Richard Gill and Mrs Carey – Preserving “Classical” Music in Aspic

People may know me as a cage rattler on topics like politics, boganity and all that’s in-between. But, close to my heart is classical music. When I was a younger, more sheltered petal brought up in a classical-only household, I thought the world was mad for preferring pop music to classical. I’d emerge from a world of Schubert, Wolf, Mozart and Beethoven to face Wham, A Ha and ACDC, wondering why people were just plain silly and childish.  Yes, I really was like that – because my mother was. To her, there was only the classics and people needed to be trained to appreciate it. To be otherwise showed a lack of class.

I see a similar attitude expressed by the Artistic Director of the Sydney Symphony’s Education Program and regular guest on Spicks and Specks – and now Q and A. That classical music must be properly taught by proper teachers. Proper. As if teachers in a modern music classroom are doing Improper Teaching.  It’s an attitude Gill also expressed in a recent TED talk, comprehensively analysed and assessed by another, less well known music educator, Elissa Milne.  In it, he presents the view I had as a 20 year old obsessively reading Gramophone magazines and attending SSO concerts featuring few, if any young people in the audience. That classical music is the greatest and needs to be taught for its own sake. It’s an attitude similarly expressed by English teachers who think students should be dragged kicking and screaming to love Shakespeare, Bronte, Austen and Dickens. Art for its own sake.

As any teacher out there in the field will tell you, this is an unrealistic and unachievable goal. In a classroom, a teacher can keep control and shape a lesson to have students pay attention to things like music and why people appreciate it. You can even have a whole bunch of them sing in unison if you ask them nicely. However, when they leave your classroom or hall, it’s their choice what they do with it. And telling them didactically that This Is Important Stuff will fall away from their minds as soon as they leave the room.

What Gill is essentially promoting is a view of “Classical” music that wants society to preserve in aspic. Aspiconservatives. That it is stuff from the past that Enriches us and Must Be Studied. It is a similar view that is promoted in the Advertising Showreel for MLC Sydney’s Music Department, Mrs. Carey’s Concert. That was a film that screamed “must see” for “anyone who loves classical music”. It has almost become sacrilege to criticise it amongst the loyal fans. What I saw, though, was all that’s wrong with the way classical music is represented in Australia. As an elitist activity for the rich, or, something to be Endured. Not every school in Australia can afford the Sydney Opera House for a concert – not even every elite private school.  While the music was very well performed, it just showed what a focus towards a hyped and pressurised event can do. It also showed how much the school would do to make itself look good to the community, by pressuring disengaged students to sing Verdi in a massed choir.

I loathed the intent of the film and what it was doing for classical music. It was saying that classical music education is different from every other sort of teaching and is somehow more “special” – instead being an integral part of a wider education. We didn’t see how the preparation for the concert had an impact on everything else students did in MLC – that wasn’t seen as important. What was important, though, was the PR value.

The Gill / Mrs Carey “exceptionalist” view of music education also distorts what “classical music” actually is. It was music that was popular in its day. Verdi’s operas are basically a bunch of show tunes knitted together by a terrible story and lots of showy orchestral tricks. A few steps higher than Lloyd Webber in the sophistication of construction, for sure – but only a few. To do it in Italian is absurd in Australia, because it takes it out of its original context and makes it into music in a aspic. Making modern students perform bits from his works without them knowing its meaning is pointless and will make them resent it.

The fact is, “classical” music does live on, in a new context. The author’s intention doesn’t matter anymore – instead, people listen to three minute classics in new compilations, or the Swoon on ABC Classical FM, or in TV ads.  It is also accessible via the internet in any number of forms, ready to be accessed by people who hear parts of it played somewhere, somehow. But that’s the point. Ready to be accessed – and made part of a new context. Beethoven won’t care that his music is the staple of advertisements, Schubert advertising cars, Mozart a soap ad, Rachmaninov the music for bedroom activities.  Beethoven just wanted an audience, as well as girl to drink and play music with. Mozart had the girls, but would love the way we do music these days. Rude and raunchy.  Schubert just wanted a girl. Rachmaninov is on record as preferring the jazz version of his famous C# Minor Prelude to his original.  They didn’t see the need to be “appreciated” by everyone at all, so why should we be so precious about it? Music is there to inspire us when we are ready and have the need to be inspired.  It shouldn’t be behind the glass cage, separated from society, to be revered. And when I mean “bedroom activities”, I mean reading whilst playing the Rach 3 CD people bought after seeing Shine. Some people. I don’t know…

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3 thoughts on “Richard Gill and Mrs Carey – Preserving “Classical” Music in Aspic

  1. You have missed the vital point that Richard Gill is not promoting classical music education. He is promoting music education. He made that point in QandA but it was clearly missed in the obfuscation of that program. The kids in primary don’t care about the trivial divisions. but go and see some of the people from the Australian Childrens Music Foundation working in disadvantaged and regional schools. the kids don’t care whether its Bach or Bash. It is, however, life defining.

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