Vaughan Williams on the Classical/Popular Divide

Vaughan Williams is the one of the most fun and insightful composers to read. His prose is plain and clear, and he never seems to hold back his many opinions. A frequent theme in his essay writing is the now-unfashionable subject of ‘national music’, and specifically English music. Here’s an extract:

And the reason why ‘English Music’ is nowadays considered negligible by so many writers is that we have separated our music from our nationality. ‘Classical’ music is considered to be a foreign luxury imported from abroad with our champagne and our cigars for those who have the money to afford it and the taste to appreciate it. We must break down the distinction between ‘classical’ and ‘popular’—all music should be classical and all music should be popular.

Related to this, he remarks that

If music is the exclusive privilege of a wealthy class who can pay to have it composed and performed, then there will be a period of insipid and gorgeously mounted operas, difficult concertos, and a general show-off for the virtuoso. But when music is a national possession, when people want music for their churches, for their homes, when they want to produce their own art and not to pay others to make it for them, then is the age (as it was in Tudor times) of the anthem, the madrigal, music for choral singing on a small scale, music for the lute or the virginals.

Popular music to VW was clearly the opposite of what it is today. He saw popular music as synonymous with the people of a nation. But if anything, modern popular music seeks to undermine national character. And yes, ‘classical music’ is an annoying term to which there is really no better alternative — ‘serious music’ is possibly even worse.

Oh, if only classical music had kept its foothold in the home! Music isn’t quite the exclusive privilege of a wealthy class, but the twentieth century did bring composers who greatly disdained their audiences, and the taste for spectacular complexity and challenging music lives on. We do live in an age of ‘insipid and gorgeously mounted operas, difficult concertos, and a general show-off for the virtuoso’. Almost none of the public play classical music in their homes, and if they do, it will almost certainly not be contemporary.

There have been some modern composers who have done a very good job at reversing this trend. Peter Maxwell Davies spent a lot of time going to schools, composing for children (see his Two Fiddlers opera he wrote for a local grammar school, or his amusing Home-time at last) and encouraging other composers to do the same. He set up a festival in his adopted home of Orkney, the St Magnus Festival, and wrote music, some of it ‘popular’ in the VW sense, intimately wedded to the character of the island. Though still mostly a ‘serious’ and ‘modern’ composer and all that, and many of his concertos and symphonies are brilliant, he came much closer to VW’s desire that ‘all music should be classical and all music should be popular’ than most. This seemed to come with professional strains too. The Guardian back in 2004 on the rift between Birtwhistle and Maxwell Davies: ‘Sir Harrison says that Sir Peter’s habit of writing rather flashy, audience-pleasing pieces made him feel uncomfortable and competitive, and that his own compositions suffered as a result.’

Probably Maxwell Davies’ most performed orchestral piece, An Orkney Wedding with Sunrise, with a one-minute opening conversation between the composer himself and Tom Service: