Beethoven goes with … Bowie?

Beethoven goes with … Bowie?


norman lebrecht

March 08, 2020

The Orchestra of the Swan in Stratford-upon-Avon has an original twist to the Beethoven year.

In a concert in May it will twin the 5th symphony and the Grosse Fuge opus 135 with ‘a new work entitled ‘Ashes to Ashes’ which sets Bowie’s songs Station to Station, Lazarus, Fame, Aladdin Sane and Heroes for chamber orchestra,’ arranged by conductor David Le Page and composer Philip Sheppard.

Le Page says: ‘Both men were possessed by an innate compulsion to reinvent themselves and their work. Despite coming from opposing ends of the musical spectrum they nevertheless shared an astonishing motivation to be in control of their own artistic destinies.’



  • John Borstlap says:

    It seems that there is some confusion at the orchestra’s leadership about what a symphony orchestra is, and what its repertoire means.

    There is nothing against entertainment music, pop music, etc., but we expect different things from the genre i.e. different from classical art music, and these different types of music should never be put in a position of comparison which is damaging for both genres.

    • Jon says:

      Presumably you feel the same about Philip Glass’s three ‘Bowie’ symphonies, based on music from his albums Low, Heroes and Lodger.

    • Anton Bruckner says:

      Much of Bowie’s music goes well beyond ‘entertainment music’. There is on the other uand no shortage of ‘entertainment music’ by classical composers. The condescending attitude towards any music which originated outside the concert hall or corridors of the musicology faculties innecessarily drives away new listeners. I could easily accept the 5 B’s – Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Bruckner and Bowie.

      • John Borstlap says:

        The normal distinction between art music and entertainment music has nothing to do with academic snobbism. The standards of art music are infinitely higher than those of entertainment music. The fact that in art music, there may be elements of ‘entertainment’ and that pop music can have serious undertones – mainly in the text, not in the music – does not alter the fact that different things are expected from the two different genres.

        Also, the ‘entertainment bits’ in art music are, most of the time, of infinitely higher quality than the usual entertainment aesthetics. Just one example of numerous: 3rd mvt of Beethoven’s string quartet opus 130, which is meant as pure entertainment, but a spiritualized kind of pleasure of the highest sophistication:

        I could quote a long list of such examples which are the normal stock-in-trade of the performance culture of classical music. But they have nothing to do with the genre ‘entertainment music’ or pop music.

        That such a basic and simple observation has to be explained on a website dedicated to classical music, shows how far the erosion of the art form has progressed, and how much pop music has made inroads in a territory where it has nothing to seek, undermining the perceptive capacities of listeners. Given that pop is everywhere, why should art music not be protected against a genre which merely pulls it down?

        • John Coker says:

          Arbitrary oversimplification and bland hyperbole.

          Being classified as art music does not necessarily make one piece of higher quality than another which lacks the art label; I use such terms as you specified a necessary dichotomy from “art music” to other musics. Consider the top-tier virtuosi performing in what we commonly label non-art categories/genres such as world and folk, from which pop emerges, in addition to players of various instruments within pop itself. Additionally, consider the sound design of the highest caliber present in pop music (not all, but some, thus present, if, again, we are to use such sweeping generalities). This not yet mentioning the fact that what we choose to include in the art music stable vs. entertainment (and the notion of them being necessarily separate) is constantly dynamic, and often terribly subjective. Thus, such a concrete assignment to that which is far more ephemeral is problematic.

          The aim of art music may be said to be higher in and of itself, but real value is genuinely demonstrated via empiricism, not rationalistic hypothetical syllogisms. Aim is of course distinct from standard as intent is from result. “Infinitely” is far too strong, especially as far too often such standards apply only to technical aspects, rather than expressive (of course, I say “often,” not always). Art music’s purity (that which we so deem in this context being Western classical music) doesn’t need to be solemnly protected as though it’s some sacred oil in some sacred temple of antiquity that will necessarily survive only via a strict sect of myopic practitioners; only the fragility illustrated by such arguments demonstrates such a need. “Tradition is not the worship of ashes, but the preservation of fire,” after all. We must be thoroughly keen in our analytical methods with honesty if we are to continually determine with any accuracy that which is fire, just as we are to strive in differentiating that which is natural from that which is merely tendency/habit.

          Am I saying Bowie and Beethoven are necessarily to be considered compositional equals? Of course not. It goes without saying that different expectations exist for pop music versus classical music, just as there are for a Palestrina mass versus a Busoni fantasia. Transcendence can be found anywhere; not everywhere, but anywhere, and there are obviously many different forms of it. So, to assign transcendence only to one side is quite hasty. Cross-pollination of disparate sources is continually demonstrated to be of incredible benefit in Music, similar to genetics.

          In summation – there are more things in heaven and Earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

          Just my two cents, for those happening to peruse this forum.

          • John Borstlap says:

            “Tradition is not the worship of ashes, but the preservation of fire,” no doubt, but the very different expectations around pop music / entertainment music of all kinds, may fuel its flames but render to ashes whatever of art music is surviving in a society where numbers and the misunderstood democratization of art dominate.

            The easy way in which an age-long tradition, representing the best of the human mind, and an artful stylisation of comments upon the human condition, is referred to as “some sacred oil in some sacred temple of antiquity that will necessarily survive only via a strict sect of myopic practitioners” demonstrates the erosion of perception of what constitutes high art. Such comments suggest that the very notion of ‘high art’ is a mere fragile argument, and entirely subjective anyway: result of 20C cultural relativism which was meant to bring down aspiration to the level of lazy incompetence. Without the idea that things like works of art have intrinsic, objective value, nothing of value can be created. How all of this hangs together with the cult of pop music, requires its own book, – let it suffice to indicate that comments as the above one merely confirm my point.

    • fflambeau says:

      I see it more as crass commercialism masking itself as something wanting to be intellectual.

    • Appleby says:

      The Orchestra of the Swan is not a “symphony orchestra”.

      • John Borstlap says:

        They made a beautiful CD with symphonies of Hans Gal:

        It does sound like a symphony orchestra.

        • NightFlight says:

          Well they’re not. A scratch chamber orchestra at best.
          And shows how much you know!
          But this is precisely the kind of programming that will extend their audience and I applaud them for it.

          • John Borstlap says:

            Whether a chamber orchestra has a flexible constitution or not, is irrelevant. Chamber orchestras almost always have a flexible number of players, and when they are good, that does not in the slightest make them less of ‘an orchestra’. Before making such sweeping comments, it would be better to first think the subject through.

        • Appley says:

          Well, it certainly isn’t. Unquestionably a chamber orchestra.

          • John Borstlap says:

            A chamber orchestra is a form of a symphony orchestra, meant for the symphonic repertoire from Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven onwards. Sometimes such ensemble is enlarged for certain projects. There are a lot of nitwits on this site.

  • Mustafa Kandan says:

    I remember reading a Luciano Berio interview from 1960’s where he mentioned the new phenomenon of young people attending rock concerts one day and enthusiastically filling the Royal Festival Hall for Klemperer’s Beethoven cycle the next. These days this is less common, as most young people do not attend classical music. However, those musicians who are classically trained tend to have a feel and knowledge of popular culture, hence the increased number of compositions inspired by such music. In my case, even if I was to drown myself in alcohol, I am still unable to enjoy this sort of music.

  • Bruce says:

    OK, fine, whatever. If people want to go, then they will buy tickets.

  • fflambeau says:

    No thanks. I won’t buy.

  • Paul Dawson says:

    “they nevertheless shared an astonishing motivation to be in control of their own artistic destinies” Wow! This really does justify putting them together on the programme. The vast majority of other artists, of course, LACK motivation to be in control of their own artistic destinies.

    • John Borstlap says:

      Thinking of the many artists visiting here, I have to confirm that last sentence. I never saw artists with control and artistic destinies!