I was clearing out some of the dustier corners of my computer and came across this, from January 2013, no less. Not too shabby surprisingly, and quite relevant when you consider there has been a fair bit of discussion around academicism and the role of autodidacts in the arts of late. Suits me, being one myself and all!
The advent of high fidelity sound in the 1950s was a massive shot in the arm for classical music which had struggled through a sustained period of decline due to world wars, economic crisis and competition from new forms of music that captured the public imagination, such as Jazz. I count myself extremely fortunate that I was born during what is now acknowledged to have been a golden age of classical music recording. My life’s passion for music owes a lot to having been raised in a household that collected LP records. Every week or so a new addition to the collection would appear. Always beautifully packaged, records had the enduring feel of objects of real substance. In short, everything an iTunes download is not! Driving this renaissance were two legendary record producers who shared one extraordinary common feature.
In many ways Walter Legge at EMI and John Culshaw at Decca were chalk and cheese. Legge was a dour character who had famous fallings out with some of his biggest stars. His achievements include founding one of the world’s great orchestras- the Philharmonia, and kickstarting the recording career of one of the most influential classical musicians of the 20th Century- Herbert von Karajan. So conservative was his outlook that at first he refused to embrace the idea of stereophonic sound, yet many of the recordings he produced (including the mono ones) remain benchmarks to this day. By contrast, John Culshaw was a gentle diplomat best known as the driving force behind the first complete studio recording of Wagner’s Ring Cycle. In 1999 this massive undertaking was voted ‘greatest classical recording of all time’ by readers of Gramophone Magazine. It was also the subject of a wonderful behind the scenes BBC documentary, a highlight of which must be the scene in the back seat of a limousine where Culshaw calmly puts the notoriously fiery conductor of the cycle, Georg Solti in his place. It’s often referred to as the ‘Solti Ring’ but in truth it was as much Culshaw’s as it was Solti’s. For his part Legge predicted it would fail miserably. It did nothing of the sort, selling well in excess of a million copies and spending time on the mainstream Billboard charts.
Remarkably neither Legge nor Culshaw had any formal training, indeed they both left school at age 16. They were in fact autodidacts, and at the time they were by no means alone. These days such careers seem very unlikely. As audiences have shrunk, music has become increasing reliant on the education sector as a source of employment and the message emanating from this sector could not be clearer: No young person should ever consider themselves to be so talented that they can get by without a formal education. Fair enough you might think, but where is the evidence and could this advice actually be having a negative effect by alienating our most gifted, the most original and creative thinkers? In reality as we go through the substantial list of major figures in the arts and indeed other walks of life who were largely self -taught, we find not only enormously high achievers but also with few exceptions engrossingly colourful characters. You can include on this list to name just a few, composers such as Brahms, Wagner and Walton; authors Austen, Tolstoy and Hemingway; pretty much the whole impressionist movement in art and arguably the most culturally engaged leader Australia has had: 24th Prime Minister Paul John Keating.
Recently when listeners to ABC Classic FM were asked to choose their favourite 100 compositions from the 20th Century there was a clear first choice: The Cello Concerto of Edward Elgar. Composed in 1919, this work is extraordinarily different to any of the other music of it’s time. It is a concise, elegaic, personal statement that in my opinion could only have been written by an autodidact. He didn’t need a degree to compose it, and you certainly don’t need one to be moved by it.
Elgar, who grew up in a small village in Worcestershire where his Father owned a music shop, taught himself to compose by reading books and studying scores. He was the product of a time when grass roots participation in music making was at a very high level. Every town and village had a choir, indeed England was anything but ‘the land without music’ as the German critic Oscar Schmidt once notoriously described it. Elgar got his first big break (if you can call it that) as conductor of the attendants' band at the Worcester and County Lunatic Asylum. Could there be a better example of people from all walks of life and social situations getting involved?
Not so fond of Elgar was the conductor Thomas Beecham. In many ways Beecham owed his career to the wealth and privilege he was born into. In 1899 when the Hallé orchestra found itself short a conductor for a concert to mark his father’s inauguration as mayor of St Helens in Lancashire, the elder Beecham simply installed his son in the position. Young Thomas had some limited experience at an amateur level, but as a conductor was entirely self taught. So began a remarkable career. Along the way he founded at least three orchestras, used his family fortune to purchase the Royal Opera House Convent Garden, championed the music of Mozart, Richard Strauss, Sibelius and Delius and generally enjoyed himself by poking fun at the classical music establishment. Through all this it should be remembered that he was above all a brilliant conductor, beloved by most of his players and one who certainly knew a thing or two about engaging audiences.
Conventional wisdom tells us that the extreme technical demands of playing an instrument such as the violin make years of study absolutely mandatory, but consider for a moment the case of Albert Sammons. Self taught apart from a handful of lessons from his father, Sammons was discovered playing in the band of the Earls Court Exhibition at the tender age of 12. He went on to be concert master in Beecham’s orchestras (the London and Royal Philharmonics) as well as pursuing a distinguished career as a soloist. In 1929 he made, alongside Sir Henry Wood and the (new) Queens Hall Orchestra, the first studio recording of Elgar’s Violin Concerto. When you listen to some of his recordings, in particular those of Mozart, they do at first seem very individualistic, very idiosyncratic. It is however important to realise that we have got terribly used to hearing different people playing the same music over and over the same way. Of course it’s nonsense, there is no such thing as ‘correct’ in music. These days, from the moment they first pick up an instrument young people are instructed, judged, examined, auditioned and adjudicated at every step of the journey. What they’re not taught or indeed allowed to do, is question. There are those who prosper under this system but there will also be those, amongst them the most creative who sadly end up walking away. We must ask ourselves: ‘when does education end and indoctrination begin? At what point does an art-form become a cult?’ Unfortunately there are times when classical music crosses these lines.
At the end of the 1920s, the English composer and conductor Constant Lambert (son of Australian artist George), wrote an influential and widely read book somewhat gloomily entitled ‘Music Ho! A Study of Music in Decline’. To show how little things have changed, consider these lines which conclude the preface to the first edition: “I hope this brief study...may lead the way to a broader and more ‘humane’ critical attitude towards an art which, though the most instinctive and physical of all the arts, tends more and more to be treated as the intellectual preserve of the specialist.” From where we currently stand it will be a long road back for classical music and it’s hard to be optimistic when the same mistakes keep being made. That said, it will be up to those who love it, regardless of training or lack thereof, to try and find a way.