Medieval carols have a cherished place in the modern Christmas repertoire. Perhaps the best-loved type is the lullaby carol, of which ‘Lullay, Myn Liking’ and the ‘Coventry Carol’ are among the most famous examples. It’s not difficult to understand the appeal of these carols, both in their original form and as texts set by contemporary composers: tender and gentle, deliberately simple in music and language, they evoke the loving intimacy of the relationship between a mother and her baby, offering a moment of stillness and reflection in the middle of the busy Christmas season.
This genre of carol was popular in the Middle Ages, too, and there are numerous beautiful examples dating from the fourteenth century onwards. It’s important to recognise that the simplicity of these carols is artful, not naive; medieval carol-writers often chose this apparently uncomplicated form in order to explore some of the complex mysteries of the Nativity story.
One of the most interesting of these lullaby carols is known today by the name ‘As I lay on Yule’s night’. It survives in its earliest and fullest form in a manuscript compiled by John of Grimestone, a Franciscan friar from Norfolk, in 1372. The manuscript contains materials John had gathered for use in his preaching, along with short poems and carols in English; John may have written these texts himself, or collected them from other sources. Shorter versions of the carol also survive in three fifteenth-century manuscripts, one of which preserves the music – a haunting tune, suiting the dark beauty of the words:
As I lay on Yule’s night, Alone in my longing, Methought I saw a well fair sight A maid her child rocking.
Lullay, lullay, la, lullay, My dear mother, lullay. [The recording below uses a slightly different version].
The carol begins in the darkness of a winter’s night, with a solitary speaker witnessing a vision of a mother and her baby. They are not identified by name, and at first appear to be just like any other mother and child. The mother hopes to get her baby to sleep without having to sing him a lullaby, but the child insists: he asks his mother to sing to him about his future, to foretell his adult life ‘as do mothers all’.
‘Sing now, mother,’ said that child, ‘What me shall befall Hereafter, when I come to age, As do mothers all.
Every mother, truly, Who can her cradle keep Is wont to lullen lovingly And sing her child asleep.’
All mothers sing lullabies, we are reminded, and the everyday, universal nature of the scene is emphasised – just as little children do insist on being sung to, so mothers often love to talk about what their children might be when they grow up.
But this mother and child are not ordinary, as we realise when the mother begins to speak. ‘I never yet knew more of thee / Than Gabriel’s greeting’, she says, and she tells her son the story of the angel’s message, recalling Gabriel’s words and her astonished reaction to the news that she will become the mother of the Son of God. The interplay of voices is skilful and intricate, as she repeats what Gabriel said to her and what she said in reply, as if she really is telling the story of her own experiences and trying to comprehend what has been said to her. Mary concludes:
Then, as he said, I thee bare On a midwinter night, In maidenhood, without care, [sorrow]
By grace of God almight. The shepherds that waked in the wold Heard a wondrous mirth Of angels there, as they told, At the time of thy birth.
Sweet son, certainly, No more can I say; But if I could I gladly would, To do all at thy pay. [to do everything to please you]
At this point her knowledge ends; she has reached the present moment of the carol (the ‘Yule’s night’ with which the vision begins), and cannot look into the future. Some versions of the carol finish with Mary’s narrative and leave her joyfully delighting in her baby, ‘mankind’s bliss, / Thee, my sweet son!’
But the fullest version of the carol goes on to look to the future, and takes a more serious and darker turn. Now the child takes over the story, and the parent’s role of prophesying a baby’s future. He’s only a few days old – even the visit of the three kings, twelve days after his birth, is still in his future – but his knowledge is complete, his mother’s incomplete; he says he will teach her to sing. He tells her everything that will happen to him, foretelling his childhood, baptism, preaching, and miracles – and his death on the cross. His mother listens eagerly, at first thrilled to learn that her son will be acclaimed as a king, then horror-struck to hear he will die a humiliating death. She cries ‘Why must I live to see the day / That will bring thee such woe?’ Her child comforts her, and promises to look after her:
I shall thee take, when time is, To me at the last, To be with me, mother, in bliss; All this, then, have I cast. [ordained]
All the narrative of Christ’s life is reimagined as the past, present, and future of these two people, who are in many ways an ordinary mother and baby, and their emotions make the familiar story seem as fresh as if it had never been heard before. The details of the story are unique and strange, but Mary’s reaction is entirely human: what mother, cradling a newborn baby, would wish to be told of all the sorrows and joys her child will undergo?
By definition a lullaby is a soothing, comforting song, but this carol uses it to tell a profoundly uncomfortable story of pain and suffering. The refrain of this carol turns the lullaby form on its head:
Lullay, lullay, la, lullay, My dear mother, lullay.
The mother, not the child, is the one being comforted here.
At the heart of this carol is a meditation on the mystery of the Incarnation: this is a baby who can foretell his own future, a child who consoles his mother, a God of infinite power who has become a helpless infant. These are ambitious theological concepts for a carol to explore, but the apparently simple form of the lullaby is key to what this carol aims to do. Lullabies are perhaps the most familiar, universal, and intimate of musical forms; they are the first songs we ever hear, and they evoke powerful memories and emotions. With its vision of Mary and her baby, this medieval carol finds the place where the Christmas story touches resonant chords of human experience: it reflects on the close entwining of love and grief, anxiety about the unknowable future, the poignancy of parents’ hopes and fears for their children. It’s a deeply compassionate carol, and its promise – its only comfort – is that Christ has come to earth to share this suffering, the nameless lonely ‘longing’ with which the carol begins and ends:
Certainly this sight I saw, This song I heard sing, As I lay this Yule’s day, Alone in my longing.
In this second of three articles on the role of memory in music, Young-Jin Hur considers how the yearning for the past is an important aesthetic category in its own right.
Given the large number of works related to personal remembrance, one cannot preclude the possibility that there is a special beauty and value arising from reverie and yearning for the past in general. If so, this would be detectable in various aesthetic domains.
Of the vicissitudes of scholarly and aesthetic fashions throughout Western history, Neoclassicism is one which is recorded in numerous occasions, and is closely associated with the idealisation and revival of imageries of the times of ancient Greece. Stylistically, there is a strong emphasis on clarity, balance and simplicity. Such a tendency, for instance, can be detected in the paintings by the German artist Anselm Feuerbach (1829-1880). The fact that Feuerbach was a close contemporary with Fin de Siècle modernists such as Gustav Klimt and Claude Monet puts Feuerbach’s Neoclassical leanings into perspective.
Similar stylistic and thematic tendencies of valuation of Grecian elegance can be found elsewhere in in time, such as in the paintings by Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665). Examples of Neoclassicism in visual arts and architecture abound, through which one can be sure of the enduring status of this movement in aesthetic history.
In music, Neoclassicism has exerted an equally persuasively persevering voice. Similar to its visual counterpart, musical Neoclassicism considers themes from ancient Greece and stylistically follows ideals of poise and balance. The movement has been especially associated with a number of composers of the 20th century, Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) being most representative. Stravinsky’s ballet Orpheus pans out in emotional restraint and clarity in orchestration, and follows the mythological story of Orpheus’ descent into the underworld.
On the one hand, characterisations of musical Neoclassicism can have irregularities. Works that simply denote styles of simplicity and balance as opposed to the excessiveness of 19th century Romanticism, are often grossly categorised as Neoclassical (e.g. Sibelius, Martinů), even when imageries of ancient Greece are foreign to these works.
On the other hand, it is often observed that such stylistic tendencies rarely take place without references to styles of the past. Prokofiev’s Neoclassicism of his jovial first symphony, for instance, is Neoclassical due to its nod to times where elegance and simplicity were appreciated in music. Therefore, the patched conceptualisation of Neoclassicism in music, some way or another, signifies a reverence toward the past.
Important to the understanding of Neoclassicism is an acknowledgement of the passing of things and themes much beyond an experiential level. Unlike commemorations based on personal passing (dealt with in the previous article), Neoclassicism allows the creator to appreciate things that the creator has never personally experienced or encountered. In other words, Neoclassicism demonstrates the act of looking back and admiring things of the past, through the viewer’s stretched scope of imagination, as a category of aesthetic appreciation in its own right. This is a kind of yearning that appeals to memory in the broadest sense.
If anything, yearning for the past has not always required a concrete object of its admiration. Often it is the yearning itself that matters. This is aptly embodied in the notion of Sehnsucht, the longing for something that cannot be determined. Hence the psychological experience of yearning for the past without having experienced the object of the past, such as the admiration of things from historical cultures and civilizations, is justified.
If Neoclassicism demonstrates longing of the past through the reverie of things of ancient Greece where elements related to emotional poise, control, simplicity, elegance and clarity are seen as virtuous, a comparable tendency finds its place in the Romantic symbolism of ruins. Here, memory is evoked through irregularity, instability, and the irrational rawness associated with nature and the decay it brings through time.
Ruins are the physical manifestation of the passage of time. As one stands in front of a building that was once impeccably erect yet which from the present is ruined, one understands both the forces of time and nature. The story of the inevitable passage of time is ruggedly drawn on the walls of a building much larger and older than the viewer. One thinks, such a vast object of strength and durability, too, is a food of time. Therefore, much like Neoclassicism, ruins are likely to tell a tale of passing that is beyond the level of personal experience. Furthermore, underneath Neoclassicism and the appreciation of ruins lies a common ground of acknowledgement of what constitutes the passage of time through which memory is borne.
There is a wealth of literature in the fascination with ruins. For instance, Lord Kames (1696-1782) in his 1762 publication The Elements of Criticism wrote that ruins evoke a sense of ‘a melancholy but not unpleasant thought.’ Such complex emotional tapestry makes ruins an ideal candidate for evoking thoughts of nostalgia. This can be seen notably in William Wordsworth’s (1770-1850) The Prelude. Here, the protagonist meditates on themes of mortality and childhood. The choice of ruins as a device to illustrate these points cannot be more appropriate.
To a schoolboy’s vision, I had raised a pile Upon the basis of the coming time, That fell in ruins round me. Oh, what joy To see a sanctuary for our country’s youth Informed with such a spirit as might be Its own protection; a primeval grove, Where, though the shades with cheerfulness were filled, Nor indigent of songs warbled from crowds In under-coverts, yet the countenance Of the whole place should bear a stamp of awe; […]
The fascination with ruins, especially of their association with memory, can be attested further back in history, such as in Leon Battista Alberti’s (1404-1472) treatise of classic architecture De re aedificatoria. Here, ruin (ruina) is linked with concepts such as age (vetustas), eternity (perennitas), dignity (dignitas), renown (gloria), distinction (decus) or praise (laus) as well as with memory (memoria). Moreover, fascination with ruins continue to this day – for instance, typing into google ‘abandoned places’ gives a large number of results – further confirming that finding a peace of mind in ruins is no mere pastime relevant only to the age of Romanticism. Ruins thus appear to be a continuing topic of fascination by evoking a sense of memory, regardless of the era. Through its mysticism, to look back in time and feel the gap that the present and the past exhibit seems a fundamental human attraction.
How are ruins represented in music? On the one hand, there are works such as Arnold Bax’s (1883-1953) Tintagel, which was directly inspired by the composer’s visit to the Tintagel castle in Cornwall, a ruin set in the background of to the vast sea.
Parallels between ruins and music can further be found in Arthur Schopenhauer’s (1788-1860) World as Will and Representation, where the possibility of a musical ruin is suggested: ‘when music, in a sudden urge for independence, so to speak, seizes the occasion of a pause, in order to free itself from the control of rhythm, to launch out into the free fancy of an ornate cadenza; such a piece of music, divested of rhythm, [is] like a ruin devoid of symmetry…’ And if it is true that an ideal musical ruin can be projected by such a theory, with that sense of incoherence and ruggedness, it may be promising to expect the congruence of a visual imagery as presented in the paintings mentioned above.
Yet in my opinion the notion of ruins is best found in its musical equivalence when one considers the popularity of historic recordings of the monophonic era. From the questionable quality of sound, muddled in the omnipresence of hisses and frequent absences of extreme pitches, lies a musical performance that is palpably aged and undoubtedly mysterious. Not unlike ruins, there is a rugged imperfection that seems to imply the severity of the passage of time.
And while it is also possible to argue for one’s search for conducting styles characteristic to a certain period of time that is no longer observable in the contemporary world, such a question would return to the core enquiry: why is it that we are attracted to things that are no more in the first place? This is indeed a strange attraction, to yearn for the rugged, passed, aged, and distant. These, I believe, are qualities not too dissimilar from ones that can be felt through the admiration of a bare-boned cathedral. The following clip is a wartime recording of the legendary Wilhelm Furtwängler (1886-1954), conducting the last movement of Brahms’ 4th symphony.
The popularity of Neoclassicism and ruins weigh increasingly on the fact that there appears to be an innate beauty in admiring the passage of time, especially since both lack an immediate practicality to easily justify their popularity. In fact, one can further argue that if these sensibilities toward time are so developed, such sentiments may find usage in common aesthetic expressions. Recent studies in psychology demonstrate this point. Nostalgia – thoughts and emotions uniquely related to looking back in time – is one of the nine most commonly reported emotional reactions to music. These results imply that these emotions arise commonly and importantly in general musical experiences, and such an allure towards the passage of time may be part of a psychological instinct, just as most humans innately have an understanding of fear and joy.
As such, beyond the function of commemoration based on largely personal encounters, there are traces of evidence demonstrating that reminiscing is a powerful experience. David Hume’s (1711-1776) psychological account in explicating human’s enjoyment of things of the past is deeply revealing: ‘[…] the imagination, passing, as is usual, from the consideration of the distance to the view of the distant objects, gives us a proportionable veneration for it; and this is the reason why all the relicts of antiquity are so precious in our eyes, and appear more valuable than what is brought even from the remotest parts of the world.’ This may explain how the appreciation of the past of looking back in time never exhausted itself of interests, throughout history and through differing professions, including music.
In the final article on music and memory, Young-Jin looks into how memory can be manifest in the narrative of music, which will be followed by a short conclusion.
Young-Jin Hur is a PhD candidate in psychology at University College London, an ardent record collector and a self-professed Anton Bruckner enthusiast. He has written concert notes for the Seoul Arts Centre and contributes to one of Korea’s largest classical music online communities, 클래식에 미치다 (‘Crazy about Classical Music’).
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In this first of three articles, Young-Jin Hur explores the role of memory in music, both in processes of its creation and experience. Part one covers the representation of memory in music, through looking at works that deal with passing.
Memory plays a fascinating role in many things, and music is no exception.
For reasons of immediacy of associations, it seems appropriate to start with works of a commemorative nature, where the memory of the passing of someone, or something, forms the basis of compositional inspiration.
Anton Webern’s (1883-1945) Passacaglia, perhaps the most lyrical of his 31 published Opus numbers, is known to have been composed in the aftermath of his mother’s passing. Moments of lush sweetness become a palette for the impending desolation so central to the piece and the composer’s thoughts during the time of its inception. Given that such lyricism and Late-Romantic orchestration was something that Webern would rarely return to again in the future, the Passacaglia stands out among the composer’s wider oeuvre.
Nevertheless, prevalent in most of Webern’s works, including this Passacaglia, is a sense of bleak poetry. In a message Webern wrote to Alban Berg, a fellow contemporary Second Viennese School composer, he admitted that: ‘All of my works from the Passacaglia on relate to the death of my mother.’
If Webern’s remembering of his mother was emotionally direct and perhaps even outright dramatic, Alfred Schnittke’s (1934-1998) thoughts of his mother’s passing takes a more intimate yet strange path in his Piano Quintet. Schnittke makes no secret of its autobiographical roots, (the third and fourth movements being ‘real experiences of grief which I would prefer not to comment on because they are of a very personal nature’), and moments of uncompromising bareness are intertwined in bizarre fashion with waltz-like rhythms. Seaming through the quiet notes is a relentlessness that shudders.
The Finnish composer Leevi Madetoja’s (1887-1947) Second Symphony was retrospectively dedicated to his mother after her death, but a number of other tragedies surrounded the composer at the time of its conception. He originally set out to lament the fate of Finland during the Finnish Civil War, and the deaths of two close individuals – his brother Yjrö and fellow composer Toivo Kuula, the latter a wonderful composer known for his melancholic songs – must have exacerbated this mood. As is reflected in the composer’s letter to his mother at the time, an unmistakeable nostalgia forms the very flesh of this wound-driven symphony: ‘Oh when will we see the day when the forces of hatred vanish from the world and the good spirits of peace can return to heal the wounds inflicted by suffering and misery?’
Similarly, the Czech composer Josef Suk’s (1874-1935) Asrael Symphony is consumed by memories of dear ones. Initially conceived as a commemoration of Antonin Dvorak, Suk’s longstanding mentor and father-in-law, the work began with four movements; a darkness-to-light narrative beginning with the tragic mood of Dvorak’s death, and ultimately ending in triumphant glorification of Dvorak’s accomplishments. Yet at around the time Suk completed the third movement, his wife tragically passed away. He would attach two more movements from the material already written to commemorate her.
It is understandable that Suk gave the title ‘Asrael’ (the Angel of Death of the Hebrew Bible) to the symphony. Yet for all its haunting funeral marches, there are glimpses of hope in the tranquillity that resonates after the C major conclusion. While not necessarily a triumph as initially conceived, this is far away from defeat – there is an undeniable sense of inner strength and promise for the future. The composer himself remarked, ‘When, after the stormy and nerve-wracking last movement of the symphony, the mysterious and soft C major chord is heard, I often notice that it brings tears to people’s eyes, and these tears are tears of relief, tears that purify and uplift – they are, therefore, not just my tears.’
Not all commemorations deal with the loss of close ones. In Memoriam by Jean Sibelius (1865-1957), for instance, is a work created by the composer’s contemplation of his own mortality. Written in a period (around 1906) when Sibelius underwent operations on the throat to remove life-threatening tumours, the work reflects the composer’s fear and resignation over his life, and hence reveals a spiritual kinship with his desolate and brooding fourth symphony, a work that is representative of this period. Sibelius is known to have requested In Memoriam to be played in his own funeral, which he perhaps expected to happen not long after the completion of the work. In fact Sibelius would live for another fifty years. In accordance to his expectations, the piece was played at his funeral in 1957.
As I alluded to when discussing the Madetoja symphony, the object of remembering may expand beyond individuals, to societal levels. Such is the case of Richard Strauss’ (1864-1949) Metamorphosen, a work which is believed to have been composed to commentate on the destruction of history and culture of Germany in the Second World War. It is a painful reminder that after the destruction of a physical body, only memories linger to console. The composer’s own remarks in his diary a few days after the completion of the composition are telling: ‘The most terrible period of human history is at an end, the twelve year reign of bestiality, ignorance and anti-culture under the greatest criminals, during which Germany’s 2000 years of cultural evolution met its doom.’
Also striking is the first symphony of Karl Amadeus Hartmann (1905-1963), Essay Towards a Requiem. Hartmann being a fervent critic of the Nazi regime, his first symphony represents an artistic outcry against a totalitarian government and violence, expressed in its texts by the poet Walt Whitman. Here, the socio-political entity of Germany is personified, such that the downfall of a country to Nazism is aptly portrayed through the means of a requiem. Quite unlike the unaffected regret of Strauss’ metamorphosis, Hartmann’s symphony, as if to convey the violence of the present state itself, sways between inundations of driven outbursts and still despair. If there is little sweetness around, there is plenty of bitterness to be found. It is as though through depicting the atrocity of the present, the decency of what was before is remembered.
Memory concerns what is no more. The past is relived against the present. Death, the transition of an entity to become no more, then, is the making of a kind of memory; thoughts of death are the unconscious striving to gather all that was. As a result, regardless of whether it is an individual, society or culture that is concerned, death and memory are inseparable.
But death is an inevitable force of nature. Nothing is free from the erosion of time, and insofar as there is birth of something/someone there will always be the death of something/someone on the other hand. The acknowledgement and acceptance of this condition brings about a bittersweet scent of transience, and the premonition that our very existence too shall not be an exception of this natural law.
Yet many of us, both the readers and the writer, without the need to necessarily look into the future or to others, have already experienced a passing, namely the passing within us through the experience of growing up.
We understand by now that childhood is an idea, an idea constructed in an adult mind, looking back, with a simple and unconscious desire to capture the moments now forever lost. Yet this is also an acceptance of the victory of time over matter, that things will be lost necessarily, even things within ourselves. In this respect, thoughts of one’s own childhood are not too dissimilar with thoughts of death.
When Leoš Janáček (1854-1928) therefore sings in his On An Overgrown Path for solo piano the innocence of a long-gone childhood, the overall emotional ring of bittersweet yearning is strongly felt. The musical nostalgia is both of simple and tender nature, yet with an incredible sense of personality and depth. In moments of harshness, expressions are seldom with rawness but with a confession which has worn the wisdom and sadness of time. Hence within the sweet sorrows of Janáček’s work lies a universal understanding of the consequences of time on us.
If Janáček’s piece presents an intimate and wordless picture of childhood nostalgia through a single piano, Gerald Finzi’s (1901-1956) Intimations of Immortality takes on a more ambitious scale. Involving a full size orchestra, a chorus, and a vocal soloist, this 45-minute work is based on William Wordsworth’s ode of the same name. Whilst such physical scale may imply a form of monumentality, Intimations of Immortality is a work full of gentle beauty of tender spirits. The work’s conclusion reveals a poignant linking between nature, childhood, and the passing of things:
And, O ye Fountains, Meadows, Hills, and Groves, Forbode not any severing of our loves! Yet in my heart of hearts I feel your might; I only have relinquish’d one delight To live beneath your more habitual sway: I love the brooks which down their channels fret Even more than when I tripp’d lightly as they; The innocent brightness of a new-born day Is lovely yet; The clouds that gather round the setting sun Do take a sober colouring from an eye That hath kept watch o’er man’s mortality; Another race hath been, and other palms are won. Thanks to the human heart by which we live, Thanks to its tenderness, its joys and fears, To me the meanest flower that blows can give Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.
If one can attempt to generalise a commonality among these works, it is the unmistakable sense of yearning for what has become a past tense for the creator. And although a resurrection of what is already passed is not expected, rarely forgone at the end of each work is a sense of hope and personal catharsis. Life will go on, and it does.
Passing and accepting, including the acceptance of passing, are genuine human stories. Despite the evident sorrow present in these works, we are deeply moved because we can sympathise with the creators on a human level.
In part two, Young-Jin considers how the yearning for the past is an important aesthetic category in its own right.
Young-Jin Hur is a PhD candidate in psychology at University College London, an ardent record collector and a self-professed Anton Bruckner enthusiast. He has written concert notes for the Seoul Arts Centre and contributes to one of Korea’s largest classical music online communities, 클래식에 미치다 (‘Crazy about Classical Music’).
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There is something intriguing and exciting about music that is ambiguous. Often, what makes music stimulating is the difficulty in labelling the musical processes that are going on. This was part of what attracted me to the symphonies of the monumental Finnish composer, Jean Sibelius (1865-1953) when I was first introduced to studying his works as a second year undergraduate. I have been studying and writing about Nordic music since then and continue to be drawn to the challenge of understanding the subtle and complex processes of composers from this region. The somewhat grandiose title of this article might be in danger of over-simplifying the geographical and cultural influence on the repertoire, but Fenno-Scandinavia has produced a number of composers who demonstrated an alluring complexity which often comes down to their treatment and advancement of that old chestnut: tonality.
Traditionally, tonality established a musical hierarchy that became familiar. A seven-note scale would establish one important note (the tonic). This ‘functional tonality’ revolved around a resolute harmonic relationship between the fifth chord of a scale and the tonic chord. Later tonally-driven works by certain twentieth-century composers moved away from this functional harmonic relationship, but still extracted and developed other tonal characteristics.
One of the reasons for this change in tonal practice was that, around the turn of the twentieth century, very different views on composition were being put into practice. The uses of tonality itself, and the question of whether composers should still incorporate it, were central to this musical disparity. Tonality, however residual, continued in some shape or form after the First World War. But, in order for tonality to survive, composers had to do something new with it. This desire for change was perhaps only natural. Following the massive social and technological upheaval of the First World War, there was perhaps a feeling among some that late-Romanticism, and its increasingly diluted tonality, had run its course. It was time for something different. Really different.
The fascinating thing about 20th/21st-century music (the times of modernism, post-modernism, and as many clever-sounding ‘isms’ that take your fancy) is the number of wildly varied musical approaches that were explored. Between the late 19th-century and the mid-20th century, classical music became less of a neat, linear, progression as an excitingly multifarious mess of compositional possibilities.
Whilst tonal language was continuing, the new twelve-tone technique was being developed by Arnold Schoenberg, as a ‘post-tonal’ response. Schoenberg wished to develop a new, highly-ordered system – one based on a democratic use of all the twelve notes of the chromatic scale, to replace the tonal system. And here is a fundamental point: many composers who chose to take on board tonal aspects managed to prove that tonality was not a spent force, that change need not be so extreme.
One of the ways in which Sibelius expanded tonality was to combine it with an even earlier musical resource: modes. A mode, like a tonal scale, is a pattern of intervals in a particular combination, yielding a unique ‘quality’ or sound from which a composer can then draw both melody and harmony. The combination of tonality and modality opened a door to whole new possibilities.
Sibelius, both during his lifetime and even today, has been labelled as ‘conservative’ in his use of tonality – a potentially damaging view that can lead to missing the subtlety of Sibelius’s sonorities. Sibelius might not have been so radical as to disregard tonality, but there seemed little need to be radical when he could see with apparent clarity how to develop a ‘traditional’ musical aspect further.
Sibelius’s Symphony No. 6 in D minor (1923) is his most well-known orchestral work that incorporates modes within an otherwise tonal sound world. As musicologist Tim Howell has discussed in detail, this later symphony uses an old church mode which predates tonality: the Dorian mode on D. This mode is similar to the more recent tonal minor scale, but with one note changed (it uses B natural instead of B flat). Because the Dorian mode has many notes in common with not just the D minor scale, but also major scales such as F major and C major, its combination with these tonal scales opens the door to ambiguity. Sibelius takes advantage of this harmonic uncertainty in order to expand his tonal language beyond the confines and expectations of a single scale. This fusion of multiple scale types makes for a richer palette to draw from. And yet, the music does not sound alien. It is not far removed from traditional tonality, but is more difficult to put under one convenient label.
Sibelius puts this ‘same-but-different’ effect into practice in the very opening of the sixth symphony. The key is not clear: a few seconds into the music, the keen ear might latch onto the note D as a pitch centre, but this is tantalisingly indirect. In reality, Sibelius really avoids any sense of a key centre in these opening bars.
Listening to the sixth symphony in full, in a darkened room, and with good headphones, is an experience I would recommend to anyone. The tension between the D Dorian mode and tonal scales, creating exquisite ambiguity (and therefore an expanded and richer musical vocabulary), runs right through the symphony. The synthesis of tonal and modal is paramount to the work’s chilly and fastidiously economic being.
The retention of select tonal aspects, combined with modes may have seemed strangely retrospective to some. But Sibelius seemingly recognised a durable compositional principle, which indiscriminately incorporated and welcomed the developments of the past. The influence that this standpoint had on other composers from England and America, such as Ralph Vaughan Williams, suggests that Sibelius must have been doing something right.
Sibelius’s free tonality manifested itself in another way. Playing around with time is an intriguing aspect of Sibelius’s orchestral modus operandi. There are numerous highly sonorous passages orientated around stasis. In such cases, Sibelius avoids chord progressions as such, and instead emphasises sonority itself by exploring the notes within a key in a static, non-directional way. Such sonority is often centred on a chord or pedal note, but notes from the scale based on that chord move around over the top. This tonal stasis is heard in Sibelius’s last symphony, Symphony No. 7 in C major (1924), during the trombone solo early into the piece.
Such a method explored tonality with such freshness, and with such personality. This sense of a single, prolonged and intricate soundscape (built over pedal tones deep in the orchestral texture) has undoubtedly helped fuel the notion that Sibelius’s music is evocative of Finnish landscape – a phenomenon that has been explored in depth by musicologist Daniel Grimley. It is all too easy to get carried away, when listening, with wide-shot images of Finnish forests and lakes, but there is something in the shimmering qualities of Sibelius’s static tonality that makes chilly landscape images come back again and again.
Carl Nielsen (1865-1931), from Denmark, is often put together with Sibelius – a habit no doubt explained by Nielsen’s reputation as the ‘other’ Nordic symphonist of the early twentieth century, born in the same year as the Finnish composer. In Nielsen’s Symphony No. 5 (1922), he too carved out ways to build on the tonal language. Again, there is the fusion of tonal and non-tonal forces; the exciting potential of tonal suggestiveness and ambiguity.
In the opening of Nielsen’s fifth symphony, two bassoons begin a melody that sounds diatonic (i.e. it makes the listener think of some kind of tonal scale or mode), but this melody is not bound by a seven-note scale pattern. And yet, residual features of diatonicism remain, such as the consistent use of ‘tonal’ sounding intervals like thirds, and the movement between whole tones and semitones. This melody takes place over a deliberately ambiguous pedal in the violas on two notes: A-C.
As with Sibelius, Nielsen expands his melodic/harmonic resources by breaking down traditional seven-note tonality, whilst taking forward tonal principles and developing them in new, complex contexts.
In this two-movement symphony, Nielsen also impressively intensifies the traditional process of tonal resolution. A Mozart symphony will begin in one key and, after moving through other harmonic regions, will return home to that key. In certain late-Romantic works such as Mahler’s Second Symphony (1888-94) the music begins in one key and progresses to end in a different key – so called ‘progressive’ or ‘directional’ tonality. But with Nielsen’s fifth symphony, the progression is not from one key to another, it is from the absence of a key (i.e. tonal ambiguity and non-tonality) to a single, unambiguous key. When the symphony reaches the climactic finish, an E flat major chord catches the listener unawares. And yet the long-term, organic tonal struggle built over the whole work makes it seem that there could be no other musical conclusion. Nielsen, in short, took a governing principle of tonality (tension followed by resolution) and expanded it tenfold.
In 1954, Sibelius – now the grand old man of Finnish music – was asked to recommend a composer of his choice for a Koussevitzky Foundation Scholarship to study at Julliard School of Music. Sibelius chose the young Finn, Einojuhani Rautavaara (1928-2016), after being deeply impressed by the young composer’s early brass work, A Requiem in Our Time (1953).
Rautavaara’s early contact with Sibelius unsurprisingly prompted the Finnish musical world to view him as something of a successor to the Finnish musical cause. The mantle had been passed on.
However, from around the 1950s onwards, the expectation to write in a more outwardly modern style had escalated further still. It would have been tremendously difficult, and unwise, for the young Rautavaara to avoid the plethora of compositional views and approaches that, in Finland, had developed over a startlingly concentrated period.
Charting the development of Rautavaara’s music is therefore fascinating. Here was a composer who experimented with Neo-Classicism; all-out twelve-tone music; electronic music, and Neo-Romanticism. Rautavaara’s later style saw a return to tonal-sounding sonorities – a decision that has drawn criticism from those who felt this to be a regressive step. But within these more ‘tonal’ works are also some of the most recognisable and original Rautavaarian sounds, which take what they need from tonality to effectuate a confident musical independence.
In Rautavaara’s Symphony No. 8, ‘The Journey’ (1999), can be heard the amalgamation of: temporary, constantly shifting harmonic centres, underscored by deep pedal tones; wide-spanning harmonies often using the interval of a fourth; and cluster chords which colour otherwise tonal-sounding melodies. All within a purposeful and spacious work which charts the symphonic ‘journey’ of melodic material from beginning to end.
Fewer pieces than we might think abandoned tonality completely. Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring (1913) did not use an unrecognisable musical language. Many parts of this ‘radical’ work incorporate aspects of bi-tonality, diatonicism, and modality which grow out of Stravinsky’s two previous ballets, The Firebird (1910) and Petrushka (1911).
So much inspiring and important music has been written through creative and independent incorporations of select tonal aspects, and these three Nordic composers have taken this skill into their works in a way that is particularly their own. The richness, depth and complexity of this music make listening to it, and understanding it, all the more rewarding.
Owen Burton is a first year PhD candidate in Musicology at the University of York. He gained both his BMus (Hons) and MA from Bangor University. Owen also writes concert programme notes for the North Wales-based Ensemble Cymru and hosts pre-concert talks at the Llandudno arts centre, Venue Cymru. He is also the conductor and tutor with the Lifelong Learning Orchestra at Bangor University. He tweets as @OwenBurton_1.
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The dawn of the twentieth century was a particularly fascinating time. This new century paved the way for so many advances across the sciences, engineering and the arts. Marconi sent the first Atlantic wireless transmission, Orville and Wilbur Wright took flight, and Henry Ford produced the Model T. Matisse led the Fauvism movement, and literary greats were being turned out by Ford Maddox Ford, Conrad, Joyce, Scott-Fitzgerald and Hemingway – to name just a few.
Music was no exception. In Paris, Debussy’s innovations were causing quite the stir amongst his contemporaries. Interestingly, as a prolific writer, Debussy also expressed his opinion on a melange of musical matters in journals and letters. His persona of ‘Monsieur Croche’, an alter ego with a pen as quick as his tongue and manner sharp as a razor, would say what he meant, and meant what he said. One extract, from a letter to his friend, the music critic Georges-Jean Aubry, mentions a certain young composer:
This Caplet is an artist. He knows how to find a sonorous atmosphere and, with an attractive sensitiveness, has a sense of proportion; something which is more rare than one would believe in our haphazard musical epoch patched or closed up like a cork!
This is praise indeed for a composer relatively unknown today, and certainly begs the question who exactly was André Caplet…?
As an established figure in Parisian musical society, André Caplet was well known and respected for his craft during his lifetime.
The public mourned his tragically early death in 1925, when, at just 46, a simple cold developed into a fatal case of pleurisy. This was a true loss to the 1920s artistic scene – Caplet was an upstanding and musically adventurous personality who had much to give. Perhaps it is due to his untimely end that Caplet’s memory remains, to a degree, somewhat indistinct in music history.
Nonetheless, tracing Caplet’s movements could unravel some of the history behind this artist; the one who, according to Debussy, knew the key to a sonorous atmosphere.
Born in Le Havre in November 1878 to a modest family, the young Caplet spent his childhood by the sea; as a boy he was fascinated by the wind in the sails and sounds of the waves. This love of all things marine would stay with him all his life. Caplet began early music lessons with Henri Woollett, who himself had been a student of Massenet. Woollett and Caplet developed a warm rapport, and Woollett is known to have held Caplet in the highest esteem. In Le Monde Musicale February 1922, Woollett wrote:
I have spoken about the joy and pride of the professor who, discovering among his students a beautiful and strong musical nature, and about the satisfaction, after having guided his first steps, of opening to him little by little all the mysteries of the art, of having him taste its sublime beauties, of putting into his hands a tool with which he will force open the secret doors jealously closed on so many treasures, and finally, in leaving, to see him throw himself out on foot on the perilous road which leads to the conquest of dreams […] This joy […] never was it so great or so complete as when I had to form the fingers and the brain of an artist so accomplished.
When the time came for Caplet to move to Paris to continue his education, he entered the prestigious Paris Conservatoire, where he become a successful student of teachers Xavier Leroux, Paul Vidal and Charles Lenepveu. Caplet won numerous prizes for composition, accompaniment and counterpoint. It was in 1901 that the most prestigious prize of all was awarded to him: the Prix de Rome – the grand scholarship which allowed young artists to study in Rome. Other competitors for this year included Maurice Ravel, who won third place, and Gabriel Dupont, who won second. Caplet’s cantata Myrrha was assured and confident in style, demonstrating his outstanding technique, and unlike Ravel’s submission, the tone of Caplet’s cantata did not annoy the judges; instead, it expressed the religious nature of the subject in a sensitive and appropriate manner.
1901 was a good year for Caplet. He was a rising star in Paris, and just ahead of his Prix de Rome prize in May, this year saw a concert fully dedicated to his music, organised by the Société de Musique Moderne pour Instruments à Vent (Society of Modern Music for Wind Instruments), held at the Petit Salle Érard on the evening of March 9, 1901. The societywas led by Georges Barrère, renowned flautist and active chamber music personality. Caplet and Barrère had a great working relationship; Barrère supported and encouraged Caplet’s musical efforts and the two collaborated on the concert platform on numerous occasions. Caplet even dedicated some of his flute compositions to Barrère.
The concert presented a programme of music which revealed Caplet’s compositional range to its fullest. This included Quintet for Piano and Winds, (which, incidentally, was awarded a prize of 500 francs by the illustrious Society of Composers), the Suite Persane (Persian Suite),a three movement opus based upon Persian-inspired themes, and the complete Feuillets d’album(Album Leaves), five pieces for flute and piano. The latter featured Caplet himself at the piano.
According to research carefully gathered by Nancy Toff, the critics’ reviews of the concert were enthusiastic: in Le Monde Musicale, the Suite Persane ‘affirms again the highest qualities’, and it was called ‘a very ingenious work of instrumental combinations and much inspiration’. The suite does indeed offer a lot to the listener. In this work, each movement embraces a stylistic freedom and modality which would become so intrinsic in the later works.
Sharki, the first movement, states an Eastern-style modal theme in flutes and clarinets from the outset, which then are joined by bassoon. Following incarnations of the theme are placed throughout different instrumental groups and further developed.
The stately swirling chordal movement in fifths opens the second movement, Mihawend, paving way to a melodic theme in E minor.
The final movement Iskia Samaïsi is the longest of the three, and consists of two main motifs; an energetic dance theme first heard on oboes, then a second theme in triplets is introduced, based upon a whole tone scale. These motifs weave around each other towards a repeat of the first section, and ending with a loud fluttering coda.
After the excitement of this concert, the next project for Caplet was his residency at the Villa Medici, as part of his Prix de Rome scholarship. Perhaps he was still searching for his compositional voice and hoping to fully broaden his horizons, but soon after arriving in Italy, Caplet’s travels took him beyond Rome and throughout Germany. Caplet pursued well known conductors (Felix Mottl and Arthur Nikisch), and perhaps this exposure fed his desire and interest for more involvement with conducting. For reasons which are still unclear, Caplet turned in his resignation from the Prix de Rome, and had returned to Paris by 1906.
Paris at this time was teeming with creative energy and innovative artistic style. A lot was happening. Before leaving for Italy, Caplet had associated himself with circles of young artists partial to both the modern and exotic, and he rekindled these connections upon his return. One such group was Les Apaches.
This was a collective of musicians and artists, originally started by Florent Schmitt. Fellowship grew, and before long it included Ricardo Viñes, D.E. Inghelbrecht, Paul Sourdes, Manuel de Falla, Maurice Ravel, and of course, André Caplet. They would gather in the welcoming home of artist Paul Sourdes in Montremarte, and discuss music, literature and the arts. Theirs was a shared love of oriental art, the literary work of Mallarmé and Verlaine, the music of Chopin to the Russian school of composers, and naturally the latest creations of Debussy himself. According to an account by one of the first Caplet scholars, Willametta Spencer, the group’s nickname came about in quite a spontaneous way:
One Saturday afternoon, after a concert, they were walking down the rue de Rome en masse. They bumped into a newsboy who shouted ‘Attention, les Apaches!’ Ricardo Viñes picked up the slogan, and thus the group was named.
Les Apaches even had their own theme tune.Spencer goes on to mention: ‘soon they even adopted a code of their own by which they could communicate. The first theme of the Symphony No. 2 by Borodin was adopted as their rally call, which served to help them find each other in various places’.
Les Apaches was not the only musical society with which Caplet associated. The Société Musicale Independente (SMI) was a group formed in 1910 by Ravel, amongst some other young composers, mostly in reaction to the earlier established Société Nationale de Musique (SNM). The SMI aimed to promote an inclusive and progressive approach to modern music of the day. It was this group who brought about the premiere of Caplet’s Septuor (Septet) for ladies’ voices and string quartet, and again in 1922 the premiere the vocal work Le Pain Quotidian (The Daily Bread).
Around the time of his return to Paris in 1906-07, Caplet had also become well acquainted with Debussy. Before long, the two were working closely together. Debussy wrote a lot of letters to Caplet between 1908 and 1914, and these give great insight into their relationship, which was clearly based upon mutual respect and admiration. Caplet assisted Debussy in correcting proofs of scores, transcribing music, reducing orchestral scores for piano (it was Caplet who transcribed Debussy’s La Mer for four-hands piano), as well as making orchestrations of piano works (such as Pagodes andthe Children’s Corner Suite). Caplet also completed the orchestration of La Boîte a joujoux(The Toy-Box) and aided Debussy significantly with preparing Le Martyre de Saint Sébastien.
These years were good to Caplet, and his role as a conductor would become even more elevated with his appointment as conductor of the Boston Opera between 1910 and 1914. Caplet’s time in Boston was fruitful; he introduced audiences there to French music and his choices of concert programmes received much acclaim. The Boston Globe carried positive reports – this one, reporting on Caplet’s orchestration of The Children’s Corner in 1910 mentions: ‘Debussy’s Children’s Corner Suite will be an interesting novel of the orchestral programme […] Were it not for André Caplet, it is likely that Boston would never have heard this delightful suite’.
Caplet returned to Paris in early 1914, and was only a short time in his position as Director of the Boston Opera when war broke out. Caplet spent most of the war firstly as a soldier, then as sergeant in Verdun, France. Caplet was awarded the Croix de Guerre (with a silver star) for bravery in 1916 and when the war ended he was released in April 1919, remaining in the territorial reserve until 1924.
The kind of artistic socialising to which Caplet had become accustomed in the pre-war era had greatly changed during the war years. Caplet had huge responsibilities to his unit, less independence, limited supplies of instruments and only sporadic contact with Debussy. Fortunately, Caplet was not the only musician in the trenches, and he very soon surrounded himself with a circle of like-minded artists. Music making in this situation had an extra incentive; to lift the morale of the soldiers, generating some kind of respite from the surrounding tumult. This became a more pressing reason for Caplet to immerse himself in as much musical activity as possible. Through music, he could provide solace for his compatriots as well as using it as the channel for his personal responses to war. It is likely Caplet encountered soldiers equipped with musical abilities broadly ranging from rudimental to advanced, and possibly from all corners of France; perhaps a much greater spectrum of musical attitudes than that with which he engaged before active service.
There were some outstanding personalities with whom Caplet forged musical alliances. His relationship with one, the virtuoso violinist Lucien Durosoir, forged a friendship that would transcend the war years. Durosoir and Caplet were the same age, both educated at the conservatoire during the same period, and understandably a strong rapport developed. Amidst the difficulties surrounding them, the musicians found time to study scores by Debussy and others, and work together on music at quieter opportunities. But Durosoir was not Caplet’s only musical ally at this point. Cellist Maurice Maréchal was known to play Debussy’s works for the regiments, and while Durosoir continued his musical studies with Caplet, there was still plenty of music making procured by Maréchal and others where possible. In fact, Caplet, Durosoir and Marechal would regularly host concerts and soirees for other officers.
Although for Caplet there still remained at least a semblance of musicality, the war had a profound effect on him, as it did on so many other musicians at this time. Caplet did not produce a large body of work during the war years, and there is a very noticeable streamlining of musical genres.
Gone are the large-scale piano transcriptions and orchestrations with wide instrumentation; instead we are left with a small pool of songs. Mélodie as a genre was not new to Caplet – evidenced by the range of songs reaching as far back as the late 1890s – but it was during these war years that he began to delve deeper into the potential of harmonic language, modality, song structure and texture. Paradoxically, it was Caplet’s paring back of his artistic language which seemed to liberate his musical identity. It is to the tumult of war that we must attribute the inspiration behind the modest but valuable collection of mélodies dating from 1914-1918, amongst which lies a wealth of gems. From the song cycle Le vieux coffert (The Old Box), to the haunting diminished and octatonic strains of Détresse (Distress), to Quand reverrai-je, hélas (When Shall I See You Again, Alas), and La Croix douloureuse, (The Sad Cross), Caplet’s sensitivity and delicate treatment of war and other themes began to lay the foundations for an individual musical voice, which would come into full maturity after the war ended.
Upon returning to civilian life, Caplet found himself unable to continue conducting to the degree he had been previously. His lungs were weakened due to exposure to gasses during the war, and he simply did not have the stamina to meet the demands which came with a full and intense conducting schedule. His compositional output began to expand more, and around 1919-1920 we see a proliferation of mélodies: the 3 Fables and simultaneously melodious and lively Cinq Ballades Françaises (Five French Ballades) date from this time respectively. In the 3 Fables, we see Caplet bring the animals depicted in Jean de La Fontaine’s texts fully to life; wide-ranging vocal lines juxtaposing in equal partnership with the piano parts place Caplet’s authenticity within this genre firmly alongside Ravel’s Histories naturelles.
However, the lure of conducting had a strong hold on Caplet, and in 1922 it was he who held the conductor’s baton at the French premiere of Schoenberg’s Five Orchestral Pieces, an event which resulted in policemen on horseback being dispatched to calm the commotion of the audience, who erupted in uproar upon hearing Schoenberg’s music! Webern, speaking of the SMI in a letter to Ravel in 1927, mentions:
Such an international embrace of new works signifies the SMI’s high standards for compositional excellence, where a composer’s worth is based not on nationality but on style, aesthetic, and quality. This truth grants composers the rewarding knowledge that, should their works be selected by the SMI, it is because their craft is deemed valuable, not because their piece fulfils a national stereotype.
In the final years of his life, Caplet commanded a lot of respect as a conductor, composer and all-round musical persona of his time. No mention of Caplet would be complete without a nod towards some of his large-scale later works. The harshness of war affirmed Caplet’s strong Catholic faith, and this religious theme was one to run through some of these. Le miroir de Jésus (The Mirror of Jesus), composed in 1924, encapsulates some of Caplet’s most distinctive characteristics: a combination of modal and chromatic harmonic movement, even with Schonebergian flavour at certain points, yet with an intensity and spirituality that is truly Caplet’s own sound. This spiritualism is continued in other works from this era – Epiphanie for cello and orchestra composed in 1923, after an Ethiopian legend, and Mystères du Rosiere (Mysteries of the Rosary) composed in the same year, share this search for spiritual meaning and evoke the mysterious and exotic, all the while encapsulating Caplet’s sensitivity to the subject without any over-emotionalism.
André Caplet was an artist in possession of an empathy and musical intuition which did indeed enable him to create a sonorous atmosphere – whether by his own compositions, or through the conductor’s baton, through a musical language of consistent inventiveness and design.
Indeed, Caplet’s part within the tapestry of early French modernism can be seen as that of a transitionary figure. His dignity and forward-looking use of modal structures places him beyond the realm of Debussysme and facing towards the direction that Messiaen would later expand upon both modally and approaching the creation of synthetic scales. Caplet was a figure who favoured different musical conventions. Perhaps he is best remembered with respect for his individual artistry amongst the true post-Debussyan composers of the 1920s and beyond.
Clare is a third year PhD candidate at the Faculty of Music in Ulster University. She holds a Masters in semiotic approaches to the music of Debussy, diplomas in piano performance and teaching, and has recently been awarded Associate Fellowship of the Higher Education Academy. Fuelled by both plenty of coffee and a passion for early twentieth century French music, Clare’s doctoral research focusses on rigorous analysis of the mélodies of Caplet. Through her current and future work, Clare hopes that she can help bring about more recognition for André Caplet. Clare divides her time between Belfast and Dublin, and as an enthusiastic piano teacher, is committed to supportive teaching and learning in higher education. She tweets as @claero.
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I’ve cheated a bit with that title – I actually want to write about only one body of repertoire, but in the years I’ve been studying this subject I still haven’t found a single adjective that covers the music I work on.
In fact, I don’t even have a word for the subject I study. I’ve moved from the History Faculty at the University of Oxford, through an MSc in Material Anthropology and Museum Ethnography (which included Ethnomusicology), to the Music Faculty, but I think I’m really studying the history of collecting. I’m now in the second year of my DPhil, and my thesis goes by the working title ‘The tunebooks of J. B. Malchair, Oxford c.1770-1812’ – vague enough to avoid naming the contents of those tunebooks.
Born in Cologne, John Malchair (1730-1812) was a drawing master and professional musician, who came to England at age 24 where he led the Oxford Music Room band between 1760 and 1792 – retiring after his violin was broken by an orange thrown from the audience during a student fracas. Concerts were hazardous places in those days: for example, in 1773 the audience was asked not to allow dogs to wander into the Music Room; in 1787 audiences at the Sheldonian Theatre were instructed to refrain from requesting encores so that the performances could progress; and in Edinburgh there was a prohibition on throwing things at the band. Malchair’s violin was broken, according to a letter by witness John Guard, ‘in the midst of such an uproar as I never heard before at any place of public entertainment’.
Malchair collected tunes in his spare time – though also ‘necessary busness was at times incrotched uppon when the fitt of collecting grew Violent’. He collected at least four volumes of tunes, although only Volumes III and IV remain extant, the latter being titled ‘The Arrangement’. Malchair’s collection today is preserved in three manuscript tunebooks: two pocket-sized notebooks in his own handwriting which together contain 847 tunes, and a further 90 tunes in a larger volume compiled by his friend William Crotch from Malchair’s playing – after Malchair’s sight began to fail in the mid-1790s – alongside others published by Crotch in Specimens of Various Styles of Music in 1807.
Members of Boldwood play ‘La Fete De Village’, printed on a dance fan in the Ashmolean museum, 1789, in the BBC’s adaptation of Poldark:
Most tunebooks of this era were used by musicians as memory aids, and often contained tunes played for dancing alongside the melodies of church hymns. Malchair’s two extant tunebooks are different to this in both content and function. Rather than containing tunes he played and learned from fellow musicians, they form a consciously-made collection, with which he aimed to showcase the best music of a range of nations. He often gave full provenance for tunes and included an introduction to the collection, which together hint at his motivation and methods. From this information we learn that, in addition to seeking out old tunes from books, Malchair received music via letters sent from contacts in different locations, and scribbled down melodies played by street musicians.
But what kind of music are they?
The tunes are labeled (in Volume III) and grouped (in Volume IV) by nation. There are tunes from fourteen nations in all: England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland, France, Germany, Spain, Norway, Turkey, Scandinavia, China, Virginia, the West Indies, and Persia. Malchair’s introduction to Volume IV, and his choice of arrangement of the tunes into national groups, suggests that he believed the music should be categorised according to its national character (as he perceived it) rather than its geographical origin as we would do today. Thus, for instance, he included tunes that we would today call ‘Scottish’ or ‘English’ in the ‘Irish’ section of his book, and vice versa.
His concern for national groupings makes clear that Malchair’s collection is one of ‘national music’. But ‘national music’ is not what Malchair himself called it: he refers instead to ‘English Tunes’, ‘Scottish Tunes’, ‘Irish Tunes’ or ‘Welsh Tunes’, as well as ‘old tunes’, ‘The Music of our ancesters’, ‘Cunning Music’, ‘admirable tunes’, ‘music of antient times’ and ‘the old Melodies’ – in contrast to ‘Elegant Moderne Music’.
The first person to refer to Malchair’s collection as one of ‘national music’ was William Crotch, when later acknowledging the help he’d had from Malchair (who ‘has made National Music his study’) in putting together Specimens of Various Styles of Music.
So should I refer to Malchair’s collection as ‘national music’ if he never referred to it as such himself?
We can justify this in two ways: firstly by assuming that he did in fact refer to it as such, but that there are simply no references to this that have survived to the present day. After all, we only have two of his tunebooks; and his introduction to Volume IV, at 1,697 words, is only about the same length as this blog post. Secondly, we might conclude that, for Malchair, the fact that his collection was one of ‘national music’ simply went without saying at a time when concerns for the ‘national’ permeated discourse, both politically and culturally.
In either case we can be in no doubt that Malchair would have understood the phrase, being well-read and in regular communication with other musicians and in particular with William Crotch, who seems to have taken it for granted that the phrase ‘national music’ accurately described Malchair’s collection. A quick search of ECCO (Eighteenth Century Collections Online, a searchable repository of digitised books from the eighteenth century) reveals use of the phrase ‘national music’ in print from at least 1755, and of ‘national song’ since at least 1719.
Malchair collected the tune to the song ‘Roast Beef’, grouping it among the Irish tunes, although it was composed by English playwright Henry Fielding in 1731 for ‘The Grub Street Opera’, then made popular in a new setting by Richard Leveridge.
So if we accept that Malchair probably thought of his collection as one of ‘national music’, why have I muddied the waters by calling it ‘folk music’ and ‘street music’?
I often refer to Malchair’s collection in conversation as one of ‘folk music’ because outside of a handful of people in the Music Faculty it is the quickest way to describe what I’m studying. However, the phrase ‘folksong’ was only invented in 1773 (by Gottfried Herder in his Essay on Ossian) and didn’t come into regular usage in English during the eighteenth century at all – according to another search on ECCO.
However, in its twenty-first century form, the phrase ‘folk music’ describes how the tunes that Malchair collected are viewed by musicians today. The majority of the tunes in Malchair’s tunebooks are country dance tunes, and many he copied out from publications such as Playford’s Dancing Master (first published 1651), which Malchair viewed in the Ashmolean Library – now part of the Bodleian. Malchair wrote in his introduction to Volume IV that ‘many of them are so uncommonly beautyful as to captivate the most refined Eare, they are, it is true, involved in a crowde of Vulgarityes but it is well worth the trouble of fighting through that mob in order to save them from oblivion.’
The Playfords, and later publishers such as Allan Ramsay in Edinburgh and George Thompson in London, were making a profit by putting down in print tunes that were in general circulation among musicians at the time, whether the tunes of songs, melodies played for dancing in assembly halls, or taken from the works of known composers, or the arias of the most popular operas.
Though the term ‘folk’ existed in certain musical contexts in the eighteenth century, Malchair and his contemporaries would not have used this word, and could hardly have predicted that the repertoire these publishers brought together in print would later become the bread and butter of the instrumental folk music world two centuries later.
‘Beggar Boy’ was Malchair’s ‘most favourite’ tune – he said of it that ‘this Melodie is admirabely calculated to rise compassion and has in it the Pure Voice of Nature’.
And why ‘street music’? If the phrase ‘folk music’ is anachronistic, perhaps ‘street music’ would be more appropriate, as it locates the music Malchair collected in a physical place and among real people.
Malchair records in detail where he found some of his tunes, and while the majority are from printed collections, there are a handful with much more lively provenance. For example, he recorded three tunes ‘written down from hearing them playd by an Irish Piper and Fidler at Oxford. May 15 – 1784’, one that he heard ‘Played by a Piedernontese Girl on a Cymbal in Oxford Streets, December 22 1784’, and another ‘From the Singing of a Poor Woman and two femal Children Oxford May 15 1784’.
In addition to revealing his sources, these marginalia also give us some insight into his methods. While Malchair was known for carrying his sketchbook with him, it is clear that he did not only collect tunes when he was thus prepared and, one day, ‘heard a Man whistle this tune in Magpey Lane Oxon Dbre 22 1789. came home and noted it down directly.’
Malchair also collected songs from friends, both from live singing and sent to him by letter. Many of his contacts were university men such as ‘the Honble Mr Linsey of Baliol Coll. Oxon.’ and ‘Mr Cunningham of Christ Ch. Oxon.’; and although he was opportunistic, such as when he noted down a tune he ‘heard a man sing in Harlech Castle’, he also actively pursued repertoire, as is implied by his comment that one tune was ‘Noted down from having it sung to me’, presumably at Malchair’s request, by another acquaintance.
Since Malchair collected only a handful of tunes from the street, and a handful more from the singing of friends, can I really refer to the collection as one of ‘street music’? Practically speaking, while not all of his collecting was done on the street, it is likely that many of the tunes he collected were known by people in and around the streets of Oxford. If the tunes he collected from live performance are also to be found in historic printed collections, we can assume that the reverse was also true – that many of those tunes he took from printed music collections were actively being played, sung, and even whistled on the streets of Oxford in the 1780s and 90s, when Malchair collected the bulk of his tunes.
This aspect of Malchair’s collecting practice is of particular interest to me, because most historical commentators place the start of this process in the mid-nineteenth century. By collecting from life, whether from friends, performers or street musicians, Malchair was collecting in a way that has not yet been written about for the eighteenth century, and whatever we call his repertoire – national, folk, or street music – it is his methods and activities as a collector that make him and his work a fascinating subject to study.
Alice is a DPhil candidate in the Faculty of Music at Oxford University; she holds the Hélène La Rue Scholarship in Music at St Cross College. Her doctoral work explores collectors and collections of music in the eighteenth century. In the past she was Assistant Curator of Musical Instruments at the Horniman Museum, and has also worked at the British Museum, the Museum of the Royal Military School of Music, and at the Bate Collection of Musical Instruments. Visit her website and follow her on Twitter.
Music that unfolds gradually and slowly brings about a unique quality of emotional gratification. While there is plenty of enthusiasm arising from the incisive excitement of scintillatingly brisk performances, beauty that is to be found in the ponderously lasting presents a differing world altogether.
The apparent impact of slowness in music emerges when one compares interpretations of a piece of work by conductors favouring opposite poles in tempo. Sir John Eliot Gardiner’s lively account of Beethoven’s 9th symphony shows how a work can sound when played at an unusually swift tempo (by 20th-century interpretative standards). A sense of lightness and urgency prevail, at times resulting in feelings of breathless fury.
In contrast to the daring athleticism found in Gardiner’s work, the sound-world shaped through Karl Böhm’s majestically slow vision – one of the last recordings of the great Austrian conductor – calls for weight and the monumental, an aged grandeur that imposes and sweeps with bold conviction.
One can argue that the lightness so prevalent in Gardiner’s reading may be accounted for by the historically informed performance, with the period instruments and reduced size of the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique. Yet even if one listens to another rapidly paced account, this time with the modern Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra conducted by Riccardo Chailly, the overall impression is not too dissimilar.
As such, slowness in music can carve out a sense of the broad and immense; through taking a deliberate and slow tempo, a dimension of physical magnitude emerges. This may be in accordance with an ecological perspective, since most things large in real life tend to also be slow. Supporting this notion, Newton’s second law of motion, F=ma, implies that in changing a fixed amount of force, mass and velocity are in an inverse relationship, such that an increase of mass is connected with a decrease of speed/velocity, and vice versa (particularly relevant is the mechanics of momentum, a derivative function of F=ma, also known as p=mv). In either case, the mind may automatically ascribe a sense of mass and vastness to something that is (or sounds) slow.
This idea that slowness leads to a sense of grandeur is often applied as a dramatic device by some conductors. Within a unified tempo structure, unexpectedly slowing down the tempo of a subsection in a movement can, when applied suitably, release an energy imbued with a sense of scale and breadth.
The technique can have various names depending on the contexts, such as ritardando, rallentando, tempo rubato (‘stolen time’ in Italian) or ritenuto, amongst many others. The slowing down can be done within such a short amount of time that it even applies even to a single note.
A memorable demonstration of such effect comes from Leonard Bernstein’s recording of the 4th symphony of Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) with the Vienna Philharmonic in the early 80s. While Bernstein’s overall conception of this work is of an expansive nature, the conductor significantly slows down the tempo at the apotheosis of the symphony, in the last few bars of the finale. The effect is deeply felt for its far reaching sublimity.
Comparable to this is the live recording of the same symphony by Yevgeny Mravinsky with the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra, where the tempo is picked up vigorously in the same section. While not short in intensity, the generated energy is of a different kind of sinew compared to the aforementioned recording by Bernstein. In place of the grand is a sense of electric relentlessness, a driving momentum that is gratifying with a raw edge, not shy of showing itself.
While it has been indirectly referred to, the slow itself warrants an observation. In essence, the concept of the slow is a mostly relative one; the perception of slow is slow insofar as when preceded by a passage of a quicker speed. Furthermore, it may be insightful to know that ritardando means to ‘slow down’, not ‘slow’ per se. Therefore, to judge Böhm’s rendition of Beethoven’s 9th symphony as slow is possible through the assumption of having heard other faster versions of that same work.
Likewise, tempo markings within a work are likely to represent a pulse intrinsic to the architecture, logic and ‘life’ given to the work during its conception by the creator. In the case of multi-movement works, composers are likely to allocate unique tempo markings to specific movements, or moments within a movement, in order to enhance the argument and flow of music. Therefore, the incipient slow sections in many first movements of Franz Joseph Haydn’s (1732-1809) symphonies prepare an exhilarating delight at the arrival of the first – usually faster – theme.
Relatedly, a slow movement – usually marked as an adagio or lento – in a symphony or a similar large scale work brings about a sense of contrast between the more extroverted surrounding movements. The slow breath of the slow movement provides an equilibrium to the work’s overarching rhythm.
Similar observations can be made within scherzo (‘I joke’ in Italian) movements, where the ternary structure (i.e. ABA) consists of a short contrasting section – also known as the ‘trio’ – located in between two often dance-like sections. Certain composers insert a songful slow section in this central section. When section A is reprised, its return renews a sense of freshness, through which the movement regains and prolongs its rhythmic momentum.
Either as a slow movement of a symphony or as a poignant trio section within a scherzo movement, the revealed slowness plays the role of an oasis of cool poise in the midst of bumpy terrain. Anton Bruckner’s (1824-1896) scherzo of the 8th symphony demonstrates this notion well.
In Tchaikovsky’s 6th symphony, the slow movement being placed last, suggests a picture of a work that is overall solemn and elegiac. By concluding the work in such unexpectedly slow fashion, the listeners not only find the joyous moments of the 2nd and 3rd movements somewhat negated, but also understand retrospectively that these moments of joy are precursors to the inevitable melancholy of the conclusion. When the day is done, a sigh not only signifies an outlook towards the rest of the remaining day, but also a newly springing nostalgia of all what came before. As such, slowness may play an integral role in how one interprets and understands a whole piece of work.
Slowness, then, can also be used as a powerful structural device. If so, is there a unifying experience to the slow? While every piece of slow music is slow in its own way, in many examples mentioned so far the unique qualities of slowness in music depict feelings of a contemplative, often introspective and/or sombre nature. This is often opposed to the often active, buoyant, and/or light counterpart of faster music. If the world of the slow is the night or an afternoon of cool rain, the world of the fast is broad daylight or the blazing sun itself.
And if empirical research may shine additional light on this matter, recent studies in psychology have shown that slow tempo is associated with the experience of sadness among listeners. Conversely, speeding up a piece would elicit happiness (read research here). In other words, the interplay of tempos, by having a piece slow down and speed up, may play an important role in shaping the emotional tapestry of a given work.
I would like to think – should such scientific argument be true – that the principle would feed itself into the working knowledge of composers, to the degree that they would consciously or unconsciously choose a slow tempo for ‘sad-sounding’ musical sections. As an example, it is difficult to conceive of plaintive and reflective musical ideas created for deeply mournful purposes written in tempos of relative briskness. Henry Purcell’s (1659-1695) inward-looking Funeral Sentence In the midst of life, written for Queen Mary II’s funeral, demonstrates this point.
Furthermore, slowness goes beyond a matter of music. While there is an increasing number of opinions in recent times towards the appreciation of a slow-paced life, slowing down cannot be a mere counterpart of, or panacea to, the hectic density of modern cosmopolitanism. Rather, to slow down is a quality intrinsic to life and its components. Accordingly, by immersing oneself into the slowness of a musical work’s life, one encounters an experience very true to being alive.
From the grand to the wistful, qualities of the slow in music play out a common denominator of austere sincerity, a sense of self-aware profundity. One can at least say that while not all slow music is ‘sad-sounding’, sadness is best executed in a slow pace. A similar pattern can apply for ‘grand-sounding’ music, too.
Needless to say, music is complex, and musical experiences even more so. There are numerous things to consider, such as memories of what came before and expectations of what might happen afterwards. There are also other factors such as rhythm, pitch and loudness that are crucial in shaping one’s musical experiences – this cannot be denied. However, that there is a special beauty in the slow in music – this also cannot be denied.
Young-Jin Hur is a PhD candidate in psychology at University College London, an ardent record collector and a self-professed Anton Bruckner enthusiast. He has written concert notes for the Seoul Arts Centre and contributes to one of Korea’s largest classical music online communities, 클래식에 미치다 (‘Crazy about Classical Music’).
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François-Joseph Gossec (1734-1829) was an influential composer, theorist, and administrator who, with the collective efforts of his contemporaries, helped transform musical institutions in France at the close of the eighteenth century. Derived from peasant origins in Vergnies, Belgium, he obtained successive posts at the Paris Opéra following the premiere of his celebrated Messe des morts (1760). He was one of the founding professors of the Conservatoire de Musique and composed a large quantity of music for the festivals of the French Revolution. A prolific writer, Gossec drafted a number of reform texts, treatises, and histories in addition to his musical output.
Nevertheless, Gossec is rarely recognized for his efforts, much less as an opera composer. His works are certainly underrepresented in today’s repertory and many have not yet received a modern performance. However, Sabinus, his first attempt at writing a lyric tragedy, proved to be a watershed in the newly emerging genre of ‘reform opera’ in 1770s France. While the work was ultimately overshadowed by performances of Gluck’s Iphigénie en Aulide, Sabinus holds greater significance than its public reception attests. Not only was it written with musical innovation in mind, but with a specific historical intent. Designed to ameliorate the crisis of widely-perceived cultural deficit in French opera following Rameau’s death in 1764, the aesthetics and themes presented in Sabinus were conscious attempts to revitalize French ‘genius’. In a report co-authored with Étienne-Nicolas Méhul in 1803, Gossec deemed the work ‘one of the forerunners of a new revolution in music’.
We are fortunate to possess the libretto for the work annotated in Gossec’s hand, in addition to a handful of essays reflecting on the history and state of his art, which shed light on the intentions with which Gossec wrote Sabinus.
So what made Sabinus revolutionary? ‘Revolution’ was a buzzword in musical discourse at the time, and held different meanings in different contexts, as Philippe Vendrix has shown. In this case it refers to a sudden, singular transformation in the musical arts, and therefore historical progress. ‘Revolution’ also connotes ‘genius’, that is, the arrival of a composer who shockingly (and permanently) transforms a nation’s music. In eighteenth-century France, Rameau and Lully were lionized as examples of such revolutionary genius. Rameau in particular was referenced, as he belonged to the recent past. Who would inherit his legacy? Revolution was therefore viewed as something a composer should aspire to, in the name of maintaining progress in the musical arts.
Two critical elements in Sabinus indicate that Gossec himself strove toward this goal: novelty and variety.
Set in first-century Gaul, Sabinus brought novel thematic material to the lyric stage. Rather than drawing from classical subject matter, it concerns the rebellion of the Gaulish nobleman Julius Sabinus against Roman authority. Against a backdrop of ancient forests, caves, and druids, Sabinus rescues his lover Eponine from the jealous Roman governor Mucien while liberating the Gauls.
By discarding popular settings of classical civilizations in favor of early French history, Gossec reversed the aesthetics of lyric tragedy to feature nature as a sacred force, rather than employ the merveilleux (marvellous). The merveilleux was ‘a vital element of supernatural and magical scenes and for those depicting transformations, battles and other spectacular events’ designed to transport the audience into a fantastical world (Grove). A common use of the merveilleux was ‘the arrival of gods among mortals’.
While one could argue that Gossec did not eliminate this element entirely, particularly in Act II when the Grand Druid enters the cave to make an appeal to the gods, the gods remain absent from the stage as characters. However, they are personified as natural phenomena: in the aforementioned scene (II.3), the cave responds to the Druid’s request with a subterranean rumble, shutting him inside, in which Eponine responds, ‘Heavens! The sound has intensified’.
What is more, Gossec’s emphasis on nature sauvage (savage nature) modifies each scene to conform to this idea of primitive simplicity. As Dominique Lauvernier has noted in his essay on Gossec’s lyric tragedies, Sabinus contains a variety of stock settings (the public place, the tomb, the temple), but they are adapted to the concept of nature as a sacred force. For example, the forest setting in Act II functions as a kind of temple, where ‘during 20 measures of a slow march, the druids go to the altar in ceremony’, according to Gossec’s annotations. The appearance of the Genie of Gaul in third act also serves as a godlike embodiment of nature, whom Sabinus consults for advice (III.3).
Novelty additionally takes precedence in Gossec’s choice of instrumentation. In a short history completed around 1810, Gossec indicates the use of these instruments in Sabinus, relatively new to instrumental ensembles at the time. ‘This was the first time trombones were heard in this theater [the Paris Opéra], and the second time for clarinets combined with horns and trumpets’, he insists.
While Gossec’s factual information is a bit faulty, given that Rameau had used clarinets prior to Gossec in his operas Zoroastre (1749) and Acante et Céphise (1751), the peculiar instrumentation in Sabinus does capture the attention of the listener. Rich textures and pops of color emerge from the numerous ballets, particularly in the tambourins and chaconne (two types of dance). My personal favorite is Gossec’s careful selection of timbres in the percussion, immersing the listener in the ‘primitive’ theme of his work. Gossec acknowledged this himself in the 1803 report written with Méhul: ‘The music offered a very marked character, a most vivid color’.
Variety is also featured in Sabinus as a critical revolutionizing element. Perhaps more than novelty, this aimed directly at achieving favorable audience reception of the work. Like Rameau, Gossec paid scrupulous attention to his relationship with audiences and their particular tastes. Writing to his friend Auguste Panseron in 1814, he spoke of this crucial link: ‘It is the public that sustains us; it is therefore for the public that we must work’. In the 1770s, the concept of variety largely appealed to theatergoers, a term frequently referenced in reviews of staged works. Public judgment could therefore deem a work ‘revolutionary’ if it exhibited a sound balance, that is, if varied musical fragments flowed together seamlessly with the plot rather than disrupting the action.
Gossec applied this principle to Sabinus, but perhaps in excess. A dialogue in the March 1774 issue of the Correspondance littérairecriticized the tedious and detached quality of the ballets interspersed throughout Gossec’s work: ‘You love ballets: ah well, gentlemen, in what opera could you find more? In what opera could they be longer?’ ‘The longest, it is true; however, one yawns.’
Indeed, Sabinus contains a startling number of dances, not only for aesthetic quality but to accommodate for scene and costume changes. Among Gossec’s annotations in the libretto, the word ‘simphonie’ appears eight times, ‘rittournelle’ (ritornello) four times; an assortment of dances also appear, including frequent mentions of marches, gavottes, airs, pantomime, and, during the finale, a ‘contredanse’. Gossec’s attempt to revolutionize by such a means therefore holds greater significance than its actual outcome.
Variety also takes shape in the form of instrumentation. Gossec’s precise tonal palette for Sabinus – designed to transport the audience into the realm of early Gaul – was intended to be memorable, painting the scene as explicitly as the costumes and machinery onstage (which Gossec also takes care to specify in his annotations). For example, different fragments of color appear throughout the work, such as ‘thunder’ (IV.2), likely produced by the timpani and trombones, and the announcement of a cavalry trumpet (I.4). Gossec later reiterated the importance of this variety in a treatise composed in 1791: ‘It is to the taste of the composer to choose his sounds in a way that creates varied, punctuated songs that flatter the ear, as in our bouquets, where a delightful mixture of colors flatters our vision’.
While Sabinus was ultimately put to rest with Gluck’s explosive popularity in 1774, Gossec’s mindful attention to novelty and variety throughout the work illustrate that he intended to claim agency over a musical ‘revolution’. Sabinus still awaits a modern reprise over twenty years after Dominique Lauvernier’s proposal to stage it in the theater of Versailles, and certainly deserves one. It would be a wonderful testament to Gossec’s efforts, and a reminder that we have not yet forgotten him.
Alina Tylinski is in the process of completing her BA in history with honors at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. A former clarinet student, she is looking to pursue musicology in her future graduate studies with a focus on music in eighteenth-century France. She tweets as @f_j_gossec and her blog can be found at fjgossec.wordpress.com.
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‘Why do you want to be a composer? You’re the best trumpet player in England.’
So asked the ageing composer Vaughan Williams to a 27-year-old Malcolm Arnold. The story is related in Malcolm Arnold: Rogue Genius, a superlative biography by Anthony Meredith and Paul Harris. Malcolm had played in the London Philharmonic when Vaughan Williams conducted the premiere of his fifth symphony. Three years on from that probing question, he would stand in the Festival Hall in London, newly opened in the 1951 Festival of Britain, and conduct his own first symphony.
On the tenth anniversary of Malcolm Arnold’s death, it is worth visiting Meredith and Harris’ superbly researched and beautifully written book, which provides a riveting account of a man whose life story is both little known and completely extraordinary.
Malcolm Arnold was born in 1921 in Northampton, the youngest of five children. His family were proudly upper-middle class, but behind the respectable front not all was well. Shoe manufacture was the family trade, but Malcolm’s father, an emotionally volatile man, had founded a rival firm to his grandfather after a falling out. The family also had a history of mental illness – two of Malcolm’s aunts had ended their lives in a mental hospital, another had committed suicide.
There were other tensions too. His sister Ruth was a rebel against the prevailing norms, a feminist and poet who was expelled from school and had her own mental health problems. It was through her record collection that the young Malcolm discovered jazz, inspiring him to take up the trumpet. Seeing Louis Armstrong perform in the flesh while on a holiday in Bournemouth would cement his desire to master the instrument.
The Arnolds were a well-off musical family, and with plenty of opportunities for joint music making Malcolm also took up piano and violin. But it was when a local organist gave him music theory lessons that his unusual talent became obvious. He showed an astonishing speed of absorption, and a voracious appetite to learn about all the latest musical developments.
Malcolm won a place at the Royal College of Music where, alongside trumpet, he studied composition and conducting. At the same time, the shy teenager came out of his shell. He developed something of a reputation for his extra-curricular hijinks and promiscuity – keenly encouraged, if not embellished, by Malcolm himself.
But it was not all fun and games. By this time, Britain was at war. Tragedy struck when his brother Philip, a pilot in the RAF, failed to return from a mission. It would be eight agonising months before the family received official confirmation of his death. Malcolm, sharing the progressive sympathies of his sister Ruth, registered as a conscientious objector.
Malcolm was meanwhile developing a flair for composition. A string quartet entry to a Cobbett Phantasy competition won him second prize, despite being written in just five days. But at the same time a streak of unpredictable behaviour emerged. After an argument with a tutor, he ran off to Plymouth with a young woman from a nearby art college. Scandalised, his parents had to hire private detectives to find them, before he could eventually be coaxed back to his studies – his bad-boy reputation no doubt greatly enhanced.
Eventually Malcolm left college without qualifications, and took on a trumpet vacancy in the London Philharmonic. He would travel the length of the country on tour, part of a wartime effort to boost public morale. It was relentless and repetitive work, but on a visit to Sheffield he met a young woman, Sheila, who would become his first wife.
Sheila was a steady, no-nonsense Yorkshire girl who was studying violin at the Royal Academy of Music. Despite her being previously engaged, within six months of intense courtship she and Malcolm were married. But while Sheila quickly fell under colourful young man’s spell, she would soon became aware that he had problems.
An early breakdown seems to have occurred in 1943, though details are sketchy. Shortly afterwards he composed his first orchestral work, the comedy overture Beckus the Dandipratt. It was a vibrant score that would soon enable him to showcase his abilities and unlock the door into film music – and with it the vital income that could enable him to compose full-time.
A second sign of erratic behaviour occurred when, contradicting his pacifist views, Malcolm suddenly decided to enlist. His reasons were never clear, and the reality quickly turned to farce. Not long into his training in Canterbury, he shot himself in the foot to escape his ill-thought-out plan. It was just months before Germany surrendered.
After the war, composing for films soon become lucrative enough for him to give up orchestral playing. But if being a top trumpet player was not enough to satisfy his ambitions, neither was composing for documentary reels about tractors and factories. He wanted to make big artistic statements. Between films, Malcolm found time to compose his first symphony.
In 1948, now living in Twickenham, Sheila gave birth to a girl, Katherine. She was pregnant with their second child when, in 1950, Malcolm underwent a serious episode of mental disturbance. He was shouting and brandishing a knife, and Sheila managed to call the police. He was put into a mental hospital for three months, and underwent ‘Insulin Shock’ therapy – effectively inducing a coma, a form of treatment that has since been discredited.
Malcolm was released a few days before the birth of their son, Robert. Thankfully the treatments had not affected his musical abilities, and he soon composed his first set of English Dances for orchestra, a piece that would become one of his most popular.
Those long hours sat counting bars in orchestras had helped Malcolm develop a feeling for orchestration and clarity of colour. As he recalled, speaking about the first symphony:
When you sit in the orchestra, as I have, you can’t help seeing and being disgusted with the waste of players’ energies and talents on mountains of useless padding.
The symphony starts as if Malcolm is announcing his arrival as a serious composer – an insistent statement on brass and strings. The second movement shows touches of melodic charm, but is assaulted by outbursts of brass, while a grotesque military march in the final movement suggests his disillusionment with war. It’s a complex emotional landscape, from a mind in the run-up to a breakdown. But it also shows he was not setting out to easily win people over.
Some critics were hostile – terms like ‘disconcerting’, ‘wanton harshness’, and ‘self-consciously truculent’ were bandied about. Others were more positive, but it would only be the start of a fraught relationship with establishment opinion.
Meanwhile, Malcolm’s film career was blossoming. He was working hard, playing hard, and drinking hard. Sheila, trying her best to create a stable domestic environment, convinced him to take a break from film work and compose a second symphony. With a first movement of pastoral sunniness, a vibrant scherzo, and a roof-raising finale, it went on to be a huge hit. It shows Malcolm at his most charmingly extrovert, making a case that a symphony can be that rarest of things: fun.
Nevertheless, the slow movement is a lonely and desolate landscape, haunted by sinister bird-call figures on the piccolo. It betrays an underlying disquiet that cannot be totally forgotten. Nor would it be banished for long.
Malcolm’s professional reputation was now in the ascendency. He was popular with musicians, and known for the amazing speed of turning out film scores – often under huge time pressure. His ability to perfectly capture the mood and spirit of a commission was invaluable.
With all this success he was becoming wealthy, even famous. It may be hard to imagine today, but this was a time when classical music was regular prime-time television material, and in 1952 Malcolm was broadcast twice with the LPO. He was also growing rather fond of the high life, despite all his left-wing ideals. But in his spirited socialising he was becoming equally as careless with money as alcohol, dishing out enormously generous tips – much to Sheila’s chagrin.
An important friendship would come about when Malcolm met a young man called Gerard Hoffnung. Hoffnung, who played the tuba, was making a name for himself as a cartoonist and radio broadcaster. He shared Malcolm’s larger-than-life personality and sense of humour, and the two got along famously. Hoffnung interested Malcolm in his plans for a live music festival combining orchestral music and comedy. The resulting collaboration would produce one of the works that has most perpetuated Malcolm’s reputation as a ‘fun’ composer: the Grand, Grand Overture, featuring vacuum cleaners, floor polisher, and rifle – naturally dedicated to US President Hoover.
The festival was a huge success, with instant plans for a repeat. The Arnolds became close friends with Gerard and his wife Annetta.
Perhaps as an antidote to these comic pratfalls, the third symphony would be a work of deep seriousness. In 1957 Malcolm and Sheila attended the Prague Spring Festival, where they were sobered by the reality of life under communism, and met Shostakovich, a composer Malcolm much admired.
The symphony was written soon after their return, and shares some of the intensity of the Soviet composer. Malcolm was also processing the early death of his mother, who had died on his 34th birthday, and the result is a work of much darker tone and more rigorous argument than the second symphony. It is an impressive and powerful piece, and one that reveals a fascinating glimpse of the composer he might have become, if his natural curiosity had not taken him on a different path.
Critics, meanwhile, were mostly confused. How to square this with the vacuum cleaners, the tuneful film soundtracks? In fact, Malcolm was now at the top of his game in the cinema world – in 1958 he won an Oscar for his score to The Bridge on the River Kwai, and in the same year he composed for The Inn of the Sixth Happiness. The amount of work he was taking on was prodigious. For the second Hoffnung Festival he contributed a satirical piece called United Nations, which involved six bands playing across each other.
It all took its toll. When Malcolm was commissioned to write music for Mankiewicz’s Suddenly, Last Summer, the realistic depictions of an asylum in the unscored footage greatly disturbed him. It must be a terrible thing, to fear for your own sanity out of lived experience. Soon enough Malcolm would have another breakdown, and another trip to hospital in a straightjacket. He underwent Electroconvulsive Therapy (ECT) – a procedure that uses electricity to induce seizures. Mankiewicz’s score had to be completed by Buxton Orr.
In this period, his marriage was under enormous strain. Not only did Sheila have to contend with alcoholism and mental instability, but Malcolm had been having affairs too, and was often carelessly indiscreet about them. Then they were struck by further terrible news. Gerard Hoffnung had died of a brain haemorrhage, aged just 34.
In the fourth symphony, completed in 1960, Malcolm explored wider musical and political sympathies, augmenting the orchestra with exotic percussion. He was a huge fan of West Side Story, whose London run had begun in 1958 and which featured its own large percussion section. The tale of white and Puerto Rican gangs in New York had prescience, as in the same year West Indian immigrants were attacked by white gangs in the Notting Hill race riots – events which Malcolm later revealed had dismayed him.
In the first movement, outbursts from the percussion rub alongside a melody of twee banality, more like lush ‘Muzak’ than symphonic material. Malcolm, an early admirer of Mahler, shows us something of his idea that the symphony must ‘contain everything’, high-brow and low-brow, a cross-section of the conflicted world he finds himself in. It is an intriguing juxtaposition, and reveals the formation of a distinctive symphonic personality.
The premiere was enthusiastically received by the audience, but the critics did not shine to his musical tourism. Malcolm was now in no-mans-land: too wayward for conservative writers, but not avant-garde enough for the progressives. It also wasn’t hard to detect a snobbery at the cinema tunesmith: one sneered at ‘facile climaxes of routine film music’, another dismissed his ‘film music slush’. For all of his professional success, the lack of critical acceptance would hurt, and eventually harden into bitterness.
Fortunately, he still had admirers. A commission for another symphony arrived from the Cheltenham Festival. But in January 1961 came yet more shocking news. His eldest brother Aubrey had been found with his wife Wyn, both dead in their car, asphyxiated in a suicide pact. Aubrey had recently resigned from the family firm and was out of work.
At age 40, Malcolm had now experienced more than his fair share of bereavement. He would explicitly explore these feelings in the fifth symphony. In particular he chose to memorialise Gerard Hoffnung, using musical ciphers – a device where notes spell out letters. Gerard would be G and B (B denoting H in German notation), with A and B representing his widow Annetta. Furthermore, the opening theme is constructed from the notes signifying the home keys of all his symphonies up to this point, which seems to have been a kind of defiant statement to his critics.
The second movement forms the emotional heart of the work. Given Malcolm’s gift for melody, it is surprising that this is his only symphonic slow movement to centre around a big, romantic tune. But it is worth the wait. Growing out of Annetta’s initials on hushed strings, it is a meltingly gorgeous theme, full of tender compassion for those left grieving. Perhaps there was regret in there too. Annetta had lost a husband, but at this point Shiela was losing hers as well – their marriage was all but over.
The third movement treats us to another pop diversion; a bluesy interlude over glitzy string chords. Then, at the climax of the finale, comes a masterstroke. With a magnificently paced transition, Annetta’s theme suddenly returns in glory, sung out triumphantly on soaring strings. It is a genuinely spine-tingling reprise, and it overflows with emotion and goodwill. But just as we are set for a rousing finish, that erratic streak returns. The harmony slips, an unexpected minor chord blazes out instead. We suddenly lapse into a fade-out, with Gerard’s cipher softly chiming on tubular bells.
It was a stunningly audacious ending, but it worked. The audience at Cheltenham gave him a five-minute standing ovation. Meanwhile the critics, increasingly unsympathetic to melody and everything Malcolm stood for, would be ruthless. The composer had poured his heart out, and worst of all, won adulation for it. He was now a ‘tub-thumper’, who had ‘thrown the last shreds of discretion to the winds’.
Following his separation from Sheila, Malcolm met a young Scotswoman, Isobel Gray, twelve years his junior. They married in 1963, and Isobel gave birth to a son, Edward, the following year. By this point Malcolm was living in Surrey, but in 1965 the family decided to start a new life in Cornwall, where Malcolm had already spent happy summer holidays with Sheila and the children.
While Malcolm made plenty of new friends in the pubs around his new home near Padstow, his alcoholism and mood swings were getting worse. A trip to conduct at a musical summer school in Austria, attended by his daughter Katherine, resulted in the mortifying sight of him falling off the podium drunk, while conducting a rehearsal.
Then came more awful news. Ruth was dying of cancer. She was the sister who shared his artistic streak, his progressive ideals, the one who could understand his mental illness better than anyone. Malcolm later claimed that her death ‘nearly destroyed me. I nearly went mad. I didn’t know what to do’. Whatever his reasons, he would not visit her. There are many confounding moments in Malcolm’s life, but his failure to see Ruth before she died is one of the most difficult to swallow.
With all the critical barbs thrown his way, Malcolm felt increasingly insecure about his status as a composer, but he nonetheless began a sixth symphony without a commission. His relationship with Isobel was now stormy, and young Edward had been diagnosed autistic, which he found difficult to take. The ending of the fifth would become something of a turning point – it had climbed to an apex of passion, and then suddenly crashed to despair. It was almost a perfect encapsulation of his conflicted personality, but – in his symphonies at least – the mood would never fully recover.
In the first movement of the new symphony he credited the influence of the Charlie Parker, the jazz saxophonist who, like him, had struggled with mental illness and alcoholism. His homage to bebop takes the form of short phrases stabbing around against strange chords, while the eerie second movement includes a section imitating a 60s pop band. The galloping ebullience in the finale seems a defiant attempt to escape the stricken mood of the preceding music, but it continues to be haunted by it, and the bombastic close fails to convince that all is well.
Efforts to get the work performed proved that Malcolm was sliding further out of favour with establishment opinion. The appointment of arch-modernist Pierre Boulez at the BBC Symphony Orchestra was a sign of the times, and Malcolm could no longer hope for a premiere in London. The BBC Northern took it on in Manchester, but an internal BBC memo reveals the attitudes he was up against: ‘it’s better than his last symphony – though I still wouldn’t describe it as good’.
If Malcolm couldn’t win over the classical music establishment, he could still be a fearless champion of music for the people. In 1969 he conducted the premiere of a Concerto for Rock Group and Orchestra by Jon Lord, a founder member of Deep Purple. It turned out to be an ecstatically successful evening in the Albert Hall. Malcolm’s input was vital: assisting Lord with the scoring, and through sheer force of personality winning over the snootily sceptical orchestra. It cemented a lasting friendship.
All the while he was still drinking heavily, and spending heavily too. By the early 70s his finances, despite the significant film royalties, were in a mess. Eventually the family decided on a move to Ireland, where he would enjoy tax benefits, and where his daughter Katherine was now happily working. Here, in the village of Monkstown to the south of Dublin, Malcolm once again lost no time establishing himself in the local pubs, and made many friends, predictably including various younger women. One would prove a life-saver when, calling in on him by chance, she found him slumped over in the hallway, unconscious from an attempted overdose.
Malcolm’s seventh symphony would be one of his darkest, and perhaps the most disturbing. He claimed that its three movements depicted his children – Katherine, Robert and Edward respectively – and used ciphers for their names, along with Sheila and Isobel. But this is far from a loving family portrait – the music seems to be much more about his own mental turmoil. It is a powerful work with a tendency to violent outbursts, particularly in the menacing percussion of Robert’s second movement. The finale, however, takes a strangely upbeat turn with an episode mimicking Edward’s favourite Irish folk band, The Chieftains.
Malcolm’s alcoholism reached the stage where he was frequently drinking spirits at 8am, and he was not in a state for regular composition. Worse, his drunken mood swings were turning violent. Friends noticed Isobel had bruises, and they feared for her and Edward’s safety. Something had to give. One morning while Malcolm was out of the house, Isobel quickly packed bags with Edward and fled for the airport. They boarded a flight to London.
After further spells in hospital and another suicide attempt, Malcolm was coaxed back to London in 1977, where he could be supported and continue psychiatric treatment. A breakdown in 1978 saw him back in hospital, and he was given various anti-psychotic drugs. Later that year he would return and undergo more ECT. But by September he was on day release, and he began work on a surprise commission from America: his eighth symphony.
The eighth is a brighter work than the seventh, but its spring-like colouring is deceptive. Malcolm recycled a jolly marching tune he had composed for a film score of The Reckoning in 1969. It is pure Arnold: a highly whistleable, beautifully constructed melody. But he assaults it with stark dissonances, creating at times an uncomfortably bitter sarcasm. A strangely muted second movement is followed by a scampering, almost manic finale whose harmonies slip about in unexpected directions.
Malcolm’s final years in London turned into a slowly unfolding nightmare, with his mental illness spiralling out of control. Refusing to accept his marriage to Isobel was over, a campaign of harassment for access to Edward resulted in a restraining injunction taken out against him. A breakdown during a weekend of conducting a recording with EMI saw him once again arrested and sectioned. Clearly, there was a danger of irrevocably damaging professional relationships and setting back the case for his music. His family applied for his affairs to be put under the Court of Protection – meaning that he was deemed incapable of controlling his own money and it would be looked after for him. It was granted.
In October 1979 Malcolm was moved to a private psychiatric hospital, St Andrew’s, in his home town of Northampton. His first stay lasted four months, but he relapsed upon release. His second stay would last nearly two years, much of it under medication and with Malcolm deeply depressed.
This pattern could easily have repeated itself, with Malcolm probably drinking himself to death. But in 1984, now out of hospital, one of the most important relationships in his life would begin. His business manager called on Anthony Day, a 34-year-old who had worked as a carer to a retired stock broker. At this stage Malcolm had been given perhaps two years to live, with a brain scan that showed possibly significant damage. In fact he would live for another two decades, and what was originally intended as a short-term solution to look after him would see Anthony become Malcolm’s carer for the rest of the composer’s life.
If Malcolm was fortunate that the Court of Protection could afford a full-time carer, he positively struck gold with Anthony. Openly gay and openly fond of older men, his relationship to Malcolm became an incongruous partnership of incredible devotion to the (very much straight) composer. Living together in Norfolk, Anthony would bathe him, cook for him, take him to public engagements and even on foreign holidays. There were no days off. Such compassion, particularly from a non-family member, is difficult to comprehend.
Malcolm was still volatile, with a tendency for sudden flashes of nastiness, but it soon became noticed how Anthony developed an amazing knack for managing him. In 1986, on Anthony’s birthday, Malcolm began writing a symphony dedicated to his new companion. He told him it was the story of his recent life in Northampton and his move to Norfolk. It would also be his last.
When his publisher Faber were shown the completed score, however, alarm bells rang. There were so many empty staves. So much repetition. Was it unfinished? Had his musical abilities deteriorated from the years of alcoholism and ECT? Faber tried to convince Malcolm to look at it again. He refused. It was as intended.
Such was the unease around the symphony, it would not be given a concert performance for a full five years. When a premiere was eventually organised, it was conducted by Charles Groves. He understood there was something in the work, and argued that it needed to be performed ‘for Malcolm’s sake’.
The sceptics were well-intentioned, but they failed to see that Malcolm had created a piece that was distinctive and deeply moving. His diminished faculties, if anything, had resulted in enforced clarity. Gone are the ciphers and the ironic juxtapositions. The music is pared down and pure, with an unflinching gaze.
Unlike all this other symphonies, the ninth is dominated by a disproportionately long, slow finale, music of simple and eloquent bleakness worlds away from the furious energy of his early work. At times static strings chords gently hover, as if the music were wishing itself into non-existence. As if he were testing the patience of us all: conductor, orchestra and listeners.
Malcolm had spent a lifetime making a case that tonality and melody still had a role to play in classical music. It had won him both admiration and derision. Now, in parts of his last symphony, he would distill his music down to its very essences. The movement that haunts me the most is the second; a lilting allegretto in which a plaintive melody is repeated, over and over, in carefully varied colours and the barest two-part writing. This slowly circling pageant of sadness could not be better expressed by more sophisticated means – its very minimalism is its beautiful and painful truth.
Given Anthony’s undivided attention and care, Malcolm was able to enjoy much of his old age, including the honours accorded to elder statesmen of music. He attended celebratory concerts for this 75th and 80th birthdays, and in 1993 he received a knighthood. In remarkable defiance of his decades of heavy drinking, he was a month short of 85 when he died, on 23rd September 2006.
The highs and lows of Malcolm’s life are such that most of us cannot imagine. The issues his story throws up are difficult, and sensitive. But it is encouraging that in recent years progress has been made in lifting the stigma around mental illness. Celebrities such as Stephen Fry and James Rhodes have talked frankly about their own experiences, the latter also on the role music has played in helping him. Channel 4 produced a documentary looking at the significant problem of alcoholism among classical musicians. Malcolm’s story has a part to play in illustrating these issues.
Having said that, we must resist defining his life solely by these struggles. Perhaps we can never fully disentangle his mental illness and alcoholism from his character, which undoubtedly had its flaws. But we can acknowledge the enormous complexity of the man and the psychological richness of his music, which stands alone on its own merits but which, in many cases, his biography can illuminate further.
Further to all this, Malcolm’s symphonies are a fascinating document of the twentieth century. From the very first, which he stood up to conduct in the newly opened Festival Hall, they seem to be hewn from the landscape of post-war Britain, the thrusting angles of its architecture, the warm glow of its neon lights.
The symphonies also touch on key questions about what we value, and why – questions of tonality and atonality, of cinema and concert hall, of the often marginal role that contemporary classical music still plays today. His detractors perhaps did not understand that there are many different ways to make music that is meaningfully of its time. With his feet firmly planted in jazz and film – two of the century’s defining art forms – Malcolm’s music grew out of the vibrant, confusing world he saw and heard around him.
Today his legacy feels belittled by omission, too often typecast by the jolly-hockey-sticks film scores and japes with domestic appliances. The lighter music is a crucial part of his repertoire, but it is the symphonies that afford the more penetrating insight into the man. They are challenging works, riven with contradictions: extrovert and withdrawn, humorous and stark, tender and angry. But they reward our attention.
As for Rogue Genius, I find it hard to imagine giving a stronger recommendation for a composer biography. Meredith and Harris evoke a rich sense of time and place, with a wealth of fascinating and entertaining anecdotes from those caught up in this extraordinary life. Quite simply, it should be on the shelf of anyone with an interest in twentieth-century classical music.
Malcolm’s most famous quote is about music itself: he said it is ‘a gesture of friendship, the strongest there is’. And at the very end of that bleak finale to the ninth, we finally come to rest on a quietly luminous major chord. It is, perhaps, a light at the end of the tunnel.
‘Why do you want to be a composer?’, Vaughan Williams had once asked him. Yes, he had been the best trumpet player in England. He had worked with the biggest names. He had run away for a carefree month in Plymouth. He had shot himself in the foot. The horrors of the straightjacket, the convulsions of electric shocks through his brain. He had won an Oscar. He had made Hoffnung’s audience roar with laughter. He had basked in a standing ovation in Cheltenham. He had failed two women who loved him.
The long, silent hours in a Northampton hospital. Across town, the young Ruth played him her jazz records, all those years ago.
‘Music is a gesture of friendship, the strongest there is’. At that final major chord, it feels like we have weathered a storm. But as we try to take it all in, we could be forgiven if a little doubt remains. How can such an exhausting journey just resolve itself like that? How can it bear the weight of everything that came before?
Simon Brackenborough is the founder and editor of Corymbus. He is a music graduate who divides his time between Hampshire and London, and tweets at @sbrackenborough.
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Around two years ago, from the relative obscurity of a small soap box in a teaching room in Guildhall School of Music and Drama, I announced ‘I’m not going to chase audiences any more. I don’t like this kind of implied arrogance that I programme music and then try to persuade people to come. I don’t want to put on stuff if people don’t want to listen to it’.
A student said: ‘So are you going to make things like X Factor?’
‘No’, I said. ‘But I’m going to look hard at people, about where they go and what they do, how they get there, what they enjoy. I’m going to put audiences at the very heart of what I do’.
It was all very noble, and it turned out to be far less straightforward and far more interesting than I had imagined. ‘Who is your target audience and how will you reach them’? said every funding application I have ever submitted. Who and How indeed? If music is (arguably) organised and contained sound, then an audience is (arguably) organised and contained people. I’m not too attracted to that rather static idea. I’m not too attracted to the word ‘target’ either if I’m honest. But something akin to military strategy is what we seem to have adopted. From the oldest, largest and greatest cultural organisations to the smallest, most innovative start-ups, everyone has a finger firmly on the Audience Development pulse. As my ideas about music expand, so do my ideas about audiences.
How much of a contemporary thing is ‘actively seeking an audience’? I love to think of the packed Victorian Music Halls, the Sunday Band concerts held in London in the 1850s, attracting crowds of 14,000. That same decade, 86,000 people apparently attended an open-air concert held in Victoria Park and 15,000 were at a concert on Newcastle’s Town Moor. An estimated 20,000 heard the Penhryn Choir in 1897 at a charity concert to raise money for striking quarrymen. By 1914 there were over 75 Competitive Music Festivals in the UK with estimates of up to 60,000 musicians taking part, let alone audiences. And it wasn’t just about trailblazing numbers: there were attempts in the 19th century for music to act as a ‘social cement’ and bring together people from different backgrounds. In 1857 the Mayor of Leeds, John Hope Shaw, told the audience at a local ‘People’s Concert’ that it was ‘impossible that all classes of society could mingle with each other week after week as at these concerts without feeling their mutual regard for each other strengthen and confirmed’.
There is no doubting that Victorian and Edwardian Britain was an intensely musical place. But dig a little deeper and you find some remarkably familiar themes.
Audience development and outreach? Those music festivals of the 1900s weren’t all about elite competition: many placed musical education at the forefront believing that their good programming was creating ‘an audience for serious music’. And there was a particular emphasis on taking music into rural areas where Hubert Parry felt the minds of people were too often ‘troubled and dull’.
Education and underfunding? In 1870, the Education Bill excluded music in schools from grant aid and a long-term battle for recognition of music as a subject of any importance began.
And what of inclusivity? Despite the best efforts and persuasive rhetoric of John Hope Shaw et al., it was never possible to engineer rows and rows of perfectly mixed patrons. The poorest were excluded due to a lack of money for tickets and respectable clothes to turn up in. Music Hall audiences in the mid 1800s tended to be male and upper working class or lower middle class. Victorian and Edwardian musical organisations largely reflected class divisions and class tensions.
So whilst I may share and empathise with many of the idealisms of a 19th-century concert promoter, I wonder if aspirations of achieving a large and truly inclusive audience are as much a chimera now as they were then?
‘I’m not chasing audiences any more’ I said to my friend, the composer Nicola LeFanu. ‘I’m going to create musical events that there is genuine hunger and thirst for’. ‘But Kate,’ she said, ‘people don’t always know what they want…’
I grew up thinking that people knew exactly what they wanted, a premise that took root on an estate in a suburb of Sheffield built in the 1960s. I lived in one of around 120 identical bungalows – at least they were identical when the developers conceived of a simple set of sturdy family houses backing onto woodland. My walk to school took me past almost every one of those 120 bungalows and I was fascinated by what the occupants did to them. By the mid-80s, many displayed uneasy cubist extensions protruding from a multitude of flat available surfaces, the unassuming little red brick homes coaxed into some quite startling forms to suit needs and tastes. Others remained more modest with but with quirks of their own: leaded windowpanes, louvre paneled shutters, stone cladding, Victorian conservatories. Truly, no two are alike today. I still love a blatant and carefree display of taste. I enjoy the triumph of human spirit and a demonstration of freedom to choose. The simple message I took away was that people rather liked a framework in which to express their ideas and tastes.
X Factor may be many things, but it is also a framework in which to express ideas and tastes. And even for those not expressing themselves directly in that frame – the audience – there is still ample opportunity to give an opinion and they don’t hold back. Standing ovations and spontaneous mid-performance applause are commonplace. Tears flow freely – usually brought about by big emotional performances of songs with big emotional melodies (often supported by a big emotional back story). In terms of musical content, it is in fact a pretty good display of what Richard Hoggart called the ‘Gracie Fields Switch’ – a seamless and unquestioned freedom of movement between different types of song and genre. My grandfather typified this. An Italian café owner, living in the heart of London, he sang constantly. A typical selection of repertoire would flow without pause from If You Were The Only Girl In The World through The White Cliffs of Dover to an aria from what he loosely called ‘Neapolitan Opera’. They all had lovely melodies, always ‘a good tune’. Emotionally expansive, sentimental, open-hearted, the only cohesion in his eclectic repertoire was constant emotional expression.
But not everyone displays such an ease and confidence in their musical and aesthetic tastes. Richard Hoggart’s masterly book The Uses of Literacy (1957) includes a chapter dedicated to those who made a shift from working to middle classes. He describes them as ‘the uprooted and the anxious’. Artist Grayson Perry recently summed up the middle classes as ‘the class that does not know its place’ and consequently one riddled with the most anxiety about what they do, where they go, what they spend their time and money on. In Perry’s Bafta-winning documentary on taste and class we met Jane who bought the Show Home on the Kings Hill Development because all the choices were made for her. ‘You don’t know what you want ‘til you see it’ she said. She had a fear of ‘getting it wrong’ in a place where taste rules were shared and brands seemed to give some security and clarity of meaning.
Brands are of course available for purchase in music too: Glyndebourne, Grimeborn, Streetwise Opera, OperaUpClose, Opera for communities, for children, for the homeless, for prisoners, for sex workers, Proms, Proms-in-the-Park, Family-Proms, Pop-Proms, Proms-Extra, Late-night Proms. We can select from plenty of ‘aspirational products for an aspirational class’ (Perry’s description of brand culture). We can stick with what we know; tradition, ritual, ‘old’ music. ‘Maybe upper class taste seems like good taste because it is old?’ wonders Perry, neatly accounting for most of the challenges we have in trying to remove the ‘posh’ tag from classical music. Or we can express our individualism through edgier alternatives. Perry notes a further middle-class trend: the desire to be different. There’s something for everyone.
Or is there? In an interview in 1990, Hoggart observed ‘cultural stratisfication’ in society. ‘At the top’, he said, ‘we find finer and finer provision for tastes which are to some degree trained and specialized’. Below this level, ‘the rest of the population are put into a much more coagulated mass’. 120 years earlier Matthew Arnold criticized indoctrinating of the masses; ‘plenty of people will try and give the masses, as they call them, an intellectual food prepared and adapted in the way they think proper’. He argued that ‘culture’, by its very nature should be above this, seeking to ‘do away with classes’ and advocate equality. And in 1934, Lewis Mumford’s penned the much-quoted aphorism ‘every culture lives inside its own dream’. Mumford is widely regarded as the leading 20th century authority on cities — their history, design and communal purpose. He drew his ideas directly from the vibrant network of human relationships that he observed. He put people at the heart of his work by starting from a point of observing where they go and what they do, how they get there, what they enjoy. His influence was profound and his thinking inspired the Garden Cities of Letchworth and Welwyn close to where I now live.
What do post-war housing developments have to do with concert audiences? Well, quite a lot if you are intrigued by the idea of simultaneously exploring two concepts of culture: something to do with the arts and something to do with ordinary ways of living. I have begun to understand my own strong pull towards art and ideas that straddle this no-mans land; one eye on the art itself, one on those who use and receive it. Art that makes the common-place and ordinary seem extraordinary just by looking or listening hard. Art that makes transparent those aspects of society which are ‘difficult’ or that we’d rather keep out of sight. (I first came across this type of work in Orwell’s brilliant 1946 essay Books vs. Cigarettes.) Many of those ground-breaking and thoughtfully conceived utopian post-war towns tackled design-and-function, product-and-purpose head on and simultaneously. They had a symbiotic flow between those who created a culture and those who lived in it and responded to it. The best and most successful models were vibrant, not static, allowing culture to create culture.
We can learn from them too. Sadly, many struggled to maintain or build on their ideals and dreams. Constructing a community isn’t easy. The town designers seemed to go roughly in one of two ways: 1) offering bold, immediate, pioneering new ways of living (Park Hill, New Ash Green) or 2) standing back and allowing communities to evolve in rather more spacious, soporific and neutral surroundings (Harlow, Welwyn, Milton Keynes). Those that stuck out their experimental necks with innovative walkways in the sky, shared balconies, clustered homes and interconnecting pathways seemed to be doing well. Their success was based on a process of continual evolution borne out of a close relationship between designers and residents. Failure eventually came from neglect and mis-management – both of which might have been avoided.
On the other hand, the attempts to create a single-environment-to-suit-all (based largely around gapingly-open neutral vistas) appeared to create an atmosphere of ambivalence and apathy. Welwyn, post-war Plymouth and Milton Keynes have all been variously described as having a type of lethargy: ‘fatefully low-energy with no bustle….the surfeit of space saps energy’ notes John Grindrod, in his superb book Concretopia, a journey around post-war Britain.
Like the residents of a new town, audiences are not a fixed blank canvas. They may come together for a common purpose, but they are no tabula rasa upon which to imprint a single set of pre-packed tastes. Audiences are people who want reassurance and people who want adventures. People who want to be ‘taken out of themselves’ and people who want to preserve tradition and routine. They are people who seek intrigue, escapism, stimulation, challenge, shock, joy, relaxation. They are people who want to be part of a group, to not be part of a group. They may want their aesthetic preferences confirming and they ‘might not know what they want ‘til they see it’. They could be all these things in one person. And they may feel differently from day to day.
Only one thing is clear: people will always take things offered to them and transmute them into terms of their own culture, as I have done in researching and writing this blog and you have done in reading it. This is surely the active process and spirit that we need to embrace and keep alive; a situation that allows people to ‘use ideas as it [culture] uses them itself – freely, nourished, and not bound by them’. To avoid, at all costs, a passive, neutral, bland acceptance of art, of music, literature, where no one ever asks a question or there is never any change. ‘Nothing to engage with’ says Richard Hoggart, describing the impact of the popular literary press. ‘Nothing….to be reacting to. Since nothing is demanded by the reader, nothing can be given by the reader’.
I often end my blogs thinking ‘we’re not doing too badly, actually’ and this one is no exception. I’ve persuaded myself that my long-held instinct to keep choice and variety alive in the arts is vital. And of equal importance is a constant two-way flow and interplay between what we are making and how it is being received. Too right that I don’t have a foolproof plan to bring together the widest, largest and most inclusive audience you ever saw; many far greater minds than mine have tried and failed.
But this is not the job of a single person. I am a cog in the machine of a much broader cultural picture. And collectively, we may in fact be providing a good set of answers for the wrong set of questions: the audience is perhaps not the target. The target is to avoid a dull, passive and static cultural society where a limited amount of art-that-suits-all is delivered and dictated and little attention paid as to how it is received. The target is to create and maintain a world that stimulates, challenges, invigorates and inspires through landscapes, images, words and sounds. I’m applauding not only our brilliant, unpredictable, individual audiences, but all of those in the arts whose vision and determination results in a rich choice of where to go, what to do, how to get there and what to enjoy. And that’s how we can put audiences at the very heart of what we do.
‘One of the most versatile musicians of her generation’, Kate Romano is a clarinetist, producer, fundraiser, artistic director and writer. Previously a senior member of staff at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama for 12 years, she now works as a freelancer and is currently touring the RITUAL IN TRANSFIGURED TIME programme. She tweets as @KateRomano2 and her website can be found at Kateromano.co.uk.
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