Rebecca Coulson is a freelance classical musician and writer, and the Conservative Prospective Parliamentary Candidate for the City of Durham.
‘You cannot be opposed to something if you do not understand it.’ Gustav Leonhardt, harpsichordist.
I was talking to an atheist about God the other day. But, don’t worry! This isn’t going to be one of those preachy diatribes – the kind which turn people off so quickly that a theologian friend of mine counters cold-callers with: ‘”Yes, of course you can tell me about triple loft insulation. If I can tell you about Jesus first.”
The atheist – let’s call her Clare, because that’s her name – told me that, whilst she’s attracted to religion, she doesn’t have a gut feeling that there is a God. As someone whose sketchy faith is just about still strong enough to call myself a Christian, I said that my belief definitely isn’t predicated on some supernatural sense. Yes, the beauty of faith is that it can’t derive from something you know for certain. But I believe in God because, overall, this seems (for reasons too multitudinous to go into here) like a rational thing to do. Christianity is a little more grey. I struggle with some of its (pretty integral) doctrines, but I also think that its teaching inspires incomparable good.
Anyway, this brings me to claim – perhaps obviously – that it’s hard to be convinced by, or even to consider, something of which you have no clear conception. So, what is this Conservative thing we espouse? Many people seem unsure. Indeed, some even suggest that the point of ‘conservati/vi/sm’ is that it isn’t a definable political movement.
I suggest we turn – in a rather tangential, some might say flippant way – to Theresa May for an answer. I like Theresa May. She’s sensible. And recently, via Radio 4’s surely-by-now-vastly-overpopulated desert island (is UKIP making inroads there, too?), we learned what kind of music she likes. This seems – perhaps because her diligence and integrity are unmistakable – less patronising than most of the slebby ‘politicians at home’ stuff we’re usually offered. Appearing on the show was also, no doubt, politically expedient for her.
So, because I like metaphors, and because music is one of the things about which I’m as opinionated as I am about conservatism, I thought I’d follow in May’s footsteps (insert boring joke here, relating to how – wow! – she cares enough about her appearance to wear nice shoes, if you must), and use some of my favourite musical moments for political gain. That is, to explicate conservatism. And, therefore, to explain why I think its approach is best suited to solving the country’s problems.
We Conservatives aspire to defend our society’s values, traditions, and institutions against unnecessary change. As a libertarian, I back this up by arguing that these are worth preserving because, in our (relatively) liberal country, they have developed in a (mostly) free, socially beneficial way. And the same is true about music (from now on, when I say music, I mean Western classical art music, sorry). It developed freely, over centuries, in a good way – largely in order to give people the pleasure they desired from it. Which is why I prefer Benjamin Britten to much contemporary composition…
After Beethoven’s seemingly unsurpassable ninth symphony, composers began to panic about music’s future direction. By the midpoint of the twentieth century, this had resulted in en masse (and still often continues in) hardcore experimentation: conceptual installations, complex graphic scores, in-jokes, electronic enhancement, and the abandonment of traditional instrumentation and soundworlds. This approach can produce ephemeral pieces which are funny, clever, or have other specific intrinsic value. But the best creative experimentation (in the sense of that which produces works of art, rather than gimmicks, or cultural commentaries) connects with the tradition from which it comes.
Musically, this necessitates – for example – some form of tonal structure. Ok, if you played a Haydn string quartet to the completely unexposed inhabitants of a newly-discovered land, we know they wouldn’t get it. But its fundamental harmonic intervals derive from both nature and science, and have been appreciated by humankind for millennia. Completely eschewing this isn’t comparable to T.S. Eliot messing around brilliantly with words, or e.e. cummings with punctuation. It’s more reminiscent of a selection violation poem consisting of a string of words whose seemingly aleatoric combination has no sensuous attraction. Or, indeed, a poem containing no words at all.
The passé musical experiments which boast a complete break from tradition are self-defeating mistakes, because harmony (and the other core constituents of music) developed freely, purely to enable our aural pleasure. And the same defensible worth is found in the values and beliefs upon which our big society has grown. Britten is great, not only because he respects tradition, but also because his experimentation exploits its full potential. Consider the beauty of his song Not Even Summer Yet, or Flora and Miles’ chilling nursery-rhyme duets in The Turn of the Screw: these play with tradition, rather than killing it. This is true of Richard Strauss, too, and of Stravinsky. And, today, of James MacMillan and Tariq O’Regan.
Conservatism also has faith in the individual. It asks us to take personal responsibility for ourselves and our communities, rather than becoming dependent upon an over-extended state. It is systemic rather than ideological, and regards – like its founding father, Edmund Burke – human behaviour to be inexplicable and uncontrollable. This confidence in the individual is not only positive, it is also liberal (in the true sense of the word), and opposed to prejudice (so, please, let’s continue to stick out against all-women shortlists). It allows us to work independently together.
This is like the intricate voice-leading of J.S Bach’s counterpoint (the way in which melodies weave together). Any of his fugues exemplify this, from the simplest moment of fughetta in a Brandenburg, to Jesu Meine Freude’s famous double fugue, to the monumental 48. But to hear real clarity of line, it’s hard to beat pianist Angela Hewitt’s recently released recording of JSB’s Art of Fugue. Each interweaving part is as clear, followable, and worthwhile as the whole lot put together. His music works as well horizontally as it does vertically – like a solved Rubik’s Cube, or individuals in a supportive, yet unobtrusive society…
And Bach doesn’t just create great moments; they are augmented by preparation and resolution. His writing teaches us to emulate this – but his rules aren’t dictatorial. They are responsive rather than unbending, helping us to compute what sounds good to our ears. (Which is why contemporary mood composers such as Morten Lauridsen need immersion in a Riemenschneider.) And this reactive framework fits another Conservative ideal: the preference for education over regulation. We should enable people’s autonomy by informing them, rather than enforcing an overriding view of what this should effect.
If I had a bigger word limit, and you had more patience, I would now attempt to merge the offshoots of these Conservative tenets (the championing of parliamentary sovereignty, for instance) with some of my other desert island necessities: the final postlude of Schumann’s Frauenliebe und -leben, the end of Rosenkavalier, the last few tenor entries of Messiah, the most earth-shattering ‘Praise to the Holiest’ in Elgar’s Gerontius, the seven best minutes of Wagner’s Parsifal, every single bar of the Monteverdi Vespers, Brahms’ Ein deutsches Requiem, and Mozart’s piano sonatas…
Never mind. Whilst defining one’s terms is essential, having gained clarity for our arguments by doing this, we are then free to put our views into practice. So, I suppose I can cope with concluding my muso-Con contemplation. Because I’ve got leaflets to deliver, and voters to persuade.