The joys and challenges of classical music.
In his latest, Scruton (Aesthetics/Birkbeck Coll. London; Where We Are: The State of Britain Now, 2018, etc.) continues many of the arguments he laid out in Understanding Music (2009). Many of the chapters were previously published in journals and books or delivered as lectures. He begins with the premise that we “live at a critical time for classical music.” In the past, “our musical culture had secure foundations in the church, in the concert halls and in the home….We no longer live in that world.” The author argues that young people today must be taught to discriminate, to recognize “good taste and bad taste in music.” The first part of the book does little to welcome novice listeners with open arms. Those familiar with musical composition or performance will be better equipped to appreciate the topics covered. If, however, listeners are unfamiliar with “diatonically tonal” or “semi-closure on the tonic,” they will be greatly challenged to appreciate Scruton’s discussions of music and cognitive science, music and the moral life, or the philosophy of music. The second section of the book, though still flavored with academese, does a better job of reaching out to serious readers looking to be educated and informed. For Scruton, no “composer is more relevant to us” than Franz Schubert, who could innovate and “enhance the dramatic power and emotional intensity of the whole.” The author is especially good in his discussion of 18th-century composer and harpsichordist Jean-Philippe Rameau, “who advanced the cause of music drama,” and the modern English composer Benjamin Britten, “whose reputation continues to grow both in his home country and around the world.” Scruton’s discussion of film music is illuminating since many listeners become “acquainted with the symphony orchestra through film music.” At the end, he offers a misguided criticism of “the Rock scene” as “a wilderness of repetition, in which nothing new is harvested because nothing new is sown.”
If Scruton wants to expand classical music’s audience, he must step away from his professorial lectern.