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When Music Sounds

The Presidential Address given by Dame Gillian Weir at the Presentation of Diplomas on 17 February 1996, published in the June 1996 RCO Newsletter

May I offer you all the warmest of welcomes to this ceremony on behalf of the College, and our hearty congratulations to the new Associates and Fellows on reaching this milestone in their musical careers. You are joining a noble and glorious profession, one that has made a vital contribution to humanity through the ages. Today, with its sister arts, music stands in need of all the support we can give it.

For wherever two or three musicians are gathered together these days, heads will be shaken and doom and gloom will reign. The arts are in deep trouble, we all agree; what can we do to “win back our audiences”? All kinds of ideas are put forward: chatty introductions, marathons, themes – one orchestra played pieces about fire and had the fire brigade in attendance – organ transcriptions of orchestral works and orchestral transcriptions of organ works. Maybe this is a good moment to consider whether these methods are working.

Certainly some of them are. Events giving young people their first encounter with the organ, for example, are a big success, not least because music-loving children who feel like misfits find like-minded friends. Attempts to improve publicity, too – to advertise the presence of music, and to do so in an upbeat way – are always helpful. But I believe many of the other attempts are missing the mark; at best they are naïve and at worst they end up damaging the very thing they seek to defend. There is a move, for example, to mix popular music into orchestral concerts; to stop programming all those dead white European male composers and reach out to a new audience.

This seems to me counter-productive. Firstly, you lose the core audience who actually want to hear Haydn and Beethoven and the other dead white European males; they tend to give up and stay at home with their CD collection. Secondly, rock audiences don't go to concerts just for the music but for a completely different scene. Thirdly, pop music is ephemeral and geared to fashion and rebellion, which includes rebellion against its adoption by adults. Fourthly, the musicians are not likely to be much good at this sort of thing. In fact, the longer I think about it, the more surprised I am that audiences for serious music are as big as they are, and it's no surprise that symphony audiences consist in the main of rather older people. As one writer has pointed out, there is an obvious reason for this, notably, that the development and enrichment of one's personality are often put on hold until economic stability and career success have been achieved. But my own surprise comes from contemplating the nature of great music and comparing it with the influences that daily shape those we'd like to have in our audiences. Here are a few.

Firstly, music consists of SUBTLETIES – subtle changes of tempo, dynamic and phrasing. To derive pleasure from these you have to be able to perceive them, and that needs training in listening and the acquiring of sensitivity to nuance. But for most of the day, every day, we are subjected to a noise level so high that the only way we can deal with it is to develop a deliberate INsensitivity – the ability, as we say, to “shut it out”. This noise is both random – traffic, machinery, sirens, etc. – and planned: the all-pervasive “muzac”. It is simply not possible to shut all those out and then suddenly to switch on highly tuned and sophisticated listening abilities.

Secondly, music has FORM – the progression of a large-scale work is a journey, involving the discussion of ideas and the resolution of conflicts, which is what gives the listener his feelings of satisfaction and fulfilment. But our education systems no longer equip our students for this kind of thought. They are given streams of facts, their absorption of which is tested with multiple-choice answers which do not test understanding: they are not taught to discriminate, to think in abstract terms, to discern shades of meaning, to follow the twists and turns of an argument.

Thirdly, music has COLOUR – vivid flashes of colour emanating from contrasts in tone colours or from harmonies set in juxtaposition with one another or in fruitful opposition. But an ear without a store of memories acquired gradually over the years will hear only contusion or a boring monochrome. And think how many young people now wear largely black; they have retreated from the challenge of colour in their lives.

Allied to this is DECORATION in music, such as the graceful swirl of ornamentation in early music. But the architecture we live and work in and see every day, especially that of the past two or three decades, teaches us hard, straight lines. It is without decoration, grey, harsh and unyielding. One experience I treasure is of playing the harpsichord in a marble salon in Italy where I occasionally perform. As I shape the phrases of a Couperin suite, the visual equivalent can be seen in the curve of the arches of the room, and as I execute the ornaments, the exquisite decoration gives back a visual echo. Thus each art enhances the other and the enjoyment of the listener is immeasurably increased.

Then music has MELODY – which is basically the further inflection of speech. But how do we speak? Stand apart from a group of people – in a restaurant, an airport, a school corridor – and listen to the voices. Are we taught to modulate our voices, to curve the phrases, make the words tit, seduce the ear? Or are they strident, monotoned, the vocabulary stunted?

Above all, music has STYLE – that supremely elusive characteristic that in fact cannot be taught but only acquired through exposure and by a study ot history. It was good to see so many at the College's recent Study Day on the French Baroque; taking part ourselves in the dances that inspired much of the music taught us much more about the style than could be gathered from simply learning the dry formulae of the registration or tempi.

The fact is that music is indeed a language, just as we're told it is, but it is increasingly a foreign language, and for the most part we are not being taught to speak it. We have to be as politically active as we can to ensure our society studies the arts, rather than merely “being exposed” to them, steering our way by words such as those of Charles Ives: “The future of music may not lie entirely in music itself, but rather in the way it encourages and extends the aspirations and ideals of the people”. I am convinced this is the only way to develop committed listeners, and that trying to woo audiences by inviting them to sing along with a pop song succeeds only in being patronizing.

However, as players we do have one crucial responsibility, and that is to make our performances vibrant with creativity. Studious research should be our ally in this, but in its perverted form it has become our enemy. After years of lobbying for a return to historical principles in the performance of organ music and in organ design, I well remember the intoxicating joys of the unfolding Early Music movement. The springy rhythms of its dance origins returned to baroque music, mechanical actions came back to organs; thinned-out textures, singing original instruments and lively tempos revealed dazzling beauties in a huge body of music now free of the dust of ages. The movement surged forward on the crest of the Compact Disc wave; its perfect reproduction was the perfect medium for the crisp clarity of the performances. Then I watched incredulously as it all began to run off the rails. The reasons for restoring the bounce to the baroque – its associations with folk-music, its closeness to the earth – were forgotten, and the crusade pressed forward with an icy ruthlessness, pushing Mozart, for example, into speeds that shattered his aristocratic poise, music that was from quite a different ethos. What went wrong is too big a subject to embark on in these closing minutes; historians will chart it. But I want to mention the central problem: that this was a movement that was entirely based on written texts. Text-centred, and therefore literalistic, it totally ignored the unwritten performance tradition. This led to practices which far from being “authentic” would not have been recognizable to the composers. For example, as Richard Taruskin has pointed out, take the bare, unembellished performances of Mozart's piano concertos; or Roger Norrington's scrupulous adherence to Beethoven's metronome marks, which were “authentic” only for the first bar, since what Beethoven called “the tempo of feeling” would have been expected to take over, with its constant fluctuations.

The effect on the organ world has been devastating. Information that should have been useful has been adopted with a literalness that paradoxically distorts its meaning; and students forced into a straitjacket which far from increasing their expressivity leaves them nothing to express. Organbuilding, too, has had difficulty in seeing its way through the confusion of ideas. The greatest tragedy of the movement's loss of direction has been its crushing of creativity. As musicians, we should be creative interpreters in the same sense that Benjamin Britten and Kathleen Ferrier were interpreters, André Marchal and Anton Heiller were interpreters, Andras Schiff is an interpreter. Instead, we all too often play safe with sterile reproductions of repetitive practice sessions. The suppression of creativity would be sad even if there were any justification for it in historical fact, but there is none. Surely we are intelligent enough to engage in scholarship at a higher level than this, and to use all of our experience to inform our work. We need to abandon what I call “musicology by photocopier”, where a sheet of paper giving the latest guru's registration for some Buxtehude fugue is handed out to students past and present, and instead look for the context that gives meaning. Recently I was one of a group of teachers at a summer school where the young students were subjected to various influences including being given strict (and unsubstantiated) rules on pedalling. At the end of the week one of the teenagers, thrilled by the excitement of a new and stimulating experience, did the rounds to thank each one of us. Gathering up his courage to confide in me, he said touchingly, “You know, I knew NOTHING when I came here! I even used my heels!”.

This isn't teaching, this is brainwashing. It isn't musicology either; it's a fixation. There's more to music than this: music is the dance of God. The poet Walter de la Mare wrote, “When music sounds, gone is the earth I know; and all its lovely things even lovelier grow”. That's what music means, and what all of us, including and especially you who today celebrate your new status, are committed to defend and to extol.