the loss of faith made music mute

It is a mystery to many people why so few contemporary classical composers seem capable of writing “a good tune”. Surely, given the number of students who pursue composition in our universities and conservatoires, and the hugely increased access which technologies such as music-notation software give to prospective composers, we should expect to find at least one or two capable of making a popular impact? Why is it that, with more people than ever engaged in the activity of composing, our culture still seems incapable of fostering a contemporary Verdi or Stravinsky, with the celebrity and popular recognition that such great figures once garnered?

It is certainly true, as Simon Heffer has amusingly put it in Standpoint (“A Raspberry for Emetic Music”, November 2014), that the musical establishment is “in hock to the crap merchants” and in thrall to the state, creating a tyrannical orthodoxy of ugliness, admission to which can only be gained by imitating the style of “orchestrated raspberries” currently in vogue. However, the underlying cause—though closely related to the over-reaching influence of the modern state—ultimately goes far deeper than this. To understand the deficit of successful contemporary classical music, what we need to uncover are the feelings which motivated the artistic instincts of the great composers of the past, but which are now absent in the minds of modern composers, thus accounting for their “emetic” output.

In the year 1900, the following composers were alive, and the majority of them active: Saint-Saëns, Debussy, Ravel, Stravinsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Rachmaninoff, Prokofiev, Bartók, Elgar, Vaughan Williams, Holst, Mahler, Strauss, Sibelius, Grieg, Puccini, Dvořák and Janáček. This list of exalted and well-known figures is far from exhaustive, and should give us pause. We cannot possibly pretend that the world today can boast a similar number or calibre of composers; indeed, any one of these figures is of far more interest to most of us than any of today’s most famous composers. Moreover, if one expands this categorisation to include any composer active between the years 1850 and 1950, one possesses pretty much a complete list of the works in the standard orchestral repertoire (save the old German masters), and hence those pieces which one would find overwhelmingly on offer in any events guide produced by today’s professional orchestras.

On closer inspection, it is not hard to see the idée fixe that unites this vast array of varied talent: nationalism. To varying degrees of explicitness, whether through the deliberate inclusion of folk elements, or simply a general over-arching style suggestive of national sentiment, all of these figures would quite happily have thought of themselves, not just as composers, but as French, Russian, Hungarian, English, German, Finnish, Norwegian, Italian or Czech composers. It is in fact a statement of the obvious to point out that the feelings that underpin a good deal of what these composers set out to accomplish was driven by a passion for the language, history, customs, traditions, institutions and, perhaps most prominently, the countryside of their native lands.

This surge of nationalist output, produced during the long 19th century, was an obvious accompaniment to the growth …

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