Symphonic music undoubtedly stands for something really needed ...

Jouni Kaipainen, 25.9.2008

A Speech at the Nordic Orchestra Conference


It turned out to be surprisingly difficult to find a title for my speech. Aila Sauramo had to ask for it several times, and still I could not define the topic in a satisfying way. I do not really mean that finding anything to say was the problem: I actually had several options to choose from. E.g. it would naturally have been nice to talk about music itself here, and that also would have been the easiest thing to do for myself. That is what I normally do when I give speeches: talk about music. But I find a problem here: if I speak about a carefully chosen topic in music, from this podium to you, that will probably create a situation where I am giving a lecture and you sit there basically believing me, and that will be it. If I have an audience like this, I definitely want the topic to deal with things more or less common to all of us here, things that we all are worried or at least very much concerned about, and which we most probably do not wholly agree on. Then time run out, and I had to end up with a title. This is why it is so long and badly formed as a title, of which I am sorry. But still, the question itself is not a bad one:

“Symphonic music undoubtedly stands for something really needed - why is it then so difficult to make people understand this, not to talk about understanding the music itself?”

Probably I should first explain, why I eventually wanted to use the nice opportunity of presenting my ideas to you, dear friends, by diving or drowning into a question like this. The answer at its simplest is this: It seems to me that the world around us produces lots of evidence, more and more all the time, of symphonic music being seen as something not important. The term ‘symphonic music’ here stands for all so-called art music, whatever it be named - we have these not-very-plausible terms like ‘serious music’, ‘concert music’ etc. And by ‘seen as being not important’ I mean many different things, depending on whose point of view we are talking about. I will just get back to this.

But I think I should, before these sad examples, still try to say something about the first sentence of my title: “symphonic music undoubtedly stands for something really needed”. I guess we together build up a company, where there is very little doubt about the importance of symphonic music, so that it is not so necessary to go very deep at this point. Nevertheless, I feel triumphant when stating: the whole complex building of western classical music, from early days of the Renaissance up to our time is one of the most vitally essential cultural achievements that there is altogether, and seeing things with a global view does not change this fact at all. The exuberant but still coherent continuum, which we call the great tradition, has functioned as a magnificent carrier of ideas, of thoughts regarded as generally humane, of historical sense, of a feeling of togetherness with bygone generations and our own contemporaries, and, even if it is mostly an entity of abstract matters, a carrier of a rich variety of meanings; furthermore, it works as most likely the best mediator for intimate human feelings, for personal messages from a person to another and others, as a significant creator of the Spirit of time (Zeitgeist) at almost all times, as an incorruptible means of exercising pure intelligence and logic; and, what to me seems to be the best of all, in the words of my dear colleague Jukka Tiensuu, it forms the straightest way to higher spiritual spheres. All these separately, all this at the same time, plus of course much, much more. And to make this wonderful phenomenon work this way, the only thing we have to do is take it seriously, at its own value! Therefore, it is more than justifiable to ask: how dare anyone doubt its importance?

But that is what they do all the time. Who is ‘they’? Well, where to start from?

Maybe schools would be the most self obvious starting point, since they play the central role in educating new generations. The situation of classical music in schools is much worse than alarming: it has more or less disappeared from school altogether. And I definitely do not mean only the well-known sorrowful fact that all art subjects, like actually all so-called humanities, are suffering severely from lack of time and money. At least in the field of music, this is a question as much of too little time as of what they do with the time that they still have. I hear that practically the only thing they do is pop music, i.e. something the kids get to be in contact with all the time, anywhere they ever go, something that absolutely needs no special treatment in schools, or at least needs relatively speaking much less of it than currently. I know that most orchestras have some kind of an educational program, within the framework of which children and the youth are brought to rehearsals and concerts and in best cases given background information about what is done there. This is naturally of great importance and a good thing to exist, but in the overwhelming flood of easy-to-chew pop-music options this is far from being enough. Music schools and conservatories are left alone to fight for classical music, and they seem to be losing the war, for a number of reasons. I get back to this a bit later.

A quite obvious fact is that classical or symphonic music is considered almost completely unnecessary by today’s press. Signs of this have been hanging in the air for some time already, and all that I hear from anywhere carries the same evidence. I myself read two daily morning papers and two afternoon tabloids - don’t ask me why, probably this is an inherited disease. Self evidently, the tabloids never paid any attention to classical music, so that nothing has changed there. But the morning papers, the two biggest ones in Finland, namely Helsingin Sanomat and Aamulehti, have clearly altered their attitude lately. The Tampere local Aamulehti has been in the lead in the slightly questionable event of rushing to the wrong track; should one base his or her view to culture and arts only on the writings of Aamulehti, the result would be a plain notion: practically the only existing form of culture is pop in all its various guises. In music this means exclusively rock, with the next-to-invisible exception of a tiny resume of Friday’s symphony concert in a remote corner of one of Sunday’s pages, otherwise full of pseudo-cultivated apotheosis of rock music, teenage movies or other species of brainless entertainment. But they do like to publish pieces of bad news about classical music, like those of someone cancelling a performance. Helsingin Sanomat is running fast to the same direction, and the head of arts department there has recently made quite a name as a violent down-grader of things classical or otherwise intelligent. You must note now: this is not the ordinary artist’s talk about critics, since I do not at all blame the persons who still write about important matters; I am blaming those who make decisions about cutting down the share of this field.

This seems to be taking place everywhere, not only in Tampere and Helsinki, not only in Finland, and not only in the Northern countries. Everywhere. And of course not only in the written press, but in the electronic media as well. I am going to come back to this later, and I think it is enough just to notice here that the visibility - or should I say audibility - of classical music has shrunk to minimum. Even on those very few channels where the supply is supposed to be classical throughout, it has been forced to give way to more entertaining music or other kinds of program, and besides the amount of literally symphonic music has collapsed, since the time schedules do not allow long pieces to be played. The formation of special arts channels, like e.g. Yle Teema in the Finnish Broadcasting Company, is basically a quite positive event, but it has the unwanted side-effect of burying the so-to-say “brain program” in a ghetto of its own, out of the eyes and ears of the ordinary TV watcher or radio listener, and I guess that the overall result has been more on the negative side. Still, I would never suggest abolishing them; they are pretty handy for their faithful audience.

In Finland, the 80s saw an outburst of young, talented and versatile musicians, the so-called boom of classical music, of which we have naturally been very proud. We are used to concluding that this was a late-born result of the firm conviction of the policy-makers of past decades that classical music can have true significance in the development of a society - a conviction obviously sprung out of seeing and understanding the central role of Sibelius during the days of gaining our independence. This may, indeed, have been the truth, or at least part of it. Be that as it may, we don’t seem to have the same situation any more. Classical music has become less and less audible in the ears of the bigwigs, less and less existent in their minds today and consequently in their ideas for the future. This is evident e.g. in the fact that people’s hunger for cultural and artistic matters is no more self-evidently seen as a basic human need but rather as something strictly contradictory to the “real basics”, i.e. employment, wages, pensions, social and health services, transportation and, of course, growth of economy. It goes without saying that soft values like arts do not get well along in this confrontation.

I have now counted some of the major symptoms of the disease, in so far as the social, politically more or less controllable structures are concerned. Having mentioned them I still have the heaviest factor left. That is, of course, economy: the notorious “market forces“. I am just talking about raw fact, now. Big money has made it clear that all easy-to-swallow forms of entertainment are overwhelmingly more profitable compared to those engaging our brain and not only our secreting glands that cause aggression and primitive sexual behaviour. (Speaking about this seems to make me look and sound like one who has got his fair share of the adrenaline, at least.) Anyway, in other words, being openly stupid is the slogan of today, and understandably classical music has much less to contribute here than rock and pop. We whirl in a witched circle: pop music business takes over every place, every situation, and pushes classical values to the remotest corner, not to be seen, not to be heard, and this naturally undermines the weight of their importance, eventually to a point of non-existence. And since it gradually but firmly becomes non-important, it also loses opportunities of defending itself by getting heard.

This development has been very rapid; just think about the crisis in classical CD record production and the effect that the Internet, regardless of its numerous valuable sides, has had and will have on the whole field of classical music. In fact, I predict that also pop and rock music plus the movie industry will soon be in trouble with the fashionable idea of interactivity and reality-TV. When aesthetics become a thing to be voted about, when the illiterate are allowed and even encouraged to make their own music and films, no professionals will be needed any more, and this means that the wise guys of entertainment business get what they deserve. I would never dare to travel to Sweden in a ship planned and built by myself, I trust to professional engineers and skilful builders.

Results of the development can be seen practically everywhere, not least in the policy of copyright bureaus in the field of music, for the most part governed by demands of pop music only. One future result will most probably be serious changes in state scholarship policy: directing public money straight to the hoards of big music delivering companies - the signs are already to be seen, the politicians just haven’t had the guts yet. Unfortunately, this cancer has spread in the classical music life itself, too; the enemy, if you allow me to say so, is not just at the door but already inside our walls. Let me say something about this, now. At the same time I try to catch a couple of thoughts concerning matters I spoke of before and promised to get back to.

What I have said, so far, not just counts our curses, but also partly answers to the question: why is the situation like it is? We are losing the struggle, because what we do does not raise sufficient profits, compared to something essentially easier. Even if the Great Tradition that we represent is to a most considerable extent a true natural product, we are not in a very good condition, because we are at the mercy of some other natural born things: greed for money and other worldly good, plus fundamental human laziness. Everything that classical music represents is at odds with today’s Zeitgeist, in a nutshell “I want everything for me, and I want it right now”. I have concluded that this is the main cause of the defeat in the struggle that music schools and conservatories are gradually ending up with. Learning classical music takes a huge amount of time and effort, and spending them is not a fashionable thing, nowadays. The equation is a bad one, and it is apt to create a mood of giving up.

But let us not do that, anyway. Let us not give up. Maybe I have now been pessimistic enough and should go on in a brighter mood. My philosophy of life - and this really is nothing very original - has been that there are just two kinds of things in the world: those that you cannot do anything about, and those that you can affect somehow. The big question always is, how to distinguish between these two. I do not claim that I am able to do that; mostly I am probably not. Nevertheless, among what I just have said it seems to me that the cruel market force facts belong to the first category; at least it is very difficult to find anything we can do about the greediness and prevalent power of companies and persons who can rule people’s, especially young people’s minds with both extremely cunning manipulation and the rod of iron of their already gained wealth. Except of course that we can still try to be as visible and audible as possible, with the goal of at least delaying our final vanishing for a while. To put it briefly: to do our best as we act.

But let us skip this, for the time being, and move to the other category of things: those that we can do something about. Many of the finest philosophic systems in the world, including e.g. some sects of Buddhism and certain more active forms of western Existentialism, have highly emphasized the importance of keeping one’s mind clear and mobile in orientating one’s own position in problematic situations: if there is something to make better in our own way of being, we should also do that, before we start blaming the world outside ourselves and demand the corrections to be made only out there.

Talking about schooling up an audience, we naturally deal with different sub-themes: what is done in schools, i.e. with children and youngsters, is one thing, what can be done with grown-ups is another. But one big question remains independent of the group of people in focus: the question of defining ourselves, of figuring out, what do we eventually stand for, of creating and keeping an integrity that can, now and in the long run, defend itself proudly. Certainly the first thing to do now is to draw a full-length portrait of classical, symphonic music as such, because right here we are faced with one of the most fundamental problems.

Classical music is very often, almost more often than not, presented as something wholly contrary to its original essence. I give you some examples. I hear a famous, verbally talented radio producer characterize the Beethoven symphonies as “nice, pretty and harmless”; I read in the Classic Radio’s program an everyday title “velvety classics” and find out that mostly only five minute movements of large-scale works are fitted in the play list; I do not believe my eyes as I see an “All Stars Version” of Brahms symphonies being played according to the vote of the audience by an old, highly respected symphony orchestra ; I observe the honourable state-owned broadcasting company, instead of playing the obvious trump of edited music program it has in its hand, follow the commercial competitor to the swamp of no-profile record concerts; with ever growing horror in my eyes, I see symphony orchestras give gala concerts with three-tenors-or-whatever-it-is -circus, not to talk about playing concerts of merely light, pop or even rock music. All these sorrowful circumstances have their raison d’être on another ground than what that of ours should be: the real values of the centuries-long tradition of classical music. Actually, I believe that we are in the middle of an almost hopeless crisis of values. Value relativity, an originally quite welcome and fruitful attitude, has come to the point where relativity becomes the synonym for nihilism. Nothing matters any more, because everything is of the same value. An extremely troublesome point here is that, once taken into use, value relativity is almost impossible to be withdrawn; it shines the kind of light that makes any other attitude look restrained and in the final study rather totalitarian. Here, now, it causes a value crisis. Practically anything can be argued for, which makes it unnecessary to make efforts to defend the real, more laborious matters. An arena for different kinds of loose attitude, lazy approaching and not properly weighed ideas is created, and very willingly used as a playground for easy amusement.

And therefore, if we keep the goal of a concise integrity in our mind, every single point in the catalogue above is completely wrong. Classical music is a rich, complex form of art. It is definitely not just “velvety” and should never be limited to expressing merely “cute” feelings. It is a question of live and death! It may be beautiful and give true consolation to a human soul in grief, but its essence is certainly not “nice and harmless”, especially not that of a Beethoven symphony, for heaven’s sake! It is not meant to be dosed in neat three-minute pieces of cake, but in its whole length, regardless of whether we are coping with a Webern miniature or a full-size Wagner opera.

I realize that it is very hard, almost impossible to avoid surrendering in front of the star cult of soloists and conductors, maintained by concert agencies and management companies. I assure to you that I realize this. Still I want to stress: opera houses, symphony orchestras and other organizers of concerts should oppose to this as much as ever possible, and even a bit more. This is the only way of cutting the greed, of reducing the ridiculously high fees to a reasonable level, which might have good consequences in budgets - and perhaps even in the quality of life of orchestral musicians, who after all are the persons who do the greatest and most significant part of the job. The phenomenon ‘three tenors’ and all its reflective followers can never mean music presented in the right, relevant way; they rather impersonate the opposite, an ugly travesty of all good musical aims.

I am fully aware of the fact that I may now be attacked using the box office as a weapon. This is quite natural and it happens basically every time someone talks about integrity in music or arts in general. It is understandable, but that does not make it correct. Someone may want to dress me in the guise of a Romantic or an idealist here, and say that this guy does not understand the basic facts of life: if we don’t sell tickets, the whole business stops existing. I will carry the cloak gladly, after all I am a Romantic in many senses of the word.

However, I want to make a couple of points. First: I do not believe that what can be obtained by giving the little finger to the devil would be anything long-lasting. It only means boasting in borrowed feathers, since the results have been achieved by means belonging to other fields of music. Secondly: When we sell, we should always pose the question: what are we selling. If the item is a product made by throwing away essential, sine qua non qualities of classical, symphonic music, we are on wrong tracks, since this is not why we exist. Thirdly: Only by keeping up the integrity we can maintain the respect that lies behind the status of an important, i.e. meaningful entity. This naturally must not mean being too pompous or too high-brow. On the contrary, if we want to win back part of the territory lost for pop music and other forms of easy entertainment, we have to approach the children with a great variety of both hilarious and serious aspects of life. Being joyful does by no means mean being meaningless, and being serious doesn’t have to expel kids to other fields. Don’t we all know that children love to be respected, taken at their whole value.

Fourthly: We need new, younger audience, but we have to take care of the needs of our grown-up, already existing audience, as well. Being myself fifty-plus by age, I am gradually discovering the fact that very little in this commercialized world is actually meant for people of my age. They even advertise almost nothing for us. Well, that would basically be a good thing, if it did not tell that the world functions on adolescent conditions. It definitely is in our hands to do something concrete here! We must subtly and tenderly educate our dear audience to understand more about the true raisons d’être and the starting-points of classical, symphonic music, so that these people can find their way even better to the vast world of ideas and meanings in this music, and thus find even more crucial help in leading their lives, stronger faith and softer comfort. We should not hold in contempt the power of spoken nor written word, either. I have wonderful experiences of taking contact to the audience in chamber music concerts of the Tampere Philharmonic by being the speaker, by telling about the backgrounds of what is being played. In almost 80 concerts in the course of 10 years this has worked better than fine: feedback from the audience has been exclusively positive and I myself have also felt that with this help the music makes an influence both more straight and deeper. And I would like to add: one of the reasons for the success has been the fact that all presentation has been in line with the essence of the music; absolutely no artificial lightening nor show elements - in Monty Python’s words “no cabaret, no striptease dancers and no mariachi band” - have been used as an icing on the cake.

Maybe it is time to sum up what I have said and meant. I have tried to answer to the question posed in the title: why is it so difficult to make people understand the importance of classical, symphonic music? I found different kinds of reasons. Some of them are practically out of the horizon of what we can do something about. We obviously can not block the current triumphal march of stupidity. The only thing to be done here is to simply make the best of everything we do and wait for the enemy to get once and for all tangled in its own network of dangerous thoughtlessness, in a word to fall incurably ill. Then there is the other bunch of things, the one that we can influence. We should try to keep ourselves visible and audible, to convince people that what we do is important, an inseparable and indispensable part of humane basic needs, at least almost as essential as dwelling or enjoying proper health care. And I claim that we can not be convincing enough, if we do not take care of our own integrity, if we do not cherish the very innermost essence of what we have to offer to people. I am quite sure that numerous different things can be done, we just have to invent them in the spirit that the music itself is full of.

Oh yes, the ending of the title’s question is still unanswered: “not to talk about understanding the music itself”. Here we, eventually, have an easy one. Music can not be understood. The verb ‘to understand’ is not an existing category at all, with respect to music. I can state that to some extent I understand English language and admit that I do not understand Chinese. Said about music this has no meaning. Why do I tell this now to you, then? Because here is a big task for all of us: we must convince the audience of this fact, as well. One so frequently hears people explain their not attending to concerts by murmuring shyly: “I do not understand music…” Perhaps the first chapter of our educational speech should be just this: Music is not about understanding but of listening to with open ears.

But now it is the time to end this speech, educational or not. If you have any questions, counter-opinions or anything, please, feel free!