I like many kinds of music. My earliest musical interest was in jazz, and my affection for it continues. I have recordings of the usual repertoire have attended live performances by Louis Armstrong, Gerry Mulligan and, shortly before his death, Humphrey Lyttleton. I am of the Beatles generation but, although I acknowledge their influence and although they were the musical background to my youth, my preferences in popular music have been for Buddy Holly, the Beach Boys, Simon and Garfunkel, the Everly Brothers and Credence Clearwater Revival, Bob Dylan and a few others. I’ve never taken to the Rolling Stones. In recent decades I have come to appreciate the French popular repertoire, as performed by the likes of Jacques Brel, Georges Brassens, Léo Ferré, Edith Piaf, Charles Aznavour, Claude François and Charles Trenet. I also have a taste for the dance music of the 20s, 30s and 40s and have a collection of recordings of the usual classical repertoire, which I also enjoy.
This is not intended to be my choice of Desert Island Discs, but an inquiry into what makes one kind of music more valued than another. Some maintain that the classical repertoire represents the highest level of musical achievement, but that sounds rather like saying that the Standard English dialect is superior to all other varieties of the language. What is there in its harmonies, chord progressions, tones, cadences, rhythms and so on that makes a Schubert quartet more expressive of or a comfort to the human condition than Potato Head Blues by Louis Armstrong’s Hot Seven? Why is listening to a Bach cantata reckoned to be a more enlightening experience than hearing Jacques Brel sing ‘Ne Me Quitte Pas’ or the Everly Brothers sing ‘Ebony Eyes’?
Although I use it here, I find the term ‘classical music’ misleading and inadequate, partly because it describes the music of the classical as opposed to the romantic composers, as well as the whole genre of which they are both part. The terms ‘formal’ and ‘informal’ might be rather more descriptive. Another, more important, objection is that the very term implies superiority. One view of literature is that it is nothing more than what academic institutions have said is literature. Can something similar be said of classical music? It’s whatever is played in concert halls by classical music orchestras and chamber ensembles. It has no innate superiority.
Popular music appeals to, well, a lot of people, and is readily accessible. Classical music is still, on the whole, the preserve of the middle and upper classes. Nowhere is this truer than of opera. For example, a seat at Covent Garden for a performance of ‘Tosca’ in February costs from £139 to £195. In sum, music is music and responses to it are subjective, and distinctions between different types are social and cultural. Cheap music is just as potent as any other.
(Post title from Noel Coward's 'Brief Lives')