Quadrant Music

The Rising of Music’s New Dawn

I am weary of high-born people,
Of men with milky hands,
Of idle malignant women,
And a life none understands,
And the mountainless horizons
Of these burning alien lands.

I will go back to my country
To live with Ireland’s poor,
To eat at a kitchen table,
(And my friend lying drunk on the floor)
While chickens and geese and turkeys
Are scratching about the floor.   

There the dream-grey eyes of the humble
Will pour kind mist on my pain,
And the sea’s old sleepy rustle,
The soft sigh of the rain,
And the blessed scent of the turf-smoke
Will give me content again.

Knowing well Quadrant’s commitment to the publication of quality verse, it seems fitting to commence the magazine’s inaugural music pages with this 1910 poem, “A Summer in Exile”. It is by the English composer Arnold Bax (pictured atop this page), unpublished until 1979 and written near Lubny, a small locality halfway between Kiev and Kharkov. Bax was drawn to Imperial Russia in the pursuit of love, chasing the affections of a Cossack’s daughter named Loubya. It was largely an exercise in disappointment for the impulsive young composer, which he documents in Farewell, My Youth, his lean 1943 autobiography. Whilst Loubya considered their dysfunctional affair “an evil dream”, Bax, ever the champion of that quintessential British disposition, reassured her at their final parting that the experience had “all been very interesting”. But to consider “A Summer in Exile” is to decide that the Englishman feigned insistence, and that he pined for his native shores, particularly those bathed in Celtic twilight. “Soon the ache was quite dead,” he later wrote of Loubya, “and remembered beauty but the last pallid ray of a wild star in the rising of a new dawn”.

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Although it has been seventy years since Bax’s death, the sentiments and principles he wrote of in “A Summer in Exile” are very much applicable to today’s Australia. For I too am weary of the de facto “high-born” Down Under: celebrities, politicians, business tycoons, the weak and the corrupted. Australia is not the Australia it once was. Larrikinism, mateship and that ever-healthy disdain for authority are attitudes in stark decline; laughter is repressed, nobody knows their neighbour, and bureaucratic tyranny dominates. I long for the return of our shared “kitchen table”, to leave behind this “alien” land of global themes and radical ideologies. This nostalgia burns fiercely in my heart—and, I believe, in the hearts of many of my countrymen—and it is this nostalgia that could offer us an antidote to the threatening complexities of our modern world. For nostalgia is the reanimation of memory and history; in the third stanza of “A Summer in Exile”, Bax effortlessly remembers a gentle Celtic coastline, proudly conjuring Ireland’s beauty, and yet in so remembering he creates something new, a work of art that ignites imaginations and shapes new memories. Thus, to me, nostalgia is not imitation. It is innovation. It is diligent discrimination through all the notions and literature of past days, with the intent simply to perpetuate humanity’s very best ideas.

In the music world and the art world more broadly, particularly here in Australia, we are not continuing to evolve those very best ideas; rather, we are regressing into an era of cultural decline. The impetus for this deterioration seems to be the widespread and ever-growing prioritisation of a creator’s identity ahead of their craft, a totally counterproductive phenomenon. It is art and not the artist that must reign supreme. The created work reflects its creator’s skill; the creator is in no way reflective of the work’s merit. For example, it is generally agreed that the Triple Concerto, Op. 56 and Wellington’s Victory, Op. 91 are among Beethoven’s weakest contributions, simply because the sums of their musical parameters are mediocre in comparison to his other works—and, indeed, the works of his contemporaries. The fact that it was Beethoven who composed Op. 56 and Op. 91 is irrelevant. An extension of this assertion, that art is primary and artist secondary, is Glenn Gould’s controversial 1968 television broadcast, “How Mozart Became a Bad Composer”. Whether the ever-provocative Gould is correct, it is his detailed analysis of Mozart’s late piano music, not his admiration or lack thereof for the man, that leads to his profane judgment. It is a judgment that reminds us that no composer is sacrosanct—regardless of that composer’s nationality, skin colour, gender, sexuality, financial position or privilege (whatever that means)—and that, to determine value, all music can and should be critically scrutinised.

This we do not seem to be doing; in fact, we appear increasingly to be making irrational decisions as to the direction of Australia’s creative industries. I write we because no one entity is totally liable. Arts institutions—symphony orchestras, museums, art galleries and so on—are no less culprits than are individual artists: both generally engage in pseudo-moral acts and allow politics to define their artistic choices. Certainly, art can be ideological in theme, but it is not necessarily so, and ideology should never determine an artwork’s success. When, for example, pressed on the meaning behind the fiery E♭ opening of Bax’s First Symphony, the conductor Vernon Handley, one of Bax’s foremost interpreters, retorted: “I don’t know, and I don’t care! What you’re going to get from me are quavers!”

If only Handley’s cheek were more readily espoused by today’s musicians. More often than not, there exists a greater insistence to capitalise upon a work’s extra-musical properties than there does to perfect a work’s performance. Composers, too, are drawn to fight this forlorn crusade. Rambling, prescriptive explanations commonly appear as preambles to the scores of new commissions, often republished in concert programs or, worse, read aloud before performance. I can think of no better way to rape an audience’s imagination. Mozart made no attempt to justify the existence of his Twenty-First Piano Concerto, nor Beethoven his Fifth Symphony. And yet, all new work of our time seems to demand paragraph upon paragraph of written clarification. Composers, whether to impress or to enlighten, feel they must outline every employed technique, every intended inference, and every (supposedly) conjured mood. When did these composers tire of enchanting their listeners through sound and sound alone, and when did these listeners tire of engaging individually with pure music?

Of course, the answer lies largely with government, the thumbprints of whose failed and divisive policies are smeared all over Australian art music. The state has proven time and time again—though perhaps never so radically and abrasively as now—that it funds creative projects according to how ideologically expedient those projects are. This could not be better epitomised than by the federal government’s new national cultural plan, which it ironically calls Revive: A Place for Every Story, and a Story for Every Place.

Revive is summarised as a five-point plan, with each measure ranked in order of importance: (1) the recognition that Aborigines “are at the centre of Australia’s arts and culture”, and that the stories of these Australians must be told before all others; (2) the acknowledgment that there is “a place for every story” in Australia; (3) the “centrality of the artist”, positioning the artist fundamentally as a worker; (4) the provision of “strong cultural infrastructure” to sustain Australia’s “arts, culture and heritage”; and (5) the commitment to engage Australian stories with audiences both “at home and abroad”. Rhetoric abounds in this exposé of arts policy incompetence. Whilst measures 4 and 5 brook some encouragement, measure 3, the Marxist idea that artists are merely workers and that the creator is seemingly valued ahead of the created, is in direct opposition to the arguments I have presented. Measure 2 is difficult to stomach; the stories of many Australian artists have gone unnoticed and unfunded by the state because they are of no ideological advantage to incumbent administrations. But it is measure 1 that is most egregious. An analysis of Revive’s $286 million budget reveals that an incredible $227.2 million is being spent on policies related in full or in part to Aborigines. In other words, 79.4 per cent of Australia’s national cultural plan is, at the very least, thematically dedicated to 3.8 per cent of Australia’s population. When evaluated proportionally, this might be considered an over-allocation of 1,989 per cent.

It must only be a coincidence that Revive’s finances seamlessly marry the federal government’s campaign to amend the Constitution and enshrine an indigenous Voice to Parliament. In any case, the insinuation that this national cultural plan is in fact a model to promote every Australian artist and story is patently false. If anything, because it ties 79.4 per cent of its budget to what is obviously a topical political issue, it dictates to artists which stories are acceptable and which are undesirable. Governments should provide a stage to enable cultural success, but never a script. If the Commonwealth is intent on fostering and regulating style, the aesthetic of craft, rather than encouraging craft itself, it is fated to echo the arts policies of totalitarians like Hitler, Stalin and Mao. Surely, there is no nostalgia to be found in the despotism of tyrants.

And so it is—or, at least, I hope it will be—with Quadrant Music, this new forum to promote humanity’s very best ideas through the discussion of art music. Quadrant Music intends to secure and advance Australia’s musical and cultural future through providing a platform for considered, objective and free dialogue. Readers will immediately find this simple yet vital ethos championed by Emeritus Professor Malcolm Gillies AM in his article in the pages that follow, which explores the scholarly importance played by complete critical editions of eminent composers’ works. “Fingerprints of Musical Genius” sets an erudite tone for Quadrant Music and heralds the calibre of the many articles to come.

My gratitude extends to all those at Quadrant— Editor Keith Windschuttle, Chairman of the Board the Honourable Tony Abbott AC and, particularly, Literary Editor Barry Spurr—for entertaining and facilitating the birth of Quadrant Music, this bold and crucial endeavour, this rising of music’s new dawn here in Australia.  

Alexander Voltz is a composer and the founding editor of Quadrant Music. For all those who wish to contribute to the pages of Quadrant Music, you can submit your manuscripts via email to alexander@adkvoltz.com 


7 thoughts on “The Rising of Music’s New Dawn

  • Stephen Due says:

    What a relief! I’m glad to learn of this Quadrant innovation and will look forward to reading articles as they appear. In the case of classical music, I think there is a malaise that is possibly not obvious to the current generation of listeners, but is revealed in the contrast with recordings of older performances. When I see young orchestras today they always look rather sad and lost, as if they’re not sure why they are there – and they sound like it, sometimes, in spite of their technical skills.
    You mentioned Glenn Gould – there was a real man, a true artist! I’ve recently been listening to his Bach recordings, and also his fabulous Beethoven performances with Bernstein. What magic was in the air in those days! Then again, what about old recordings of Beecham conducting Mozart and even Nellie Melba singing ‘muck’ – Home Sweet Home, recorded 100 years ago! There was a showmanship, a genuine love of the art – and a mission to entertain and if possible enthrall the audience. Where has that gone?
    That’s my little snippet of nostalgia. I grew up in a Melbourne suburb that seems now a vanished world. I heard the fifth concerto of Beethoven on a scratchy little old record player at the age of 5 and was ‘hooked’. It still sounds in my imagination after 70 years. Later there were beautiful nights with the MSO in the grand but comfortable old Melbourne Town Hall. What a privilege to have had these opportunities!
    On another note…You might find someone to write about the catastrophic decline in church music, and what should be done about it. Centuries of supreme Christian music have been trashed. Gone are the choirs and their anthems, Gone are the beautiful pipe organs. Gone is the little old lady accompanying the glorious hymns Watts and Wesley on the piano (although we still have one in our church). There are funerals now in which it is impossible even to have congregational songs, because the people who attend literally cannot – or will not – sing. God help us.

    • pgang says:

      Not entirely gone Stephen. Tune in to Bethlehem Lutheran on youtube at 9.00am Sundays (SA time).

    • Margaret O says:

      Concerning the music ministry in most churches today, Stephen, I agree with you wholeheartedly! The banal hymns complete with accompaniment are indeed downright insulting!
      Actually, in my opinion, there is no other art form that has been so degraded as has music. Give me Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Schubert, Mendelssohn, Vivaldi et al, every time!

  • Peter Marriott says:

    Good on you Alexander, and good comment Stephen, particularly regarding the Church Hymns, at least in the COE Churchs’ new hymn book that we have.
    It’s the words that particularly rankle me, with their emphasis on secular polemic, of one persuasion or another, but all of it seeming to line up with the socialist left wing views on practically everything these days, with God hardly getting a mention….in my mind anyway.

  • Geoff Sherrington says:

    Thanks to you and those others behind these Quadrant Music developments. Some questions if I may?
    Is it valid to claim that few or no modern composers can match Beethoven (for example) because they lack understanding, training and skill? Is Beethoven, as a dead old white person, now denigrated because of some modern models imposed on society? Is there even a set of agreed definitions for musical excellence?
    Disclosure: I cannot compose or even play or sing, yet I love to listen on our excellent hi-fi system with proper speakers. As newly weds, our first vinyl purchase was Beethoven’s 9th, chosen for Beethoven’s mastery of the orchestra, interweaving parts into a beautiful, flowing, powerful composite.
    (We must have overplayed this record, because a few years later a son coated the vinyl with toothpaste and scrubbed it in. If I was cynical, I might claim that this made it sound more modern.) Geoff S

  • Elizabeth Beare says:

    Well, my husband is ‘musical’, i.e. trained in singing and in playing the violin, while I simply ‘like music’, hardly knowing what it is that I like until I hear it; a very untrained ear indeed. Many long years of listening though have led me to love most of the classical oeuvre and a misspent youth from the mid 1950’s to the early 80’s means I have heard a lot to like in popular and folk music too.
    We both however dislike having the clanging and ‘musically challenging’ (i.e. all over the place) work of unknown Australian composers, including indigenous ones, played on ABC Classic FM while we’re captured on a long drive in the car. The ‘little played’ works are, we surmise, often little-played because no-one likes them or wants to listen to them. We certainly turn off frequently.
    That said, and the philistine having spoken, all power to Quadrant Music. May our musical tastes and understandings prosper.

  • kea179 says:

    I think this article is about government control of the arts to promote ideologies. For this reason freedom of speech, and expression, need to be continually striven for. Authors are now self-promoting online through places like Amazon to get their work out to the general public. As ‘pgang’ mentions here, youtube is a place for anyone to publish film and music. I think the only way to counter government control of the arts is to safeguard our freedom of speech and expression, and use it.

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