Professor John Butt, on film music, combining performance and research, and classical music as the new religion

Published on: Author: Eva Moreda Rodriguez Leave a comment

Professor John Butt is Gardiner Professor of Music and musical director of Edinburgh’s Dunedin Consort. He has recently released a musical reconstruction of J. S. Bach’s first Christmas service in Leipzig to great critical acclaim; you can find out more about the project here.



My research has necessarily been quite fragmented over the last decade, as my performing career has become much more demanding. Nevertheless, certain aspects of my performance activity and, indeed, some of the time I spend away, have allowed me to concentrate on a certain range of thoughts about music and its surrounding cultures.

My primary concern has for a while been about how we interpret our contemporary attitudes towards music and the ways in which these relate to broader cultural and historical outlooks. Most important to me is the so-called ‘western art music’ or ‘classical’ tradition, but I am fully aware that any understanding of other musical traditions is equally important if we are to discern any specific roles that the ‘art’ tradition might play. My attention was first drawn to this issue some twenty years ago when there was a relatively lively debate as to why there was such a fashion for ‘historically informed’ performance. Was it an antiquarian movement that returned us to the historically accurate ‘truth’ of the repertory concerned (as so many of its proponents naively affirmed) or was it, more covertly, rather a symptom of late modernism, or even postmodernism? From this I developed my ongoing hypothesis, which is the idea that the classical tradition, as it has developed from the late 16th century to the mid-20th, is actually of a piece with the broader condition of ‘modernity’. While historical periodization and the attribution of vast swathes of culture to a particular ‘-ism’ are almost inevitably going to lead to crass generalizations, it is certainly clear that most historiographical conceptions of western music have become bogged down with smaller stylistic categories or national cultures and that an overview of the phenomenon has largely been lost. What makes the need for the longue durée approach especially urgent is the very fact that western music has so easily become turned into a universal that eclipses historical particularity. Exactly the same issue faces our very heritage of western modernity, whether to do with law, capital flow, human rights and equality. These too are often assumed to be universals that represent the ‘natural’ state of humankind. Moreover, there are also the contrary tendencies either to ignore the dehumanizing aspects of modernity (e.g. the dehumanization wrought by division of labour, industrialization, or the oppression of the financial systems) or to imagine that we can do away with modernity altogether (a sort of latter-day ‘crofter’s’ mentality).

That my concerns are relatively urgent at present is suggested by the recent work of others in musicology who are also beginning to think along similar lines (e.g. Karol Berger, Michael Steinberg, Daniel Chua and Julian Johnson). It will surely take much more than the work of a single scholar to work out what the value of classical music might be as something that is no longer a natural universal, but which parallels many of the advantages and threats posed by modernity itself. My approach has been to concentrate on areas in which I have a degree of expertise, or at least interest. My 2010 book, Bach’s Dialogue with Modernity, looked at ways in which, for Bach’s Passions, pre-modern elements (most significantly the inherited Christian religion, but also pre-modern beliefs in the close relation of music to the ordering of the cosmos) combine, almost unwittingly with early-modern elements (e.g. a stronger sense of subjectivity, a stronger conception of time-consciousness, instrumental reason and music as a ‘useful’ artificial language).

This work has continued in several directions, albeit sporadically: first, I am undertaking a broader study of how musicians (e.g. Monteverdi, Bach, Mozart, Bruckner and Messiaen) who served the church with their art, also wrote for the ‘new religion’ of classical music, how they negotiated between the notion of music as servant of an inherited belief system and the notion of music as a spiritual system in its own right that threatened to transcend its seemingly subservient function. Another area that I began to develop around the time of the 2010 book related to listening practice and the ways in which the ‘music of modernity’ might have inaugurated ways of listening musically that were less likely before the modern age, or within other cultures. I am currently attempting to develop this in the direction of enquiring how music might relate to human embodiment, particularly in the eighteenth century. After all, another problem engendered by the narrow universalization of classical music has been the tendency to understand and hear it as a disembodied, cerebral activity. But surely ways of comporting the physical self might be just as important as constructing the mental self, and various stages of the modern condition may well be evidenced in different forms of musical movement.

A final area of academic study, one in which I fully acknowledge my rookie status, is the relation of music to film. I am not particularly interested in film music as a phenomenon in its own right (it must be acknowledged that I’m a musical snob), more the ways in which any heard music (or other sounds) relate to the style of film making. In this regard I am working particularly on a particular hunch I have in relation to Alfred Hitchcock, namely that his style of film making (‘pure cinema’ as he represented his approach) has an enormous amount in common with late-romantic/modernist musical composition and performance and that the 19th-century ideology of ‘absolute music’ (perhaps the ultimate notion of classical music as relating to a reality separate from verbal text or precise human narrative) lies behind both his conception and composition of films. His musical collaborators (particularly Bernard Herrmann) were most successful when what they wrote essentially ‘doubled’ this pre-existing attitude.

Of course, much of my time is spent as a performer, largely in music of the 17th and 18th centuries. Obviously, I have a primary intellectual interest in the era between the Reformation and Enlightenment as representative of early modernity, and many of my ideas on subjectivity, rhetoric versus dialectic and the listener’s consciousness of time and physical demeanor play a direct part in my approach to interpretation. Given my overall view that we are essentially linked to earlier eras through our sharing of the processes of modernity, I am particularly keen to see whether this music can be renewed and re-sounded in ways that help us to rediscover some of our roots.

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