Beethoven Who?

A version of this article appeared in the New Statesman on 31 October 2005, in advance of The Battle of Ideas, a conference in the Royal College of Art in which a main theme was cultural education. The published version can be found at

Do you want your children empowered to engage with the most enduring works of music? Are you bothered if that life-giving resource is being progressively discarded without consultation? When I was a student, there was a story, probably apocryphal, that Dudley Moore went to Oxford as an organ student not knowing how many symphonies Beethoven wrote; now it is less usual to find a student arriving from school who does know. It is, nonetheless, not opus numbers but experience of art that is the issue - not cataloguing symphonies but acquiring the means to draw upon music as a listener. Someone who loves one such work has the power to discover infinite others, having already been handed the tools with which to unlock amazing things only expressed within the world of sound. It is no shame on our children that the doors of this perception more often remain closed, but I believe it is nonetheless a shameful reflection of our priorities. Listening is an activity, not a passivity – and every audience will admit to much deeper enjoyment of something unfamiliar for being told something about it.

It is fair to ask what social reform and democracy mean, if great art is witheld from the populace instead of being made more available. The ancien regime that confined the artistic canon to a prosperous select few has nothing to offer our culture. Nothing could be more patronising than to make decisions for our young people that some art is ‘too highbrow’ for their lives, perhaps because of their ethnic background or an unpromising urban landscape - yet that is exactly the tenor of recent drives to orientate the GCSE syllabus toward music to which children can, like, ‘relate’. The idea that the Western artistic canon is not ‘relevant’ to today’s multicultural classroom need only be reversed to be ridiculed: imagine decreeing that a class of lippy white teenagers cannot relate to West African drumming. My daughter’s school plays host this week to just such a workshop run by an English master drummer, and the kids can talk of nothing else, because they are being taught the basics; without teaching, the drumming may seem complex or monotonous, but hey, call for education, and suddenly they take ownership. Now reverse the cultures: bring in a string quartet from the outstanding Live Music Now! (Yehudi Menuhin’s charity offering the services of young musicians to prisons, hospitals and schools) and introduce string quartets to a class from a non-Western background. Get a quartet of young string players together, let them try Barber’s Adagio and then tell them it’s not ‘relevant’ to them. They’ll show you the door. Consider how sport makes the same mockery of such prejudices: anyone suggesting that cricket is too protracted and complex to offer our youngsters anything sounds pretty silly in 2005.

A glance at leading curricular materials shows that there is plenty of useful study of the music past on offer in the classroom, but because the totem of the moment is ‘participation’, valuable historical activity is being dislocated from the works and from a sense of progression. The syllabus is a veritable Blue Peter of good things to do and make from historical models, yet this stress on practice needs balancing by a historical overview and by experience of the music. Guided listening to music is mistakenly thought to be passive, with more than a whiff of risky imperialism about it, since Teacher has to decree that Corelli or Copland is worth hearing; as for the raw practicalities, meanwhile, the syllabus business is scared stiff that stroppy 15-year olds will desert the music room in a stampede at the first glimpse of crotchets.

Most of us animated by music owe our lifeblood to an individual who threw us Stravinsky’s Le Sacre or Zappa’s Hot Rats and said ‘you need this’; yet a teacher I know was warned by an educational advisor to steer clear of discussing actual music lest she ‘scare the kids with composers’. I related this breathtaking story to another music advisor, and had to clutch for the table when she outlined the philosophy to me as ‘trying to hold their interest at GCSE so you can teach them something at A Level’.

What a culture of despair! Introducing thrilling and complex works from the canon isn’t snobbery; it’s empowerment. I bless the teacher who played us the ‘Pathetique’ Symphony on tape before taking us to hear Barbirolli conduct it. The idea that children are hostile to exploring things outside their ken is an adult one born of the craven - or commercial - desire to ingratiate oneself. Young people – adventurous, up for new stuff, remember? – don’t expect their tunes to dominate the syllabus; frankly, it ceases to be ‘their’ music once embarrassing adults wrap a syllabus around it. This is vicars strumming guitars all over again. When I was a kid, studying Vergil and Molière at school, I read the Beezer at home – I still do – but that didn’t mean I expected to find it dominating the classroom.

The restrictive, Eurocentric canon of ‘classical’ culture in classrooms of old inhibited our musical thought about much other music in our world; so does today’s reversed trend, which marginalises great art. Schumann’s song-cycles of young love and despair should be there for every teenager, along with Jeff Buckley and Kurt Cobain, for art belongs to everybody.

Composer Piers Hellawell is Professor of Composition at The Queen’s University of Belfast.