The Making of Music (Part 5)

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James Naughtie rejoices that classical music is still being discovered by new audiences
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I emerged from 1,000 years of music tired but exhilarated. Burrowing around in its history, I was reminded how ludicrous it is to suggest that the classical traditional is petering out. Someone who doesn’t like Birtwistle, say, or John Adams will listen for a moment and cry ‘It’s over’, with the kind of scream that Brian Sewell lets loose when he confronts vulgarity on canvas, as he does frequently.

Why should we believe that in our time, uniquely, the urge that has shaped music in Europe for centuries will dry up; or that original musicians, with a compulsion to write, will stop being born? It doesn’t make sense: Adams is one of the best-selling classical musicians of our time in the world; Birtwistle is in danger of becoming a national institution; and Peter Maxwell Davies, once shocking, is now Master of the Queen’s Music.

For everyone who has a hang-up about the shadow of Schoenberg or post-war modernists, there are listeners for the best of contemporary music, most of them young. The effect of the growing-up of rock in the 1970s was to produce a generation with sensitive ears. They like experiment, and they like bravery. And the links across the tradition are secure.

When Steve Reich explored minimalism in the ’70s he went back to Pérotin, the greatest of the 12th century Notre Dame composers. The night Georg Solti died a producer on the Today programme asked how we should sum him up. I said that he was taught to play the piano by Bartók, taught to conduct by Toscanini and conducted the music at Richard Strauss’s funeral. From there it’s a short step to Wagner and Beethoven.

Moreover, the discoveries go on. I’m reminded, having written 60 programmes and a book, how past riches are always being revealed to new audiences (as you read this someone will be hearing a Bach cantata for the first time) and history tells us that the urge to write, to strive for originality, has shaped our culture. It won’t stop now, because it can’t.

The Making of Music was broadcast on Radio 4 and is now available as a BBC Audiobook

Audio clip: The Making of Music – Where We Are Now

Related links:
The Making of Music (Part 1)
The Making of Music (Part 2)
The Making of Music (Part 3)
The Making of Music (Part 4)