The Boulevardier

boulevardierA couple of days ago, I wrote another musical entry about Joseph Rheinberger, and a comment led me to look at the world of Palm Court and Light music. I suppose I have taken a disdaining attitude to light music as to modern “pop” music, preferring serious music from the romantic, classical and baroque traditions.

Downloading a lot of this stuff from Youtube, with the idea of compiling a disk for use in my car, I remembered my days as a schoolboy in the late 1960’s listening to Friday Night is Music Night on BBC Radio 2 and The Organist Entertains, a broadcast for lovers of the cinema organ. Light music was on its way out in the 1960’s with pop replacing the jazz and swing of the 50’s. Sometimes, my parents would take the family out to a restaurant (where we wore jackets and ties and were on our best behaviour and table manners) and we would get some sappy Mantovani strings drifting in through a loudspeaker. The food was usually good. But, was it worth the effort of putting on an appearance in society? With most of my contemporaries and even my parents’ generation, light music was relegated to being something in the background for eating in restaurants, being bored to tears in department stores and working.

My own experience with music has been divided between my early tastes, my lack of taste for “pop” and love of churches, organs and church music. With my schooling, I had something of an elitist attitude for “serious” music, but I still enjoyed pieces with a good melody like Elgar and Walton. I have always been a firm believer of melody and harmony, and strongly eschewed atonal modern music as came into fashion with musical elites in the twentieth century.

British Light Music is a genre that acts as a kind of intermediary between late romantic music and the jazz and pop traditions that developed from the ragtime of the Belle Epoque and the Roaring Twenties. It was designed to appeal to a wide cross section of people and to remove the strongly elitist dimension from the world of classical music, orchestras and concert halls. It can be performed by a full symphony orchestra or by a small group of musicians. I was quite fascinated the other day by the outdoor concerts given in the parks of London, in particular the eccentric-looking Ladies Palm Court Orchestra. The tradition of British Light Music has been revived within little time of its downturn in the early 1960’s, and has become popular again.

With its strong emphasis on melody, harmony and rhythm, light music appeals to man’s sense of levity and optimism. It makes us feel “safe” and outside ourselves, almost part of a film in which goodness triumphs over evil. It certainly gets the dopamine going – so to be enjoyed in moderation!

Our light music tradition is based on a very serious degree of musical skill, both on the part of the composer and the performers. It required just as much musicianship and virtuosity as romantic music. Men like Frederic Curzon and Eric Coates learned their craft in establishments like the Royal College of Music. Some were church organists and choirmasters. There were concert organists like Percy Whitlock who filled in the space between the mighty Würlitzer and the fine symphonic instruments in our cathedrals and concert halls. They earned their living accompanying silent movies in the 1920’s and seaside ballrooms like Reginald Dixon in Blackpool. When we think if it, it was an immense popular cultural movement that spanned half of the twentieth century.

Some of this music exudes a worldliness that is difficult to imagine these days. The Boulevardier of Frederic Curzon evokes the worldly young man without a care, dressed as a dapper or a young blade about town in Paris or London. One would imagine the Roaring Twenties as England bounced back from the horror of the trenches. Here is a fine modern recording:

Were the between-the-wars years a “simpler age”? I have spent time talking about it with my parents who were children then. I have asked many questions of those born at the time of World War I and before. My maternal grandmother was born in 1884 and was probably the oldest person I had known. The problem is when you get on in years and see the world change, we begin to idealise the “good old days”. I can only take stock and think about my 1960’s and 70’s, and see that those “old days” were not so good after all. Films of the 1930’s and 50’s, even of the 60’s, had a naiveness that we see right through, though they impressed us as kids. We didn’t have the technology that makes many young people cynical and blasé about everything. At nearly 55 years, I begin to shrink from some of the newest things like i-pods and i-phones, and feel I don’t want to know. Just like my grandfather with a tape recorder or his father with a typewriter!

One has to think between the lines and compare our own experience with that of our ancestors who remember the 1930’s and the good things and bad things from those days. There were no antibiotics and the Great Depression was catastrophic for so many, then the rise of Hitler and the war. On the other hand, people were more religious and the liturgies in cathedrals and monasteries would delight many a traditionalist’s heart. My mother could cycle on the roads of Surrey without meeting a single car! The “old days” as a “simpler age” is a myth, but one that makes us feel good.

Like watching The Dambusters, light music brings us to a certain affection for the status quo, the official system and the established order. To one with “conspiracy” tendencies, this can seem to represent dangerous propaganda. Nazism made a lot of use of music, and not only Wagner and rousing marches. Music has a powerful effect on us. Light music tends to make us just fit in comfortably and not challenge anything. It is almost a kind of soma. Both Huxley and Orwell were writing in the “good old days”, in which they saw many evils.

I have myself enjoyed a certain amount of worldliness whilst living in London and when I was a seminarian at Gricligliano – priesthood for young dappers! I never had much money to spend on posh places, but occasionally got invited to the East India Club in London. A clerical suit was quite good enough, and smoking a cigar was more acceptable than a cleric smoking cigarettes. A groomed appearance is a must. The “feeling” was only superficial, and I saw through it. There is still a taste for conservative fashion among young people, and fashion designers have found a ready market. I learned a considerable amount some months ago translating a website of a well-known French fashion firm with branches in modern casual wear and formal / conservative town dress.

My time at Gricigliano was also quite a shot of morphine in the early 1990’s. We lived in a fine eighteenth-century château in the Tuscany hills and wore the finest cassocks, fringed cinctures and buckled shoes we could afford. On high days, we could wear the feraiolo and the Roman hat. Admittedly, we lived seriously, worked and prayed, and there were many down-to-earth things to do. In spite of the high camp, I found Gricigliano a good seminary where there was an effort to react against the dourness of many traditionalist institutions. In a way, we lived like Italian clerics of the early twentieth century – and enjoyed it.

But, vanity of vanities, that way just doesn’t attract me. The modern version of P.G. Wodehouse and Drones Club intimidates me. I will do and appear what society expects, the price of having friends and relationships with other human beings, but I don’t really like it. My wife is more of a townie than I am, and enjoys urban society. I tend to keep my distances, preferring the country and the great outdoors. My priestly vocation since Gricigliano has taken many twists and turns, but is now a part of the rest of me.

The Boulevardier is fun to listen to. Curzon wrote it during the war, but with a spirit of nostalgia for an earlier time in his life. It is programme music like no German absolute music would ever be. It evokes the confident young man in evening dress going to his club or a date with his sweetheart. Perhaps he is just taking a stroll in his favourite streets. The music is melodic and nicely scored. Has the young gentleman entirely disappeared from the scene? Some young men keep the flag flying. I have my own memories of Gricigliano and am thankful that life has moved on and that I can find a sense of wonder and depth in places where I now go, whether floating on water or on two wheels in the countryside.

We are called to beware of falling victim to illusions and a false sense of comfort and security, yet it is human and we cannot venture too far out on our own. I strongly identify with that age of just before my birth, and feel a great amount of sympathy for that age. I am often encouraged to connect with the present and the future, and I don’t even know where to begin. Perhaps I am trapped in the past like so many of our senior citizens, knowing that there is but one thing left as happens to us all:

(…) terrena despicere et amare cælestia.

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3 Responses to The Boulevardier

  1. James Morgan says:

    Percy Grainger and Arnold Bax, as well as others less known, have left their mark on that period, entre guerres. I love that musick! And the Hoffnung festivals with trios for vacuum cleaners and hose pipe sonatas, gee gosh!

    You bring back memories, even if they are only on 33 rpm records.

    when I was a small child I used to get up on a chair in the living room and ‘conduct’ symphonies and other sounds coming from the radio. Never got over it, I confess.

  2. James Morgan says:

    PS there is also the unsung heroes of American music, Ned Rorem. Alan Hovanness and Leo Sowerby, all my favorites!

    • Of course, being a Brit, I didn’t comment on American music, but I know there’s some really good stuff around. I’m more familiar with the “serious” music of men like like Aaron Copeland and Samuel Barber, but there are also many others. You Americans were really the pioneers of ragtime and jazz, especially New Orleans. Blows the November blues right out of us!

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