Sunday, August 29, 2010

Layer 346 . . . Elgar, Pomp, Circumstance, Estates, Proms, Englishness, High Art, Ignorance, Culture, Duke Ellington and the Swing Thing

I love it when someone comes out and says that the reason why the majority of us don't enjoy  opera and classical music is because we don't 'understand' it. If there's one thing that cheers me up no end it's being patronised and spoken about pityingly. I do love a good ruck, and being treated as an ignoramus and a prat is a guaranteed way of getting me going on the subject of so-called high art versus low art, culture versus non-culture, proper music versus popular music.

Lynsey Handley, the Guardian's self-styled 'expert' on what it's like to live on a council estate (author of Estates: An Intimate History) is the latest to wade into the culture wars, and in so doing shows what a shallow and ridiculous young woman she really is.

Lynsey, naturally, no longer lives on a council estate, and it's unlikely she even lives in an inner-city area. I assume she now thinks she's joined the middle classes. So this is what she says:

Us and them is the cultural problem, not Pomp and Circumstance

The kind of elitism that leaves so many ignorant of Elgar reinforces social divisions

Lynsey, sweetie - you patronising young puppy: I'm not ignorant of Elgar - I just fucking hate Elgar. Having read this crappy article I tried again to listen to the Enigma Variations, Pomp and Circumstance, Jerusalem and even a bit of the Cello Concerto in E minor, and all it did was reinforce my ignorance that this is a load of dull, dreary, dry, deathly, life-diminishing, clapped-out, corny crap. But that's only my plebian working class sensibility speaking, obviously. If only I had enough intellect and cultural awareness to understand Elgar and all his works . . .

Hitler would probably have loved Elgar, but then again Hitler had Beethoven and Bach. And Wagner. Intelligent and cultured people seem to love Wagner. People like Stephen Fry - the current pin-up boy & icon of middlebrow Britain. Elgar might not have made it with Hitler.

I quite like bits of Beethoven and Bach. The Brandenburgs are OK by me, though I doubt I fully understand them. I can dig the odd fugue. Bach gives good organ. But I have to be in the right mood for such things, which, in the case of Elgar, seems to be a mood either patriotically pompous, depressed, or in the throes of actual mourning.

Middle class Brits seem to somehow convince themselves that they're listening to something that's quite 'spiritual', perhaps - probably because they've been taught that Elgar's music is 'spiritual' during their musical appreciation lessons at grammar school. Or maybe mummy and daddy were influential with their taste in music, and possibly they came from a long line of educated people who really do understand Elgar and co - who've made the annual pilgrimage to the Albert Hall and the Proms, etc. Fair enough.

In case anyone's interested, here's what Lynsey had to say:

A large proportion of Britain is culturally impoverished, with one-third of those surveyed never having listened to classical music and three-quarters unable to identify Edward Elgar as the composer of Pomp and Circumstance.

[Reader's Digest] magazine [another cultural icon that's about to disappear] was right to suggest that "uninspired teaching" and "alienation", brought about by elitist notions of who can enjoy classical music and who can't, have served to make people ignorant of large parts of their cultural heritage.

At present it feels like there's little useful communication between consumers of high culture and that third of Britain that has never listened to classical music – for reasons to do with mutual contempt, ignorance, and the accretion of privilege and disadvantage at opposite ends of the divide.

Fuck off, Lynsey. So I'm really, really disadvantaged, am I? It's a lot more complicated, and a lot more simple too, than you can possibly imagine. Elgar v Peter Green and electric blues? No contest. Life's too short to be wasted on Elgar.


Moving on to something more positive, there was a superb programme on BBC4 last night about the era of jazz and swing music - pre-rock and pre-pop. This is definitely worth catching up with on iPlayer. Also repeated tonight on BBC4 at 23.10.

The Swing Thing

Documentary telling the story of swing, an obscure form of jazz that became the first worldwide pop phenomenon, inspired the first ever youth culture revolution and became a byword for sexual liberation and teenage excess well before the Swinging Sixties.

In the process, swing threw up some of the greatest names in 20th century music, from Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington to Billie Holiday and Frank Sinatra. The film uses archive and contemporary accounts to shed light on why it endures today.

It was Duke Ellington who said, "It don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing." The programme also had some great footage of Jimmy Dorsey, Count Basie, Benny Goodman, Woody Herman, Cab Calloway, etc. Strange there were no references to Louis Jordan, though.

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