Sir Roger Scruton

Author

Sir Roger Scruton: Conservatism and the Conservatory

The observation is often made that political conservatives do not have anything much to say about the arts, either believing, with the libertarians, that in this matter people should be free to do as they please, or else fearing, like the traditionalists, that a policy for the arts will always be captured by the left and turned into an assault on our inherited values. Of course, there is truth in both those responses; but they are not the whole truth.

Elias Gottlob Haussmann: Portrait of Johann Sebastian Bach (detail), 1746.

Counterpoint in music is like rhyme in poetry: it holds disparate things together in a unity, and at the same time it shows that unity is not simple but composed. Only mastery of counterpoint can make a single chord, sounded in root position for three minutes, into one of the most varied events in music – but that is what Wagner does in the Prelude to Das Rheingold.

Teens sharing a song.

To dismiss Latin and Greek, for example, because they are not “relevant” is to imagine that one learns another language in order, as Matthew Arnold put it, “to fight the battles of life with the waiters in foreign hotels.”

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.

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