National Institutions

Hans Keller

  • The Proms and Natural Justice: A Plan for Renewal by Robert Simpson
    Toccata Press, 66 pp, £1.95, July 1981, ISBN 0 907689 00 0
  • The Proms and the Men Who Made Them by Barrie Hall
    Allen and Unwin, 192 pp, £8.95, June 1981, ISBN 0 04 780024 0
  • The Nine Symphonies of Beethoven by Antony Hopkins
    Heinemann, 290 pp, £12.50, April 1981, ISBN 0 435 81427 3

Its last chapter apart – an irrelevant ‘After-thought’ whose autobiographical explosion inextricably interweaves deep historical insights with a strong composer’s inevitable prejudices – Robert Simpson’s impersonal challenge is spotlessly objective, sternly factual and, at the same time, unashamedly ethical. His scrupulous analysis of the Proms’ past yields a practical proposal as well as what already seems to have proved an indisputable moral message – both substantiated by comprehensive, complex statistics, yet each glaringly simple in substance.

On the practical side, Dr Simpson shows that if the Proms confined themselves to, or at least concentrated on, the BBC’s own orchestral resources (including the regional symphony orchestras which, for financial reasons, were about to be crippled last year), no less than 62 per cent of the current orchestral costs could be saved, while the BBC and its Prom planner could gain complete command of repertoires, ensuring both range and coherence.

It is, in fact, Dr Simpson’s careful survey of past Prom programmes with their unavoidable, unfair exclusion or neglect, over decades, of composers highly regarded by at least a considerable section of the playing and listening world that enables him to demonstrate the inescapable ‘dangers of an indefinitely persisting control [of the Proms] by one person, whoever it might be’; since William Glock, it has been the BBC’s Controller, Music. The author’s moral principle ‘is not concerned with the particular virtues or flaws of the individuals in the case. It maintains that since everyone has prejudices, the dangers may be mitigated only by changing the person from time to time’, every few years; he can, but need not, come from inside the BBC or indeed this country.

When, prior to Glock’s takeover, the Proms were ruled by a committee, any fairness, balance, was bought at the expense of art, for ‘artistic conceptions are best from a single mind, prejudices and all.’ My own experience is that while art will never survive a committee, it can flower in a small group of congenial minds: where is there more art than in a mature string quartet? And the International String Quartet Seasons of the European Broadcasting Union were planned by a group of three musicians under my chairmanship, two of whom knew the string quartet, its entire weighty literature, from the inside. But this secondary contribution to the author’s case is not yet topical: his principle – the ineluctable evil of a Prom ruler whom only death or retirement can unseat – has to be accepted in the first place. So far as I can see, it has been – by wellnigh everybody who has written or talked about it – with the exception of one or two critics who, significantly, misquote the author for the purpose of invalidating his case.

Over a hundred million people listen to the Proms: in his incisive, crystal-clear style, Robert Simpson has raised our musical world’s profoundest administrative problem, pointing the solution, or one solution, equally convincingly. Since his case has remained uncontested by the entire musical profession and most critics (though Desmond Shawe-Taylor finds it ‘hard to decide’), the licence-payer is entitled to insist on learning the BBC’s own precise, concrete, practical and ethical reaction, which, despite some defensive voices from elevated quarters, has not been as much as attempted: let natural justice die a natural death.

How is it possible not to regard the many instances of prolonged neglect of important music which Robert Simpson specifically demonstrates as, simply, evil? On 17 July, a BBC spokesman informed the Sunday Times that ‘nothing will be said at all’ about either Barrie Hall’s book The Proms and the Men Who Made Them or the present piece: ‘it’s a decision by management.’ To one who has pumped many years of his life into the BBC’s middle management, it is downright distressing to find that what used to be an exemplary exponent of conflicting views, indeed the world’s most objective broadcasting organisation, the country’s ethical pride, can sink so low. We used to worry about the justest possible broadcasting of art, not about ourselves; needless to add, we felt in duty bound to consider and answer all informed public criticism. On one such occasion, I myself was appointed to do so, without being instructed what to say: I had complete freedom to say what I thought.

After almost thirty years of passionate, distinguished service, Robert Simpson himself resigned from the BBC last year on artistic and ethical grounds: their immoral silence does not now surprise him. Yet, when nothing is said and done, one still realises that there could be no replacement for the BBC – which, however, it is becoming ever more difficult to recognise. Individual consciences in the Corporation, unite! Or stir, anyway: you continue to exist, I know.

As for Barrie Hall’s own, brilliantly illustrated history of the Proms from 1895 to 1980, the fateful year of the Musicians’ Union’s strike, it is ironical as well as deeply shaming that the BBC should have tried (and, significantly, failed) to prevent publication of the book by way of an injunction, even though the author disagrees with Dr Simpson about the success of current planning methods. But he does commit the crime of describing Dr Simpson’s letter to the Times, announcing his resignation from the BBC, as ‘eloquent’, and of recording the BBC Management’s incomprehension of the strikers’ case – indeed of the cultural issue involved.

A couple of years before, the BBC had tried, as unsuccessfully, to prevent the publication of the factual preface to a book of my own – and, paradoxically, I had felt profoundly embarrassed on their account. If they but knew how those whom they imagine to be their hostile critics deplore the Corporation’s dramatic loss of dignity, its rulers’ incessant insecurity! Men of unconditional cultural courage are needed on top – where, in the days when Barrie Hall, Robert Simpson and I myself were devoted staff members, they were to be found.

Nobody becomes a national institution without good as well as bad reason. And Antony Hopkins is an international institution, too: Talking about Music has travelled the radio world. What’s it all about, you might unjustly ask; why talk about music week in, week out – generation in, generation out? Had there been radio, would such talks have been conceivable in the 18th century, when music interested you vitally or didn’t?

But then, we can’t compare cultures without taking broadcasting into account: it is, itself, one of the most powerful means of making things interesting to people who aren’t interested in them. As a result, ours is the first musical world whose inhabitants, many of them, lack the instinctive musicality necessary for its spontaneous understanding. In our century for the first time, therefore, verbal bridges are loudly called for and can indeed prove life-saving, if ‘life’ you can call what, between ourselves, must at times be described as the naturalisation of snobbery.

When Dr Hopkins is the bridge-builder, however, you quite often can: he has the ability not only to draw musical people’s attention to latent elements in their own understanding, but also to arouse latent musicality itself in people who seemed unmusical, perhaps even to themselves. To that extent, his achievement is a contribution to the development of the art itself – for what is the history of music without the history of its understanding?

My implication is, of course, that this book explains the Beethoven symphonies in the style of Talking about Music, and while three closer relatives – to wit, Talking about Symphonies, Talking about Concertos and Talking about Sonatas – have preceded the present volume, it remains an identifiable member of the family: the author generally insists on verbalising his musical experiences in but a single way – by way of description. This is indeed where the shallowing effect of the national institution comes in: though there are analytic insights, some of them even highly original, they occur incidentally, almost accidentally, and the author’s self-imposed commandment not to say anything that might be ‘beyond’ any reader provides some readers with the heartening illusion that beyond what Antony Hopkins is saying, there’s nothing to say.

To the music-loving amateur reader of the present review, I would suggest that his description of the opening of the ‘Eroica’s’ finale leaves untouched the very thing which makes that music-lover listen to this music again and again. ‘The opening bars, impressive though they may sound, are frankly a hoax, roughly comparable to the late and lovable Tony Hancock giving us a few lines of King Lear by way of a warm-up.’ The entire opening is now described in terms of comparable similes, until we get to the body of the movement, to what poses as the theme: ‘The subsequent anti-climax must have set Beethoven laughing out loud as he penned it; all that dramatic preparation and look what comes in!’ The theme’s antecedent is quoted, and ‘in case anyone still doesn’t see the joke he follows this with a well-tried music-hall routine in which two partners try to get in step with each other as they mince across the stage. [The antecedent] is repeated with the woodwind “a beat out” until the last two bars,’ whereupon Hopkins reminds us of a comparable ‘joke’ in the ‘Kreutzer’ Sonata.

  There is a silence.
  ‘Knock-knock-knock!’ say wind, brass and
timpani as loud as they can.
  Another silence.
  ‘Sorry, didn’t mean it – ’ comes the apology.
  The strings resume their tiptoe march [and the
theme’s consequent is duly quoted].
  ‘Did you say KNOCK-KNOCK-KNOCK?’
ask the strings incredulously.
  ‘YES WE DID’ reply the other instruments.
  STRINGS: ‘Oh ... ’ (quietly)
  WIND AND BRASS: ‘Hum ... ’ (pensive)
  Once more they tiptoe through the tulips, the
wind as out of step as ever.

Nor does Dr Hopkins find it difficult to defend his approach: ‘If it is “funny” to see “KNOCK-KNOCK-KNOCK” in a supposedly serious book on the Beethoven Symphonies, it is every bit as “funny” to find a passage such as this in one of the symphonies. The really disconcerting thing about it is not its humour but its slapstick humour.’ Slapstick? Nobody would deny the music’s Beethovenian wit (as diametrically opposed to Mozart’s characteristic humour), with whose help an utterly unprecedented structure is here introduced, but what Beethoven says through it deserves yet more attention than do the jokes that serve him as a means of communication: if the jokes were really all, the unscholarly music-lover would decide, after the second or third hearing, that he had got them now and needn’t hear them again.

Though in his Preface the author speaks of ‘the already immense stock of Beethoven literature’, his dust-jacket describes the book as ‘the first comprehensive English study of the nine symphonies since Sir George Grove’s, published in 1896’. A stunning fact indeed – which, however, depends on what you mean by comprehensive, on whether you accept comprehensive brevity. For if you do, Robert Simpson’s 62-page Beethoven Symphonies (BBC Music Guide, 1970) must cause Heinemann’s statistics some discomfort. Let us apply the unspoilt music-lover’s test of comprehensiveness: in their respective approaches to the ‘Eroica’s’ finale, who leaves out more essentials? And is Dr Simpson too highbrow for the virginal reader? ‘The finale, on a bass and a theme (in that order) from Prometheus, anticipates that of the Ninth Symphony in being neither variations nor sonata, nor even rondo, using elements of all three for its organic growth into a purely individual structure.’ While there isn’t a word about the jokes, a wealth of both descriptive and analytic information is compressed into a single comprehensive sentence whose technical terms don’t go beyond what Dr Hopkins expects his own readers to know: he even operates with sonata form’s internal terminology – taking care, mind you, to capitalise his First Subject, Second Subject, Exposition, Codetta. Development, Recapitulation and Coda, thus branding them as foreign bodies to be handled with care. Amusingly enough, as early as Chapter One, line seven, the one term which (like every German noun) is in orthographic need of a capital opening, i.e. Sinfonie, undergoes lower-case disfigurement.

If Dr Simpson leaves out anything of substantive importance, it isn’t to be found in Dr Hopkins’s book either: I am still addressing the unsophisticated music-lover when I say that the opening of the ‘Eroica’s’ finale has historical news value which neither Dr Hopkins nor Dr Simpson as much as touches upon. For one thing, that is, the theme as first heard (which later turns out to be the theme’s bass) unfolds, right from the start, motifs consisting of single notes – the kind of minimal entity critics draw your attention to in and after Webern, unaware that Haydn (the father of the single-note motif) and Beethoven had invented the 20th century too. For another thing, then, that bass is itself a modern type of theme: it poses as the theme until you hear the theme, and after you’ve heard it, the opening bass re-presents itself in retrospect as a variation that had preceded the theme. This approach was to have unforehearable consequences until they reached their culmination in the extreme structure of Benjamin Britten’s Third Cello Suite, whose nine movements don’t disclose their four themes until the end.

Dr Hopkins almost confines the relevance of our century to music hall and film; the end of the ‘metronome’ movement from the Eighth, for instance, ‘is sheer Walt Disney’. It is no insult to Disney to assert that his weightiest jokes could never have moved within thinking distance of the unique end of the Eighth’s (un)slow movement: whatever the pertinence of the metaphor, to call it sheer Disney is, therefore, an insult to Beethoven, in that, at best, it replaces Beethoven’s essence with what may have proved essential for its communication – but a mere means it remains, nevertheless. Means before, or instead of, ends: the bridge-builder’s most common trap, unless he ceaselessly watches his steps. Dr Hopkins will, on the contrary, happily close his eyes when there’s something funny to trap him. If our age’s music is mentioned at all, it isn’t that Beethoven leads up to it: no, Stravinsky leads down to Beethoven, provides him with an excuse without which he might have been thought guilty of reactionary behaviour. The Eighth’s surprising minuet is thus defended: ‘A reversion to a Haydnesque menuetto might seem to be a retrogressive step, though certainly no more so than it was for Stravinsky to write his “Dumbarton Oaks” concerto or “Appollon Musagêtes”. The comparison seems valid since Stravinsky is not less himself for assuming superficially the manner of a bygone age, nor is Beethoven less himself for paying homage to a style for which he still preserved an affection though he had given ample proof that he could far outstrip its limitations if he saw fit.’

Our quotation from Dr Simpson’s guide shows the importance of examining Beethoven’s music in the context of his total output: his creative character establishes immeasurably stronger links between his works than can be found in, say, Mozart’s oeuvre. In the case of the Eighth’s minuet, descriptive comparisons with other composers won’t do: the reason why Beethoven decided on this time-honoured form remains unexplained. However, as soon as we ask ourselves the analytic question – what are the structural circumstances in which Beethoven reverts to the minuet? – the explanation becomes obvious. It is when he has ‘used up’ his scherzo elsewhere in the work that he invariably recovers the minuet for a novel structural purpose – as a contrast to the scherzoid element in his total structure: whereas normally, the scherzo simply replaces the minuet. In this respect, the closest relative to the Eighth can be found near the other end of Beethoven’s creative life: in his Op. 18, whose Fourth, C minor Quartet introduces a scherzoid slow movement, which is followed by a minuet. Exactly the same structural situation obtains in the Eighth Symphony – and once more, the consequences of Beethoven’s invention were to make themselves felt across the centuries, even though they left Stravinsky untouched: it is Mendelssohn, Brahms, Mahler, Shostakovich and, again, Britten who mark this specific line of development.

Another movement for which Beethoven ‘still uses the obsolete term Menuetto’ (obsolete for a year or two: the term and its meaning have youthfully survived right up to our own time) is the third of the Fourth: ‘far from being a minuet’, however, ‘scherzo is the only word to describe its jokey mixture of bluster and sly humour,’ and back we are at the jokes, which tend to make Beethoven’s symphonic thought incessantly ‘delightful’. No sooner have we heard ‘a delightful game of “pass-the-parcel” ’ – in the principal section, that is to say – than a ‘delightfully whimsical Trio’ offers us ‘a tongue-in-cheek gesture towards the old-style minuet’: anxious to keep his readers entertained, Dr Hopkins can count himself lucky that even the most ignorant among them will have heard their Beethoven symphonies, for otherwise they might by now fear that the composer’s eternal jokes will bore them to death.

Yet it would be quite unfair to imply that Hopkins gives us no inkling of the depth and weight of Beethoven’s symphonic world, nor indeed does he establish or reiterate superficial, facile connections between the composer’s work and his singularly tragic life – which, at the same time, he does not ignore. He is amongst the very few, moreover, who clearly recognise the problematic, downright frustrating nature of much of Beethoven’s early music: ‘Curiously enough the bulk of the music written by Beethoven in his formative years gives very little evidence of his formidable genius. At times, it may show flashes of eccentricity, but for the most part it is rather shallow imitative stuff based on conventional models. As a 20-year-old he was positively inept by comparison with Mozart, Schubert or Mendelssohn.’ The only thing that’s wrong with the comparison is its order of priorities – unless the list is meant to be chronological. For if it isn’t, Mendelssohn would have to appear first – the youngest maturely masterly genius in the history of music. Mozart, on the other hand, would come last: his very early, easy mastery actually delayed the explosion of his genius which, unlike Mendelssohn’s and Schubert’s, does not manifest itself until the end of his teens, the 20-year-old being nowhere near his ultimate genius. Now, early, lousy Beethoven does give you, not evidence, but a whiff of his genius in those very flashes of eccentricity – retrospectively, anyway, with sufficient wisdom after the event (the event being the eventual maturation of, conceivably, mankind’s greatest mind). Paradoxically, therefore, the masterly teenage Mozart is yet more secretive about his future genius than the preposterous earliest Beethoven.

With a musician’s sense of structure, Dr Hopkins incorporates four biographical Interludes in his build-up, which devotes one chapter to each symphony, the Interludes occuring between the First Symphony and the Second, the Second and the ‘Eroica’, the Fifth and the ‘Pastoral’, and the ‘Pastoral’ and the Seventh. In the first Interlude, ‘A Private Despair’, the complete Heiligenstadt Testament is not only quoted, but also understandingly psychoanalysed. Given Beethoven’s relationship with his brothers, Hopkins writes, ‘it is all the stranger that he should confide so openly to them the very secret he had tried so hard to conceal from everyone else except his doctors. It is for this reason that I believe the letter to have served a deeper unconscious need that makes it directly comparable to the “confessions” that are nowadays delivered from the psychiatrist’s couch. Such corrosive fears a are revealed here must be brought out into the open before they can be effectively conquered.’

It may seem a lukewarm thing to say when, upon conscientious inspection of every single musical observation in Hopkins’s book, one declares that whatever may be wrong with any of them, none of them contains a musical mistake or misinterpretation, but once we realise that, on any level, there are very few books about music of which the same can be said, we get a realistic measure of the weight of my compliment. Countless are the fantasies about Beethoven’s symphonies which, while not concerned with their jokes, lead the reader far away from Beethoven’s own creative life, and right into the uncreative mind of the observer: the harm done by such autobiographical talking about music cannot be overrated. Dr Hopkins’s musical report, on the other hand, is altogether free of any projection of his own problems. Add to this that with no fewer than 281 music examples, it is unfailingly concrete, specific, preoccupied with the music and nothing else, and you easily appreciate the value of a book that could have been, equally easily, still more exclusively musical, yet more factual and, proportionately, less metaphorical.