Moved to tears

Music - Stephen Pollard argues that context is all, whether it's Beethoven, Barber or Verdi

For nearly two decades, I had a season ticket to the Proms - until fast-dawning middle age meant that sitting, rather than standing, began to have its attractions. It was, and still is, the best cultural bargain in the world, working out at less than £2 a concert. In fact, there was only one thing wrong with it: the looks on the faces of my friends who were suddenly not interested in music when they found out what I did of a weekday evening. All they knew about the Proms was the Last Night. As far as they knew, the Last Night was the Proms. Every night. Did I really choose to spend two months a year belting out "Land of Hope and Glory" and "Rule Britannia" in the company of those puerile, gormless, chinless, charmless, flag-waving idiots in their not-quite-fitting dinner jackets?

I have always hated the Last Night. It represents everything loathsome about a certain strand of British life: insular, trivial, irrelevant and utterly lacking in self-awareness. But, for most of my time as a season-ticket holder, I managed to turn it to my advantage. Along with many others who had similar sense, I would turn up on the day and flog my season ticket (for more than the face value), thus neatly enjoying a free two months of decent music and making a profit in the process. (The humourless authorities now insist on pictures on the season tickets, ending a practice that managed to be worthwhile at once culturally, musically, politically and socially.)

Did it really take the US tragedy to get rid of the Last Night and all that it celebrated? The last time anyone dared interfere was during the Gulf war in 1990, when the scheduled conductor, Mark Elder, expressed the outrageous view that singing "Rule Britannia" at such a fraught time was perhaps not such a good idea. The reaction was as if he had suggested that it be replaced with a ceremonial burning of the Union Jack. He was invited to fall on his baton, and was promptly replaced as conductor.

It's all very well dismissing the entire event as an irrelevance, but music does matter. There have been few more divisive issues in Israel than whether or not Wagner's music should be played live. When Daniel Barenboim decided to do just that as an encore this summer, the music was heckled, dozens walked out, the Knesset debated his actions and there were calls by influential figures for him never again to be offered engagements in Israel. More constructively, Barenboim's ongoing project to bring young Arab and Israeli musicians together in a youth orchestra has the power to heal. And when the great Italian conductor Arturo Toscanini defied Mussolini's direct orders and refused to play a fascist anthem, he not only bravely risked his life, but also made a statement that echoed across Italy and the world.

It is probably too much to hope that the new-look Last Night will be anything other than nausea interrupta, given what it took to bring about just one year's change. But there could not have been better choices than Barber's Adagio for Strings, Tippett's Spirituals and the final, "Ode to Joy" movement from Beethoven's Ninth to represent what Leonard Slatkin, the American conductor of the Last Night, called "unity through music . . . to help underscore the long healing process that must take place".

Barber's iconic Adagio shows that music can be both popular and elevating. It is more than just the familiar soundtrack from films such as Platoon and Elephant Man; indeed, its emotional power was never more evident than when it was played at the memorial services for both FDR and JFK.

However many times we might hear certain pieces, context is all. Benjamin Britten argued that recordings could undermine the power and intent of music. Bach's Passions, for example, were written for a specific religious occasion - Easter, not to be heard all year round or, even worse, whenever we feel like turning on a recording. But, overfamiliar as we might be with some works, their greatness lies in their ever-present power to move. Some years ago, I was present at a Verdi Requiem given at the London Royal Opera House in honour of a stagehand who had died in an accident there. Tears streamed down the faces of the entire audience (or, more aptly, congregation). Again, although Beethoven's Ninth may now be an orchestral staple - not forgetting that its "Ode to Joy" theme doubles up as the EU anthem - in the right circumstances, it loses none of its potency. Leonard Bernstein's decision to change Freude (joy) to Freiheit (freedom) for his Berlin performance marking the fall of the Wall may have seemed schmaltzy in prospect, but the power and sense of occasion were so palpable that they shine through in the recording made on the day.

There were genuine and powerful objections to the idea of Sir Simon Rattle performing the same symphony with the Vienna Philharmonic on the site of the Mauthausen concentration camp in May 2000, only a few months after the entry of Jorg Haider's Freedom Party into the Austrian government. I found it unsettling, to say the least. But Rattle's justification, that "music is intimately bound up with all the events of its planet", cannot be disputed. Great music is not just a collection of notes in a noise. It can express something to which no other form of communication can come close.

This article first appeared in the 24 September 2001 issue of the New Statesman, The war that Bush cannot win