[Marxism] Constant Lambert's 'Music Ho!'

Graham M. gkmilner at v-app.com.au
Sun Dec 7 10:24:36 MST 2008

Dear B.,
             I finished re-reading Constant Lambert's 'Music Ho!   A Study
of Music in Decline' yesterday.   It is a most enjoyable book - Lambert was
a talented writer, as well as a composer of some renown.   I happened to be
listening to ABC FM yesterday afternoon, and an educational programme was
on.   Constant Lambert's name came up, and 'Music Ho!' was mentioned.   The
commentator maintained that Lambert was extremely self-opinionated, and had
held that Western music had been in decline since the 13th century, since
the era of Gregorian chant, and that this decline included the peaks
normally considered to have occurred in the history of Western music since
then (Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, etc.)   This commentator had obviously not
read 'Music Ho!', and was probably relying on some ill-informed secondary
reference.   It is true that Lambert is opinionated, but that is what makes
his book so entertaining, and occasionally maddening.

The 'decline' of music that Lambert is talking about refers to the
contemporary scene (ie. post-World War One - the book was published
originally in 1934).   Lambert is a very well-informed critic, and his
judgements about pre-WWI Impressionism and the music of Debussy, about
Stravinsky, Schoenberg, nationalism (and Russian music in particular), jazz,
the impact of recording and broadcasting on musical styles, and many other
topics repay the attention of the reader.   Lambert enthusiastically
endorses the music of Sibelius and, although he is a bit patronising about
African-American composers and musicians in general, he recognises the
particular importance of Duke Ellington as a composer.

Lambert considers that the symphony had, at the time he was writing, been in
decline since Beethoven, and that the examples of later 19th century
symphonic writing were inferior to the efforts of the earlier masters.   I
had a recording of the Dvorak 'New World' symphony, which I bought in 1968.
The notes on the sleeve quoted from 'Music Ho!', as Lambert had mentioned
the 'New World', along with Cesar Franck's symphony in D Minor, and
Tchaikovsky's 5th, as examples of inferior work.   I thought that the 'New
World' was incredibly good when I first heard it, and it does have a wealth
of melodic invention.   But I believe now that this symphony is structurally
weak, and some passages in it I find so banal as to be virtually impossible
to listen to.   I don't know all the Dvorak symphonies, But I now prefer the
2nd (7th): I believe that one to be a more substantial work.

As I have said Lambert is a good critic, and he is also a good musical
sociologist.   I don't believe that his political sympathies would have been
with the left, but he raises important questions about the evolution of
culture in the 20th century and situates the position of music as a 'high
art' in the light of the social and political upheavals of the age.
Lambert's conclusions are possibly comparable with T.S. Eliot's in the
latter's great poem 'The Wasteland', which surveyed the social and cultural
scene in the West after World War One.   Eliot, like Lambert, has rather an
elitist standpoint, but the picture drawn of a society and a culture in
decline is telling.    A US Marxist critic, Sidney Finkelstein, in his book
'How Music Expresses Ideas' (originally published in the early 1950s) moves
the story along from Lambert's era.   While like Lambert discerning a
tendency to decay in contemporary Western 'art' music, Finkelstein more
readily and openly embraces popular forms like jazz (and by extension, rock
and roll) as being representative of the music of the people in the 20th

Best wishes,


(Graham Milner)

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