Visiting a music shop in London, I was pleased to see that you can still buy those little white plaster busts of the great composers – Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, etc – that I remember from my schooldays.
They may not be good likenesses but they symbolise the quasi-religious attitude some of us have towards those great men, that we want to honour them in the same way we would a saint or martyr by keeping a little memorial to hand.
Not that any of those composers would have claimed to be saints. But if not all of them were overtly religious like Bach, they had a sense of a divine order and an inherent goodness, a fact that makes a nonsense of the modern idea, fostered by Peter Shaffer in his play Amadeus, that you can be a creative genius like Mozart and at the same time be a foul-mouthed semi-lunatic.
For myself, I need no plaster bust to remind me of the great debt I owe to Bach and co, those men who have so enriched my life, not only on a day-to-day basis but especially at times of stress and turmoil.
If this was just a question of providing soothing sounds there would perhaps be nothing too much to celebrate. But there is more to it than that. Yehudi Menuhin wrote: “When you spend your life with Mozart and Beethoven, Bach and Schumann and Brahms, you are living with great minds.” Franz Schubert went further, writing about his reaction to hearing some music of Mozart’s (unspecified): “So do these lovely impressions, which neither time nor circumstance can efface, remain in the mind and influence for good our whole existence. In the dark places of life they point to that clear shining and distant future in which our whole hope lies.”
This is a high claim but one that Schubert is well qualified to make – that music is not just everlasting, but also a moral force with the power to influence our lives while at the same time giving us a glimpse of another world beyond this one.
If that is the case and Schubert is right, then we ought to be more concerned about the way in which our modern society has downgraded what is now referred to as “classical music” – to distinguish it from “music”, by which is meant the commercially marketed pop and rock, enjoyed by millions, much of it created by computers and lacking any memorable melody or harmony. “Classical music”, meanwhile, is not just sidelined as a minority taste but even disparaged by class warriors as something that provides pleasure only to a privileged elite.
That’s an attitude that helps to bolster those school heads who, when faced with the necessity to make cuts, instinctively turn first to music as something they can live without – not only a minority taste fostering snobbery and elitism, but one that has little or no bearing on the aim of modern education, which is to provide economic benefit to students and to the nation as a whole.
Thus, as I recently heard one government minister explain when commending the new GCSE grading system, the changes will help pupils “to compete in a global workplace”.
If that is to be the overall aim, then of what value is introducing the young to an art form that can influence for good their existence or give them a glimpse of a paradise to come?
There is not much there to assist Britain to survive in the economic uncertainty of our post-Brexit world.
Richard Ingrams is a former editor of Private Eye and The Oldie