Audiences need permission to like unfamiliar music
That photo of Sir Malcolm Arnold and Julian Bream appears on the late composer's website. Ten years ago I was literally very close to Sir Malcolm's music. He spent his final years being tended by his carer Anthony Day in Attleborough just a few miles from where I live in Norfolk. I managed Sir Malcolm's website and one of my first posts about his music dates from that time. Following Sir Malcolm's death in 2006 I never lost my appreciation of his music, but it featured less frequently in my listening. However, recently I have returned to his symphonies, and listening to them again has raised some important questions. His nine symphonies are the product of a master craftsman. They move forward from Mahler and Shostakovich, yet should be immediately accessible to contemporary audiences saturated in the music of those two composers. But, despite this, Sir Malcolm Arnold's symphonies remain unknown outside a small circle of admirers. Why?
Let me make it clear at this point that this post is not yet another plea for more Malcolm Arnold. It is a much needed exploration of the process that determines the popularity of composers, a process that, as I will explain, has important implications for widening the audience for classical music. Sir Malcolm Arnold's music is just a convenient example. I am sure readers can suggest many other composers from around the world who could be used as an example - Albéric Magnard, Wilhelm Stenhammar, Arnold Bax, Alan Hovhaness, Eduard Tubin, André Jolivet and Edmund Rubbra are just a few who spring to mind. A cursory glance through concert programmes shows that the music of Mahler receives a thousand times more exposure than Sir Malcolm Arnold's or that from any of the composers mentioned above. Which again prompts the question of why? Let's accept for a moment that the concept of a 'better' composer is meaningful. Is Mahler's music a thousand times better than Arnold's? I do not argue that the two composers are equal; but I do argue that the received wisdom reflected in concert programming that Mahler's extant nine symphonies are a thousand times 'better' than Sir Malcolm's is a dangerous doctrine that is damaging classical music.
Early championing by Leopold Stokowski, Bruno Walter and Dimitri Mitropoulos in the States and Sir John Barbirolli in Europe introduced Mahler's music to a mass audience. Leonard Bernstein's Mahler in the concert hall and on record in the 1970s provided the tipping point, together with advocacy in Europe by Sir Georg Solti and Bernard Haitink in Europe. The composer's popularity was boosted by the addition of pioneering cycles of his symphonies to a record catalogue which, at the time, did not contain multiple versions of every classical work ever composed. All of this has led to Mahler being one of the most performed composer's in the twenty-first century. The Mahler revival and his subsequent popularity is usually attributed to this surge in availability of live and recorded performances of his music. But the process was more complex than that. Respected figures such as Stokowski, Bernstein, Solti and Haitink gave audiences positive permission to like music that fifty years earlier Arnold Bax had described as eccentric, long-winded and muddleheaded. Moreover the endorsement of major record labels gave further permission for audiences to like and explore this unfamiliar music. It is this little-understood process of permissions that, I propose, explains the huge differences in popularity between composers of broadly similar merit.
The role of permissions is receiving considerable attention in the areas of normative systems, jurisprudence and - of particular relevance to this discussion - information management. In a paper for the Journal of Applied Logic, Audun Stolpe of the University of Oslo identifies two main categories of permission. Negative permission allows an actions unless the action is specifically prohibited, whereas an action is only positively permitted if, and only if, a code explicitly permits it. Based on this approach, I am proposing that the theory of permissions explains the skewing of classical music repertoire towards a small group of favoured composers. If permission theory is deemed applicable to classical music in the micro context of individual composers, there is potential in exploring whether the absence of positive permissions in mainstream media and in the education sector explains the decline in the popularity of classical music at a macro level.
My thesis is that the huge difference in profile between Mahler and Arnold is not because Mahler is a thousand times 'better' composer than Arnold, but is because a network of permissions that is often mediated by opaque commercial agendas determines the exposure a composer receives, which in turn determines popularity. In the 1970s respected conductors and established record labels gave audiences positive permission to like the little-known music of Mahler. But fast forward to 2015 when the influential permission granting conductors are churning out the same narrow range of repertoire - currently Mahler and Sibelius. This skewing of the repertoire is aided and abetted by the all-powerful management agents who boost their earning by sending their clients on tour to wherever there is money wherever there is money performing Mahler.
Occasional token performances of Malcolm Arnold and other little-known composers are no more than negative permissions, which lack the positive authority for audiences to like this unfamiliar music. Yes, visionary conductors such as the late and much-missed Vernon Handley and Richard Hickox gave positive permission for audiences to like Arnold - and Bax and Rubbra - and today the indomitable Kenneth Woods is doing the same for Hans Gal. But, to the discredit of the classical music establishment, none of these conductors had or have the international profile to grant global permission.
A number of responses to my recent post 'Classical music must go on a diet to survive' expressed the view that not only is there too much classical music today, but there is too much of the same music. To take a topical example, the current London residency by the Berlin Philharmonic and Simon Rattle is spread across five concerts. The repertoire for these concerts comprises no less than seven Sibelius symphonies plus the composer's Violin Concerto, a Mahler symphony (no 2.) played twice, and two token - in presence not stature - performances of the sixteen minute 'Tableau for orchestra' by the little-known Helmut Lachenmann. In an earlier post I expressed the view that classical music's big opportunity is not a mythical new younger audience, but the current audience. Based on this assertion, I suggest that the current obsession with the 'short head' of repertoire - Mahler, Sibelius etc - at the expense of the 'long tail' - Malcolm Arnold etc - is stifling an important opportunity to expand the market. If every current audience member attending ten concerts in a year (that's less than one a month) was persuaded to come to one more concert, the classical music audience would increase by 10%. Similarly if every classical music buyer purchasing 10 CDs (or streams/downloads) a year bought one more CD, the market would grow by 10%. And, at the risk of repeating myself, if every classical radio station listener increased their listening from 10 to 11 hours a week, the classical radio audience would be 10% bigger. And that 10% growth is a lot better than classical music's big new ideas are currently achieving.
How much more Mahler and Sibelius can the vital core audience take? Does the catalogue really need another Zarathustra? But 10% growth could be achieved by broadening the tastes of the existing audience. To do this concertgoers need to be given positive permission to like the music of Malcolm Arnold et al. Which involves more than token performances: it involves total commitment from celebrity conductors, concert promoters, music festivals and media organisations to treat these composers as serious musicians, not freak shows. All musicians, especially those earning a king's ransom - have an obligation to broaden classical music's tunnel vision repertoire. This involves programming complete cycles of little known music at the expense anniversary composers, and it will not produce short term results. But we have to accept that there are no quick fixes that will extend classical music's reach. Classical music's big opportunity is its current audience, and giving that current audience positive permission to like a wider range of music is the first step along a road in turning a major opportunity into audience numbers.
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