Sir Roger Scruton

Author

Hieronymus Bosch: Garden of Earthly Delights.

I only wonder whether you might, from time to time, entertain the thought that one can be modern without being avant-garde, without lapsing into sound effects, and instead thinking in the old musical way, in terms of grammatical sequences that linger in the ears and the memory of the listeners, so that they sing it to themselves inwardly and find in it a personal meaning.

Many are surprised by the beauty of New York City’s City Hall subway station, hidden underground.

Reading the gripping chapters of Robert R. Reilly’s book, with YouTube on the screen, was both an education in itself, and a source of shame to me, who have defended tonality all these years without realising that it is a live tradition, constantly renewing itself in defiance of an academic orthodoxy that denies its right to exist.

Illustration by Arthur Rackham from Rhinegold and the Valkyries.

Wagner’s story of gods and heroes, of giants and dwarfs, is not a fairy tale. It is addressed to modern people, who have lost the ways of enchantment, and for whom the path to heroism is overgrown. It is a story in which law and love, power and property are all caught up in a life and death struggle between the forces that govern the human soul.

A post-modern ear, bioprinted in 3D and cultured in a petri dish. Image credit: Peter Dazeley/Getty Images.

Serious composers must work on the rhythms of everyday life. Bach addressed listeners whose ears had been shaped by allemandes, gigues and sarabandes – dance rhythms that open the way to melodic and harmonic invention. The modern composer has no such luck.

Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres: Napoleon on his Imperial throne (detail), 1806.

If we look back at Boulez’s presence in French culture, during the years around 1968 when he was the Gauleiter of the avant-garde, we must surely understand him as the instigator of a false conception of music – not only of the place of music in high culture, and in the civilisation that is our greatest spiritual possession, but of the nature of music itself.

Raphael: The School of Athens, detail, 1509-1511.

Very few composers have philosophical gifts, and fewer still attempt to justify their music in philosophical terms. But it is precisely the absence of philosophical reflection that has led to the invasion of the musical arena by half-baked ideas. Without the firm foundations provided by a live culture of music-making, philosophy is the only guide that we have; and when good philosophy is absent, bad philosophy steps in to the gap.

However impoverished a student’s experience, I discovered, his taste will not, under examination, remain at the level of ‘that’s what I like’. The question ‘why?’ pushes itself to the foreground, and the idea that there is a distinction between right and wrong very soon gets a purchase.

Vintage film camera

You often hear the expression “film music” used pejoratively. “It’s just film music,” said of some new symphonic piece, suggests an overblown pursuit of effect at the cost of structure, of atmosphere at the cost of musical form. But is this just the snobbery of the avant-garde, a kind of musical elitism that belongs to an age from which we have recovered, now that our innocent distractions, once dismissed as “mass culture,” can be enjoyed for what they are, namely fun?

Louis-Léopold Boilly: L'effet du mélodrame (detail), 1830.

What modern producers seem to forget is that audiences are gifted with the faculty of imagination. This faculty is not extinguished by being bourgeois. Indeed, it is one of the faculties that an ordinary decent bourgeois has to exercise continuously, if only in order to respond forgivingly to the contempt of which he is the target.

Modernist buildings loom faceless and jeering over the long-settled streets of the City of London.

The modern concert venue is designed with only two things in view: to create a space uniquely designed for a kind of laboratory listening, and to announce to the world the arrival of yet another architect of genius. The combination of inner sterility and outer megalomania essentially cuts the venue off from the life around it. The resulting hall is not part of the city but stands in opposition to it, defiant testimonial to a dying culture.

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