Music Review
11:00 pm
Fri February 1, 2013

A Sharp Divide

You may find this hard to believe, but I did actually study music in my youth. It was the principal focus of my academic work until I was in my late teens, and I played first violin in the school orchestra. So significant was music in my life at that time that, when I set off for university, my parents believed that I was training to be a music teacher.  I wasn't.  I went to read English, and I have never played in an orchestra or lifted a violin in anger since.

One of the weird aspects of studying music in the 1960s was the difficulty of actually hearing serious music being played. There were very few visits by orchestras to my part of the country, and I was not encouraged to listen to the serious music on the radio (radio was for the daytime - the BBC Light Programme - the evening was TV time). Recorded music was, of course, on vinyl, and the repertoire of available pieces in those pre-Naxos days was very limited.  If you tried to stray much beyond Beethoven, Mozart and Bach, the woods were dark and full of ..... silence.

This was bad enough if you wanted to listen to classical music, but if you aspired to be a music student, it was really a problem. The pieces set for study for my final high school Music exam (called 'A' levels in Britain) included a Mozart piano sonata, Wagner's Overture to Die Meistersinger, Sibelius's Lemminkainen's Return and Holst's Choral Hymns from the Rig Veda. The Mozart and the Wagner were available on record, the Sibelius came into the music department of my school just weeks before my exam, and I did not hear the Holst Hymns at all until 2012. Last summer I met one of the pupils who had studied those pieces with me; we had not met for 46 years, and I was surprised that he seemed quite old. He actually did go on to study music and spent his working life as a music teacher, aided no doubt, by the capacity to let his students actually hear the music.

I think it is a reasonable exercise to study a Shakespeare play without seeing it in performance, although it is infinitely preferable to experience a stage or cinema version. Most of us can read the words on the page, and we may even feel confident enough to read them aloud. But to study a piece of music without ever hearing it as it was intended to be heard required far greater skill in reading a score than I ever possessed. Our music teacher played the Holst on the piano and explained its structure and form, but Holst was writing for a choir, and we never heard the music sung, never heard the words.

And we certainly never learned of the nature of the Vedic hymns, or of Holst's interest in Hindu mysticism. This was the '60s, when the Beatles and the Stones were following the Maharishi Yogi to India, and Holst had been treading the path of Indian spirituality more than fifty years before, but we did not make the connection, because we were not allowed to: we were not told.

There was a very sharp divide in my youth between popular music (‘pop’) and serious music – a divide which was as wide as a canyon. I remember being struck by the fact that almost all the tracks on The Beatles A Hard Day’s Night album were in a minor key (it is the only Beatles album to consist solely of Lennon-McCartney songs – nothing by George and no covers) but this observation was not one I could share with anyone at the time; if you knew about minor keys, you should not be listening to ‘pop’.

McCartney went on to write quite a lot of serious music after The Beatles split in 1970s, some of which is not, in any sense, popular, but some of which well merits the air time it gets on JPR’s Classics & News Service. I have been known to play music by Tony Banks, formerly of the rock-band Genesis, and I find his work melodic and well-structured. Are the boundaries between popular music and serious music now more flexible than they were half a century ago?

In some respects, I think they may be. The violinist formerly known as Nigel Kennedy (now just ‘Kennedy’) has made hugely successful recordings of Vivaldi as well as of Jim Hendrix, and the Kronos Quartet has an extensive repertoire which they have displayed in some forty albums, ranging from Hildegard of Bingen to Arvo Pärt, from Górecki to Jimi Hendrix. However, I have yet to pluck up the courage to end an edition of First Concert by playing the Kronos Quartet’s version of Bob Dylan’s ‘Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright’, much though I love it!

I wonder if I would have stayed with music if I could have heard that set of Holst hymns, or if I had known that Holst and George Harrison had quite a lot in common?