My immediate reaction when the question ‘Whose music do you really hate?’ popped up in my Twitter feed was one of weariness. I grow tired of the culture of moaning that seems to assail me from all directions. If it’s not people in Real Life, it’s pathetic television programmes where smug and fatuous Z-listers grumble and grouse about the way these youngsters wear their jeans or how organic produce is a total swizz. It is profoundly tedious to read other people’s complaints. I am aware of the irony of this paragraph.
When Stephen Fry appeared on the programme Room 101 some years ago (it was before the programme was cancelled, I recall), his final choice was Room 101 itself. He and Paul Merton imagined themselves in an alternate reality, on a programe called Room Lovely, where Fry then talked for a few minutes about things he really loved – the iMac, libraries, Kathy Burke… It was such a pleasant relief from the negative emphasis of the rest of the programme that Merton had no choice but to acquiesce, and duly sent Room 101 into oblivion.
I’m a positive person, blithe to the point of Pollyannaism, and so when I see an article called ‘Hands up! Whose music do you really hate?’ I despair slightly. But it turns out to be really rather a fun piece by Jeremy Nicholas about those blind spots we all have, in music as in everything else. Tests have revealed, for instance, that I am medically incapable of becoming interested in The Lord of the Rings or anything related to Star Wars. You will have a similar blockage somewhere (I hope not a physical one).
Where music is concerned, however, I’m not unlike the blessed triumvirate of Andrew McGregor, James Jolly and Rob Cowan, cited by Nicholas in his article, in that it often feels to me that I like more or less everything. If you had asked the ten-year-old Gareth to name his favourite composer, he would have said Ravel and that he was particularly disposed to like French music. Now I’m more of a Germanicist, with Bach and Schubert and Brahms at the top of the tree; but my tastes have broadened generally. I don’t have a favourite composer, still less a favourite time period. Musically, I embrace everything.
But one cannot love all things equally, and there are some objects that seem to resist affection in the most stubborn of manners, no matter how positive one’s intentions. For the purposes of argument, let’s take it as read that all the music generally considered ‘great’ is so – even the dreaded Four Seasons (though as Julie Walters says in a Victoria Wood sketch, I prefer the original – Quattro Formaggi). Disregard Karl Jenkins and Ludovico Einaudi (always a good rule of thumb), and stick to the composers who have incontrovertibly earned their places in history. From these composers, who are the ones we cannot get on with, and why?
The composers Jeremy Nicholas names as among his personal blind spots are, almost without exception, from the twentieth century, and tending towards the modernistic: Lutyens, Tippett, Nono, Bartók, Hindemith, Birtwistle, Boulez, Stockhausen, Carter, Babbitt, Janácek, Bridge, Wagner, Schoenberg. I think there are three indisputable geniuses in that list, and a good handful of others who might justifiably claim to be in the top rank. Certainly none of them I’d gladly dispense with entirely, and Bartók, Stockhausen, Wagner and Schoenberg I would miss enormously. I suspect my own blind spots come principally from earlier times.
I believe I am hardly alone in thinking that a little Vivaldi goes a long way, but I have recently found myself coming around to his brand of predictable but sparkly writing. This is not the case with Italian opera from Rossini onwards. I can see much to admire in Rossini’s craftsmanship, but little in the content of the music engages me. Bel canto bores me. Apart from brief periods when I feel in the mood, I can never get very worked up about Verdi either. So the gap of about 100 years between Mozart and Puccini is a closed book at present. My loss. I fully expect my feelings to change one day.
I’m not alone either in the apathy I feel towards Schumann’s orchestral music. A superb writer for the piano, and one of the greatest songwriters the world has ever known, but the symphonies are frankly a bit of a drag, aren’t they? More unusual is the confession that I don’t really get Beethoven’s symphonies. Perhaps this is an illusion created by my mind. The idea of the Beethovenian symphony is sufficiently unattractive to me that I haven’t sat down and listened to one for quite some time. There is very great music in them, and not just in the most celebrated ones, but the sound they make simply fails to appeal. If I could explain these feelings satisfactorily, perhaps the barriers would disappear and I would fall in love with them (as, I think, I was in my teens, particularly with the seventh – I can’t think about the majestic slow movement for too long, or this flimsy theory falls apart entirely). But then there’s not that much disparity between the symphonies of Beethoven and those of Brahms, and the Brahms symphonies I always think of as being among the greatest masterpieces ever committed to paper. Odd.
Come to think of it, I find quite a lot of 19th-century orchestral music plodding and turgid – Berlioz, Liszt and Mendelssohn spring to mind, though there are exceptions in each case. The orchestra swelled in size, and nobody quite got the hang of how to use it until Wagner. I can back none of this up with facts. Mendelssohn peaked around 16, I think, but that’s hardly a criticism when his octet is the greatest piece of music any 16-year-old ever wrote (please offer contradictory evidence in the unlikely event that you have any). I think Vaughan Williams spread himself too thinly. I have never been entirely satisfied by anything he wrote lasting longer than a quarter of an hour.
I wonder if there is a discernible link between my objections to this wide range of composers. It’s probably an indication of superficiality that my assessment of music seems generally to be broken down into two elements, namely surface and content (or, if you prefer, style and substance). There are many composers I love who offer one but not both, or at least not both in equal measure. Take two of my favourite composers, Bach and Respighi. It’s not unfair to suggest that the former has more substance than style (though still plenty of style) and the latter more style than substance (though still more than enough substance to maintain the listener’s interest). With Rossini, the style is there but not enough of the substance; with Beethoven’s orchestral music, it’s the other way around.
Until a few years ago I’d have put Mozart on my list of blind spots, but I am coming quickly to love him. Similarly Handel. In my childhood I didn’t like Bach. (Was I ever that young?) These things do change, as we do ourselves. 99.9% of the time the last thought on my mind is to put on the old Quattro Formaggi, but that still leaves room, however little, for doubt. And so, try as I might, and in spite of the promptings of Jeremy Nicholas, I cannot think of a composer generally acknowledged as one of the greats whose oeuvre has so little effect on me that I would dispense with him altogether. There may come a time when Rossini is exactly what I need.
I’d be delighted to hear about your own blind spots.