Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Beethoven Who?

Beethoven who?The Back HalfPiers Hellawell and Andrew MissinghamMonday 31st October 2005
The Battle of Ideas is a series of debates presented by the Institute of Ideas. One of the fiercest fights will be on the issue of cultural education. Opposing speakers Piers Hellawell and Andrew Missingham give the NS an exclusive previewEvery child should learn about classical musicDo you want your children empowered to engage with the most enduring works of music? Are you bothered if that life-giving resource is being progressively discarded without consultation? When I was a student, there was a story, probably apocryphal, that Dudley Moore raised eyebrows when he went to Oxford as an organ student not knowing how many symphonies Beethoven wrote. Now it is unusual to find a new undergraduate who does know. It is, nonetheless, experience of art that is the issue - not cataloguing symphonies but acquiring the means to draw upon music as a listener.Someone who is handed the tools with which to tackle music and learns to love a single piece can then discover many others. It is a shameful reflection on our priorities for the education of our children that these tools are often denied them.What does social reform and democracy mean, if great art is withheld from the populace? The ancien regime that confined the artistic canon to a prosperous few has no place in our culture. Nothing could be more patronising than to decide for our young people that some art is "too highbrow" for them, perhaps because of their ethnic background or an unpromising urban environment. Yet that is exactly the thinking behind recent drives to orientate the GCSE syllabus towards music to which children can "relate".The idea that the western artistic canon is not "relevant" in today's multicultural classroom need only be reversed to be exposed as ridiculous. Imagine decreeing that a class of white teenagers cannot relate to West African drumming. My daughter's school plays host this week to just such a workshop run by an English master drummer, and the kids can talk of nothing else. Without teaching, the drumming may seem complex or monotonous, but having been taught the basics, the art form opens out and they can take ownership. Now, reverse the cultures, bring in a string quartet from the outstanding Live Music Now! (Yehudi Menuhin's charity which takes young musicians to prisons, hospitals and schools) and introduce string quartets to a class from a non-western background. Then let them try Barber's Adagio and tell them it's not "relevant".Consider how sport makes the same mockery of such prejudices: anyone suggesting that cricket is too protracted and complex for our youngsters would sound ludicrous.A glance at curricular materials shows there is plenty of useful study of the classical canon on offer but because the totem of the moment is "participation", valuable historical knowledge is being dislocated from the works. The syllabus is a veritable Blue Peter of good things to do and make, yet this stress on practice needs balancing by a historical overview and by experience of the music. Guided listening is mistakenly thought to be passive, with a dollop of unfashionable imperialism about it. Teacher has to decree that Corelli or Copland is worth hearing. Meanwhile, as for the practicalities of reading music, the syllabus setters are clearly petrified that 15 year olds will stampede from the music room at the first glimpse of a crotchet.Most of us animated by music owe our lifeblood to an individual who threw us Stravinsky's Le Sacre or Zappa's Hot Rats and said "you need this". Yet a teacher I know was warned by an educational adviser to steer clear of discussing actual music lest she "scare the kids with composers". I related this breathtaking story to another music adviser, and had to clutch for the table when she, in turn, outlined the official line to me as "trying to hold their interest at GCSE so you can teach them something at A-level".What a culture of despair. Introducing thrilling and complex works from the canon isn't snobbery. It is empowerment. I bless the teacher who played us a recording of the Pathetique Symphony before taking us to hear Barbirolli conduct it. The idea that children are hostile to exploring things outside their ken is an adult one, born of the craven - or commercial - desire to ingratiate oneself. Young people - up for new stuff, remember? - don't expect their tunes to dominate the syllabus; frankly, it ceases to be "their" music once embarrassing adults wrap a syllabus around it. This is vicars strumming guitars all over again.A Eurocentric canon of "classical" culture in classrooms of old inhibited our musical thought about much other music in our world. Yet so does today's reversed trend, which marginalises great art. Schumann's song-cycles of young love and despair should be there for every teenager, along with those of Kurt Cobain, for art belongs to everybody.Piers Hellawell is composer and professor of composition at the Queen's University, Belfast

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