed in their appreciation and understanding of 20th century music by such teachers as Hans Keller and Ivor Keys. Surely there is a role here for the BBC, and Radio3 in particular, beyond the magazine style of programme?

I suspect that the people most likely to be interested in – and benefit from – such education would be those who start off most sympathetic and receptive to new music. And for them I think more could be done.

One problem is that with the speed of change, people don’t have time to acclimatize, new music doesn’t get assimilated into a contemporary sound world before something else is on the scene.

There are, after all, still those who insist that Beethoven’s late quartets are the works of a madman, getting on for 200 years after they were written. I don’t know much about them from a technical point of view but my ears tell me they are fully assimilated into the “classical sound world”. From reading about their history and place in Beethoven’s work, I came to listening to them for the first time and simply didn’t (and don’t) understand what the difficulty was.

I suppose it’s the case that, for most people, time will tell, that people in the future will select the works that have meaning for them in the context of the musical world in which they’re living. And they won’t need “educating”. Possibly.



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