Fun in England

After six whirlwind days in England, I get the idea that they’re ahead of us in some ways, as we all move toward the future of classical music. 

But more on that in another post. First, the now-famous debate I took part in (famous, to judge from the media/online/Twitter mentions of it). The proposition being argued, at the Cambridge Union Society, was that classical music is irrelevant to younger people. I was one of four people taking the affirmative side, and — when the audience, mostly of Cambridge University students — voted on which side should win, we got totally trampled. Classical music, the students said — about 400 of them, with 1200 more, I was told, on line outside, hoping to get in — is relevant to younger people. 

And, you know…I’m not sure that’s the wrong decision. For one thing, classical music is alive and well at Cambridge University, so many of these students may have been speaking for themselves. (How representative they are would be another question.)

But above all, I think the proposition was flawed. Inside it lurk three distinct (though related) ideas — that classical music is in fact not relevant to younger people (which on the whole is correct), that it could be relevant, and that it should be. 

So who’d dissent from the last two thoughts? As I said in my own argument, classical music certainly is something younger people (and older people, too) should care about, as part of a balanced cultural diet, which would include old art and new art, high art and popular art. In fact, the anomaly right now is that many people do have that kind of varied culture, but that classical music is very much not part of it. Which means, in the debate’s terms, that classical music is right now not relevant (in practice), but that it could and should be.

So who knows what the vote meant? I enjoyed all the arguments on both sides, but was never quite sure that any of us — or many people in the audience — knew precisely what we were arguing about. 

And what was most fun, in the end? Besides, that is, getting dressed up in black tie (should have gotten a photo!), and staying for several days as the guest of John Eatwell, the president of Queens’ College, Cambridge, sleeping in the Queen Mum’s room, so-called because the Queen Mother slept in it often, even in the last year of her very long life. (She died two years ago at age 101.)

Apart from those delights, the most fun was meeting my co-debaters, and having warm, stimulating, friendly talks about the larger issues raised by the debate. Would be lovely to reconvene sometime, and discuss the whole thing in public, not as a debate, but as a problem to be solved. 

The debate was streamed, and at some point soon will be archived on the Cambridge Union’s website and/or Facebook page. Right now you can watch one terrific excerpt, in which Kissy Sellout (not wearing black tie) teaches celebrity classical music advocate Stephen Fry how to DJ. 

Many thanks to Lord and Lady Eatwell — smart, lively people — for their friendship and hospitality. Lady Eatwell, Suzi Digby is a very fine conductor of vocal music, and a passionate advocate. Her new group Vocal Futures is going to present the St. Matthew Passion, involve a few hundred young people, and then quite seriously study how the experience affects them, over several years. Good project! 
 And a special shout to the Cambridge student who found me a charger for my iPhone! 
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