Music makes the world go round

Tim Blanning writes that music has become the religion of the modern world, with people turning on iPhones to listen to their favorite idols rather than kissing icons or fingering rosaries

By Bradley Winterton  /  Contributing Reporter

Sun, Dec 19, 2010 - Page 14

Toward the end of The Triumph of Music, new in paperback last month, Tim Blanning admits that there is another view. His argument throughout has been that music has established itself as the pre-eminent art and effectively the religion of the modern world. As societies become more secular, music becomes more revered, and its practitioners venerated as high priests, if not gods, with the power of boosting the re-election chances of presidents and prime ministers.

None of the other arts can match music, he argues. With the exception of Harry Potter (a cult now waning), books are the province of an elite. Paintings may fetch high prices as investments, but painters aren’t venerated in the way pop idols are. Architects go largely unnoticed after the day their new buildings are opened, and so on.

Blanning traces this phenomenon back to the early 19th century when Paganini, Liszt and Wagner attained extraordinary personal celebrity. Paganini was widely thought to have a cloven hoof, and to be all the more sexually alluring because of it, women fought over the dregs of Liszt’s coffee cups, and the older Wagner (who married Liszt’s daughter) consorted with royalty and was considered a social prophet, and even a mystic.

After that, though, classical music lost its edge, until today a knighted British exemplar like Sir Harrison Birtwistle can snap “I can’t be responsible for the audience: I’m not running a restaurant.” Today it’s not Birtwistle who advises presidents but Bob Geldof and Bono, fabulously rich in their own right, but also able to raise millions for a cause. No writer or artist can touch them, and certainly no classical musician.

The opposing view that Blanning admits to encountering is that music is not currently in one of its great periods. The classical tradition has been reduced to plinks and plonks of little interest to anyone, while popular music has plumbed “evermore subterranean depths of offensive vulgarity.”

But this isn’t really the point, he counters — his book isn’t concerned to evaluate particular works but to point to a phenomenon. Whereas people used to kiss icons and finger rosaries, today they switch on their iPhones and listen to their favorite idols. Music has become the religion of the modern world, nightclubs are its churches, and arenas its cathedrals.

Interesting though this argument is, I don’t find it entirely convincing. Firstly, soccer is in many countries more credible as a religion-substitute than music. Secondly, the ubiquity of music is nothing new. Blanning himself relates that in Paris there were over 3,000 songs associated with the French Revolution, and whole armies sang under the leadership of Fredrick the Great and Cromwell.

Furthermore, music may have a grip on the younger half of the population, but its hold over the older half is less apparent. And the young have always sought to identify themselves as new arrivals on the scene by their music and their clothes (not books, and certainly not graphic art), and both clothes and music must be distinct from what they perceive to be the styles of their parents.

What has changed is the technology. Just 150 years ago the only music available was what was being played live and within earshot. This was why attractive movements in orchestral concerts were encored — there was no other way you could hear them again. Today, by contrast, anyone can assemble a personal music collection and then listen to any item from it wherever they happen to be. This has brought huge wealth to the most popular artists, and huge attendances whenever they choose to perform in person. But then large crowds and individual fortunes are nothing new either.

Although Blanning discusses these technological advances and agrees they’re important, he discusses a wide range of other things as well, and without always commenting on their significance. Indeed, sometimes you lose track of the book’s argument and it approaches becoming a mere compendium. The old jokes and quotations he wheels out become predictable, even if, with such a vast subject on his hands, he still doesn’t have room for everything.

Even so we hear about opera-houses and recording techniques, music-halls and cinemas (10 in Paris in 1906, 87 in 1908), Moogs and Fenders, national anthems and serf orchestras, jukeboxes and Fatboy Slim (real name Norman Cook).

We learn that Wagner originally wanted entry to his Bayreuth theater to be free and that the Paris Opera cost 70 times as much to build, that John Coltrane recorded A Love Supreme in a single session and Bono’s life was changed when he heard it 23 years later, that the Austrians were actually rather easy-going when it came to censoring Italian operas in the 1840s, and that the Eurovision Song Contest is “notoriously disfigured by nationalist prejudice.”

We read of music and sex — Shaw defining dancing as the vertical expression of a horizontal desire, Flea, bassist of Red Hot Chili Peppers, asserting that “We try to make our music give you an erection,” and popular music’s role in promoting the acceptance of gay lifestyles (“arguably the greatest social change to have occurred in the developed world during the last half-century or so”).

But The Triumph of Music isn’t really a book of ideas at all. There are more startling ideas on any page of Peter Conrad’s A Song of Love and Death: The Meaning of Opera than in the whole of this book. What it says, and tends to repeat, is that whereas Haydn was the servant of a rich aristocrat with almost no freedom of action, today pop stars are lords of the universe, as well as widely believed dispensers of popular wisdom.

But this long book’s range is great, and its numerous nuggets of information amusing and instructive. It may seek to teach you a lot of what you know already, but there is plenty more to feed even the best-read musical omnivore.