In defense of melody

Emma Johnson
Tuesday, August 16, 2016

'We'd like you to invite you to play a concerto but it must be by Mozart - a new piece would be too risky box office-wise.' 

The above is a typical comment from a concert promoter and is the reason why sometimes I get the feeling that classical music has lost the trust of today’s audience. How did we get in this situation where people are wary of new classical pieces and would rather hear the old ones repeated rather than risk the new? Today’s culture lovers might be looking forward to the new play by Michael Frayn, or a new exhibition by David Hockney, but for new music the general audience is more likely to turn to Coldplay than classical.

It was in the second half of the 20th century that the trouble started; when radically experimental classical music was taken up by the establishment and presented as the mainstream. Government money was lavished solely on composers who turned their backs on melody, harmony and pulse during the Cold War because it was a way of showing that the West was not afraid of freedom of thought and free speech. As a philosophy for fair government this can’t be gainsaid but as a rationale for music making... How many people really prefer to listen to Shostakovich’s The Nose (criticised by the Russian authorities) rather than his Symphony No 5 (approved of)?

A whole generation of serious composers in the West grew up afraid to sound anything other than avant-garde. To prove his credentials, any self respecting composer had to be the latest word in new musical techniques or otherwise risk losing the establishment's backing.

It was not always thus. Most of the great classical composers of the more distant past don’t seem to have felt pressure to innovate; they wrote in the musical language of their day knowing that this would resonate with an innate understanding of the rules of harmony and melody in the brains of their listeners. They sometimes stretched the musical rules to take auditors into new realms of musical experience but they instinctively knew that if you do nothing but break the natural rules of musical grammar then you confound listeners, leaving them uneasy and ultimately bored.

Don't get me wrong; I am not against the cutting-edge. One of my favourite works of all time, Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande mystified people on its first outing. Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring was similarly contentious. But isn’t there a vanity in today’s ‘serious’ composers seeking always to be groundbreakers? The audience’s lack of understanding is then blamed on a lack of education, but is that fair? Shouldn’t a new piece be able to communicate directly to any music lover who already has Beethoven, Brahms and Britten on their playlist?

I would like to see a situation where classical composers are admired for expressing themselves using musical language that speaks to the majority of today’s audience not merely to a ghetto of the initiated, a situation where I can suggest putting a new piece on a programme without scaring off a concert promoter. I sense this is already beginning to happen but let’s encourage composers to embrace melody, harmony and pulse again before the audience is alienated altogether and thinks meaningful classical music was all written in the past. After all there is really no point in continually chasing novelty '...what has been done is what will be done: and there is nothing new under the sun.'

Emma Johnson's new album 'English Fantasy', featuring music by Will Todd, Patrick Hawes, John Dankworth and Paul Reade is out now on Nimbus Alliance. It is reviewed in the September issue of Gramophone, and Johnson introduces the album in the video below:

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