Saturday 21 July 2012

Yet another case of the contempt with which English newspapers treat music...

It might seem unfair to be picking on The Guardian again, since it remains preferable to other English daily newspapers. (The competition is not strong.) However, a piece by Martin Kettle published on Thursday (click here) is so lamentable that I simply could not resist responding. The broader point advanced is actually reasonable: Classical music - in particular Mozart and, be it noted, Haydn, or for that matter Gluck - is not served well by the Proms, nor indeed by our symphony orchestras in general. The LSO under Sir Colin Davis, may his example be blessed, offers a rare exception. However, it is difficult to understand that this has anything to do with the Proms in particular, and even a fervent, maybe rabid, Mozartian such as I would have to admit that the Royal Albert Hall does not provide an ideal acoustic for hearing Mozart's symphonies. (The acoustic is a general problem; by far the best single step for the Proms would be to move to a more suitable venue.)

One of the first things that strikes one is the childish nature of the writing. Had I been given the piece blind, I might have been forgiven for thinking it the work of a not-very-gifted twelve-year-old. 'He's Mozart, for goodness sake, one of the greatest musical geniuses the world has ever known.' Which great musical geniuses has the world never known? Is that am historical, a metaphysical, or perhaps an extra-terrestrial question?

The following, should it be correct, reads as if a child were recounting the findings of his or her school project: 'There was no Mozart symphony performed in the whole of the 2011 season either. Nor any in 2009. Nor in 2007. Two years ago, 2010, there were two Mozart symphonies (Nos 35 and 40). In 2008 there was one (No 34).' I say, 'should it be correct,' since elsewhere, Kettle certainly does not have his facts right: a point The Guardian, with its mantra of 'comment is free, but facts are sacred' ought to bear in mind. Kettle writes, 'Symphony No 32 has not been performed at the Proms since 1985.' I must, then, have been imagining a performance I could have sworn I heard in 2004, from Ilan Volkov and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. Since the writer claims to have garnered his performance data from the Proms website, either it must be a work of fantasy or at least languish in an unhelpful, defective state, in which case Kettle's findings will be worthless, or he is unable to read the information provided, in which case... As it turned out, I found mention of the Volkov performance (11 August) as soon as I visited the site.

As for the entirely unsupported claim, 'I cannot see how the scarcity of Mozart symphonies at the Proms can be the result of anything but a conscious decision,' it seems so strange that I had to read it several times to check that I had not missed a word or two. Are we seriously supposed to believe - and I, like just about everyone else, have problems with Proms scheduling too - that those responsible for planning the Proms harbour a secret grudge against Mozart? That would certainly be newsworthy, but what might lie behind it? Any thoughts, Mr Kettle? None whatsoever, it would seem.

The claim that 'Mozart's orchestral music ... was part of the fundamental musical education of the public for most of the 19th and 20th centuries,' is simply bizarre. True, Mozart's later symphonies were more popular than Haydn's during the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth, but most of Mozart's orchestral music went largely or literally unheard during the greater part of that period. Moreover, Kettle seems quite incapable of distinguishing between Mozart's symphonies and his orchestral music, switching between the two as if they were interchangeable. For better or worse, many of Mozart's symphonies are less central to the repertory than his concertos. What about his divertimenti, his marches and dances, his other orchestral works?  I should be the first to argue that we should hear more, far more, of them, but I might at least realise that a raw deal for the symphonies, even the later masterpieces, does not in itself necessarily amount to 'marginalisation of Mozart's orchestral music'. A cause, just or unjust, is not helped in the slightest by misleading or ignorant presentation.

Perhaps the fundamental question, however, is why The Guardian as Martin Kettle writing about music at all. His reviews frequently betray his ignorance of the most basic musical matters. Whatever Kettle's more general journalistic strengths and weaknesses might be, his qualifications for writing about music remain, if we are charitable, uncertain. A newspaper would be unlikely to treat politics, football, economics, fashion, etc., in so cavalier a fashion; apparently music is of such marginal importance that anyone, or rather any journalist, is fitted to opine. Not for the first time, then, one realises how grateful we should be for the Internet and for the host of independent voices it has enabled to be heard. Without the confines of decaying 'media organisations', those writing may be judged upon what they write and its foundations, though undue weight is still ascribed by some to those stationed within what On an Overgrown Path memorably terms the 'commercial-intermediary complex'.

At any rate, with friends like that, Mozart stands in no need of enemies.