It may have escaped your attention (if, for instance, you have just returned from an extended hibernation in a disused Siberian mine), but the Olympics are coming to Tokyo this summer. I always think it’s a bit sad that participation in the Games is confined to sporty types.
Suppose there was an Olympics for classical music. Which countries would top the medals table? And before you answer, remember that the Olympic authorities tend to disqualify competitors who are dead. Which means that a country such as Austria wouldn’t be able to call on the likes of Haydn, Mozart, Schubert, Bruckner and Mahler. No, this is a fantasy competition to judge present-day musical prowess, not illustrious traditions.
Who would be at the top?
One of the bookies’ favourites would surely have to be South Korea. I once covered the Tchaikovsky Competition in Russia, and was startled to find Koreans sweeping the board in the vocal categories (even though singing in Russian was mandatory), and the violin section as well. A dazzling young Korean should have won the piano competition too, in my view. But the Moscow public is so terrifyingly partisan that the judges might have been lynched if they hadn’t given first prize to her Russian rival.
Let’s not have any of that old racist nonsense about the Koreans being ‘technically good but lacking in feeling’, because this new generation has it all: technique, style and passion. How do they do it? The iron discipline nurtured by their parents and teachers undeniably plays a part. Western children, by comparison, have it far too easy. Korean singers also seem to have a physical capacity to sustain high-register passages with much less strain than their Western counterparts. Then there’s the Korean language, in which pitch determines meaning. Little wonder that a highly acute sense of intonation is far more prevalent among Korean children than in the West.
Russia, of course, still produces wonderful singers. The Mariinsky must be the world’s foremost finishing school for voices. And Russian conductors continue to run much of the musical world: think of Gergiev, Jurowski, Bychkov and Petrenko. But instrumentalists?
Since the end of the Soviet Union so many top Russian teachers have been lured to Western conservatoires, I’m not sure how rigorously young Russian players are schooled now. Many of the ones I hear are incredibly flashy but don’t have a clue how to play Mozart. Of course, they said the same thing about Horowitz – but he was one in a billion. Fifty years ago Russia would have picked up handfuls of golds at our fantasy musical Olympics. Today, far fewer.
And in the future? You don’t have to be Mystic Meg to predict that the new classical music giant in the east is China. Sheer numbers will tell. If a country has 40 million children learning the piano, and similar armies starting the violin, then statistical logic suggests that hundreds of top-class Chinese performers will soon dominate the world’s concert halls. The question that cannot yet be answered is whether they will be as quick to soak up the nuances of Western musical history and style as they have been to master instrumental techniques.
What about the rest of the podium?
For now, at least, the US would probably be near the top of the musical medals table, by virtue of its excellent, superbly resourced conservatories. And the US would score highly, too (as would the UK), in a field we haven’t yet mentioned: composers. When serious European composers were still largely in thrall to Boulez, it was the Americans and to a lesser extent the British who cast off dead-end serialism and tried to reconnect with the public. Gold medals all round for that!
Yet there’s something a bit moribund about the US classical-music scene right now, with orchestras in so many cities struggling to rejuvenate their audiences. If we were to give gold medals to the countries doing most to infuse youngsters with a love of classical music, then surely Venezuela and Finland would be vying for top position. Hugely different countries and national temperaments, yet with one vital philosophy in common: a belief that the intensive teaching of music throughout childhood will yield spectacular social and educational results, as well as producing a stream of world-class performers.
What about Europe in the medal stakes?
So where does all this leave ‘old Europe’ in our musical medals table? To deny that Western Europe still produces top-class music making and musicians would be ridiculous. But across the continent the vast subsidies that keep orchestras and opera houses afloat are under threat as whole nations stare at bankruptcy. Besides which, if we don’t invest in music education, fewer and fewer Europeans will know or care about classical music. Then the entire support framework for our orchestras and opera houses will eventually collapse.
There are ominous signs of decline even now. At that Tchaikovsky Competition I attended, there wasn’t a single British entrant, and hardly any from France or Germany. Are we already falling so far behind that we don’t want to compete?
Richard Morrison is chief music critic and columnist of The Times
Love watching the Games and singing to the national anthems? You can find many of the national anthem lyrics here