Most people would consider my musical listening rather highbrow, but my taste is not exclusively ‘classical’. In fact my likes are quite catholic. As far as I am concerned a song is good or bad regardless of its genre. You may take a melody and perform it any way you choose – as a pop song, or an art song or as jazz. The results will be different but equally valid.
The words are an essential part of a song, which distinguishes instrumental from vocal music. A pop song is by definition vocal, and popular music consists almost entirely of songs. In this field those of Cole Porter and Noel Coward are super melodies and lyrics too. There are also some fine tunes from more recent times than the 70 or 80 years ago of London Pride or Kiss Me, Kate. Neil Sedaka has written some great songs and I love virtually all the work by the Carpenters. I am not sure I would include the songs by the Beatles in this list. The term includes three songwriters; among these I would place John Lennon as the most interesting personality although not the most tuneful composer.
But although all music originated with song it has gone far beyond the simple expression found in popular song. There is no popular equivalent of the symphony, nor of a Chopin Etude, and the emotional range of music is far greater than occurs in the popular style. Nothing approaches the serenity of Spem in Alium by Thomas Tallis, the melancholy of Schubert’s Winterreise or the tragedy of Purcell in Dido’s Lament.
In my teens when I was first developing my musical taste I was utterly taken with the Baroque; this included Handel but above all it was represented by the music of J. S. Bach. At the same time I was very taken by the works of Elgar. In exploring the English composers I already knew of Peter Warlock since singing a carol by him as a child, but aged about 30 I came across two other of his contemporaries who were writing before the Second World War, Gerald Finzi and E. J. Moeran. They were both only partly English. Finzi was of Italian Jewish descent and Moeran, although he spent his childhood in Norfolk, was partly Irish. The works of Finzi are now popular on Classic FM, but Moeran has sunk even deeper into obscurity.
In spite of my reference to these composers I am not greatly enamoured of the twentieth century. The twenty-first seems rather better, although some modern pieces seem extremely repetitive. The nineteenth century has some great figures – Mendelssohn, Brahms, and Beethoven but towering above them all is Schubert. I know that most people would place Beethoven as the greatest composer of all time, but he is patchy in my opinion. The Ninth Symphony I find almost unlistenable, and its Ode to Joy (the European Anthem) a boring and pedestrian tune. In disliking the Ninth I suspect I am not quite alone. Although there have been numerous symphonies written since Beethoven, there have not been many choral symphonies and no popular ones.
On the whole though, my taste in music has receded into the distant past as I have grown older. The sixteenth century English Madrigals have long been particular favourites of mine, but recently I have discovered the works of William Bird. This is religious music, and going further back into the middle ages this becomes much more the rule than the exception. (The jongleurs or ‘wandering minstrels’ were a notable part of the exception to ecclesiastical music.) Secular folk songs existed back then , but being largely unwritten we have lost much of the repertoire. One of the earliest composers whose music we still have was a woman (Hildegard of Bingen), and she was a nun of course. It goes to show for how long the ability of half the human race has been almost entirely ignored. Composers are still overwhelmingly male.