Public values

posted by Nick Hornby February 25, 2008 at 3:38 pm Music

For a moment Martin Kettle’s impassioned article in the Guardian almost persuaded me to listen to a Beethoven piano sonata….until he began with the bullying, as cultural absolutists are wont to do. He tells us that some opinions are “wrong”, that “some things are just better than others, full stop”, that the best music is capable of “ennobling” us, and that “musical taste and public values need improving”. (I’m not sure how public values got slipped in there. Nor am I sure what they are, or why on earth he would think that those of us who don’t listen to Beethoven wish to see them remain at their current level. For the record: I’m all for improving anything. Why not?) At one point, he even seems to be arguing that Beethoven himself is an elite: “It’s not the audience that is an elite for liking the music. It is Beethoven for writing it in the first place.”  What is interesting in these sorts of diatribes is that frequently the language used to express them breaks down altogether. How can one man be an elite? How can an opinion be wrong? And if  “some things are just better than others, full stop”, then surely all cultural criticism is redundant? Just give us the league tables – the facts, as Mr Gradgrind would say – and be done with it. Whatever else Beethoven is good for, he doesn’t seem to do much for cogency.

I am prepared to accept that Martin Kettle is a nobler person than me – it wouldn’t be hard. But if Beethoven is capable of ennobling us, then it stands to reason that the noblest people in the world must be classical critics and classical musicians, given that they are exposed to his music more than any of us.  We are therefore long overdue an official scientific study comparing the nobility of Beethoven aficionados with that of people who only listen to, say, African music. And how much nobility do they need, these people? After twenty years or so, shouldn’t they be taken out of the Royal Festival Hall and put to the public good? They’re wasted where they are. Anyone that noble should be running a public service, maybe even the UN.

It’s always the Nazis who put the mockers on this sort of stuff; Goebbels and Hitler loved Beethoven, and it seems uncontroversial to claim that whatever power Beethoven’s music has to improve us as human beings somehow didn’t work on them. I would like to propose a counter argument: that nobody who owns a bootleg copy of Bruce Springsteen’s show at the Main Point, Bryn Mawr in 1975 has ever ordered the bombing of a country.  If this turns out to be true, then I have more evidence for the ameliorating effects of early live Springsteen on the soul than Martin Kettle can ever muster on Beethoven’s behalf.

“Public values” would be improved, apparently, if “the BBC was willing to put classical music or theatre” – it apparently doesn’t matter which, so  this clearly isn’t just about  Beethoven –  “on its main channels. …But those days are gone, sadly.” One thing I never understand: why do self-confessed elitists like Kettle want everyone to join their elite?  Because then it wouldn’t be an elite any more, and they’d have to find something else.