The Bartok effect

The BBC Symphony Orchestra is celebrating its 80th birthday and this post starts from my thread about chief conductors of the orchestra. Above is the LP Antal Doráti made in 1975 with the BBC Symphony Orchestra of fellow Hungarian Béla Bartók's masterpiece, Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta. Doráti was chief conductor of the orchestra from 1973 to 1976. He was an outstanding conductor and composer, but his contribution went far beyond the purely musical.

Antal Doráti's written testament 'For Inner and Outer Peace'* dates from his last years and takes its title from Beethoven's own annotation over the first appearance of the 'Dona nobis' theme in the Missa Solemnis. I have previously written of the links between the ideas in 'For Inner and Outer Peace' and those of intercultural ambassador for the European Union Jordi Savall, but the links extend much further. For instance, the message of Antal Doráti's book and the thoughts expressed by Jordi Savall in the closing section of his 2008 interview with me resonate with the concept of inner peace that is central to Tibetan Buddhism, a faith that informs the music of composers including Philip Glass, Jonathan Harvey and Lou Harrison. And 'For Inner and Outer Peace' also resonates with the ecstatic music of Islam which achieves inner peace through trance rituals.

But the search for inner peace takes us beyond belief systems to an even more important human need - health. In the past theories linking music and health from French ENT specialist Alfred Tomatis, Don 'Mozart Effect' Campbell, neurologist Oliver Sacks and others have lacked academic credibility. But very recent work from Dr Richard Davidson at the University of Wisconsin's Laboratory for Affective Neuroscience is providing hard evidence of the beneficial effects of increased brain activity and could be the precursor to establishing a credible link between classical music and both physical and mental health. At which point the work and funding of a whole raft of practitioners from music therapists and music thanatologists to music educators, youth orchestras and 'scratch' orchestras will be seen in a new light.

This path started with a 1975 LP, but it does pose questions that are remarkably relevant to classical music in 2010. Has classical music painted itself into a corner by positioning itself as one of the entertainment arts? Does this explain why it is seen today as being, to quote Andrew Wilson-Dickson, "decorative, perhaps enhancing, but inessential?" Is the way forward for classical music to make itself more relevant and less dispensable by abandoning its media driven celebrity culture? Should classical music instead be following the example of Eastern cultures where creative activities are inseparable from everyday life?

* For Inner and Outer Peace seems to be completely unavailable. It was published in 1991 by the Swiss publisher Araqua Verlag and my copy, which was bought from IPPNW, does not carry an ISBN. But Maestro Doráti's recording of Beethoven's Missa Solemnis is still available from BIS and a recording of Doráti's Second Symphony has just been released on the IPPNW label.

** Two little known books tell us more about classical music's current dilemna that all the current outpourings of our highly paid arts administrators put together. One is The Story of Christian Music by Andrew Wilson-Dickson (ISBN 0745951198), which is not the 'happy clappy' tome that the title may suggest. The first chapter, The Power of Music, is a salutary reminder that funding is not all that is missing from much Western classic music today and it also supplied the quote in my concluding paragraph. Another book that influenced this post is The Benedictine Gift to Music by Katharine Le Mée (Paulist Pree ISBN 0809141787) - a classical Christman number one anyone?

Also on Facebook and Twitter. All books and records mentioned in this post were bought at retail. Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk


joshisanonymous said…
The variety of solutions posed towards classical music's dilemma are interesting in and of themselves. For instance, you're dabbling here with the idea that classical music may have made a mistake by pursuing celebrity culture but, if you've ever read Greg Sandow's blog, you find arguments that classical music has lost touch with popular culture and has actually worked hard towards avoiding being seen as plain entertainment. To me, this is evidence of just how much work really needs to be done since it's still difficult to find a source for the problem that everyone can, for the most part, agree on.
Pliable said…
JoshMc, you are quite right in saying "it's still difficult to find a source for the problem that everyone can, for the most part, agree on".

I deliberately phrased my concluding paragraph as questions rather than answers because, like you, I am not certain what the problem is. And to a certain extent I am arguing against myself by advocating dispensing with "silly conventions" while questioning a media driven celebrity culture.

If I had to give a very simplified summary of the problem classical music faces it would be the following.

Think of a continuum from eclectic heavily public funded classical music at one end to open market and commercially driven classical music as plain entertainment at the other.

The problem is that classical music today sits on the fence somewhere in between pure art and pure commerce, and as a result is losing support from both camps.

Maybe it is the time to be a lot bolder and move decisively in one direction or the other?

At least the good news is that we are starting to debate this crucial topic, which is why I wrote this and other posts.
Great post. The last line about bringing the creative back to the everyday, to my mind at least, has got to be part of the mix.

The advent of recorded music has changed the culture of home made music, and "live" music is far less common than it once was. Combine that with my notion that embodied cognition probably kicks in a lot more (slams?) in live than recorded music, and you've got the beginning of an explanation of its cultural, societal importance.

Another path I especially look forward to following.
joshisanonymous said…
I was thinking about this topic again today and something struck me, why should art not have commercial appeal and vice versa? It seems like an odd dichotomy. As if to say that something can only make money if there's very little artistic merit in it or, if it's a serious artistic work, there's no way it could also bring in the cash. I'm just conjecturing but I wouldn't be surprised to find a slew of classics that were highly successful commercially when they premiered as well.

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