Thought For The Day
Thought For The Day
Classical Composers

This week a couple of rather lukewarm reviews came in for 'Folktronic'. They co-incided with a flare-up in my patched right eye which left me prone on my couch for several days, and then sitting with my head in the weird opthalmological machinery of the New York Ear and Eye Hospital several more. It gave me a lot of time to think.

I decided the problem with the reviews was something to do with what I think of as Classicism. Writers sometimes complain that my music doesn't match up to my wit. Where is the resonance, where are the guts, where the personal suffering and yearning and commitment which should be at the heart of art?

Wit, they imply, is not enough to sustain a pop record. There should be more. They want suffering. It's so Romantic, this view that some people have of art.

Believe me, there's plenty of suffering in my life. Ten or so doctors are poking around in my eye. They're all telling me different things. One says 'We can rehabilitate you, there's no reason why this eye shouldn't be 20/20.' Another says 'There's a real risk of glaucoma. Headaches. Strokes at the back of the eye. Irreversible blindness'. Whichever is right, there will be plenty of pain and expense before I reach light or darkness.

But I don't see why I should inflict this suffering on anyone else. The more painful my life is, the more I want my art to be serene, amusing, light and sprightly, like an 18th Century minuet.

Perhaps people who have no pain in their own lives turn to art for synthetic pain, as a sort of morbid escapism. That's not something I have any interest in providing. Sorry!

In the Middle Ages people were dropping like flies from plagues and mongol invasions. But the music of the time is light and happy. When you might die tomorrow, why waste your last hours complaining? The longer we live, the more we seem to lose that zest, that lightness. In modern America, where people have few problems and the news scrabbles around for real headlines, people listen to Marilyn Manson, Nine Inch Nails, Will Oldham and Low. It's just self-indulgence, a horrible cocktail of Christianity and Romanticism.

Monteverdi and his sons survived the terrible Venetian plague of 1630-31, in which 46,000 people died. Afterwards, Monteverdi became a priest, perhaps in gratitude to God for sparing him. He was now in his sixties, but the fruits of his autumn were amongst his finest works.

2 Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

So I decided, in between bouts on the opthalmoscope, to scribble down a few notes on what I call Classicism. It's an idea that runs through many of my records, and it contains a deliberate rejection of the orthodox values of rock and pop music. It's forbidden, by unspoken decree, for pop musicians to be 'classical'. Here are my notes.

It's always seemed a pity to me that pop music can't be more like classical music. Dignified, cool, clever, poised, with what I call 'the smile of the gods' playing around its lips.

I posed as a Classical Composer on the cover of 'The Little Red Songbook'. The style I called Analog Baroque was effective because it mixed 'poise' and 'the exquisite' with crudity and repellent subjects. Imagine a eunuch singing 'Coming In A Girl's Mouth' to harpsichord accompaniment in an 18th Century salon!

It's wonderful to be disgusting and civilised at the same time. It's funny, yes, but not in a superficial way. I believe it touches on the very essence of life; our noble aspiration coming up always against the body and its grossness, the angel failing to rise out of the flesh. It's profound in a way the Marquis de Sade would have understood and appreciated.

Classical composers have their time at court, their time of glory. Then there's a falling out with the king, a change of fashion, a popular uprising, and the composers experience backlash, neglect and poverty, physical decline, deafness, blindness, madness and death. All of Vienna was on their side, but now they have only a gouty lapdog and a faithful harlot, also down on her luck. The last symphony remains, of course, unfinished.

I always wanted to write a song called 'Sissy Classicist'.

Classicists would tend to be anti-Christian, I feel. And they'd have to be pro-gay, because the original Classical civilisations of Greece and Rome were very gay.

When we look at the way Classical Composers dress, we have to feel like total heels and puritans. Classical composers, with their wigs, ruffs and powder, dress better than any rock star now would dare in his wildest dreams.

Mozart's health began to fail with fatigue. A gaunt stranger appeared and commissioned him to write a requiem mass, but refused to give his name. Mozart saw this as a visit from death, and believed the requiem would be for himself.

3 Franz Joseph Haydn

Classical music has a familiar, fixed repertoire, like an opera company's. It basically means 'old music' or 'dead music'. What would it mean for someone to come along now and call himself a 'Classical Composer'? It would be like putting 'Ancient Sage' on your business card.

But if it's true that anything which is repeated enough and made into an orthodoxy becomes Classical, we could see someone like Elton John as Classical. He's made maudlin love ballads so formulaic and remote from real feeling that they've attained an almost mandarin tact and inscrutability, even while proposing the wildest openness and vulnerability. And this work is commanded by royal decree at the funerals of princesses.

I am attacked for combining, in pop, novelty and classicism. Nothing could be more toxic to middle class critics. Novelty Classicism is both aristocratic and superficial (or, we could say, posh and gay). It proposes an elite social structure ('us', those clever enough to get the joke, 'the Grad School set') without presenting a metaphysic of aristocratic superiority, because its politics are clearly of the left.

Mark E. Smith once said 'There's nothing worse than a thick posh person'. A general diffuse conservatism in Britain still requires there to be some legitimacy in what remains of the non-meritocratic social hierarchy. If we must have aristocrats, they should be genuinely superior.

In 1761 Haydn was hired as assistant kapellmeister by the Esterhazy family, for whom he was to work for 32 years. These fabulously wealthy Hungarian nobles maintained one of the best musical establishments in Europe. As a servant of Prince Esterhazy, Haydn wore his master's uniform and reported for orders twice a day.

4 Christoph Willibald Gluck

America really has no Classical Art, because they had no royal families or Holy Roman Emperors here to patronise it. The American state was born just as the golden age of classical art was fading. In fact we can blame the American Revolution for inspiring the Romantic Movement.

The most Classical country in the world is Japan. Because classicism is all about order, harmony, proportion, the avoidance of excess, a human scale, equilibrium, preservation of the status quo. It's an art of groups -- courts, elites, cliques, salons -- rather than individuals. Whereas today's music industry plays to regimented masses of isolated individuals, all caught up in the same illusions of their own personal difference from the others. Romanticism is in most of modern pop the same way sugar is in everything at the convenience store. It's reassuring to the lonely masses.

Forms -- like Classical art -- which stimulate upper-cortical activity and critical intelligence cannot be used as agents of social control. That's why, in 'Fahrenheit 451', the state burned all the books. Forms that stimulate only emotion can. That's why in '1984' everyone chanted at the screen in unison at Goldstein, the 'hate figure'.

Critics shouldn't scoff at didactic art or cool art, because people need to learn the kind of distance Brecht tried to build into his 'smoking theatres' and his alienation technique. Duchamp called it 'delay'. Mondrian made it into squares of colour. It's a thing that might save the world, this coolness, this distance. And it's integral to Classical art.

After leaving Italy Gluck traveled to London in 1745 with Prince Lobkowitz. He was now a musical wanderer, writing and conducting Italian operas all over Europe. In London he wrote a couple of unsuccessful operas, and gave a concert with Handel, playing his "concerto upon 16 drinking glasses tuned with spring water".

5 George Frideric Handel

There's suspicion of wit in pop music, not because it's easy to do -- it's not! -- but because it excludes stupid people from musical appreciation, and there are a lot of stupid people in the world. Anyone can feel emotion, but not everyone can appreciate wit.

Punk was the most Romantic pop music movement. It wanted to 'sweep it all away', which linked it to the early Romantic poets like Wordsworth, Shelley, Keats, who longed for political revolutions. If 'sweep it all away' is the motto of Romantic art, 'poise' is the motto of Classical.

Classical art is knowing, but not ironic. Irony is for the embattled middle classes, who wish to mark a distance between themselves and the masses, and need secret signs (a pair of inverted commas furtively sketched in the air will do the trick) to identify themselves in mixed company. Classical art doesn't need to worry about that. There are no proletarians present. Everyone thinks pretty much the same way. Etiquette, rules of honour, ancient custom determine outcomes. So there's no debate, and no irony.

Campaigning for a return to Classical values now makes you not a Classicist but a Post-Modernist, unfortunately. So you're back where you started, and there's irony galore.

With the passage of time Handel -- a German -- became England's national composer. What Dr Burney called "Handel's big Bow Wow manner" was recognised as the only appropriate accompaniment for ceremonial state occasions, such as coronations, and he was revered by his public. He continued hard at work, producing two oratorios a year until, like Bach, he was disabled by blindness.

6 Johann Sebastian Bach

Children are often proposed as Romantic 'dreamers', direct in expression, untarnished by formula. In fact, if you spend time with children, you quickly find what sticklers they are for rules. 'That's not fair!' 'You're not playing it right!' 'Mummy, tell him that's not allowed!' It's children's grasp of rules which helps them learn languages much faster than the rest of us.

Folk tales, children's songs and stories, have their own sort of Classicism. Simple, familiar, engrossing structures. Not too much waffle with form. They have a beginning, a middle and an end, they have an audience. They work, they're streamlined from generation to generation, they evolve and improve. I've always wanted my songs to have that sort of classicism too.

People now are too easy on the avant garde, they think it's lending pop some sort of dignity. In fact it may be ruining pop's ability to entertain. David Bowie hasn't made a decent record since he forgot how to tell stories.

The trouble with Classical Composers in the Romantic period is that they're too often tarred with the brush of local nationalism. Sibelius and Finland, Elgar and England. But Classical Composers -- the real ones -- were as cosmopolitan as the royal families they entertained. It was music for the jet set, or at least the carriage and horses set. It was import-export music. Like champion footballers, Classical Composers were transferred from court to court. Paris - Vienna - Berlin. Wurtemburg - Verona - Toulouse.

At 15 Bach was ready to begin his career. He walked 200 miles to join the choir at Luneburg. When his voice broke, he stopped singing but remained as organist and instrumentalist. Bach became one of the great organ virtuosos of the age (Handel was another), and an expert on organ construction, frequently hired as a consultant to test a new organ before the builder was paid.

7 Bach, Older

Sometimes, anything repeated until it becomes an orthodoxy is described as 'classical'. In the 80s 'Classic' was a branding buzzword. The Mac Classic, Coke Classic... What that meant was that, in a diversifying, fragmenting, globalising market there were some brands which were legacies from the age of monolithic non-choice. Plain old Coke might have looked boring alongside Cherry Coke and Ginseng Coke, so you pumped it up with added fetish value by calling it 'Classic'. A nostalgia for the days before choice was used to prop up rusty old brands. It's old, so it must be good. Who needs choice when you have Coke?

It was a bit like that in the Renaissance. Suddenly ancient Greece and Rome were back in fashion. Anything old was good. The equivalent of added value advertising was brought in to back this up. You got pseudo-mathematical demonstrations of the presence in classical architecture of the 'golden section', based on the human form.

Good classical art doesn't need such justifications, just as good modern art doesn't need to convince us that its avant garde really is producing the mainstream art of the future. As long as it's interesting now, that's fine.

What is the classicism of the future? Who knows, but even if it's based on what we're making right now, they'll streamline, idealise and generally fuck with it so much that we won't recognise a thing.

In Bach's later years his eyesight failed -- an occupational hazard for men who spent hours bent over music paper, reading and copying, in an age with poor artificial lighting. Bach boldly risked having an eye operation performed by a travelling quack, who later treated Handel's blindness equally unsuccessfully. He had a stroke after the operation and died July 18, 1750.

8 Antonio Vivaldi

Japan combines the otherwise mutually toxic values of novelty electronics and classicism. Akihabara, the frenetic 'electric town' full of the latest gadgets, is not far from Asakusa, a calm place of temples and water. The Japanese harmonise these stridently opposing principles by videoing the temples and building the cameras with a religious concentration.

What could be more Classical than a medieval Noh play? What about George Formby performing 'Chinese Laundry Blues'?

If you're Shakespeare or Moliere, retained by the royal court to amuse aristocrats with plays, you're not writing down to anyone. You're writing up. Your patrons are people at least as smart and civilised as you are. A mutual respect is implicit in the work you leave, a respect that actually cultivates the people who later come into contact with it.

In Britain there is still a royal family, but they don't patronise art of any recognisable type. They prefer horse racing. At Live Aid some of them turned out to watch Status Quo. Maybe that makes Status Quo a Classical group.

The most classical pop composers (apart from me, and I'm somewhat undermined by a core of stubborn Romanticism) are Tom Lehrer, Randy Newman, Serge Gainsbourg, Kraftwerk, early Roxy Music, Thomas Brinkmann, Kreidler, Georges Brassens, Cole Porter. I'll probably think of some other ones in a minute.

In an age which demanded a lot of new music, when most composers were rapid workmen, Vivaldi was particularily prolific. He bragged that he could "compose a concerto with all its parts quicker than a copyist could copy it." His scores show the speed with which they were written: Vivaldi's pen was scarcely able to keep up with his ideas, the notes bend forward on the page like wheat in a gale.

9 Vivaldi, Profile

The psychological archetype of the Romantic artist is the soldier. Think of Lord Byron, losing his life fighting -- ineffectually -- for Greek independence. Romanticism's insistence that the individual can and should struggle to make the world better leads to such absurdities. The psychological archetype of the Classical artist is the puppet or pierrot. Controlled by social forces (or greater powers; the Wheel of Fortune, Dharma, the Fates, the Furies) the pierrot aestheticises his powerlessness into a passive-aggressive spectacle. Like a geisha in bondage, like Juliette Greco reflected in the retina of Marc Almond, the Classical artist turns her powerless brokenness into a pale, quiet, tragic beauty.

Romanticism, therefore, leads finally towards action and away from art (Rimbaud, Byron). Classicism leads ever deeper into art. In fact you could say that its understanding of the joy of submission is one of the key secrets of beauty, and one reason why wise, submissive Asia will always be more beautiful than triumphalist, individualist America.

As for Europe, we have both Classicism and Romanticism, submission and revolution, if you sift. There are a few rules of thumb. 18th Century good, 19th Century bad. Paris 'ville des lumieres', Berlin 'Sturm und Drang'. Never trust anyone who wants to 'sweep it all away'. Or anyone who wants to keep it all the same, either.

Conservatives, who are Classicists, want a return to the Golden Age, which is in the past. Revolutionaries, who are Romantics, want Utopia, which is in the future.

When I'm attracted to another country's Classical civilisation, I should remind myself that generations of its population have paid a heavy price for the serenity and order, stoicism and humility I'm admiring. I should ask myself if I would be prepared to pay a similar price.

Sometimes the opposite of Classical is Romantic, sometimes it's Modern.

If we rule out the Classical Composers who were Romantic, and the Classical Composers who were Modern, we're left with the real Classical Composers: Bach but not Beethoven. Rameau but not Rachmaninov. Couperin but not Chopin.

They had hair longer than the hippies, but they remained at all times... composed.

Late in his life his works fell out of fashion. Vivaldi went to Vienna, hoping to profit from his former popularity there, but his patron the Emperor died, Austria was embroiled in the War of the Austrian Succession, and no-one had time or money for music. He died in obscure poverty in Vienna in 1743.

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