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The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 12, Issue 1 (April 1, 1937)

Music on The Air — Some Deliberations On Democracy And The Disc

page 18

Music on The Air
Some Deliberations On Democracy And The Disc

“Among the new pleasures of life, that of switching off the wireless can never be under-rated.” This deftly phrased jest is perpetrated by one of the most famous of English essayists, E. V. Lucas, and I have come across its blood relations in several forms in the obiter dicta of other eminent writers. When I read this type of remark, I am always reminded of a saying of the famous American philosopher, Dooley. He said one day to his friend Hennessey, “You know, Hinnissey, when I read by the papers that modern youth is decaydent, and that modern times is more corrupt than the ould wans, and that democracy is a failure, there is one thing that makes me feel aisy.” “And phwat is that?” said Hennessey. “That it is Not so,” said Dooley.

The only thing wrong, therefore, with the witticism of Mr. E. V. Lucas about the radio is that it is Not so. The pleasure that can never be under-rated is that of switching On the wireless. It is true of the long suburban street in which I live at anyrate, for if I travel its winding length early in the morning, there is only one silent member in its multitude of houses.

Schubert, whose classic melodies have provided scores of modern jazz tunes.

Schubert, whose classic melodies have provided scores of modern jazz tunes.

When the scientific ingenuity of modern man makes possible an invention fraught with the immense potentialities of the cinema or the radio, the impact of the invader upon the castles of privilege, tradition and established usage, is so terrific that reception by the community takes as many forms as there are kinds of private opinions. Discussion and criticism, defence and attack, grow in violence and bitterness, and claims and counter-charges are made with an enthusiasm which has no limit.

A little clear thinking (a pastime that has never been popular since the dawn of time), and a little calm consideration will reveal the interesting fact that radio has elected to go its own way, and that it has taken a route which is often a complete surprise to both defenders and attackers. This article is intended to be an examination of some little-known aspects of the new entertainment form, and some attempt to foretell its future. I also would like to deal with the array of faulty criticism which is so often directed at the radio, and, by implication, at those who are responsible for the programmes.

I have, as it were, been present at the birth of both the cinema and the radio, and I watched as well, the swift rise and slow descent of the intermediate device, the gramophone. In each case, the early apostles of both gave deep voice to excited assertions and prophecies which were far too overleaping. With transatlantic fervour the cinema chieftains predicted the end of the legitimate stage, and when the sound films arrived, the end of the concert platform, the opera and the revue. Similarly the wireless captains foresaw the end of the press, the platform and the concert chamber.

These thrilling forecasts naturally aroused a host of fears, and an army of antagonists. But Old Father Time and the human being known as the “man in the street” have, in practice, a salutary method of dealing with this type of controversy. None of the farreaching results has arrived. Both forms of entertainment have slowly but surely settled into their places, entered into the warp and woof of the communal fabric, and can now be surveyed with some calm, and with some certitude as to which way they are heading. My first proposition is that the radio is the mightiest engine so far discovered for the defence of basic democratic rights, one of which is the right to self education and personal aesthetic decisions as opposed to dogmatism and authority. To quote from the widely read Edmond Holmes: “The struggle for freedom is in its essence, a struggle against the deadening pressure of dogmatism, a struggle for the right to live one's own life, to grow along the lines of one's own being.” The radio has taken its place already as an advance guard commander of the forces fighting this long campaign. Let us consider some of the reasons.

It is certain that when the major sillinesses of our social system are remedied, that every home will possess a wireless set. Already, the radio, as the most highly specialised form of one sense entertainment, has the largest public ever assembled since the first harp recitals of David. Its capacity for good is therefore greater than all other forms of time spending put together. It has some distinctive and integral difficulties, for its appeal is to the ear alone. Now the aural sense is the easiest of all in it's operation. We can close our eyes if we do not like a face or a view. We cannot furl our ears. Consequently, listening is almost an automatic sense process which brings an accompanying danger. A book requires some mental effort to read. The words that lie on the printed page require imagination and certain brain processes, before conversion into emotion, mental images or thought. The stage play is slightly easier. Here the transmutation is assisted by the spoken word, the gesture of the actor, the scenery or the settings. It still demands some attention, some degree of concentration and rationalisation. In the case of the lecture, the orchestral concert and so on, these are helped by the living personality of the performing artists, and by another consideration. Those who are listening to an orator, or to music page 19
Mendelssohn, whose works have been pillaged for many notable waltz tunes.

Mendelssohn, whose works have been pillaged for many notable waltz tunes.

from the concert platform, have gone to the show with no other purpose but to listen. They have submitted themselves, by personal decision to audience discipline, and to the compulsion to “hear the man out.” There is no knob which can be reached and lazily switched off. The radio in the home can so easily become merely a background of noise, an obligato to the day's doings from the morning job with the vacuum cleaner to the bridge game in the evening. Consider George who used to play the violin in his club orchestra and is passionately fond of chamber music. He is listening intently to Haydn's lovely Trio in G Major, and his wife opens the door to say, “George here's Aunt Mabel, and for goodness sake don't say anything about the cost of the new wireless. I'm hoping she'll take Agnes to Rotorua these holidays.”

This instance supplies an example of the difficulty facing the radio entrepreneur, the problem of first arresting, and then maintaining attention. That it has been partly solved is a tribute first to the fertility of resource of the providers of the entertainment, but most of all to the power of this form of amusement over the public's tastes. Now, as the appeal of the radio is to the ear alone, and the greatest degree of aural enjoyment is produced by music, we can take it as obviously certain that the basis of the radio pyramid is music. All other uses are subsidiary, even if the new instrument does contain all the range of uses of human speech.

The appreciation of music is a subject infinitely crowded with points for mischief in discussion and acrimony in the conflict of opinion. Consider the case of “classical” or “good” music. I confess at once to being a lover of “good” music. I am a trained musician, brought up in a musical household, and acquiring therefore a fund of exact knowledge about music. It is often forgotten that music in its modern form is less than five hundred years old, and that it is an art form of mathematical precision and basic laws. These apply to the work of the song writer on New York's “Tin Pan Alley” as well as to the writings of Delius. The forms of musical expression, however, are changing all the time, as is the case with all arts which give pleasure to the senses.

You can tell at once the value of the pronouncements of any musical critic by the breadth of his tastes. I heard a lady of very “arty” pretensions, ask Kreisler why he had included “Blue Skies” in his programme, and the great violinist said, “Because it is a most beautiful melody.” The greatest of all musical critics, W. J. Turner, said that Irving Berlin had a gift of melody comparable with Schubert, and I remember in a long critique of his of an ultra modern work by Stravinsky, in which he laments the dearth of melody, he finished by saying, “Now I've just heard ‘Valencia’ and ‘Valencia’ is a darned good tune.”

The source of a vast amount of wariness and suspicion where classical music is considered is dogmatism. As soon as the voice of authority speaks as to what is to be rated as good, or as bad, music, the average citizen is in rebellion. The extent of his rebellion is the measure of his civic health. There is also the complication that the standards of “good’ music have become the playthings of the social spectacle. One of the best things in young Vanderbilt's impish “Farewell to Fifth Avenue” is the revelation of the real motives behind the American aristocracy's support of the New York Metropolitan Grand Opera House. Nor is America the only country in which grand opera is as much a medium for the display of diamonds and gowns, as for any critical enjoyment of the best in musical artistry. Yet many of these folk are capable of smiling in a superior way when someone admits to liking “Mellow ‘Cello” or “Lucky Star.”

R.K.O. Radio Pictures' Star. Irving Berlin, composer of over 500 melodies, many of them of striking originality. (With him is the screen star, Ginger Rogers).

R.K.O. Radio Pictures' Star.
Irving Berlin, composer of over 500 melodies, many of them of striking originality. (With him is the screen star, Ginger Rogers).

On the other hand, snap criticisms are often levelled at classical music. It is accused of complexity and lack of tunefulness. The slow movement in the Brahms Concerto for Violin and Piano is as simple and rich with the honey of melody as the most haunting of popular waltz tunes. I have seen a programme manager rifling Tschai-kowsky for melody strips and musical effects to decorate a revue, and hundreds of song hits have been pillaged from our great composers, notably Beethoven, Handel, Schubert, and Brahms. Cinemagoers are familiar with “The Tune Detective,” which is devoted to the task of uncovering the lineage of all the latest hits, and is page 20 page 21 now on the air in New Zealand. There is the case of the misunderstood term “Chamber Music.” This generic name includes compositions, written, as the name implies for the entertainment of people, musically trained, in surroundings of quiet and with opportunity for concentration. They are always compact of melody, but their treatment is leisurely and in ordered progression. There is a body of musical opinion which regards the radio as an unsuitable vehicle for this form on the grounds that it is, after all, a mechanical device and subject therefore to inevitable slight faults in reproduction, and that chamber music requires listeners to be in the mood for it. Perhaps the solution is to have an evening for it when supporters can arrange for the necessary environment.

However, this splendid fact emerges. The radio has brought to millions the truth about “good” or classical music. The terrors have evaporated through hearing after hearing; but best of all it has enabled listeners to make their own private decision. I quote from Holmes again: “And the higher the faculties, the more essential it is that we ourselves should exercise them if they are to make any growth.” Of course in every sphere of human endeavour there must be leadership, but it must have solid grounds. In the case of music, the voice of authority can be disregarded if it proceeds from anyone who cannot at least handle one instrument with reasonable competence. No one would accept the judgment on a game as authoritative of one who had never kicked a Rugby ball. This is not to be confused with the right to enjoy music, for in the instance quoted there are thousands of New Zealand girls who enjoy a North v. South Island match.

But I remember encountering in Sydney a formidable figure in the realms of one art who was pontifically enunciating the verdict that Handel was a lesser musician than Beethoven, and I found as a result of a brace of questions that he did not even know the order of the movements in the Ninth Symphony. It was like a man solemnly awarding Newton, Leibnitz or Diaphantus their places in the mathematics ladder who could not himself do a quadratic equation. This is one of the foundations of the world view of the highbrow, that useful word which, according to St. John Ervine, represents the American capacity for rejuvenating the best of Anglo Saxon speech. The interior chuckle in the word highbrow comes from the shrewd public observation on certain pretensions, and it is derived from the common habit of folk who have distinguished themselves in one art, arrogating to themselves the right to appraise and set valuations in all avenues of art endeavour. It is possible for a first rank poet to be a musician, and for a painter to be a good essayist. Samuel Butler was a typical modern version of the “Admirable Crichton,” and there are hundreds of other instances. But authority as to standards of any medium of aesthetic enjoyment can only proceed from practical knowledge of that particular art, and no other method.

In any case, the shores of history are littered with the wrecks of governments who beached themselves in trying to regulate the amusements of their people. From well meaning republic to enlightened despotisms, they could interfere with every phase of their citizens' lives until they started on a regimen of recreation. The present unpleasantness in Spain would be over in a week or two if one side would dare to advocate the abolition of the bull ring.

Noel Gay, the author of “All the King's Horses,” and countless other English successes.

Noel Gay, the author of “All the King's Horses,” and countless other English successes.

The radio, through the immensity of its scope, through its infinite variety of appeal, and through the sheer width and immensity of volume of its cascade of sound, forbids any infringement of the liberty of the listener. It reaches the man who flippantly claims that “Bach had only two tunes, the one fast and the other slow, and I think the last one is the first played slowly.” It conspires to suddenly awaken some chance and casual listener to the beauty of the tune of “Caro Nome” from Rigoletto. If the latter had been called “The Hunchback of Mantua” or if “Pique Dame” were better known as “The Queen of Spades,” I think some of the caution about listening to their melodies would disappear. The foreign language difficulty is a genuine one and the lifting of supercilious eyebrows or the recommendation to study will not cure it. The astute advertising stations in U.S.A. who liberally use Grand Opera recognise this.

At any rate the radio is operating to cure us all of quarrelling about the “high” and “low” of entertainment or of aesthetic valuations. I had a very hoity toity musician cornered the other day, and made him hearken to Clapham and Dwyer. He has become a fan of that delicious couple and I have all the feelings of a successful missionary.

Viscount Harberton, in his clever exposures of pomposities and pretences in conventional authority, claimed that a lad who could tell a Ford from a Bentley by its engine sound as it passed a distant street intersection, was exercising just as valuable a gift of aesthetic discrimination as the experts who took months to decide whether a picture was a genuine Tintoretto or not. This is a delicious over-statement, but it does dispose of the lofty oracle who wants to tell us that there is some mystic difference in quality between the Invocation in “Iolanthe” and “Trema in cor te lessi” from “Aida.”

I have not touched upon the other capacities of the radio; its magic gift of the short wave which brings a Moscow girl advocate and a rich Berlin voice into our sitting rooms to plead their opposing doctrines; its power of news dissemination from the New Zealand Cup winner to the prospects for to-morrow's yachting. These will work in their own inevitable way to the only form of human progress which is real—the widening of the area of human brotherhood. I am concerned in this story only with the highest manifestation of this one sense medium, the art of music. Radio comes to us as the latest and greatest gift of human scientific wizardry, bringing with it the further benison of the right to self-development. The very splendour of its profuseness, the very fact of its refusal to be dragooned or regulated, its capacity for universality, its exuberance of supply, and its wealth of resources, all conspire to make it the friend of liberal democracy.

So we will translate Mr. E. V. Lucas back to fact. “Among the new pleasures of life, that of switching On the radio can never be over-rated.”

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