What the Government's reforms to GCSE Music actually mean

Why music can't be pigeonholed into a 1700-1900 time frame


Western music began in 1700 with Vivaldi’s Gloria and ended with Puccini’s Tosca in 1900. Well, according to the government’s proposed OFQUAL GCSE syllabus, it did. So that wraps up Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, followed by the Romantic leads, Mendelssohn, Schumann, Brahms, Wagner, Tchaikovsky. We can even squeeze in Puccini, Strauss and Mahler (just). So that’s all good, then.

Except Allegri’s Misere isn’t there. Or Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas. Or even Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto. Or Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. And did someone mention Shostakovich? Who even is that?

Of course, there isn’t time to study everything on a GCSE syllabus, though, worryingly, this is being proposed for AS and A Level too. To understand how truly arbitrary and distorting it really is, just apply the dates to another art form. How might a study of English Literature look that missed out Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, James Joyce and George Orwell? Or an Art syllabus that failed to mention Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci or Picasso? Or a history of architecture that blanked all the great European cathedrals?

If that sounds bonkers, and crassly anti-educational, then think again about music. Some of the greatest choral music was written before 1700; it’s still being sung in churches every week today. How can you appreciate the radical genius of Bach without knowing any of the choral music he grew up with? In one fell swoop, they’ve eliminated the birth of opera (no, it didn’t drop from the sky with Handel’s Almira) and the moment expressive chromaticism turned into serialism (not that it matters, I suppose, if our kids are never going to encounter Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire, Berg’s Violin Concerto or Stockhausen’s Gruppen anyway).

Wiping out the music from before 1700 presents a particularly bitter irony: has all the extraordinary scholarship and experimentation of the last 50 years been for nothing? The renaissance in the performance of early music has been a defining feature of so-called ‘classical music’ in my lifetime. And what an energizing and enlightening movement it’s been, changing and enriching our perception of all the 1700-1900 music in its wake. As an irate Emma Kirkby (soprano) said to me when she heard the news: ‘Music before 1700 has been my life! We have seven centuries of great music and counting, not two. Young people need to understand the roots; particularly the fact that most of our instruments originate in the Arab not the European world.’

As for music in the 20th century, it dominates our symphonic concerts today. Just look at the programmes of the Simon Bolivar Orchestra or our own National Youth Orchestra. Or the BBC’s list of Ten Pieces for primary-age kids – they include those by Britten, Holst, Adams and Stravinksy – oh, and Anna Meredith. Because, contrary to popular belief, composers have not stopped composing. Another insidious aspect of the proposal is that the composing and performing side of the exam is to be reduced. As Kathryn Tickell tweeted, ‘Hey budding young composers – don’t bother, all the good stuff has already been written.’

Stop the madness and support the Incorporated Society of Musicians’s campaign.


Visit: www.protectmusiceducation.org/beyond1900.html and join the conversation with #beyond1900 and #before1700




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  • Article Type: | Blog |
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