All is but toys

We live in godless times. I don’t mean the mess the BBC made of the sublime Blandings stories, although I am sure that this too can be put into the balance with all the other evidence. No – I mean our refusal to concede that life is, at heart, a rather serious matter, and that gravitas, or even reverence, is not necessarily indicative either of pomposity or of pretentiousness. And even if it were, even the pompous and the pretentious may be right: failings of character are not, after all, refutations of points of view.

On my Facebook page recently, I have had posted two items from Decca, the once respected classical label that boasts in its back catalogue, amongst other riches, recordings of Benjamin Britten performing his own works, and the first studio recording of Wagner’s Ring Cycle. But the album they were advertising on my Facebook page was called “Sleep”. “Want to get a great night’s sleep?” the posting asked. “Here are some great classical tracks to help you unwind, relax, and prepare for bedtime…” Well, one gets used to the constant trivialisation of that which is precious; one even learns not to mind too much: it’s only Facebook, after all. Facebook is a good way of keeping in touch with people one might otherwise lose touch with, but it’s foolish taking it too seriously. So I let it go. But today, those awfully nice marketing people at Decca were back with this: “Are you finding the frantic pace of modern life getting you down? Take a break with 101 of the greatest pieces of music ever written.” And in between these two, another unsolicited post on Facebook informed me “’Liking’ Mozart on Facebook makes you clever”. Well, I never! And the music of Mozart should, apparently, be played to babies: people actually take the music of this stature, and, instead of listening to it, play it to their babies because some idiot somewhere reckons it will make the babies more intelligent? What is the matter with people?

Yes, yes, I know, it’s all commerce, it all advertising-speak. Mustn’t take it seriously, and all that. But advertisers would not promote this sort of piss-a-bed gibberish were there not a large section of the public prepared to respond to it. And no matter how hard I try not to take this seriously, it is hard not to be irked when centuries of so profound and so enriching a musical tradition are reduced merely to sounds to fall asleep to. Must everything be reduced thus? Can we not accept an essential seriousness in anything?

The Hell where nothing really matters very much: it is a sort of Hell that even Dante had not envisaged in his survey of the various types of damnation that humans engineer for themselves. Shakespeare, though, knew of this Hell: this is the Hell into which Macbeth damns himself.

After the murder of Duncan, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth go their own separate ways to their damnation. Lady Macbeth soon realises that:

‘Tis safer to be that which we destroy
Than by destruction dwell in doubtful joy.

Not that she dwells in any kind of joy, doubtful or otherwise. She is crushed by a burden of guilt so terrible, that her mind soon buckles under the strain. Even sleep brings no respite, as she re-lives, over and over and over again, that fatal night when she lost her soul for ever.

But Macbeth’s route to damnation is different. Shortly after the murder, he realises that the only way he can live with the knowledge of what he has done is to convince himself that it doesn’t matter. And if even this doesn’t matter, then nothing matters:

Had I but died an hour before this chance,
I had lived a blessed time; for, from this instant,
There ‘s nothing serious in mortality:
All is but toys

But a life in which all is but toys, in which nothing matters because there is nothing serious in mortality, is also a Hell. And in this Hell, Macbeth might as well carry on – because it makes not a blind bit of difference what he does:

I am in blood
Stepp’d in so far that, should I wade no more,
Returning were as tedious as go o’er

Whether he kills more or whether he kills no more, it’s all the same, it’s all equally tedious. Life itself is merely “a tale told by an idiot”: it’s all mere sound and fury, and it signifies nothing. Trying to avoid the Hell of Guilt to which his wife is damned, Macbeth backs instead into a rather different but equally potent Hell – the Hell of Tedium.

Of course, one cannot miss what one does not acknowledge. But there is a part of Macbeth’s soul that does acknowledge, that does understand what it is that he has lost: he has lost all sense of seriousness. All that matters most, all that is most serious, “honour, love, obedience, troops of friends,” he cannot hope to have. And that is his tragedy. Not his death, but the meaningless, trivial rigmarole his life has become.

Well, at least Macbeth had his reasons for forcing himself to believe that all is but toys. But what possible reason can the rest of us have, I wonder? What excuse can we have for reducing the music of Mozart or of Debussy to the level of aural valium? How can we justify the insistence that even Tolstoy’s War and Peace is but a soap opera? The Hell of Triviality is, rather paradoxically, as serious a form of damnation as any other.

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12 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Maureen on March 17, 2013 at 8:57 pm

    Marketers realize that ’tis safer to mediocritize than to expect the masses to go to the gawdawful trouble of paying attention to the serious. Still, someone who has not been introduced to the classics may discover something worth paying attention to on the way to dreamland. Bugs Bunny introduced me to Rossini, after all.

    Reply

    • You mean The Rabbit of Seville? It really is a work of genius, isn’t it?

      I guess you know also the bugs Bunny-Elmer Fudd Wagner pastiche, “What’s Opera Doc?” Chuck Jones was a comic genius, and loved opera; but on both these opera cartoons, Mel Blanc was, for me, the star of the show!

      Reply

  2. Great post Himadri. I also like your connection with Macbeth.

    However I am torn on torn issue. I too am appalled by the trivialization of great art and also historical events and trends.

    Yet I cannot help to think that this type of marketing and consumption will inevitably open some minds to classical music and other forms of art. Some of the people who consume products like these are sure to like what they hear and inevitably dig deeper. admittedly such results will be few and far between.

    Of course if society valued brilliant art as it should all that would not be necessary.

    Reply

    • Hello Brian, I wish I could be as optimistic as you. Of course, there are many paths into classical music (I do dislike the term, as it implies there is a single genre of music called “classical”, but it’s a convenient term to use). As Maureen says above, the Looney Tunes cartoon “The Rabbit of Seville” was instrumental in introducing her to this music. But “The Rabbit of Seville” is a witty and affectionate pastiche: what we are getting now, loud and clear, is the message “You don’t need to take any of this seriously – just sit back and relax … and doze off to it if you feel like it!” I can’t see how this will encourage anyone to make an effort on music that is difficult. Quite the contrary, it will make it more difficult. We seem to have embraced diversion and distraction as the sole purpose of music .. and of literature, and of drama, and of art, and of cinema … And we never seem to ask ourselves what it is intended to divert or distract us from.

      But as I say, I do hope you’re right. I do know that I tend to get overly pessimistic on these matters: it’s quite an effort to prevent this blog from descending merely into a series of philippics! I think I’ll make a point of making my next post a cheerful one! 🙂

      Reply

  3. I’m with you, Old Git. As a classical musician I’ve learned not to even discuss my passion and profession with others. I’m tired of performing my heart out on, say Hindemith’s Flute sonata to be told by a friend, “that was interesting” in a tone that implies that it was really just gibberish to their ears.
    I think too many things have been reduced to an entertainment level and people have become intellectually lazy. Which is a shame because the more one cultivates good listening, reading etc… the more one is empowered to truly enjoy what life has to offer.

    Reply

    • Hello Sharon, I had not realised you were a musician. I am sorry to say that the only piece by Hindemith I am acquainted with is the Mathis der Maler Symphony, but I will try to get to hear the flute sonata you mention. (I am myself lacking in any musical talent,a nd have not received a musical education; our boy, however, is currently studying the trombone at the Trinity Laban College.)

      I am afraid a great many things are seen purely as “entertainment”. In one sense, I guess it is: those who listen to, say, Bartok string quartets or to Schoenberg’s piano pieces do so because they like doing it, so, in a sense, it must entertain them. However, if we are to define entertainment on these terms, the word means too many things to be critically useful. We must surely allow for some music to be intellectually demanding. And if the message is spread so insistently in the mainstream that music is all “entertainment” – i.e. that an intellectual effort need not be made – then there is no reason why anyone should make the effort to take in something demanding such as Hindemith’s flute sonata. Even those who are capable of doing so.

      When i speak of my own musical tastes, people often say to me things such as “I don’t get modern classical music”. And I wonder whether they are boasting about it or apologising for it. Inevitably, they are boasting about it; and implying, furthermore, that I am a bit odd for listening to the likes of Ligeti or Carter. Or they say something like “Yes, classical music is very relaxing, isn’t it?” At which point I change the subject.

      I am afraid that as long as music is seen as essentially a diversion rather than something to be focussed on seriously, the future of music that requires concentration (and I am not referring onlhy to the Western classical tradition) does seem pretty bleak.

      Reply

  4. Posted by severalfourmany on March 18, 2013 at 3:42 am

    I have no illusions that selling art as trivia will help to introduce people to art. It is really just reinforcing stereotypes and bad listening habits, making it all the harder for people to understand and appreciate what makes it art.

    The real benefit is that selling a hundred thousand copies of Lullabies for Lovers will make enough money to defray the cost of a quality recording of Valentina Lisitsa playing Ives or Nicola Benedetti playing Szymanowski.

    “Confusion now hath made his masterpiece.”

    Reply

    • I agree with you fully. If music is widely perceived to be essentially a diversion, then why should we expect anyone to make the effort that difficult music requires? And it’s the same story everywhere. In India, say, the audience for the classical Indian traditions of music – the Hindustani and the Carnatic ragas – is diminishing alarmingly: Bollywood kitsch is sidelining everything else.

      One can only hope that in future generations there may still be an audience for Ives or for Szymanowski! We live in times when any music that requires effort is inevitably labelled “stuffy” and “elitist”. (Now, that’s going to attract new audiences to difficult music, isn’t it? I wrote a post some time ago explaining how I became so “stuffy” and “elitist”!

      Reply

      • Posted by severalfourmany on March 19, 2013 at 2:07 am

        Several years ago I went to a concert that included several short works by Stefan Wolpe. I was very excited to hear these pieces and went to the pre-concert lecture to see if I could get additional insight. Our expert, in his lecture, basically apologized for the works as they lacked tunes, didn’t follow the traditional rules of harmony and had some rather complex and difficult rhythms but perhaps if you listen with an open mind you might find to be not so terrible. Well, if anyone in the audience had come to the concert with an open mind, he pretty much closed it for them!
        BTW, did you get to see Francesca da Rimini last weekend? Rather unusual interpretation of a disappearing classic.

      • I missed Francesca da Rimini: we had a bit of a busy weekend, as our local music club (I am one of the organisers) held a concert this last Saturday featuring a recital by Lara Melda, winner of the BBC Young Musician Competition 3 years ago. It was extraordinary playing from a mere 19 year old, and she is certainly a name to look out for. It was a terrific concert, but it did mean a rather busy weekend!

        On the matter of apologising for difficult music – if only that were the west of it! Recently, the BBC broadcast two series of programmes on music, purporting to be educational; and in both of them, when it came to the 2nd Viennese School, they effectively told its audience not to bother. You can see here for more details.

  5. Posted by alan on March 24, 2013 at 12:08 am

    Here’s a fantasy that is plausible to me:
    I sometimes wonder if you are harking back to a golden age where people took ‘classical’ music seriously that in fact only existed briefly.
    Maybe there was a brief flowering of popular interest after the invention of the gramaphone, but before that I suspect that most people had little or no access to it.
    Before then I suspect that most people made their own music and that gave them enough appreciation of the difficulties of musical creativity to briefly allow them to appreciate the recorded music that they heard for the first time.
    Possibly what has happened is that after that moment, people stopped making their own music, and have progressively become passive consumers with little musical understanding.
    Also, we are now at the stage where via the internet we have access to the most terrifyingly talented performances that possibly intimidate most people into never attempting anything.
    To get a musical education of the kind that you admire, you have to start young and have wealthy and pushy parents who can afford the lessons and enforce the discipline.

    “A mere 19 year old”. Be careful with all that mering, it could bite you.

    Reply

    • How teh invention of teh gramophone, and, subsequently, the easy availability of affordable recorded music, have changed our listening is an interesting subject, and I don’t know that I am sufficiently knowledgeable on the matter to write about it. I was really focussing on the changing trends that I have perceived within my own lifetime. And the treatmentof classical music I was using only as an example of the general trivialisation. There are others. I remember, for instance, when BBC last serialised War and Peace for television, back in tehearly 70s: the production values wer eprimitive by modern standards, but the script (by Jack Pulman) was a work of art in itself. And no-one felt the need to tell us that it is really just “soap opera”. They didn’t feel the need to tell us this because it wasn’t true: it wasn’t true then, any more than it is true now.

      It does seem to me thatthere is greater reluctance nowadays to take anything seriously, and that, as a consequence, both the quality of the arts and the quality of discourse on the arts have deteriorated significantly.

      Reply

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