Why is music silenced in the arts debate?

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Helen Wallace asks why classical music remains on the back foot in arts coverage

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I’ll never forget that particular episode of a popular arts review show. A member of the critics panel had chosen Rossini’s William Tell Overture as their object of desire. The conversation went as follows: ‘Wow! It’s great, isn’t it?’ ‘Yeah. Saw that on a film once.’ ‘It’s got – such – momentum!’ ‘Yeah, it’s… unstoppable!’ ‘Yeah’. Ends.

Rossini’s burst of ebullience had stumped the lot of them. There was no one there with an ability to give a dramatic context, a historical or political perspective or to unpick how the composer achieved his masterly feat.

No wonder art music is such a rare subject on the general arts review programme, be it on radio or television, BBC, Channel 4 or Sky. There’s never a talking head who can talk about it. At the end of March, BBC Four’s Review Show bit the dust (the final incarnation of the Late Review/Newsnight Review) just as Director General Tony Hall announced a big new commitment to the arts. One can only hope that a new format review show emerges from the ashes which breaks the mould.

Scanning through a list of subjects discussed on arts programmes in 2014 so far I can see books, magicians, films, TV series, plays, theatre productions, art and museum exhibitions, poetry, comedy shows, a Bruce Springsteen album... In one show’s People of the Year 2013 Marin Alsop is the single representative of classical music. No composer makes the cut. Looking at the commentators, there are columnists, critics, authors, academics, broadcasters and playwrights, but no one with a background in music. Even the Financial Times’ PR columnist Mrs Moneypenny is apparently a better bet to join the hallowed ranks of arts commentators than anyone known for their musical opinions.

Germaine Greer on BBC Two’s Late Review in the late 1990s proved you could argue about Wagner, Hollywood and Eastenders in the same breath, but when she went back to Australia, no one filled her place. No one needed to: music had slipped off the agenda. However bizarre or obscure the art of the Turner Prize nominees, it must be discussed; but 25 years of spectacular new British operas have passed without general comment: Turnage’s Greek, Adès The Tempest, Birtwistle’s The Minotaur, Benjamin’s Written on Skin, to name but four of the greatest.

One would have thought that Alex Ross’s The Rest Is Noise might have changed this. Here was a highly accessible survey which gave recent music history a socio-political context for the lay reader. The festival it spawned at the South Bank had record attendance. Ross brilliantly showed that Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, Ligeti’s Requiem, Stockhausen’s Gruppen, and Reich’s Drumming had just as much to tell us about Western culture in the 20th century as did Picasso’s Guernica, Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, the poetry of Pablo Neruda or the buildings of Le Corbusier.

But there’s a persistent perception that anyone with an interest in music exists in a hermetically-sealed world. Despite the best efforts of Matthew Barley (Classical Star), Howard Goodall (The Story of Music, Big Bangs) Charles Hazlewood (with too many to name) and a host of fascinating recent music programmes, such as David Starkey’s Music and Monarchy, when it comes to general arts reporting, there’s a suspicion that the dandruff-dusted, be-sandalled music commentator will be desperately out of touch. In fact, the majority of music critics I know have backgrounds in literature, languages, philosophy and politics. They read novels (yes, imagine that), see films, go to the theatre and even – horror of horrors – watch TV.

So let’s hope the producers and commissioners are actually watching Suzy Klein’s new series Majesty, music and mischief, part of the BBC’s 18th Century Britain season. It might remind them that music both reflects and impacts on society just as powerfully as any of the arts - and that there are people out there who can explain how.