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17 January 2022

From the NS archive: Jazz music

5 February 1921: There is a large commercial demand for music, but not for genius.

By W J Turner

“It is futile to declaim vaguely against all popular music,” wrote Walter J Turner, the New Statesman’s then music critic, in 1921 in response to the head of the Royal College of Music’s “onslaught” against the popularity of beastly tunes”. The music Hugh Allen, the head, was referring to – waltzes, rag-time, foxtrots, the songs of music-halls and theatres – have “a certain smoothness”, and lack “crudeness, clumsiness” and “originality”, too, Turner wrote. Whether these styles were to be taken as seriously as those studied at classical music schools was a matter of “taste”. But scholastic training alone could not equip an individual with good taste, he thought, and there was a snobbery attached to Allen’s comments. “The music-hall songs and rag-times may very well be beastly, sentimental and vulgar,” wrote Turner, “but in so far as they express the life of the people and not their drawing room behaviour, they are far more valuable and far less vulgar” than the music produced by composers at the royal music schools.


I must confess to a liking for jazz music when it is good, and it was unfortunate that Hugh Allen, the new head of the Royal College of Music, when making his recent onslaught on the popular taste for “beastly tunes,” was not a little more specific in his denunciation, for it is futile to declaim vaguely against all popular music.

I suspect that most of our best musicians are not very familiar with the songs of the theatre and the music-hall or with the waltzes, one-steps and foxtrots of the dancing clubs and restaurants; but they are making a great mistake if they imagine that this music is all bad or “beastly.” No one can deny that the tunes of the average musical comedy are, as a rule, without beauty or distinction, but they are extremely academic. They are modelled on tunes that have attracted in the past, and they have a certain smoothness and lack of character that betokens the training of the schools. The absence of crudeness, clumsiness or originality could not be more marked if their composers were pupils of the Royal College or the Royal Academy of Music. One would almost imagine that Hugh Allen believed that an academic musical training and a familiarity with the best music of the world’s greatest composers must inevitably give a man good taste and enable him to write good tunes!

How many of Hugh Allen’s students can write a beautiful tune? The Royal College of Music is lucky if it possesses one. But what is to be done while we are waiting for that one, and is he to provide all the music-hall singers and all the revues and musical comedies with their music? The fact is that there is a large commercial demand for music, and the numerous schools and colleges of music in the country have been busy for a long time meeting that demand. There is no commercial demand for genius because genius cannot be supplied with the certain regularity of the Royal College or Royal Academy or the morning’s milk. But there is no reason why the quality of the commercial product should not be continually improved, and this is, no doubt, what Hugh Allen was really aiming at.

This improvement is dependent upon the existence some faculty called “taste” but I must confess to being wholly sceptical as to the power of scholastic training to impart “taste”. It has not been my experience that men or women acquire “taste” by mere association with good music. It seems to me as unscientific and as false to truth as to think that if I develop my biceps by Sandow exercises my children will inherit them. Everyone can perhaps develop to a certain limited extent a faculty that he has already got, but I expect that even this is an erroneous idea, and that the process of development is not under our control at all. However, be that as it may, experience shows us many an accomplished musician accustomed since childhood to the best music whose “taste” or judgement is no better than that of the first wild baboon one might catch in the Congo.

Does this seem an exaggeration? I am certain it is not so. I believe that the more plausible and more probable a theory or an argument is the less likely it is to be true. The paradoxes of Mr Chesterton are nothing to the paradoxes of reality, and one of the commonest of paradoxes is the trained musician who can discern the beastliness of the tunes he never hears – the tunes of the rag-time comedian and the gramophone dance-record, but is completely taken in by vulgar and banal tunes elaborately disguised for a large orchestra. Speech may have been given us to conceal our thought, but brains or technique are certainly acquired by the modern musician to conceal his spiritual beggary. The amount of nonsense that is written nowadays, for example, about orchestration (I plead guilty to some of it), astonishes us in those moments when we have a little leisure to reflect and find ourselves to be simply repeating what everyone else seems to be saying.

What our academic teachers are really asking for from the composers of popular music is more skill. They are so accustomed to hearing poverty of thought and crudity of feeling well masked by the adroit manipulation of technical devices that when they come up against vulgarity and “beastliness” in all its nakedness they are horrified.

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Composers, like men and women, can be taught good manners, but nobody surely pretends that their essential nature is thereby changed. The same variety of individual character remains underneath; all that has been done is to push that individual character out of sight for the mutual convenience of society. However excellent this may be in daily life it is fatal in art. The music-hall songs and rag-times may very well be beastly, sentimental and vulgar, but in so far as they express the life of the people and not their drawing room behaviour they are far more valuable and far less vulgar than the carefully trained, colourless insipidity of the composer produced by the Royal College or the Royal Academy of Music who has been so remorselessly dosed with Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Wagner and Tchaikovsky, and so combed and flat-ironed that he has no more individuality than any other of the starched shirt-fronts produced by his musical laundry.

What do these students feel? What do they think? Does anyone ever hear anything of them in after life? Would they ever know whether they were listening to Brahms or Beethoven except by sheer exercise of memory? Have they any passion for music? Have they any blood in their veins at all? Their works seem to deny them all the attributes of life. Better far Mr Jack Jones’ Tipperary or the El Reliquario one-step and many a rag-time than Mr Frank Bridge’s Lament for the “Lusitania”, Mr Cyril Jenkins’ Magic Cauldron or Mr Percy Grainger’s huge and elaborate orchestration of apenny worth of high spirits which exhausted nearly a hundred musicians and nearly as many machines at Henry Wood’s Symphony concert last Saturday at the Queen’s Hall.

Read more from the NS archive here, and sign up to the weekly “From the archive” newsletter here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as “Statesmanship” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson).

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