Excerpt from the Nova Scotia Archives: Jazz Music
“It is useless to declaim vaguely against all popular music,” wrote Walter J Turner, then music critic for the New Statesman, in 1921 in response to the director of the Royal College of Music’s “assault” on the popularity of music. “beastly tunes”. The music to which Hugh Allen, the conductor, referred – the waltzes, the rag-time, the foxtrots, the songs of music halls and theaters – has “a certain sweetness”, and lacks “roughness, awkwardness”. and “of originality,” too, Turner wrote. Whether these styles should be taken as seriously as those studied in classical music schools was a matter of “taste”. But academic training alone could not endow an individual with good taste, he thought, and there was a snobbery attached to Allen’s comments. “Music-hall songs and rag-times may well be bestial, sentimental, and vulgar,” Turner wrote, “but inasmuch as they express people’s lives and not parlor behavior, they are far more valuable. and much less vulgar” than the music produced by the composers of the royal schools of music.
I must confess that I like jazz music when it is good, and it is unfortunate that Hugh Allen, the new director of the Royal College of Music, in his recent attack on the popular taste for “bestial tunes”, did not was not a little more precise in its denunciation, because it is useless to declaim vaguely against all popular music.
I suspect that most of our best musicians are not very familiar with the songs of the theater and the music hall or with the waltzes, one-steps and foxtrots of the dance halls and restaurants; but they are making a big mistake if they imagine that this music is all bad or “dumb”. No one can deny that the tunes of the average musical are, as a rule, without beauty or distinction, but they are extremely academic. They are modeled on tunes that have appealed in the past, and they have a certain softness and lack of character that denotes the formation of schools. The lack of grossness, awkwardness or originality could not be more marked if their composers were pupils of the Royal College or the Royal Academy of Music. One could almost imagine that Hugh Allen believed that an academic musical training and familiarity with the best music of the world’s greatest composers must inevitably give a man good taste and enable him to write good tunes!
How many Hugh Allen students can write a beautiful melody? The Royal College of Music is lucky if it has one. But what to do while waiting for this one, and will it provide their music to all the music-hall singers and all the revues and musicals? The fact is that there is a strong commercial demand for music, and the country’s many music schools and colleges have long worked to meet this demand. There is no commercial demand for the genie because the genie cannot be supplied with the certain regularity of the Royal College or the Royal Academy or with morning milk. But there’s no reason why the quality of the commercial product shouldn’t be continually improved, and that’s no doubt what Hugh Allen was really aiming for.
This improvement depends on the existence of a certain faculty called “taste”, but I must confess to being totally skeptical as to the power of schooling to transmit “taste”. It has not been my experience that men or women acquire “taste” by mere association with good music. It seems as unscientific and as wrong to me as to think that if I build up my biceps through bungee exercises, my kids will inherit them. Everyone can perhaps develop to some limited extent a faculty they already possess, but I think even this is a mistaken idea and the process of development is not at all under our control. Be that as it may, experience shows us many accomplished musicians accustomed from childhood to the best music whose “taste” or judgment is no better than that of the first wild baboon one might catch in the congo.
Does this seem exaggerated to you? I’m sure it’s not. I believe that the more plausible and probable a theory or argument is, the less likely it is to be true. Mr. Chesterton’s paradoxes pale in comparison to the paradoxes of reality, and one of the most common paradoxes is the skilled musician who can discern the bestiality in tunes he never hears – the tunes of the comedian rag- time and the gramophone dance record, but is completely taken up with vulgar and banal tunes elaborately disguised for a full orchestra. Speech may have been given to us to conceal our thought, but the brain or technique is certainly acquired by the modern musician to conceal his spiritual begging. The amount of nonsense that is written these days, for example, on orchestration (I plead guilty to some of them), astonishes us in those moments when we have a little leisure to reflect and we find ourselves just repeating what everyone else seems to be saying.
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What our university professors really ask of composers of popular music is more skill. They are so accustomed to hearing the poverty of thought and the crudeness of feelings well masked by the skilful manipulation of technical artifices that when they come up against vulgarity and “bestiality” in all its nakedness, they are horrified.
Composers, like men and women, can learn manners, but surely no one claims that their essential nature is changed. The same variety of individual character remains below; all that has been done is to push this individual character out of sight for the mutual convenience of society. However excellent it is in daily life, it is fatal in art. Music-hall songs and rag-times may very well be bestial, sentimental and vulgar, but insofar as they express people’s lives and not their parlor behavior, they are far more precious and far less vulgar than carefully trained musicians. , colorless insipidity of the composer produced by the Royal College or Royal Academy of Music who has been so mercilessly doused with Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Wagner and Tchaikovsky, and so combed and ironed that he has no more individuality than no other of the starched breastplates of his musical laundry.
How do these students feel? What do they think? Has anyone ever heard of them in the afterlife? Would they ever know if they were listening to Brahms or Beethoven other than by simple exercise of memory? Do they have a passion for music? Do they have blood in their veins? Their works seem to deny them all the attributes of life. Better away from Mr Jack Jones Tipperary or the The reliquary a step and more of a rag-time than that of Mr Frank Bridge Complaint for the “Lusitania”, Mr Cyril Jenkins’ magic cauldron or Mr. Percy Grainger’s enormous and elaborate orchestration of a good-humored penny which exhausted nearly a hundred musicians and nearly as many machines at Henry Wood’s Symphony Concert last Saturday at Queen’s Hall.
To learn more about the NS archives, click here and sign up for the weekly “From the archive” newsletter here. A selection of pieces covering the history of the New Statesman have recently been published under the title “Statesmanship” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson).