HIGHWAY ’21 REVISITED

DylanAs there’s no one alive today who has lived in a time without either recorded sound or moving pictures, it’s easy to take for granted how ‘far out’ the concept of both must have seemed when they were invented. In the case of the latter, I recently became aware of objections which were made at the time, ones that had never occurred to me before. Prior to recorded sound, if someone you knew had died their voice was never heard again thereafter; it vanished into memory’s murky recesses and could only ever be recalled rather than revisited. Come the advent of recorded sound at the end of the nineteenth century, concerns were expressed in some quarters that being able to hear the voices of the deceased after they’d passed away, ones that had been preserved on the earliest wax cylinders or discs, was somehow disturbing the sanctity of death and messing with the order of things.

To be able to hear those voices again, as though calling from beyond the grave, sent a few shivers down various spines in the beginning, which is understandable when one considers such a thing had never been possible before – outside of a séance, anyway. The innovation was viewed as unnatural, though considering some of the dubious rituals the Victorians dabbled in re the recently-deceased – such as family photographs with dead children propped-up to complete the set – their concerns appear somewhat eccentric today. It does often strike me though how all subsequent generations are utterly dependent on contemporary written descriptions of the great men (and women) of the age immediately preceding the invention of recorded sound. For example, no composer was ever heard performing their own works by anyone other than those present at a performance before said performance was able to be recorded. We can only go by what was put down on paper at the time as to just how good Franz Liszt or Clara Schumann were as concert pianists; we can’t hear them, only their works as interpreted by later musicians and preserved on plastic.

Mrs Schumann, who paid the rent by hitting the road during her famous husband’s bouts of mental illness, is now again acknowledged as the significant figure she was acknowledged as during her lifetime. Her ‘feminist’ reappraisal was only necessary due to her talent being neglected in the decades following her death (1896) – probably because there had been no recordings as evidence of her gifts to pass down to future generations. But whatever perceived obstacles she faced due to her sex at the time were not necessarily unique – all artists are confronted by them, male or female; if they have anything about them, the talent will win out in the end. Just because most of the notable ‘Classical’ composers were men doesn’t mean they had success and plaudits handed to them on a plate; they had to work damned hard for it too. She, like them, deserved the reputation that has now been resurrected and doesn’t need a retrogressive ‘Woman Composer’ tag attached to reiterate that fact. She was as much a product of her age as her male contemporaries were.

I used the term ‘Classical’ as a generic one in the previous paragraph; in the modern era of strict musical categorisation it tends to be applied when referring to any orchestral music made over the past 300 years. Cut through lazy labelling and one comes across more accurate terminology to separate artistic and cultural phases, often encompassing not just the music but the art, architecture, literature, politics and philosophy of the age. These ‘epochs’ – the Baroque, the Classical, the Romantic etc. – produce sons and daughters whose restless spirits and hunger for change push their eras onwards and upwards until, like Icarus, they burn out and are superseded by another cast of characters and another epoch. Distance is usually required to recognise a diverse and disparate variety of movers and shakers can be grouped together under one all-encompassing umbrella, with what they shared being greater than that which divided them. With media coverage of Bob Dylan’s impending 80th birthday, I got to thinking how the age that produced characters like him and all the others whose simultaneous breakthroughs made such an impact (in part thanks to the ubiquitous presence of recorded sound) can probably now be acknowledged as an epoch in its own right, one we are witnessing the last rites of due to the advanced years of its prime practitioners – those who have made it this far, anyway.

The great William Shatner is a decade ahead of Dylan, but even the fact that the former captain of the USS Enterprise was perhaps a little too old to embrace the extremities of 60s ‘cool’ (though he had a go at it with his own…er…distinctive version of ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’) isn’t relevant today. The original series of ‘Star Trek’ has long been enshrined as a component of the same cultural canon to which ‘Blonde on Blonde’ or the mini-skirt or the first Moon Landing belong; the further we’ve travelled from the moments in which these (sorry to use an over-used word) ‘iconic’ innovations and events occurred, the more it has been possible to discern the qualities they had in common, qualities that may well have not been so apparent at the time. Bit-by-bit, whether it be The Beatles or Bob Dylan or Muhammad Ali or George Best, the jigsaw of the second half of the twentieth century is now a complete picture with all its various pieces fitting neatly together as much as the pieces of the Baroque, the Classical or the Romantic retrospectively do. Perhaps we need to be once or twice removed to appreciate this.

Anyone who lives through such a period (or at least catches the arse-end of it) gradually learns it takes time to dawn on them that it’s over. The epoch which began in the 60s, realised its creative potential in the 70s, and achieved its most profitable commercial spell in the 80s is undoubtedly over now. It staggered on into the 90s, with manufactured scenes routinely appearing and disappearing to maintain the illusion it remained relevant, but the traditional remaking and remodelling that accompanied ‘The Next Big Thing’ slowly wound down. The support system that kept it on the front pages of most people’s lives – and everything from ‘Top of the Pops’ to the music press to the Sunday teatime Top 40 on Radio 1 played its part – has been dismantled. Who would give a shit if Ed Sheeran ‘went electric’ in 2021 like they did when Bob Dylan did in 1965? Somebody like Ed Sheeran is not important to anyone other than those who download his dirges as background Muzak; he’s meaningful in the same way Tommy Steele was meaningful. Even if he was an outstanding artistic talent, he would still be incapable of impacting in the way Dylan managed it because Dylan was in the right place at the right time at the right moment – and his creative spirit was a product of where he came from, a place that no longer exists.

Are we in in-between days today? It’s impossible to tell. Even if we come to terms with the fact that the aforesaid period which produced popular art of such invigorating and electrifying verve that it has continued to inspire those who weren’t even born when it appeared has passed into history, it means we feel somewhat bereft when we look to the same source for our earthly and heavenly bread in 2021. If we look elsewhere, perhaps we will find a similar spirit struggling to be heard in the digital cacophony of so many competing voices; and perhaps we won’t know until it’s gone if where we are now is another epoch or merely an interlude, a breathing space in which chaos reigns because it can. But we can’t complain we haven’t inherited some class family silver; we have the luxury of being able to listen to the young Dylan sing ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ just as we can listen to any pianist of the last 80 years playing Clara Schumann – and that’s plenty to be getting on with instead of waiting for something to happen that maybe never will.

© The Editor

WELCOME TO THE CHEAP SEATS

Say the word ‘tennis’ to most people in this country and – unless they avidly follow the sport from Grand Slam to Grand Slam – chances are the first thing that springs to mind will be a certain leafy London suburb. Forget the Davis Cup or the US Open; for the majority of Brits, tennis means the Wimbledon fortnight, probably the only time all year they watch tennis – almost as if it’s the only time all year that the sport is actually played, with the world’s leading players cryogenically frozen in suspended animation for the other 50 weeks. Similarly, say the word ‘The Proms’ to most people in this country and images of the Last Night will immediately appear – all that patriotic bluster, flag-waving, jingoistic chanting and…oh, hold on a minute; isn’t that what we get outside the Palace of Westminster 24/7 these days? Why do we need to rent the Albert Hall for it?

It’s only natural, I suppose, that the large swathes of the population with little (or no) interest in ‘Classical’ music associate the oldest and most prestigious musical festival these islands can boast with its annual finale. For one thing, it’s the only evening of an event that spans two months to receive live coverage on the nation’s most mainstream of TV channels, BBC1. BBC4 and – especially – Radio 3 are there from day one, but come the Last Night, the home of ‘Homes under the Hammer’ gatecrashes the party and takes credit for it. No wonder so many imagine the Last Night is all there is to The Proms when their sole exposure to it comes via the platform they lack the curiosity to look beyond.

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the birth of Sir Henry Wood, prominent Victorian conductor and co-founder of The Proms in 1895. Inspired by a visit to the Wagner festival at Bayreuth, Wood joined forces with Robert Newman, manager of London’s newest and most impressive concert venue, the Queen’s Hall, to stage a ten-week season of ‘promenades’. Such events had their roots in outdoor performances given in locations such as the notoriously decadent Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens, combining serious works with more lightweight popular material. By the late 19th century, indoor acoustics were regarded as superior and purpose-built arenas were also less likely to attract the kind of miscreants prone to wandering in and out of pleasure gardens. The intention, however, was never to make music elitist, but to keep it accessible to all; playing it indoors simply placed it in a more civilised and conducive environment.

Amazingly, Wood continued to be the main conductor and organiser of The Proms until just a few weeks before his death in 1944. By then, coverage on BBC Radio (since 1927) had expanded the audience for (and awareness of) The Proms so that its popularity enabled it to soldier on during WWII. At the height of the Blitz, the home of the event from its inception, the Queen’s Hall, was bombed beyond repair and Wood was forced to relocate operations to the Royal Albert Hall. The famous bust of him that is regularly seen on the Last Night was retrieved from the ruins of the Queen’s Hall. Despite the panicky BBC withdrawing its financial support (and orchestras) at the outbreak of hostilities, music – along with all of the Arts – was quickly recognised as a vital morale-booster, and the retention of cultural pursuits was promoted as one of the factors we were fighting for. The founding of the BBC Third Programme in 1946 was motivated by similar laudable aims.

After the War, gradual television coverage widened the audience of the event further, as did the arrival of the charismatic Malcolm Sargent as Proms Chief Conductor in 1947, a man who held the post for two decades. Traditionally, the Proms programme was to devote a different day of the week to a different venerated composer; under Sargent and William Glock (in the newly-created post of ‘Proms Controller’), the remit expanded to eventually embrace more avant-garde works in what was a contentious era for Classical as younger composers went off on something of a tonal tangent. By the end of the 60s, even the revolution in pop culture received the official seal of approval when experimental Jazz Rockers Soft Machine played, the first such act from outside the orchestral world to appear on the programme. The reputation of the event was by now international and it attracted most of the leading solo musicians, orchestras, composers and conductors of the post-war era; in the process, The Proms stayed true to its original aim, as TV and radio broadcasts gave far more members of the public than could be crammed into the Albert Hall the opportunity to see and hear the maestros and musical mavericks of the age.

I remember as a child that the front cover of the Radio Times was always given over to a painting of the Albert Hall either in the week the festival opened or closed; it was the latter, however, that served as a Proms introduction for those of us for whom Classical music was not part of the educational syllabus. And in a way, this was unfortunate, for the Last Night is an aberration in the Proms’ calendar, bearing little relation to the rest of the schedule comprising the previous couple of months. If the only time your average punter is exposed to The Proms is the Last Night, the impression given is not that of an inclusive, egalitarian celebration of the world’s greatest Classical works, but quite the opposite. I admit I was one of those punters once, recoiling from something that resembled a privileged, public school ball, midway between the Henley Regatta and the Tory Party Conference – lots of pissed-up posh people looking smug and begging for a punch.

I didn’t connect my early love of Holst’s ‘The Planets’ to The Proms because all I’d seen of it for years was the Last Night. It wasn’t until around 1999, when a bout of bored channel-surfing was interrupted by stumbling upon a performance of ‘Mars’, that I actually sat and watched a concert halfway through the Proms season. ‘Oh, there’s more to this than those chinless wonders bouncing up and down to Land of Hope and Glory, then?’ Damn right. Thereafter – and ever since – I’ve regularly tuned in to The Proms from July to September and witnessed some memorable musical moments along the way; the 2012 season in which Daniel Barenboim conducted all nine Beethoven symphonies stands out as a particular landmark, but there have been just as many individual soloists that have caught my ears and eyes – and I have to admit the clad-in-black female members of orchestras do have a habit of looking especially alluring on such evenings.

For some, the end of summer is marked by the final crack of leather-on-willow; for others, it comes when the clocks go back in October; for me, autumn officially begins when the Proms ends. You know summer’s over then. Tomorrow’s Last Night threatens to put an additional boot in by opening with a ‘Woke’ symphony. But for all the recent innovations of trying to broaden the event’s appeal by staging complementary concerts featuring non-Classical acts under the ‘Proms’ banner, for me it’s still the joy of seeing and hearing both familiar and fresh non-vocal masterpieces on a nightly basis for eight glorious weeks at the Albert Hall that defines this most special of Great British institutions. And, as the veteran music journalist David Hepworth recently pointed out, the price of tickets for many of the Proms concerts in the season is staggeringly cheap, certainly when compared to the astronomical cost of watching a leading rock or pop act going through the motions at the nearest soulless aircraft-hanger named after a corporation. Makes one wonder if Sir Henry Wood was right; could be Classical really is the ‘people’s’ music after all.

© The Editor