Sunday, 17 May 2015

"Die heilige Cäcilie oder die Gewalt der Musik"

What's this about? What's with the German title?
Well, these words have been in my mind over another wonderfully successful meet-up of the three  twin towns, Kirkham, Ancenis and Bad Brückenau over last weekend, May 15th - 17th. "Die heilige Cäcilie oder die Gewalt der Musik" is the title of a short story by the  18th/19th century German writer Heinrich von Kleist. I studied his work as part of my degree at university many years ago. It's a weird and disturbing tale: I can't remember much detail, but the title refers to St Cecilia, traditionally the patron saint of music and "the power of music", and it's that idea that is my blog post theme.
It's not a remotely original idea, but music is a truly powerful thing. This has been vibrantly apparent over this past weekend in Ancenis, as I have had the pleasure of  being present at the meet-up between the bands of our French and German twin towns. Each of these towns, small provincial communities of around 8000 inhabitants like Kirkham, has a municipal band consisting of ordinary people, who share a love of making music. The two bands are both what we would call "concert bands" - brass, woodwind, and percussion  - and crucially, their members are a mix of genders, ages and social classes. Both bands are directed by young men, and both sets of players give every indication that they simply love making music. When these two bands come together (and like their towns, they are  formally "twinned"), it illustrates very powerfully that music is a common language with the power to transcend boundaries of language and culture. Their repertoire is in both cases mixed, but very much drawn from international common culture, notably from popular classics and anglo-american light music. The two bands clearly enjoy and appreciate each others' work, and frequently play joint concerts, led by one or other conductor, and to witness their work at such times is truly life-enhancing. The common language of music means that they have so much more in common than what divides them.
There is, however, a sad side to this: the lack of an English equivalent. Kirkham has no town band and is frankly unlikely to have one in the foreseeable future. Why is it that a country with our love of music, our artistic talent and creativity, does not foster a culture of music-making in our communities? I don't know the answer, but I have to wonder whether it is a consequence of our education system, which does so much to encourage and value the arts and other extracurricular activities as a big part of how we educate our children. Every British school, primary or secondary, state or private, prides itself on the breadth and quality of what it offers its pupils - look at the website of any school and you will see as much about sport, music and drama as you will about the academic curriculum and exam results. French and German schools pay lip service to the arts and sport, but do not boast anything like the provision that even a poorly resourced school in the UK can demonstrate, and this means, I suspect, that it is outside of school that young people in those countries pursue such activities. Difficult to say which way is better, but I would point out that a crucial disadvantage of the UK model is that it limits severely what people can do after leaving school, and just perhaps fosters an attitude that music, drama and sport is something that kids do at school, watched and admired by their parents, but then "outgrow" as they move on to do more adult things.
I feel really bad saying that, because I work in school which has a wonderful tradition of  sporting, dramatic and musical excellence, and I cannot imagine my school without these excellent activities, but I do wonder whether we in Britain are too dependent on our schools to foster artistic and sporting talent. Like so much else in life, I guess there must be a happy medium, because everything I see and hear about schools in France and Germany makes me value and cherish the "educating the whole person" culture which is so central to the British system. I remember a French national whose son was at my school praising the "polyvalent" nature of the English system which had given his son the chance to sing a Haydn mass, play rugby and act Shakespeare all in one year at the age of 12. Perhaps we in the UK should look at how we encourage  our young people to move on from what they do at school. And especially in music, maybe we should encourage parents and other adults to play with and alongside their children, rather than just standing and watching.

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