The finished symphony

NEVER before has Scotland's classical music scene seemed in such terminal decline. Orchestral audiences are fading to excruciatingly embarrassing levels. Scottish Opera has been subjected to a sustained mauling from the Executive and arts 'tsars', leading to an inevitable cataclysmic disintegration. Now we hear of a monumental dumbing-down in Scottish music education, involving a drastic plunge in standards with catastrophic potential for Scottish music.

Are we now facing a doomsday scenario for classical music in Scotland which, even 20 years ago, seemed unimaginable? This may be a good time to reflect on what we may be about to lose, once and for all. It might also be the right time to examine the unique claims of art music, as distinct from other styles.

To most untutored ears classical music obviously 'works' in a different way to other forms. It functions according to a different set of rules and expectations. It does not exist solely to fulfil the requirements of 'entertainment'. It can, of course, entertain magnificently, but its ultimate aim is beyond that. This aim is bound up intimately with its materials and in the way these materials can be organised.

These aims, materials and principles of organisation are now deemed redundant and unpopular in the wider culture because, even when entertaining at a bargain-basement level, the work is resolutely unable to operate as 'mood-music'. One cannot demote classical music to the background (in spite of concerted attempts by Classic FM) while one pursues other 'more important' activities like chatting with friends, making the dinner or reading. Serious music demands to be engaged with totally, or totally ignored. The act of composition is as much an act of reasoning as musical intuition. The composer sets up a dialogue between musical materials, and this intellectual conversation sparks the bigger picture - the developmental form in which the music and its emotions are shaped. In order for this to make sense, in order for these ingredients to work and to be communicated fully, one has to listen in a concentrated way from the beginning to the end. This may take time.

The complex large-scale forms of serious music unfold their narratives in time with an authority that cannot be hurried. For these narratives to speak fluently, the listener requires to give up time. In our age this requires a significant sacrifice, but something of the essence of ourselves has to be sacrificed to music. Whether we are performers, composers or listeners, we are required to give something up, something of our humanity, something of our precious time. This 'obedience' to music allows us to learn a service that is a perfect freedom. The 'obedience' of listening and following stretches and deepens us. We are physically challenged as performers, imaginatively as listeners.

The musicologist Julian Johnson writes in Who Needs Classical Music? that serious music "is unlikely to be very meaningful at all if approached as background music. Predominant uses of music in daily life tend to reinforce a distracted mode of listening that favours certain kinds of music, many of which are deliberately designed for it, but that fails to make sense of classical music... a different approach to music becomes unthinkable to a large number of people."

Our culture forces serious music to function solely as entertainment or not at all. Many people cannot imagine listening to music and doing nothing else for any sustained stretch of time. I once gave a lecture on this very subject to a group of trainee teachers in a Scottish university. They listened diligently to me speak, taking copious notes. As soon as I played a musical example the chatting began, proving my point in the most immediate and depressing way. They were not used to giving any reasonable amount of attention to a mere piece of music. In this light, the triumph, not just of the visual and the verbal, but of the banal and the bestial, seems complete.

It would take a revolution to reverse it. But it is the very nature of serious music (including its modern blossoming) that presents such an uncomfortable challenge for modern culture. Johnson says "neither the word 'intellectual' or 'spiritual' captures its essential activity; the projection of that definitively human awareness of being more than the sum of one's parts".

The de-sacralisation of our world, so enthusiastically cultivated by the new ruling elites, stands at a polar opposite from the potential for transcendence claimed by classical music. In that sense, the battles for serious music are part of a wider culture war apparent at various levels of modern Scotland.

What is it about serious music that offends the triumphalistic trendies basking in the apparent victories of a demystified popular culture? Is it its very ability to rise from the mundane and stretch towards a sense of the extra-ordinary that gets right up their noses? Is it the suggestion that there may be such a thing as a secret inner life which cannot be reduced to a rigorously enforced commonality? That there may be no such thing as a closed universe?

Serious music presents a counter-cultural challenge to secularism's dead-handed confirmation of things as they are. Classical music faces down this ideological capitulation to the materialistic doctrines which now rule our lives. The boundless vision of composers through the ages points to the realisation of ourselves as something greater than we are.

This is why lovers of music refer to it as the most spiritual of the arts. It is not just seasoned theologians who use this terminology, but countless ordinary people, believers and sceptics, who will talk of the transformation of lives by music, of moods and perspectives being altered, of attitudes shifting and renewed meaning taking root in lives touched by a complex and discursive form.

If Scotland is to capitalise on its cultural successes, those involved in cultural provision should never lose sight of the different claims that different musics make for themselves. The politically correct view that there is no meaningful difference between 'high' and 'low' art must be challenged anew.

This lazy relativism in cultural judgments does no favours to the living Scottish musician regardless of style and genre, and shortchanges a society that wants to invest fully and intelligently in its cultural strengths.

When some musicians claim that their work functions most significantly as entertainment, those claims should be taken seriously. When others claim that their work functions, principally, as art, they also should be taken seriously.

If our suspicions are right and the musical doomsday scenario is now upon us, it will be an appalling confirmation of Scotland's inexorable spiritual decline. Some will mourn this as a monumental human disaster, others may celebrate it as a sign of democratic, non-elitist progress. For me, a Scottish composer, it can only mean one thing - another step towards the abyss.

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